Philosophy of language

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Thinking hardly
or hardly thinking?

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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad,
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Philosophy of language is the philosophical study of the nature of language. Fundamental questions in philosophy of language involve the nature of linguistic meaning, the relation between meaning and truth, and the ways in which language is used in communication. It is distinct from linguistics, although the two disciplines overlap significantly.

The term linguistic philosophy is used for approaches to philosophy that hold that all philosophical problems are reducible to problems of language, and that philosophical problems can thus be resolved either by attending to ordinary linguistic practices (so-called "ordinary language philosophy") or by reforming language to eradicate the inconsistencies inherent in ordinary language, as some logical positivists suggested. Linguistic philosophy is distinguished from the philosophy of language, yet the two are closely related — and in some cases the two terms are used in a largely synonymous way. Kanti Lal Das writes:

"We think that the distinction between linguistic philosophy and the philosophy of language is so subtle that it would be difficult to explore a sharp distinction between these two. In fact we can hardly mention the name of a few philosophers who have done this distinction... As we have already stated the distinction is so subtle that it would be difficult to draw a clear border line in between the two..."[1]

Issues in the philosophy of language[edit]

  • What is the nature of linguistic meaning? It seems clear that some linguistic expressions are meaningful. We talk about meanings as if they were objects; we talk, for instance, of the meaning of a sentence. Two expressions can share the same meaning (synonymy). What, if anything, underwrites judgments like these?
  • What is the relation between meaning and truth? In particular, are there sentences that are true by virtue of their meaning alone (analytic sentences)?
  • How does meaning relate to language use? Some philosophers, such as the later Wittgenstein, suggest that the meaning of a sentence is the set of conditions under which the sentence can be appropriately used. Others disagree.
  • What is the role of context in determining meaning? Consider the English word "I". It normally picks out the speaker in the context in which it is used. That is, when Alice says "I went to the store," she expresses the proposition that Alice went to the store; when Bob utters the same sentence, it expresses the proposition that Bob went to the store. "I" is thus context-sensitive. How pervasive is this property?
  • What is the relation between meaning and reference? The referent of an expression is what the expression picks out. Not all expressions are referring expressions, but for those that are, it is unclear to what extent their reference determines their meaning.

See also[edit]


  1. Kanti Lal Das, "Philosophical Revelance of Language", p. 4, Northern Book Centre, 2006