Philosophical interest in language, while ancient and enduring, has blossomed anew in the past century. There are three key historical sources of current interest, and three intellectual concerns which sustain it.
Philosophers nowadays often aspire to systematic and even mathematically rigorous accounts of language; these philosophers are in one way or another heirs to Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the logical positivists, who strove to employ rigorous accounts of logic and of meaning in attempts to penetrate, and in some cases to dispel, traditional philosophical questions. Contemporary philosophers, too, are often attentive to the roles that philosophically interesting words (like ‘know’, ‘true’, ‘good’ and ‘free’) play in ordinary linguistic usage; these philosophers inherit from ‘ordinary language philosophers’, including G.E. Moore, J.L. Austin and again Wittgenstein, the strategy of finding clues to deep philosophical questions through scrutiny of the workaday usage of the words in which the philosophical questions are framed.
Philosophical interest in language is maintained by foundational and conceptual questions in linguistics, quintessentially philosophical problems about the connections between mind, language and the world, and issues about philosophical methodology. These springs sustain a rich and fascinating field of philosophy concerned with representation, communication, meaning and truth.
Philosophy of Linguistics
Language is an impressive and fascinating human capacity, and human languages are strikingly powerful and complex systems. The science of this capacity and of these systems is linguistics. Like other sciences, and perhaps to an unusual degree, linguistics confronts difficult foundational, methodological and conceptual issues.
When studying a human language, linguists seek systematic explanations of its syntax (the organization of the language’s properly constructed expressions, such as phrases and sentences), its semantics (the ways expressions exhibit and contribute to meaning), and its pragmatics (the practices of communication in which the expressions find use).
The study of syntax has been guided since the 1960s by the work of Noam Chomsky, who, in reaction to earlier behaviorist and structuralist movements in linguistics, takes an unapologetically cognitivist approach. Human linguistic capacities, he holds, issue from a dedicated cognitive faculty whose structure is the proper topic of linguistics. Indeed, Chomsky construes at least the study of syntax and (large parts of) semantics as attempts to uncover cognitive structures. Finding impressive commonalties among all known natural languages, and noting the paucity of evidence and instruction available to children learning a language, Chomsky suggests that surprisingly many features of natural languages stem from innate characteristics of the language faculty.
Whereas contemporary philosophers have tended to stay at a remove from work in syntax, discussing rather than doing it, semantics is another matter entirely. Here many of the great strides have been made by philosophers, including Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Richard Montague and Saul Kripke. (However, quite a number of linguists and logicians who do not call themselves philosophers also have contributed heavily to semantics.) One major strand in semantics in the past century has consisted in the development and careful application of formal, mathematical models for characterizing linguistic form and meaning.
Pragmatics, at least as much as semantics, has benefited from the contributions of philosophers. Philosophical interest in pragmatics typically has had its source in a prior interest in semantics – in a desire to understand how meaning and truth are situated in the concrete practices of linguistic communication. The later Wittgenstein, for instance, reminds us of the vast variety of uses in which linguistic expressions participate, and warns of the danger of assuming that there is something aptly called their meanings which we might uncover through philosophy. J.L. Austin seeks in subtleties of usage clues to the meanings of philosophically interesting terms like ‘intentional’ and ‘true’. Austin keeps a careful eye to the several different things one does all at once when one performs a ‘speech act’ (for instance: uttering a sound, voicing the sentence ‘J’ai faim’, saying that one is hungry, hinting that one’s companion might share their meal, and causing them to do so). His taxonomy has provided the basis of much subsequent work. H.P. Grice, while critical of some of Austin’s methods, shared the aim of distilling meaning from the murky waters of use. Grice portrays conversation as a rational, cooperative enterprise, and in his account a number of conceptions of meaning figure as central strategies and tools for achieving communicative purposes. Grice’s main concern was philosophical methodology, but his proposals have proven extremely popular among linguists interested in pragmatics. Recently, philosophers and linguists have become increasingly persuaded that pragmatic concerns, far from being mere addenda to semantics, are crucial to the questions of where meaning comes from, in what it consists, and how the many incompletenesses and flexibilities in linguistic meaning are overcome and exploited in fixing what speakers mean by their words on particular occasions.
Our focus on language should not omit a field of study with a rather broader scope, namely semiotics, which is the study of signs and signification in general, whether linguistic or not. In the view of the scholars in this field, the study of linguistic meaning should be situated in a more general project which encompasses gestural communication, artistic expression, animal signaling, and other varieties of information transfer.
Meaning: Language, Mind and World
Philosophy aims at intellectually responsible accounts of the most basic and general aspects of reality. Part of what it is to provide an intellectually responsible account, clearly, is for us to make sense of our own place in reality – as, among other things, beings who conceive and formulate descriptions and explanations of it.
In framing issues about our roles as describers and explainers, philosophers commonly draw a triangle in which lines connect ‘Language’, ‘Mind’ and ‘World’. The three lines represent relations that are keys to understanding our place in reality. These relations in one or another way constitute the meaningfulness of language.
Mind -> World. Between Mind and World there are a number of crucial relations studied by philosophers of mind. Among these are perception, action, the mind’s bodily constitution and intentionality (the mind’s ability to think about what is in the world).
Mind -> Language. Using and understanding language is a heavily mental activity. Further, this activity seems to be what the real existence of meaningful language consists in. In short, mind invests meaning in language.
Theorists of language focus on the Mind/ Language connection when they consider understanding to be the cornerstone concept, holding, for instance, that an account of meaning for a given language is simply an account of what constitutes the ability to understand it. Philosophy has seen a variety of accounts of wherein understanding consists. Many have been attracted to the view that understanding is a matter of associating the correct ideas or concepts with words. Others have equated understanding with knowing the requirements for accurate or apt use of words and sentences. Still others find the key to understanding in one’s ability to discern the communicative goals of speakers and writers, or more directly in one’s ability to ‘pass’ linguistically, without censure. Certainly, these approaches do not exclude one another.
Some philosophers focus more on production than consumption – on the speaker’s side of things – analyzing linguistic meaning in terms of the goals and practices of speakers, and in terms of relations among communities of speakers.
Many of the philosophers who see understanding and use as the keys to linguistic meaning have held that the meaningfulness of language in some sense derives from mental content, perhaps including the contents of beliefs, thoughts and concepts. This enhances the interest of cognitive semantics, which is a thriving field of study.
It has not gone unquestioned that mind indeed can assign meaning to language, and in fact skepticism about this has figured quite prominently in philosophical discussions of language. Wittgenstein has been read as at least flirting with skepticism that there is anything our minds can do that would constitute meaning one thing rather than another. W.V. Quine, starting from the thought that meaning is whatever good translation captures, and on arguments that good translation is not squarely dictated by any real facts, concludes that meaning is highly indeterminate. Quine is not alone in the view that linguistic and mental meaning are best seen not as ‘out there’ to be discovered, but rather as partly constituted or constructed by our practices of interpreting and translating.
Language -> Mind. If mind assigns meaning to language, so also language enables and channels mind. Acquiring and trafficking in a language brings one concepts, thoughts and habits of thought, with all sorts of consequences. Indeed, having language is so crucial to our ability to frame the sophisticated thoughts that appear essential to language-use and understanding that many doubt whether mind is ‘prior’ to language in any interesting sense.
Language -> World. Since language is the vehicle of our descriptions and explanations of reality, philosophers are concerned about what if anything makes for a true or apt characterization of reality. Philosophers have these concerns for reasons of philosophical methodology (which we will come to in a moment), but also owing to the naturalness and plausibility of a certain picture of meaning.
According to this picture, the key to meaning is the notion of a truth-condition. A statement’s meaning determines a condition that must be met if it is to be true. For example, my statement ‘Ireland is larger than Manhattan’, given what it means, is true just in case a certain state of affairs obtains (namely, a certain island’s being larger than a certain other island). According to the truth-conditional picture of meaning, the core of what a statement means is its truth-condition – which helps determine the way reality is said to be in it – and the core of what a word means is the contribution it makes to this (perhaps, in the case of certain sorts of word, this would be what the word refers to).
While the truth-conditional picture of meaning has dominated semantics, a serious challenge has been presented by philosophers, including Michael Dummett, who urge that the key to meaning is a notion of correct use. According to this alternative picture, the core of a sentence’s meaning is the rule for its appropriate utterance. Of course, the two pictures converge if sentences are correctly used exactly when they are true. The interest of the distinction emerges only when (a ‘realist’ conception of) truth is dislodged from this role, whether because of skepticism about truth itself, or because truth is seen as too remote from the crucible of social practice to be the meaning-relevant criterion for correct use. The challenge illustrates a sense in which the Mind/ Language and Language/World connections can seem to place a tension on the notion of meaning (meaning is whatever we cognitively grasp, while the meaning of language is its bearing on the world).
Apart from language’s interest as a target of science and its centrality to our self-conception as describers of reality, language plays a key methodological role in philosophy. It is this role perhaps more than anything else that has explained the continued close attention paid to language in the past century by philosophers working in such varied areas as epistemology, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind.
The methodological role of language in philosophy is most easily explained by example. A philosopher is interested in the nature of value; they want to know what goodness is. Language enters when they observe that goodness is what is attributed when we say of a thing that it ‘is good’. So the philosopher focuses on certain statements, and seeks an understanding of what such statements mean and in general of how they work. They explore whether such statements are ever objectively true or false, whether their truth or aptness varies from speaker to speaker, whether a satisfying explanation of them entails that the word ‘good’ refers to or expresses a genuine characteristic (of actions, states of affairs, persons, and so on), and how their meaning relates to the distinctive sorts of endorsement that such statements commonly convey.
The pattern exhibited in the example of value is apparent throughout philosophy. We are interested in knowledge, fiction, necessity, causation, or sensation, so we find ourselves studying statements about what interests us: statements attributing knowledge, describing fictions, asserting necessities, assigning causes and reporting sensations. Tools from the philosophy of language make available quite a number of views about what these statements mean and in general about how they do their expressive and communicative work; and these views inform and support philosophical positions on the real objects of philosophical interest. There have been dramatic and no doubt exaggerated claims about such techniques – for instance, that philosophy should simply consist in this sort of study of language. But it is if anything an understatement to say that linguistic sophistication has deepened philosophical understanding and has advanced debate in nearly all areas of philosophy.
- Lycan, William (1999) Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, London: Routledge.
- Taylor, Kenneth (1998) Truth and Meaning: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Wright, Crispin and Hale, Bob (eds) (1999) A Companion to the Philosophy of Language, Oxford: Blackwell.