Language, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

3. Linguistic philosophy

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 (see Analytic ethics; Emotive meaning).

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 (see Conceptual analysis).

Citing this article:
Crimmins, Mark. Linguistic philosophy. Language, philosophy of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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