Language, philosophy of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

1. 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; see Syntax), its semantics (the ways expressions exhibit and contribute to meaning; see Semantics), and its pragmatics (the practices of communication in which the expressions find use; see Pragmatics).

The study of syntax has been guided since the 1960s by the work of Noam Chomsky, who, in reaction to earlier behaviourist and structuralist movements in linguistics (see Behaviourism, analytic; Behaviourism, methodological and scientific; Structuralism in linguistics; Saussure, F. de), 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 (see Chomsky, N.; Language, innateness of).

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 (see Semantics, game-theoretic; Semantics, possible worlds; Semantics, situation).

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 (see Speech acts; Performatives). 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 (see §3), but his proposals have proven extremely popular among linguists interested in pragmatics (see Communication and intention; Meaning and communication). 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 (see Pragmatics; Implicature; Metaphor; Linguistics, philosophy of).

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 signalling, and other varieties of information transfer (see Semiotics; Animal language and thought; Animal thought, recent work on).

Citing this article:
Crimmins, Mark. Philosophy of linguistics. 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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