DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2018
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4. The later Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy

An alternative to the logical constructionism of the positivists emerged from 1929 onwards, when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge and subjected the Tractatus to withering criticism, eventually resulting in his Philosophical Investigations (Wittgenstein 1953; see Wittgenstein, L.). Wittgenstein still held that philosophical problems are rooted in linguistic misunderstanding. But he no longer regarded logical analysis as the means of solving them. The idea that analysis can make unexpected discoveries about what ordinary expressions really mean is misguided. The rules of language cannot be ‘hidden’ beneath the surface and await discovery by logicians and linguists. Rather, competent speakers must be capable of recognising them, since they are the normative standards that guide our utterances. Furthermore, those standards – or ‘grammatical rules’ – do not mirror the structure of reality and there is no ineffable metaphysics underlying them.

How, then, does one solve a philosophical problem?

When philosophers use a word – ‘knowledge’, ‘being’, ‘object’, ‘I’, ‘proposition/sentence’, ‘name’ – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language in which it is at home?

What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.

(Wittgenstein 1953: §116)

Philosophical problems arise when ‘language is, as it were, idling, not when it is doing work’ (Wittgenstein 1953: §132). To resolve such problems we need to ‘assemble reminders’ of how we actually employ words. We must not try to force concepts into the distorting mould of analytic definitions, but must instead recognise that many philosophically contested concepts are united by ‘family resemblances’, i.e. overlapping similarities, rather than by a common characteristic mark. Rather than definitions, philosophy should seek ‘surveyable representations’ of our public linguistic practices, which constitute a motley of ‘language-games’, i.e. linguistic activities such as telling jokes, thanking, cursing, greeting, and praying (Wittgenstein 1953: §§65–88, 108, 23, 122).

Wittgenstein’s new ideas had a profound impact on ‘ordinary language philosophy’, a movement which dominated British philosophy between the 1930s and the 1970s. The label is misleading, for the point of orientation is not ordinary as opposed to technical language, but established as opposed to deviant yet unexplained uses (Ryle 1953). At the same time, ordinary language philosophers did not follow ideal language philosophy down the road of reductive analysis or logical constructionism. Instead, they pursued conceptual analysis and linguistic paraphrase. Thus J.L. Austin famously observed that ordinary language is the first, though not the last word (1956: 185; cp. Russell 1953). And he justified his choice of topic in his celebrated paper ‘A Plea for Excuses’ on the grounds that ‘it is an attractive subject methodologically, at least if we are to proceed from “ordinary language”, that is, by examining what we should say when, and so why and what we should mean by it’ (Austin 1956: 181; see also Austin, J.L.).

In spite of its ultimate philosophical goal, Austin’s ‘linguistic botanizing’ often gave the impression of responding to an interest in the study of words for their own sake. By contrast, Gilbert Ryle stressed that ordinary language philosophers are interested in the use of expressions, not in the expressions themselves. Put differently, they are interested not in words but in the concepts they express, which are largely immune to the vagaries of any particular language (Ryle 1953). Echoing Wittgenstein, Ryle advocated that philosophy should chart the ‘logical geography’ of our concepts (1949: ix). Philosophical problems trade on ‘category mistakes’, i.e. on treating concepts belonging to one logical type as if they belonged to a different logical type. The result is absurdity and paradox. The way to remove the absurdity and dissolve the paradox is to describe the logical type to which concepts in fact belong. He put this technique to brilliant use in The Concept of Mind (Ryle 1949), where he attacked the ‘Cartesian myth’ of the ‘ghost in the machine’, the thesis that human beings are composed of an immaterial substance (mind) and a material substance (body) which causally interact with one another. According to Ryle, the Cartesian myth rests on the mistake of treating mental expressions as if they referred to a substance of sorts, and hence as belonging to the same logical category as expressions referring to material bodies (see Ryle, G.).

Peter Strawson provided the most cogent defence of the methodology of ordinary language philosophy against ideal language philosophers. If philosophical problems originate in our actual linguistic framework – as ideal language philosophers granted – the introduction of a novel framework will merely sweep these problems under the carpet unless its relation to the old framework is properly understood. Once we have elucidated ordinary language, however, we no longer require an artificial one. For the problems arise not out of ordinary language as such, but out of its distortion and misunderstanding in philosophical theories (Strawson 1963; see also 1992: 34–5). In his landmark Individuals (1959), Strawson pursued ‘descriptive metaphysics’, a highly generalised and connective form of conceptual analysis with Kantian overtones. It seeks ‘to establish the connections between the major structural features or elements of our conceptual scheme – to exhibit it, not as a rigorous deductive system, but as a coherent whole whose parts are mutually supportive and mutually dependent, interlocking in an intelligible way’ (Strawson 1985: 22–3; see also 1992: ch. 2). Conceptual elucidation will eventually move in circles. But this does not entail that such elucidations must all be trivial or pointless, for there are more or less illuminating circles (see Conceptual analysis; Strawson, P.F.; Ordinary language philosophy; Ordinary language philosophy, school of).

Citing this article:
Glock, Hans-Johann and Javier Kalhat. 4. The later Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy. Linguistic turn, 2018, doi:10.4324/0123456789-DD3600-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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