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Ordinary language philosophy, school of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD074-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

The label ‘ordinary language philosophy’ was more often used by the enemies than by the alleged practitioners of what it was intended to designate. It was supposed to identify a certain kind of philosophy that flourished, mainly in Britain and therein mainly in Oxford, for twenty years or so, roughly after 1945. Its enemies found it convenient to group the objects of their hostility under a single name, while the practitioners thus aimed at were more conscious of divergences among themselves, and of the actual paucity of shared philosophical doctrine; they might have admitted to being a ‘group’ perhaps, but scarcely a ‘school’. The sharp hostility which this group aroused was of two quite different sorts. On the one hand, among certain (usually older) philosophers and more commonly among the serious-minded public, it was labelled as philistine, subversive, parochial and even deliberately trivial; on the other hand, some philosophers (for instance, Russell, Popper and Ayer), while ready enough to concede the importance in philosophy of language, saw a concern with ordinary language in particular as a silly aberration, or even as a perversion and betrayal of modern work in the subject.

How, then, did ‘ordinary language’ come in? It was partly a matter of style. Those taken to belong to the school were consciously hostile to the lofty, loose rhetoric of old-fashioned idealism; also to the ‘deep’ paradoxes and mystery-mongering of their continental contemporaries; but also to any kind of academic jargon and neologism, to technical terms and aspirations to ‘scientific’ professionalism. They preferred to use, not necessarily without wit or elegance, ordinary language. (Here G.E. Moore was an important predecessor.) Besides style, however, there were also relevant doctrines, though less generally shared. Wittgenstein, perhaps the most revered philosopher of the period, went so far as to suggest that philosophical problems in general actually consisted in, or arose from, distortions and misunderstandings of ordinary language, a ‘clear view’ of which would accomplish their dissolution; many agreed that there was some truth in this, though probably not the whole truth. Then it was widely held that ordinary language was inevitably fundamental to all our intellectual endeavours– it must be what one starts from, supplying the familiar background and terms in which technical sophistications have to be introduced and understood; it was therefore not to be neglected or carelessly handled. Again it was urged, notably by J.L. Austin, that our inherited everyday language is, at least in many areas, a long-evolved, complex and subtle instrument, careful scrutiny of which could be expected to be at least a helpful beginning in the pursuit of philosophical clarity. It was probably this modest claim– overstated and even caricatured by its detractors– which was most frequently supposed to be the credo of ordinary language philosophers. It was important that Russell – like, indeed, Wittgenstein when composing his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) – firmly believed, on the contrary, that ordinary language was the mere primitive, confused and confusing surface beneath which theorists were to seek the proper forms of both language and logic.

Citing this article:
Warnock, Geoffrey. Ordinary language philosophy, school of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD074-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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