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Philosophy of language

Philosophy of language is difficult to define clearly; but here is a definition anyway:

The philosophy of language is the study of philosophical questions about language, especially about meaning and truth (of words, phrases, and sentences) in general.

I say "in general" at the end of the definition because the philosophy of language doesn't ask what particular words mean, or whether particular sentences are true. (Except of course for words and sentences about the language.) Rather, it asks what meaning and truth in general are. What are the meanings of the words "meaning" and "truth"? How are we to understand these concepts?

Maybe, on first glance, the philosophy of language doesn't look so interesting. To talk about the meaning of words sounds like we're talking about dry boring stuff -- grammar and dictionaries. But remember, grammar books and dictionaries only codify how we use language. Codification might indeed be boring. But language itself is extremely important and of daily interest to us all. After all, you come to class to listen to me use language for hours on end! Or of far more interest than that would be the language you use with your girlfriend or boyfriend, or spouse; that's bound to be of extreme interest to you.

And of course that's far from the end of it. Language, meaning, and truth are important not just because they are used daily with important effects; language has shaped your development, from your earliest childhood and continuing to the present. You have a whole integrated set of concepts which you have associated with certain words -- words like "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on. Some philosophers have even thought that it is impossible to have thoughts without having learned a language. By learning the meanings of these words, you have shaped an entire view of the universe and your place in it. I am not saying that your philosophy is only or just your understanding of what important words mean; of course there's much more to it than that. What I'm saying is that in arriving at your present philosophical outlook, questions about meaning have played a central, extremely important role. Accordingly it's not by accident that in these chapters I typically begin by clarifying terminology, drawing distinctions between different senses of words, and so forth. My point then is that the philosophy of language is important because language is important, and language is important because it is so useful in our relationships and in our development and education.

I'm going to assume that you're convinced that the philosophy of language is, or at least might very well be, important. Next I want to explain the relationship of the philosophy of language to what we have studied so far. And then I'll give some specific examples of questions in the philosophy of language.

I want you to imagine that we have, up to this point, been building a system of philosophy. So imagine that we have been trying to describe some of the most basic aspects of everything that there is to describe. So we began with metaphysics, studying the most basic structure of the universe; to this we added considerations about God, and about the most basic functions of the human mind, and how the mind is connected to the body and the world at large. So suppose then that we have formulated some fairly sophisticated theory of mind, perception, will, and other cognitive processes; what we are ready to do next is to describe the most basic concepts behind our use of language. After this, we will have populated our universe with existent physical objects, properties, changes, perhaps God, minds, mental processes like perception and volition, and language-use, meanings, and truth. What we will be set up to do, then, is to talk about more sophisticated facts and processes characterizing human nature -- what knowledge is, goodness and obligation, then political organization, and finally art.

So let's get down to the philosophy of language itself. I said I would introduce some of the questions the philosophy of language asks. It is probably an oversimplification, but probably the simplest and clearest way to put it is as follows. The philosophy of language asks a series of variations on two questions: What is meaning? And: What is truth? There are no doubt other questions in the field which aren't variations on these two questions; such as, "What is a language?" and questions about the syntax of a language, which are not in any direct way connected up with meaning or truth.

But I think there is a good reason why questions about meaning and truth -- those two qualities -- are central to the philosophy of language. To talk about meaning is to talk about how we, using words, sentences, and so forth, attempt to describe the world; to talk about truth is talk about how those attempts to describe the world might succeed. I'm saying that meaning is all about how we try to paint a picture of the world using words; and truth is all about how the pictures we paint can accurately, or inaccurately, represent the world.


This article is based on part of Larrys Text.

See also The meaning of meaning; proper names; meaningfulness[?]; naive relativism about truth; and truth.



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