Philosophy of language

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Philosophy of language is the branch of philosophy that studies language. Its primary concerns include the nature of linguistic meaning, reference, language use, language learning and creation, language understanding, truth, thought and experience (to the extent that both are linguistic), communication, interpretation, and translation.

At heart, the discipline is concerned with five fundamental questions.

  • How are sentences composed into a meaningful whole?
  • What are the meanings of the parts of sentences?
  • What do we do with language? (How do we use it socially? What is the purpose of language?)
  • How does language relate to the mind?
  • How does language relate to the world?


Philosophers of language are not much concerned with what individual words or sentences mean. The nearest dictionary or encyclopedia may solve the problem of the meaning of words, and to speak a language correctly is generally to know what most sentences mean. What is more interesting for philosophers is the question of what it means for an expression to mean something. Why do expressions have the meanings they have? Which expressions have the same meaning as other expressions, and why? How can these meanings be known? And the best, and simplest, question might be, "what does the word 'meaning' mean?"

In a similar vein, philosophers wonder about the relationship between meaning and truth. Philosophers tend to be less concerned with which sentences are actually true, and more with what kinds of meanings can be true or false. Some examples of questions a truth-oriented philosopher of language might ask include: Can meaningless sentences be true or false? What about sentences about things that don't exist? Is it sentences that are true or false, or is it the usage of sentences?

Language, how things 'mean' something, and truth are important not just because they are used in everyday life; language shapes human development, from earliest childhood and continuing to death. Knowledge itself may be intertwined with language. Notions of self, experience, and existence may depend entirely on how language is used and what is learned through it.

The topic of learning language leads to all kinds of interesting questions. Is it possible to have any thoughts without having a language? What kinds of thoughts need a language to happen? How much does language influence knowledge of the world and how one acts in it? Can anyone reason at all without using language?

The philosophy of language is important because, for all of the above reasons, language is important, and language is important because it is inseparable from how one thinks and lives. People in general have a set of vital concepts which are connected with signs and symbols, including all words (symbols): "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art," "government," and so on. By incorporating "meaning," everyone has shaped (or has had shaped for us) a view of the universe and how they have "meaning" within it.

Set for the task, many philosophical discussions of language begin by clarifying terminology. Some philosophers (see semiotics) argue that the term "language" is too vague to be useful and entire systems have been developed to clarify the field.


The inquiry into language stretches back to the beginnings of western philosophy with Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Plato argued in the dialogue Cratylus that there was a natural correctness to names. To do this, he pointed out that compound words and phrases have a range of correctness. For example, it is obviously wrong to say that the term "houseboat" is any good when referring to, say, a cat, because cats have nothing to do with houses or boats. He also argued that primitive names (or morphemes) also had a natural correctness, because each phoneme represented basic ideas or sentiments. For example, the letter and sound of "l" for Plato represented the idea of softness. However, by the end of the Cratylus, he had admitted that some social conventions were also involved, and that there were faults in the idea that phonemes had individual meanings.

Aristotle concerned himself with the issues of logic, categories, and meaning creation. He separated all things into notions of species and genus. He thought that the meaning of a predicate was established through an abstraction of the similarities between various individual things. This is a kind of nominalism (see the section below).

Medieval philosophers also had some interest in the subject due to their dependence upon the translation of Greek texts. However, the importance of language was not lost in the scholastic era. Many modern western philosophers such as Umberto Eco, Ferdinand de Saussure,J.L. Austin Searle Leibniz, John Locke, Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Charles Peirce and Friedrich Nietzsche also saw the field as important.

Though philosophers had always discussed language, it took on a central role in philosophy beginning in the late nineteenth century, especially in the English speaking world and parts of Europe. The philosophy of language was so pervasive that for a time, in analytic philosophy circles, philosophy as a whole was understood to be a matter of mere philosophy of language. In the 20th century, "language" became an even more central 'theme' within the most diverse traditions of philosophy. The phrase, "the linguistic turn", was used to describe the noteworthy emphasis that modern-day philosophers put upon language.

Major problems and sub-fields

Composition and Parts

Principle of Compositionality

Much about composition of sentences is addressed in the work of linguistics of syntax.

The philosophy of language has one core contribution, which is the principle of compositionality. It states that the meaning of a complex expression is completely determined by the meaning of its parts and their structure.

While simple sounding, it allows the philosopher of language to infer something that may be quite helpful. The principle of compositionality states that in a meaningful sentence, if the lexical parts are taken out of the sentence, what remains will be the rules of composition. Take, for example, the sentence "Socrates was a man". Once the meaningful lexical items are taken away - "Socrates" and "man" - what is left is the pseudo-sentence, "S was a M". The task becomes a matter of describing what the connection is between S and M.

Problem of universals and Composition

One debate that has captured the interest of many philosophers is the debate over the meaning of universals. For example, when people say the word, "rocks", what do they mean? Does the expression stand for some real entity out there -- or is it, rather, a collection of particulars that are just referred to be some name? The former position has been called philosophical realism, and the latter has been called nominalism.

From the radical realist's perspective, the connection between S and M is a connection between two abstract entities. There is an entity, "man", and an entity, "Socrates". These two things connect together in some way or overlap one another. Plato's theory of forms was like this.

From a nominalist's perspective, the connection between S and M is the connection between a particular entity (Socrates) and a vast collection of particular things (men). To say that Socrates is a man is to say that Socrates is a part of the class of "men".

Another perspective is to consider "man" to be a property of the entity, "Socrates". A property is a characteristic of the thing.

Still another perspective considers "man" to be the product of a propositional function. A propositional function is an operation of language that takes an entity (Socrates) and outputs a proposition. In other words, a propositional function is like an algorithm. The meaning of man is whatever takes the entity, "Socrates", and turns it into the statement, "Socrates is a man".


The answer to the question, "What is the meaning of meaning?", is not immediately obvious. One section of philosophy of language tries to answer this very question.

Ideas and Meaning

To the question, "what is meaning?", some have answered "meanings are ideas".

Here each meaning or idea is necessarily about something external and/or internal, more or less abstracted from a certain state of affairs in parallel to the idea or state of mind. This aboutness is the core of intentionality in philosophy of mind. In contrast to the abstract meaning of the universal "dog," for example, "this dog" as a nominal may mean the very chihuahua of mine called Bug, depending on the state of affairs prior to mind.

Empiricism and Words

The classical empiricists are usually taken to be the most strident defenders of the idea theory of meaning.

David Hume is well-known for his belief that thoughts were kinds of imaginable entities. (See his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, section 2). It can be inferred that this perspective also applied to his theory of meaning.

His forebearer, Locke, seemed a bit more skeptical, considering all ideas to be both imaginable objects of sensation and the very unimaginable objects of reflection. He stressed, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, that words are used both as signs for ideas and to signify the lack of certain ideas.

Mental images, sounds, and recollections have been called "mental representations" in current literature. Those who defend this view are called representationalists.

Critique of Idea Theories

Over the past century, idea theories of meaning have been criticized by many philosophers for many reasons.

One criticism is that ideas are unable to account for the different variations within a certain meaning or type. For example, any hypothetical image of the meaning of "dog" has to include such varied images as a chihuahua, a pug, and a Black Lab; and this seems impossible to imagine. Another way to see this point was given by Ludwig Wittgenstein, who argued that if we have an image of a specific type of dog, why should it represent the entire concept, including breeds that look very different?

Another criticism is that some meaningful words, known as non-lexical items, don't have any meaningfully associated image. For example, the word "the" has a meaning, but one would be hard-pressed to find a mental representation that fits it.

Another is a problem of composition - that it is difficult to explain how words and phrases combine into sentences if only ideas were involved in meaning.

A Cognitive Idea Theory

But the idea theory of meaning has lately been defended in new form. Called the theory of prototypes, it suggests that classes are formed on the basis of the ideas we might have about a particular, ideal member of the class.

For example, the category of "birds" may have the idea of a robin as the prototype -- the ideal kind of bird. With experience, we come to grade the members of the class as being more or less bird-like by comparing the members to the prototype. So, for example, a penguin or an ostrich would sit at the edge of the meaning of "bird", because a penguin is unlike a robin.

This theory has been defended by contemporary cognitive scientists Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff.

Truth and Meaning

Some have asserted that meaning is nothing substantially more or less than the truth conditions they involve.

Frege and Reference

Classical logicians had known since Aristotle how to codify certain common patterns of reasoning. For example, the argument "Socrates is a man; All men are mortal; Therefore Socrates is mortal" is called a syllogism. This can also be called a valid syllogism, because if its premises are true, its conclusion must also be true. It can be represented like this: "All A are B. All B are C. Therefore all A are C."

But the turn (or, perhaps, Renaissance) of language philosophy is tied closely to the development of modern logic. It began with the work of the German logician Frege in the late nineteenth century. Frege, simultaneously with Boole and Charles Sanders Peirce, advanced logic significantly by showing how to codify inferences using Sentential connectives, like and, or and if-then, and quantifiers like all and some. Much of this work was made possible by the development of set theory. Frege was a philosopher of mathematics, who loathed appealing to psychologistic or "mental" explanations for meanings. His original purpose was very far from questions about meaning -- he wanted to use modern logic to further develop the foundations of arithmetic. He first undertook to answer the question, "what is a number?" or "what objects do number-words ("one", "two", etc.) refer to?". But in pursuing these matters, he was eventually confronted with the task of analysing and explaining what meaning is.

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Mediated Reference

Frege saw that meaning could be explained as consisting of two elements. For Frege, a meaning has a sense, which is whatever attributes surround or inhere within an object; and the reference, which is the actual thing being referred to. Moreover, sentences and names have different kinds of senses and referents. The sense of a sentence is a proposition, or state of affairs; the reference is a truth value -- "true" or "false". The sense of a proper name is a concept that describes some person; the referent of a proper name is the actual individual in the world. This theory is called the Mediated Reference theory.

[Russell thought that names were a sort of description in disguise, which seems to be a similar position to Frege's. However, some scholars (such as Gareth Evans) have questioned whether or not Frege did hold such a view.]

There are some exceptions to the mediated reference theory, however. Some names don't seem to point to things in the world as their referent. For example, if a person utters the statement "It is common knowledge that 'Mark Twain' was an author", they are not just talking about the man Mark Twain, but also talking about whether or not people know and recognize something about the expression "Mark Twain". In this case, the expression itself - the signs, the string of words - are the sense of the proposition, and not just the content of the expression. In today's language, these exceptions are called opaque contexts.

Russell and Reference

Logical analysis was further advanced by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in their groundbreaking Principia Mathematica, which attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles. Russell differed from Frege greatly on many points, however. He rejected (or perhaps misunderstood) Frege's sense-reference distinction. He also disagreed that language was of fundamental significance to philosophy, and saw the project of developing formal logic as a way of eliminating all of the confusions caused by ordinary language, and hence at creating a perfectly transparent medium in which to conduct traditional philosophical argument. He hoped, ultimately, to extend the proofs of the Principia to all possible true statements, a scheme he called logical atomism. For a while it appeared that his pupil Wittgenstein had succeeded in this plan with his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".

Russell's work, and that of his colleague G. E. Moore, developed in response to what they perceived as the nonsense dominating British philosophy departments at the turn of the century, a kind of British Idealism most of which was derived (albeit very distantly) from the work of Hegel. In response Moore developed an approach ("Common Sense Philosophy") which sought to examine philosophical difficulties by a close analysis of the language used in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal". Moore's work would have significant, if oblique, influence (largely mediated by Wittgenstein) on Ordinary language philosophy.

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Direct Reference

So in response to this idealism, Russell sought to scrap all "unreal" things from language. To do this, he first distinguished between a logical subject and a grammatical subject. The former is the thing in the real world - the referent; while the latter is a description or concept. He then claimed that in logic a "feeling for reality" had to be maintained in order to save discussion from a whole host of troubles. And since the logical subject was made up only of reference, tied together in strings by propositional functions, in logic there was no meaning except reference. His theory is called a Direct Reference theory.

Russell was also quite alive to the topic of descriptions. His particular interest was in definite and indefinite descriptions. Definite descriptions have the form of "the such-and-such", and indefinite descriptions have the form of "a such-and-such".

Ruminations over reference

Frege's mediated reference theory seems to differ from Russell's direct reference theory in that the former seems to leave room for senses, while the latter does not. This is problematic because it seemingly fails to recognize the difference in meaning between two statements that have the same referent but have different meanings. For example, "The President of the United States in 2004" and "George W. Bush" refer to the same thing, but in one case the person is presented in a certain light - as the President - while in the other they are presented just by name. There has to be something in between that accounts for this meaningful difference.

Later on, the philosopher Saul Kripke would defend direct reference theory when it comes to proper names. Kripke claims that proper names do not have any "senses" at all, because senses only offer contingent facts about things.

To explain, he uses the formal explanation of possible worlds. The possible worlds thought-experiment first takes the subject, and then tries to imagine the subject in other possible worlds. Taking George W. Bush, for example. First (1) the thought-experiment must state that the name "George W Bush" is the name used to describe the particular individual man that is typically meant. Then (2), the experimentor must imagine the possible states of affairs that reality could have been - where Bush was not president, or went into a different career, was never born at all, etc. When this is done, it becomes obvious that the phrase "President of the United States in 2004" does not necessarily describe George W Bush, because it is not necessarily true in all possible worlds; it only contingently describes him. By contrast, for instance, the word "apple" will always describe the same things across all possible worlds, because of premise (1). So use of the word "apple" to describe apples is true in all possible worlds.

Terms that are true across all possible worlds in this way are called rigid designators.

Verificationism and Quine

The Vienna Circle adopted the verificationist theory of meaning. The verificationist theory of meaning states that to say that an expression is meaningful is to say that there are some conditions of experience that could exist to show that the expression is true. As has been demonstrated, Frege and Russell were two proponents of this way of thinking.

Quine attacked both verificationism and the very notion of meaning in his famous essay, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". In it, he asserted that meaning was nothing more than a dispensable intermediary, and what was more interesting was synonymy between signs. He also pointed out that verificationism was tied to the distinction between analytic and synthetic statements, and asserted that such a divide was defended ambiguously.

Davidson, Tarski, and truth theories

Perhaps the most influential current approach to the theory of meaning is that sketched by Donald Davidson in his introduction to the collection of essays Truth and Meaning in 1967. There he argued for the following two theses:

  • Any learnable language must be statable in a finite form, even if it is capable of a theoretically infinite number of expressions--as we may assume that natural human languages are, at least in principle. If it could not be stated in a finite way then it could not be learned through a finite, empirical method such as the way humans learn their languages. It follows that it must be possible to give a theoretical semantics for any natural language which could give the meanings of an infinite number of sentences on the basis of a finite system of axioms.
  • "Giving the meaning of a sentence", he further argued, was equivalent to stating its truth conditions. He proposed that it must be possible to account for language as a set of distinct grammatical features together with a lexicon, and for each of them explain its workings in such a way as to generate trivial (obviously correct) statements of the truth conditions of all the (infinitely many) sentences built up from these.

The result is a theory of meaning that rather resembles, by no accident, the account of the semantics of logic given by Alfred Tarski's semantic theory of truth: it consists of a recursive set of rules yielding an infinite set of sentences "'p' is true if and only if p", covering the whole language.

Davidson's account, though brief, constitutes the first systematic presentation of truth-conditional semantics. He proposed simply translating natural languages into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce meaning to a function of truth.

Usage and Meaning

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was originally an artificial language philosopher, following the influence of Russell, Frege, and the Vienna Circle. However, as he matured, he came to appreciate more and more the phenomenon of natural language. Philosophical Investigations, published after his death, signalled a sharp departure from his earlier work with its focus upon ordinary language use.

This close examination of natural language proved to be a powerful philosophical technique. Practitioners since have included J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, John Searle, Paul Grice, R. M. Hare, R. S. Peters, and Jrgen Habermas.


Past philosophers had understood reference to be tied to words themselves. However, Sir Peter Strawson disagreed in his seminal essay, "On Referring", where he argued that there is nothing true about statements on their own; rather, only the uses of statements could be considered to be true or false.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the ordinary use perspective is its insistence upon the distinctions between meaning and use. "Meanings", for ordinary language philosophers, are the instructions for usage of words - the common and conventional definitions of words. Usage, on the other hand, is the actual meanings that individual speakers have - they things that an individual speaker in a particular context wants to refer to. The word "dog" is an example of a meaning, but pointing at a nearby dog and shouting "This dog smells foul!" is an example of usage. From this distinction between usage and meaning arose the divide between the fields of Pragmatics and Semantics.

Yet another distinction is of some utility in discussing language: "mentioning". Mention is when an expression refers to itself as a linguistic item, usually surrounded by quotation marks. For instance, in the expression "'Opopanax' is hard to spell", what is referred to is the word (opopanax) and not what it means (an obscure gum resin).

In his essay, "Reference and Definite Descriptions", Keith Donnellan sought to improve upon Strawson's distinction. He pointed out that there are two uses of definite descriptions: attributive and referential. Attributive uses provide a description of whoever is being referred to, while referential uses point out the actual referent. Attributive uses are like mediated references, while referential uses are more directly referential.

Paul Grice

The philosopher Paul Grice used many important and powerful distinctions.

First, he distinguished between kinds of content: encoded / non-encoded content and truth-conditional / non-truth-conditional content. Encoded content is the actual meaning attached to certain expressions through definitions and literal interpretations, while truth-conditional content is whatever makes an expression true or false. Sometimes, expressions do not have a literal interpretation, or they do not have any truth-conditional content, and sometimes expressions can have both truth-conditional content and encoded content.

For Grice, there are at least three different possible varieties of expression:

  • Conventional Implicature - when an expression has encoded content, but doesn't necessarily have any truth-conditions;
  • Conversational Implicature - when an expression does not have encoded content, but does have truth-conditions (for example, in use of irony);
  • Utterances - when an expression has both encoded content and a truth-value.
Dummett and inferential role semantics

Main article: Inferential role semantics

Michael Dummett argued against the kind of truth-conditional semantics presented by Davidson; instead he argued that basing semantics on assertion conditions avoids a number of difficulties with truth-conditional semantics, such as the transcendental nature of certain kinds of truth condition. He leverages work done in proof-theoretic semantics to provide a kind of inferential role semantics, where:

  • The meaning of sentences and grammatical constructs is given by their assertion conditions; and
  • Such a semantics is only guaranteed to be coherent if the inferences associated with the parts of language are in logical harmony.

A semantics based upon assertion conditions is called a verificationist semantics: cf. the verificationism of the Vienna Circle.

Mind and Language

Some of the major issues in the philosophy of language that deal with the mind are paralleled by modern psycholinguistics. Some important questions: how much of language is innate? Is language acquisition a special faculty in the mind? What's the connection between thought and language?

Societies and Language

Metasemantics are all those fields that examine the social conditions that give rise to meanings and languages. Etymology and Stylistics are two examples of metasemantic fields.

Literary theory

Literary theory is a discipline that overlaps with the philosophy of language. It emphasizes the methods that readers and critics use in understanding a text. This field is an outgrowth of the ancient discipline of hermeneutics.


In 1950s, an artificial language loglan was invented that is based on first order predicate logic.

Important theorists

Among the most important theorists in the philosophy of language are:

Important topics and terms


  • Hale, B. and crispin Wright, Ed. (1999). Blackwell Companions To Philosophy. Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers.
  • Lycan, W. G. (2000). Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. New York,

eo:Filozofio de lingvo es:Filosofa del lenguaje fi:Kielifilosofia fr:Philosophie du langage io:Linguo-filozofio ja:言語哲学 zh:语言哲学


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