Ordinary language philosophy

Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical methodology that sees traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use. "Such 'philosophical' uses of language, on this view, create the very philosophical problems they are employed to solve."[1] Ordinary language philosophy is a branch of linguistic philosophy closely related to logical positivism.[1]

This approach typically involves eschewing philosophical "theories" in favor of close attention to the details of the use of everyday "ordinary" language. It is sometimes associated with the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a number of mid-20th century philosophers that can be split into two main groups, neither of which could be described as an organized "school".[2] In its earlier stages contemporaries of Wittgenstein at Cambridge University such as Norman Malcolm, Alice Ambrose, Friedrich Waismann, Oets Kolk Bouwsma and Morris Lazerowitz started to develop ideas recognisable as ordinary language philosophy. These ideas were further elaborated from 1945 onwards through the work of some Oxford University philosophers led initially by Gilbert Ryle, then followed by J. L. Austin. This Oxford group also included H. L. A. Hart, Geoffrey Warnock, J. O. Urmson and P. F. Strawson. The close association between ordinary language philosophy and these later thinkers has led to it sometimes being referred to as "Oxford philosophy". More recent philosophers with at least some commitment to the method of ordinary language philosophy include Stanley Cavell, John Searle and Oswald Hanfling.

Central ideas

The later Wittgenstein held that the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses and that this is why philosophers trip over words taken in abstraction. From this came the idea that philosophy had gotten into trouble by trying to use words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language. For example, "understanding" is what you mean when you say "I understand". "Knowledge" is what you mean when you say "I know that". The point is, you already know what "understanding" or "knowledge" are, at least implicitly. Philosophers are ill-advised to construct new definitions for these terms, because this is necessarily a redefinition, and the argument may unravel into self-referential nonsense. Rather, philosophers must explore the definitions that these terms already have, without forcing a convenient redefinition onto them.

The controversy really begins when ordinary language philosophers apply the same leveling tendency to questions such as What is Truth? or What is Consciousness? Philosophers in this school would insist that we cannot assume that (for example) 'Truth' 'is' a 'thing' (in the same sense that tables and chairs are 'things'), which the word 'truth' represents. Instead, we must look at the differing ways in which the words 'truth' and 'conscious' actually function in ordinary language. We may well discover, after investigation, that there is no single entity to which the word 'truth' corresponds, something Wittgenstein attempts to get across via his concept of a 'family resemblance' (cf. Philosophical Investigations). Therefore, ordinary language philosophers tend to be anti-essentialist.

Anti-essentialism and the linguistic philosophy associated with it are often important to contemporary accounts of feminism, Marxism, and other social philosophies that are critical of the injustice of the status quo. The essentialist 'Truth' as 'thing' is argued to be closely related to projects of domination, where the denial of alternate truths is understood to be a denial of alternate forms of living. Similar arguments sometimes involve ordinary language philosophy with other anti-essentialist movements like post-structuralism. However, strictly speaking, this is not a position derived from Wittgenstein, as it still involves 'misuse' (ungrammatical use) of the term "truth" in reference to "alternate truths".


Early analytic philosophy had a less positive view of ordinary language. Bertrand Russell tended to dismiss language as being of little philosophical significance, and ordinary language as just being too confused to help solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. Frege, the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), the young Wittgenstein, and W.V. Quine, all attempted to improve upon it, in particular using the resources of modern logic. Wittgenstein's view in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus more or less agreed with Russell's that language ought to be reformulated so as to be unambiguous, so as to accurately represent the world, so that we could better deal with the questions of philosophy.

By contrast, Wittgenstein would later describe his task as bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use".[3] The sea-change brought on by his unpublished work in the 1930s centered largely on the idea that there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that many traditional philosophical problems were only illusions brought on by misunderstandings about language and related subjects. The former idea led to rejecting the approaches of earlier analytic philosophy – arguably, of any earlier philosophy – and the latter led to replacing them with the careful attention to language in its normal use, in order to "dissolve" the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempt to solve them. At its inception, ordinary language philosophy (also called linguistic philosophy) had been taken as either an extension of or as an alternative to analytic philosophy. Now that the term "analytic philosophy" has a more standardized meaning, ordinary language philosophy is viewed as a stage of the analytic tradition that followed logical positivism and that preceded the yet-to-be-named stage analytic philosophy continues in today. According to Preston, analytic philosophy is now in a fifth, eclectic or pluralistic, phase he calls 'post-linguistic analytic philosophy' that tends to 'emphasize precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic, and to deemphasize the imprecise or cavalier discussion of broad topics'.[4]

Ordinary language analysis largely flourished and developed at Oxford in the 1940s, under Austin and Gilbert Ryle, and was quite widespread for a time before declining rapidly in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is now not uncommon to hear that Ordinary Language philosophy is no longer an active force.[5] Wittgenstein is perhaps the only one among the major figures of linguistic philosophy to retain anything like the reputation he had at that time. On the other hand, the attention to language remains one of the most important techniques in contemporary analytic thought, and many of the effects of ordinary language philosophy can still be felt across many academic disciplines.


One of the most ardent critics of ordinary language philosophy was a student at Oxford, Ernest Gellner who said:[6]

[A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is.

— Ernest Gellner, Interview with John Davis, 1991

See also


  1. ^ a b Sally Parker-Ryan (April 3, 2012). "Ordinary language philosophy". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. ^ VC Chappell (1964). Ordinary Language: essays in philosophical method. Englewood Cliffs N.J. : Prentice-Hall. pp. 2–4.
  3. ^ See §116 in Ludwig Wittgenstein (2009). Peter Hacker; Joachim Schulte (eds.). Philosophical Investigations (Translation by Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 1405159286. Posthumously published in 1953. Part 1: Philosophical Investigations; Part 2: Philosophy of Psychology - A fragment.
  4. ^ Aaron Preston (March 25, 2006). "Analytic philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Lynd Forguson (July 2001). "Oxford and the "epidemic" of ordinary language philosophy". The Monist: The Epidemiology of Ideas. 84 (3): 325–345. JSTOR 27903734.
  6. ^ Interview with Gellner by John Davis, section 2. Quoted by Yaniv Iczkovits (2012). Wittgenstein's Ethical Thought. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1137026359.

Further reading

Primary sources

  • Austin, J. L. How to do things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • -----. "A Plea for Excuses". In Austin, Philosophical Papers, ed. J. O. Urmson & G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961.
  • -----. Sense and Sensibilia, ed. G. J. Warnock. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Hanfling, Oswald. Philosophy and Ordinary Language.
  • Hart, H. L. A. "The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1949.
  • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.
  • -----. Dilemmas.
  • Strawson, P. F.. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
  • -----. "On Referring". Reprinted in Meaning and Reference, ed. A.W. Moore. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1993.
  • John Wisdom, Other Minds, 1952, Philosophy & Psychoanalysis, 1953, Paradox and Discovery, 1965
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Blue and Brown Books
  • -----.Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Secondary sources

External links

20th-century philosophy

20th-century philosophy saw the development of a number of new philosophical schools—including logical positivism, analytic philosophy, phenomenology, existentialism, and poststructuralism. In terms of the eras of philosophy, it is usually labelled as contemporary philosophy (succeeding modern philosophy, which runs roughly from the time of René Descartes until the late 19th to early 20th centuries).

As with other academic disciplines, philosophy increasingly became professionalized in the twentieth century, and a split emerged between philosophers who considered themselves part of either the "analytic" or "Continental" traditions. However, there have been disputes regarding both the terminology and the reasons behind the divide, as well as philosophers who see themselves as bridging the divide, such as process philosophy advocates and neopragmatists. In addition, philosophy in the twentieth century became increasingly technical and harder for lay people to read.

The publication of Edmund Husserl's Logical Investigations (1900–1) and Bertrand Russell's The Principles of Mathematics (1903) is considered to mark the beginning of 20th-century philosophy.

Alan R. White

Alan Richard White (9 October 1922 - 23 February 1992) was an ordinary language philosopher. who took some interest in the philosophy of law in his later works.

Blue and Brown Books

The Blue and Brown Books are two sets of notes taken during lectures conducted by Ludwig Wittgenstein from 1933 to 1935. They were mimeographed as two separated books, and a few copies were circulated in a restricted circle during Wittgenstein's lifetime. The lecture notes from 1933–1934 were bound in blue cloth, and the notes dictated in 1934–1935 were bound in brown. Rush Rhees published these together for the first time in 1958 as Preliminary Studies for the "Philosophical Investigations".Inchoate versions of many of the ideas that would later be more fully explored in the Philosophical Investigations are found there, so these offer textual evidence for the genesis of what became known as Wittgenstein's later philosophy.

British philosophy

British philosophy refers to the philosophical tradition of the British people. "The native characteristics of British philosophy are these: common sense, dislike of complication, a strong preference for the concrete over the abstract and a certain awkward honesty of method in which an occasional pearl of poetry is embedded".

Frank Ebersole

Frank B. Ebersole (1919–2009) was an American philosopher who developed a unique form of ordinary language philosophy.

Gilbert Ryle

Gilbert Ryle (19 August 1900 – 6 October 1976) was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist". Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."

H. L. A. Hart

Herbert Lionel Adolphus Hart, FBA (; 18 July 1907 – 19 December 1992), usually cited as H. L. A. Hart, was a British legal philosopher, and a major figure in political and legal philosophy. He was Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University and the Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford. His most famous work is The Concept of Law (1961; 3rd edition, 2012), which has been hailed as "the most important work of legal philosophy written in the twentieth century". He is considered one of the world's foremost legal philosophers in the twentieth century, alongside Hans Kelsen.

Hanna Fenichel Pitkin

Hanna Fenichel Pitkin (born July 17, 1931) is a political theorist. She is a Professor Emerita of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. Daughter of Otto Fenichel, Pitkin was born in Berlin and emigrated to the United States in 1938. She received her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1961. In 1982, she was granted the Distinguished Teaching Award from UC Berkeley. She is best known for her seminal study "The Concept of Representation", published in 1967.

Pitkin's diverse interests range from the history of European political thought from ancient to modern times, through ordinary language philosophy and textual analysis, to issues of psychoanalysis and gender in political and social theory.

Pitkin's books are The Concept of Representation (1967), Wittgenstein and Justice (1972, 1984, 1992), and Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli (1984, 1999), in addition to numerous articles and edited volumes. In 1998 she published The Attack of the Blob: Hannah Arendt's Concept of "the Social". A wide selection of her writings are collected and thematized in Hanna Fenichel Pitkin: Politics, Justice, Action (2016).

In 2003, she was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science "for her groundbreaking theoretical work, predominantly on the problem of representation". She was married to political theorist John Schaar.

Some of her students are noteworthy political scientists such as Dan Avnon (Hebrew University,

Jerusalem), Lisa Wedeen (University of Chicago), and Mary G. Dietz (Northwestern University).

Index of analytic philosophy articles

This is a list of articles in analytic philosophy.

A. C. Grayling

A.P. Martinich

Abstract particulars


Alfred Jules Ayer


Analytic-synthetic distinction

Analytic philosophy

Analytic reasoning

Arda Denkel

Arthur Danto

Australian Realism

Avrum Stroll


Berlin Circle

Bernard Williams

Bertrand Russell


Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

C. D. Broad

Cahiers pour l'Analyse

Carl Gustav Hempel

Ramsey sentence

Charles Sanders Peirce

Chinese room

Cognitive synonymy

Contemporary Pragmatism

Contrast theory of meaning

Cooperative principle

Cora Diamond

Daniel Dennett

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

David Braine (philosopher)

David Kellogg Lewis


Descriptivist theory of names


Direct reference theory

Doctrine of internal relations

Donald Davidson (philosopher)

Doxastic logic

Elbow Room (book)

Elliott Sober


Ernst Mach

Eternal statement

F. C. S. Schiller

Family resemblance

Felicity conditions

Form of life (philosophy)

Frank P. Ramsey

Freedom Evolves

Friedrich Waismann

G. E. M. Anscombe

George Edward Moore

Gilbert Ryle

Gottlob Frege

Gricean maxims

Gustav Bergmann

Hans Hahn

Hans Reichenbach

Hans Sluga

Harvey Brown (philosopher)

Herbert Feigl


Hypothetico-deductive model

Indeterminacy of translation

Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy

Isaiah Berlin

J. L. Austin

Jeff Malpas

Jerry Fodor

John Hick

John Rawls

John Searle

John Wisdom

Jules Vuillemin

Karl Menger

Kit Fine

Kurt Grelling

Kwasi Wiredu

Language, Truth, and Logic

Logical atomism

Logical form

Logical positivism

Lorenzo Peña

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mark Addis

Mark Sacks

Max Black

Mental representation

Metaphor in philosophy

Michael Dummett

Michael Tye (philosopher)

Modal realism

Moritz Schlick

Naming and Necessity

Nelson Goodman



Norman Malcolm

Oets Kolk Bouwsma

Olaf Helmer

Olga Hahn-Neurath

On Certainty

On Denoting

Ordinary language philosophy

Original proof of Gödel's completeness theorem

Ostensive definition

Otto Neurath

P. F. Strawson

Paradox of analysis

Paul Churchland

Paul Grice

Per Martin-Löf

Peter Hacker

Peter Simons

Philipp Frank

Philippa Foot

Philosophical analysis

Philosophical Investigations

Philosophy of engineering

Philosophy of technology

Pieranna Garavaso

Postanalytic philosophy


Principia Ethica

Principia Mathematica

Private language argument

Process philosophy

Radical translation

Richard von Mises

Robert Audi

Rose Rand

Round square copula

Rudolf Carnap

Rupert Read

Ryle's regress

Speech act

Stephen Laurence

Susan Stebbing

The Bounds of Sense

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

The Mind's I

Theodore Drange

Þorsteinn Gylfason

Tore Nordenstam

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Two Dogmas of Empiricism

UCLA Department of Philosophy

Use–mention distinction

Verification theory


Victor Kraft

Vienna Circle

Wilfrid Sellars

Willard Van Orman Quine

William James Lectures

William L. Rowe

William W. Tait

Wolfgang Stegmüller

Word and Object

Zeno Vendler

J. L. Austin

John Langshaw Austin (26 March 1911 – 8 February 1960) was a British philosopher of language and leading proponent of ordinary language philosophy, perhaps best known for developing the theory of speech acts.Austin pointed out that we use language to do things as well as to assert things, and that the utterance of a statement like "I promise to do so-and-so" is best understood as doing something — making a promise — rather than making an assertion about anything. Hence the name of one of his best-known works How to Do Things with Words. Austin, in providing his theory of speech acts, makes a significant challenge to the philosophy of language, far beyond merely elucidating a class of morphological sentence forms that function to do what they name. Austin's work ultimately suggests that all speech and all utterance is the doing of something with words and signs, challenging a metaphysics of language that would posit denotative, propositional assertion as the essence of language and meaning.

Linguistic philosophy

Linguistic philosophy is the view that philosophical problems are problems which may be solved (or dissolved) either by reforming language, or by understanding more about the language we presently use. The former position is that of ideal language philosophy, the latter the position of ordinary language philosophy.

Norman Malcolm

Norman Malcolm (; 11 June 1911 – 4 August 1990) was an American philosopher.

P. F. Strawson

Sir Peter Frederick Strawson FBA (; 23 November 1919 – 13 February 2006), usually cited as P. F. Strawson, was an English philosopher. He was the Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford (Magdalen College) from 1968 to 1987. Before that, he was appointed as a college lecturer at University College, Oxford, in 1947, and became a tutorial fellow the following year, until 1968. On his retirement in 1987, he returned to the college and continued working there until shortly before his death. His portrait was painted by the artists Muli Tang and Daphne Todd.When he died, the obituary in The Guardian noted that, "Oxford was the world capital of philosophy between 1950 and 1970, and American academics flocked there, rather than the traffic going the other way. That golden age had no greater philosopher than Sir Peter Strawson."

Pre-theoretic belief

Pre-theoretical belief has been an important notion in some areas of linguistics and philosophy, especially phenomenology and older versions of “ordinary language” philosophy. It is often assumed, rightly or wrongly, that language depends on mental concepts, and that certain concepts are innate. These innate concepts provide sources of very basic linguistic competency, available to any natural language speaker that enables more complex forms of language use, including philosophical, scientific, or other types of technical language. These basic concepts, in combination, may form basic propositional attitudes about things and events. Often “pre-theoretical belief” refers to these basic propositional attitudes. Also, “pre-theoretical beliefs” may refer to simple intuitions.

Pre-theoretic belief is a term used in philosophical arguments for and against libertarianism and determinism.

Quietism (philosophy)

Quietism in philosophy is an approach to the subject that sees the role of philosophy as broadly therapeutic or remedial. Quietist philosophers believe that philosophy has no positive thesis to contribute, but rather that its value is in defusing confusions in the linguistic and conceptual frameworks of other subjects, including non-quietist philosophy. By re-formulating supposed problems in a way that makes the misguided reasoning from which they arise apparent, the quietist hopes to put an end to humanity's confusion, and help return to a state of intellectual quietude.

Sense and Sensibilia

Sense and Sensibilia is the title of:

Sense and Sensibilia (Aristotle): one of the treatises by Aristotle that make up the Parva Naturalia

Sense and Sensibilia (Austin): the work of ordinary language philosophy by J. L. Austin

Sense and Sensibilia (Austin)

Sense and Sensibilia is a landmark 1962 work of ordinary language philosophy by J. L. Austin, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Austin attacks sense data theories of perception, specifically those of A. J. Ayer.

The book was published posthumously having been reconstructed from Austin's manuscript notes by fellow Oxford philosopher Geoffrey Warnock. Austin's first lectures, which formed the basis for the manuscript, were delivered at Oxford in Trinity Term 1947 under the general title "Problems in Philosophy".The Guardian described it as:

"... a philosophical classic... Mr Warnock has performed his task in a way that is quite remarkable. His brilliant editing puts everybody who is concerned with philosophical problems in his debt."

Stanley Cavell

Stanley Louis Cavell (; September 1, 1926 – June 19, 2018) was an American philosopher. He was the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University. He worked in the fields of ethics, aesthetics, and ordinary language philosophy. As an interpreter, he produced influential works on Wittgenstein, Austin, Emerson, Thoreau, and Heidegger. His work is characterized by its conversational tone and frequent literary references.

Wittgenstein's ladder

In what may be a deliberate reference to Søren Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein, reads:

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

6.54 Meine Sätze erläutern dadurch, dass sie der, welcher mich versteht, am Ende als unsinnig erkennt, wenn er durch sie—auf ihnen—über sie hinausgestiegen ist. (Er muss sozusagen die Leiter wegwerfen, nachdem er auf ihr hinaufgestiegen ist.) Er muss diese Sätze überwinden, dann sieht er die Welt richtig.

Given the preceding problematic at work in his Tractatus, this passage suggests that, if a reader understands Wittgenstein's aims in the text, then those propositions the reader would have just read would be recognized as nonsense. From Propositions 6.4–6.54, the Tractatus shifts its focus from primarily logical considerations to what may be considered more traditionally philosophical topics (God, ethics, meta-ethics, death, the will) and, less traditionally along with these, the mystical. The philosophy presented in the Tractatus attempts to demonstrate just what the limits of language are—and what it is to run up against them. Among what can be said for Wittgenstein are the propositions of natural science, and to the nonsensical, or unsayable, those subjects associated with philosophy traditionally- ethics and metaphysics, for instance. Curiously, the penultimate proposition of the Tractatus, proposition 6.54, states that once one understands the propositions of the Tractatus, one will recognize that they are nonsensical (unsinnig), and that they must be thrown away. Proposition 6.54, then, presents a difficult interpretative problem. If the so-called 'picture theory' of meaning is correct, and it is impossible to represent logical form, then the theory, by trying to say something about how language and the world must be for there to be meaning, is self-undermining. This is to say that the 'picture theory' of meaning itself requires that something be said about the logical form sentences must share with reality for meaning to be possible. This requires doing precisely what the 'picture theory' of meaning precludes. It would appear, then, that the metaphysics and the philosophy of language endorsed by the Tractatus give rise to a paradox: for the Tractatus to be true, it will necessarily have to be nonsense by self-application; but for this self-application to render the propositions of the Tractatus nonsense (in the Tractarian sense), then the Tractatus must be true.

Other philosophers before Wittgenstein, including Zhuang Zhou, Schopenhauer and Fritz Mauthner, had used a similar metaphor.In 1930, Wittgenstein rejected his own ladder: "Anything that can be reached with a ladder does not interest me." (Quoted in Gakis 2010.)

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