Philosophy of language, in the analytical tradition, explored logic, the nature of meaning, and accounts of the mind at the end of the nineteenth century.
Gottlob Frege and Betrand Russell were pivotal figures. These English-speaking writers were followed by Wittgenstein (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), the Vienna Circle as well as the logical positivists, and Quine. A foundational work was Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale, published posthumously in 1916.
Philosophy of Language may investigate the relations between language, language users, and the world. The scope of Philosophy of Language may include inquiry into the origins of language, the nature of meaning, the usage and cognition of language. It overlaps to some extent with the study of Epistemology, Logic, Philosophy of Mind and other fields (including linguistics and psychology).
In a broader sense it may be said that the philosophy of language explores the relationship between language and reality. In particular, philosophy of language studies issues that cannot be addressed by other fields, like linguistics, or psychology. Major topics in the philosophy of language include the nature of meaning, intentionality, reference, the constitution of sentences, concepts, learning, and thought.
Linguistic speculation in India is attested since the Vedic period (Iron Age), beginning with the deification of vāk "speech" and the role of language (utterance, shabda) in ritual. Sanskrit grammatical tradition gives rise to linguistic philosophy beginning in the final centuries BC and early centuries AD, notably in the philosophical schools of Nyaya and Mimamsa.
In the West, inquiry into language stretches back to the 5th century BC with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Both in India and in Greece, linguistic speculation predates the emergence of grammatical traditions of systematic description of language, which emerged around the 5th century BC in India (see Yāska), and around the 3rd century BC in Greece (see Rhianus).
In the dialogue Cratylus, Plato considered the question of whether the names of things were determined by convention or by nature. He criticized conventionalism because it led to the bizarre consequence that anything can be conventionally denominated by any name. Hence, it cannot account for the correct or incorrect application of a name. He claimed that there was a natural correctness to names. To do this, he pointed out that compound words and phrases have a range of correctness. He also argued that primitive names had a natural correctness, because each phoneme represented basic ideas or sentiments. For example, for Plato the letter l and its sound represented the idea of softness. However, by the end of the Cronic, he had admitted that some social conventions were also involved, and that there were faults in the idea that phonemes had individual meanings.
Aristotle interested himself with the issues of logic, categories, and meaning creation. He separated all things into categories 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 theory later came to be called nominalism. However, since Aristotle took these similarities to be constituted by a real commonality of form, he is more often considered a proponent of "moderate realism".
The Stoic philosophers made important contributions to the analysis of grammar, distinguishing five parts of speech: nouns, verbs, appellatives (names or epithets), conjunctions and articles. They also developed a sophisticated doctrine of the lektón associated with each sign of a language, but distinct from both the sign itself and the thing to which it refers. This lektón was the meaning (or sense) of every term. The lektón of a sentence is what we would now call its proposition. Only propositions were considered "truth-bearers" or "truth-vehicles" (i.e., they could be called true or false) while sentences were simply their vehicles of expression. Different lektá could also express things besides propositions, such as commands, questions and exclamations.
Medieval philosophers were greatly interested in the subtleties of language and its usage. For many scholastics, this interest was provoked by the necessity of translating Greek texts into Latin. There were several noteworthy philosophers of language in the medieval period. According to Peter J. King, (although this has been disputed), Peter Abelard anticipated the modern ideas of sense and reference. Also, William of Ockham's Summa Logicae brought forward one of the first serious proposals for codifying a mental language.
The scholastics of the high medieval period, such as Ockham and John Duns Scotus, considered logic to be a scientia sermocinalis (science of language). The result of their studies was the elaboration of linguistic-philosophical notions whose complexity and subtlety has only recently come to be appreciated. Many of the most interesting problems of modern philosophy of language were anticipated by medieval thinkers. The phenomena of vagueness and ambiguity were analyzed intensely, and this led to an increasing interest in problems related to the use of syncategorematic words such as and, or, not, if, and every. The study of categorematic words (or terms) and their properties was also developed greatly. One of the major developments of the scholastics in this area was the doctrine of the suppositio. The suppositio of a term is the interpretation that is given of it in a specific context. It can be proper or improper (as when it is used in metaphor, metonyms and other figures of speech). A proper suppositio, in turn, can be either formal or material accordingly when it refers to its usual non-linguistic referent (as in "Charles is a man"), or to itself as a linguistic entity (as in "Charles has seven letters"). Such a classification scheme is the precursor of modern distinctions between use and mention, and between language and metalanguage.
There is a tradition called speculative grammar which existed from the 11th to the 13th century. Leading scholars included, among others, Martin of Dace and Thomas of Erfurth.
Linguists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods such as Johannes Goropius Becanus, Athanasius Kircher and John Wilkins were infatuated with the idea of a philosophical language reversing the confusion of tongues, influenced by the gradual discovery of Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs (Hieroglyphica). This thought parallels the idea that there might be a universal language of music.
European scholarship began to absorb the Indian linguistic tradition only from the mid-18th century, pioneered by Jean François Pons and Henry Thomas Colebrooke (the editio princeps of Varadarāja, a 17th-century Sanskrit grammarian, dating to 1849).
In the early 19th century, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard insisted that language ought to play a larger role in Western philosophy. He argues that philosophy has not sufficiently focused on the role language plays in cognition and that future philosophy ought to proceed with a conscious focus on language:
If the claim of philosophers to be unbiased were all it pretends to be, it would also have to take account of language and its whole significance in relation to speculative philosophy ... Language is partly something originally given, partly that which develops freely. And just as the individual can never reach the point at which he becomes absolutely independent ... so too with language.
The phrase "linguistic turn" was used to describe the noteworthy emphasis that contemporary philosophers put upon language.
Language began to play a central role in Western philosophy in the early 20th century. One of the central figures involved in this development was the German philosopher Gottlob Frege, whose work on philosophical logic and the philosophy of language in the late 19th century influenced the work of 20th-century analytic philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The philosophy of language became so pervasive that for a time, in analytic philosophy circles, philosophy as a whole was understood to be a matter of philosophy of language.
Secondly, this field of study seeks to better understand what speakers and listeners do with language in communication, and how it is used socially. Specific interests include the topics of language learning, language creation, and speech acts.
Thirdly, the question of how language relates to the minds of both the speaker and the interpreter is investigated. Of specific interest is the grounds for successful translation of words and concepts into their equivalents in another language.
It has long been known that there are different parts of speech. One part of the common sentence is the lexical word, which is composed of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. A major question in the field – perhaps the single most important question for formalist and structuralist thinkers – is, "How does the meaning of a sentence emerge out of its parts?"
Many aspects of the problem of the composition of sentences are addressed in the field of linguistics of syntax. Philosophical semantics tends to focus on the principle of compositionality to explain the relationship between meaningful parts and whole sentences. The principle of compositionality asserts that a sentence can be understood on the basis of the meaning of the parts of the sentence (i.e., words, morphemes) along with an understanding of its structure (i.e., syntax, logic). Further, syntactic propositions are arranged into 'discourse' or 'narrative' structures, which also encode meanings through pragmatics like temporal relations and pronominals.
It is possible to use the concept of functions to describe more than just how lexical meanings work: they can also be used to describe the meaning of a sentence. Take, for a moment, the sentence "The horse is red". We may consider "the horse" to be the product of a propositional function. A propositional function is an operation of language that takes an entity (in this case, the horse) as an input and outputs a semantic fact (i.e., the proposition that is represented by "The horse is red"). In other words, a propositional function is like an algorithm. The meaning of "red" in this case is whatever takes the entity "the horse" and turns it into the statement, "The horse is red."
Linguists have developed at least two general methods of understanding the relationship between the parts of a linguistic string and how it is put together: syntactic and semantic trees. Syntactic trees draw upon the words of a sentence with the grammar of the sentence in mind. Semantic trees, on the other hand, focus upon the role of the meaning of the words and how those meanings combine to provide insight onto the genesis of semantic facts.
Some of the major issues at the intersection of philosophy of language and philosophy of mind are also dealt with in modern psycholinguistics. Some important questions are How much of language is innate? Is language acquisition a special faculty in the mind? What is the connection between thought and language?
There are three general perspectives on the issue of language learning. The first is the behaviorist perspective, which dictates that not only is the solid bulk of language learned, but it is learned via conditioning. The second is the hypothesis testing perspective, which understands the child's learning of syntactic rules and meanings to involve the postulation and testing of hypotheses, through the use of the general faculty of intelligence. The final candidate for explanation is the innatist perspective, which states that at least some of the syntactic settings are innate and hardwired, based on certain modules of the mind.
There are varying notions of the structure of the brain when it comes to language. Connectionist models emphasize the idea that a person's lexicon and their thoughts operate in a kind of distributed, associative network. Nativist models assert that there are specialized devices in the brain that are dedicated to language acquisition. Computation models emphasize the notion of a representational language of thought and the logic-like, computational processing that the mind performs over them. Emergentist models focus on the notion that natural faculties are a complex system that emerge from simpler biological parts. Reductionist models attempt to explain higher-level mental processes in terms of the basic low-level neurophysiological activity of the brain.
An important problem which touches both philosophy of language and philosophy of mind is to what extent language influences thought and vice versa. There have been a number of different perspectives on this issue, each offering a number of insights and suggestions.
Linguists Sapir and Whorf suggested that language limited the extent to which members of a "linguistic community" can think about certain subjects (a hypothesis paralleled in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four). In other words, language was analytically prior to thought. Philosopher Michael Dummett is also a proponent of the "language-first" viewpoint.
The stark opposite to the Sapir–Whorf position is the notion that thought (or, more broadly, mental content) has priority over language. The "knowledge-first" position can be found, for instance, in the work of Paul Grice. Further, this view is closely associated with Jerry Fodor and his language of thought hypothesis. According to his argument, spoken and written language derive their intentionality and meaning from an internal language encoded in the mind. The main argument in favor of such a view is that the structure of thoughts and the structure of language seem to share a compositional, systematic character. Another argument is that it is difficult to explain how signs and symbols on paper can represent anything meaningful unless some sort of meaning is infused into them by the contents of the mind. One of the main arguments against is that such levels of language can lead to an infinite regress. In any case, many philosophers of mind and language, such as Ruth Millikan, Fred Dretske and Fodor, have recently turned their attention to explaining the meanings of mental contents and states directly.
Another tradition of philosophers has attempted to show that language and thought are coextensive – that there is no way of explaining one without the other. Donald Davidson, in his essay "Thought and Talk", argued that the notion of belief could only arise as a product of public linguistic interaction. Daniel Dennett holds a similar interpretationist view of propositional attitudes. To an extent, the theoretical underpinnings to cognitive semantics (including the notion of semantic framing) suggest the influence of language upon thought. However, the same tradition views meaning and grammar as a function of conceptualization, making it difficult to assess in any straightforward way.
Some thinkers, like the ancient sophist Gorgias, have questioned whether or not language was capable of capturing thought at all.
There are studies that prove that languages shape how people understand causality. Some of them were performed by Lera Boroditsky. For example, English speakers tend to say things like "John broke the vase" even for accidents. However, Spanish or Japanese speakers would be more likely to say "the vase broke itself." In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford University speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone was asked whether they could remember who did what. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers.
Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blue in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. The Piraha, a tribe in Brazil, whose language has only terms like few and many instead of numerals, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.
In one study German and Spanish speakers were asked to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key"—a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish—the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was the case even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender.
In a series of studies conducted by Gary Lupyan, people were asked to look at a series of images of imaginary aliens. Whether each alien was friendly or hostile was determined by certain subtle features but participants were not told what these were. They had to guess whether each alien was friendly or hostile, and after each response they were told if they were correct or not, helping them learn the subtle cues that distinguished friend from foe. A quarter of the participants were told in advance that the friendly aliens were called "leebish" and the hostile ones "grecious", while another quarter were told the opposite. For the rest, the aliens remained nameless. It was found that participants who were given names for the aliens learned to categorize the aliens far more quickly, reaching 80 per cent accuracy in less than half the time taken by those not told the names. By the end of the test, those told the names could correctly categorize 88 per cent of aliens, compared to just 80 per cent for the rest. It was concluded that naming objects helps us categorize and memorize them.
In another series of experiments  a group of people was asked to view furniture from an IKEA catalog. Half the time they were asked to label the object – whether it was a chair or lamp, for example – while the rest of the time they had to say whether or not they liked it. It was found that when asked to label items, people were later less likely to recall the specific details of products, such as whether a chair had arms or not. It was concluded that labeling objects helps our minds build a prototype of the typical object in the group at the expense of individual features.
The topic that has received the most attention in the philosophy of language has been the nature of meaning, to explain what "meaning" is, and what we mean when we talk about meaning. Within this area, issues include: the nature of synonymy, the origins of meaning itself, our apprehension of meaning, and the nature of composition (the question of how meaningful units of language are composed of smaller meaningful parts, and how the meaning of the whole is derived from the meaning of its parts).
There have been several distinctive explanations of what a linguistic "meaning" is. Each has been associated with its own body of literature.
Investigations into how language interacts with the world are called theories of reference. Gottlob Frege was an advocate of a mediated reference theory. Frege divided the semantic content of every expression, including sentences, into two components: sense and reference. The sense of a sentence is the thought that it expresses. Such a thought is abstract, universal and objective. The sense of any sub-sentential expression consists in its contribution to the thought that its embedding sentence expresses. Senses determine reference and are also the modes of presentation of the objects to which expressions refer. Referents are the objects in the world that words pick out. The senses of sentences are thoughts, while their referents are truth values (true or false). The referents of sentences embedded in propositional attitude ascriptions and other opaque contexts are their usual senses.
Bertrand Russell, in his later writings and for reasons related to his theory of acquaintance in epistemology, held that the only directly referential expressions are, what he called, "logically proper names". Logically proper names are such terms as I, now, here and other indexicals. He viewed proper names of the sort described above as "abbreviated definite descriptions". Hence Donald J. Trump may be an abbreviation for "the current President of the United States and husband of Melania Trump." Definite descriptions are denoting phrases (see "On Denoting") which are analyzed by Russell into existentially quantified logical constructions. Such phrases denote in the sense that there is an object that satisfies the description. However, such objects are not to be considered meaningful on their own, but have meaning only in the proposition expressed by the sentences of which they are a part. Hence, they are not directly referential in the same way as logically proper names, for Russell.
On Frege's account, any referring expression has a sense as well as a referent. Such a "mediated reference" view has certain theoretical advantages over Mill's view. For example, co-referential names, such as Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain, cause problems for a directly referential view because it is possible for someone to hear "Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens" and be surprised – thus, their cognitive content seems different.
Despite the differences between the views of Frege and Russell, they are generally lumped together as descriptivists about proper names. Such descriptivism was criticized in Saul Kripke's Naming and Necessity.
Kripke put forth what has come to be known as "the modal argument" (or "argument from rigidity"). Consider the name Aristotle and the descriptions "the greatest student of Plato", "the founder of logic" and "the teacher of Alexander". Aristotle obviously satisfies all of the descriptions (and many of the others we commonly associate with him), but it is not necessarily true that if Aristotle existed then Aristotle was any one, or all, of these descriptions. Aristotle may well have existed without doing any single one of the things for which he is known to posterity. He may have existed and not have become known to posterity at all or he may have died in infancy. Suppose that Aristotle is associated by Mary with the description "the last great philosopher of antiquity" and (the actual) Aristotle died in infancy. Then Mary's description would seem to refer to Plato. But this is deeply counterintuitive. Hence, names are rigid designators, according to Kripke. That is, they refer to the same individual in every possible world in which that individual exists. In the same work, Kripke articulated several other arguments against "Frege–Russell" descriptivism.
A common claim is that language is governed by social conventions. Questions inevitably arise on surrounding topics. One question is, "What exactly is a convention, and how do we study it?", and second, "To what extent do conventions even matter in the study of language?" David Kellogg Lewis proposed a worthy reply to the first question by expounding the view that a convention is a rationally self-perpetuating regularity in behavior. However, this view seems to compete to some extent with the Gricean view of speaker's meaning, requiring either one (or both) to be weakened if both are to be taken as true.
Some have questioned whether or not conventions are relevant to the study of meaning at all. Noam Chomsky proposed that the study of language could be done in terms of the I-Language, or internal language of persons. If this is so, then it undermines the pursuit of explanations in terms of conventions, and relegates such explanations to the domain of "meta-semantics". Metasemantics is a term used by philosopher of language Robert Stainton to describe all those fields that attempt to explain how semantic facts arise. One fruitful source of research involves investigation into the social conditions that give rise to, or are associated with, meanings and languages. Etymology (the study of the origins of words) and stylistics (philosophical argumentation over what makes "good grammar", relative to a particular language) are two other examples of fields that are taken to be meta-semantic.
Not surprisingly, many separate (but related) fields have investigated the topic of linguistic convention within their own research paradigms. The presumptions that prop up each theoretical view are of interest to the philosopher of language. For instance, one of the major fields of sociology, symbolic interactionism, is based on the insight that human social organization is based almost entirely on the use of meanings. In consequence, any explanation of a social structure (like an institution) would need to account for the shared meanings which create and sustain the structure.
Rhetoric is the study of the particular words that people use to achieve the proper emotional and rational effect in the listener, be it to persuade, provoke, endear, or teach. Some relevant applications of the field include the examination of propaganda and didacticism, the examination of the purposes of swearing and pejoratives (especially how it influences the behavior of others, and defines relationships), or the effects of gendered language. It can also be used to study linguistic transparency (or speaking in an accessible manner), as well as performative utterances and the various tasks that language can perform (called "speech acts"). It also has applications to the study and interpretation of law, and helps give insight to the logical concept of the domain of discourse.
Literary theory is a discipline that some literary theorists claim overlaps with the philosophy of language. It emphasizes the methods that readers and critics use in understanding a text. This field, an outgrowth of the study of how to properly interpret messages, is unsurprisingly closely tied to the ancient discipline of hermeneutics.
Finally, philosophers of language investigate how language and meaning relate to truth and the reality being referred to. They tend to be less interested in which sentences are actually true, and more in what kinds of meanings can be true or false. A truth-oriented philosopher of language might wonder whether or not a meaningless sentence can be true or false, or whether or not sentences can express propositions about things that do not exist, rather than the way sentences are used.
In Continental philosophy, language is not studied as a separate discipline, as it is in analytic philosophy. Rather, it is an inextricable part of many other areas of thought, such as phenomenology, semiotics, hermeneutics, Heideggerean ontology, existentialism, structuralism, deconstruction and critical theory. The idea of language is often related to that of logic in its Greek sense as "logos", meaning discourse or dialectic. Language and concepts are also seen as having been formed by history and politics, or even by historical philosophy itself.
The field of hermeneutics, and the theory of interpretation in general, has played a significant role in 20th century Continental philosophy of language and ontology beginning with Martin Heidegger. Heidegger combines phenomenology with the hermeneutics of Wilhelm Dilthey. Heidegger believed language was one of the most important concepts for Dasein. Heidegger believed that language today is worn out because of overuse of important words, and would be inadequate for in-depth study of Being (Sein). For example, Sein (being), the word itself, is saturated with multiple meanings. Thus, he invented new vocabulary and linguistic styles, based on Ancient Greek and Germanic etymological word relations, to disambiguate commonly used words. He avoided words like consciousness, ego, human, nature, etc. and instead talked holistically of Being-in-the-world, Dasein.
With such new concepts as Being-in-the-world, Heidegger constructs his theory of language, centered on speech. He believed speech (talking, listening, silence) was the most essential and pure form of language. Heidegger claims writing is only a supplement to speech, because even a reader constructs or contributes one's own "talk" while reading. The most important feature of language is its projectivity, the idea that language is prior to human speech. This means that when one is "thrown" into the world, his existence is characterized from the beginning by a certain pre-comprehension of the world. However, it is only after naming, or "articulation of intelligibility", can one have primary access to Dasein and Being-in-the-World.
Hans-Georg Gadamer expanded on these ideas of Heidegger and proposed a complete hermeneutic ontology. In Truth and Method, Gadamer describes language as "the medium in which substantive understanding and agreement take place between two people." In addition, Gadamer claims that the world is linguistically constituted, and cannot exist apart from language. For example, monuments and statues cannot communicate without the aid of language. Gadamer also claims that every language constitutes a world-view, because the linguistic nature of the world frees each individual from an objective environment: "... the fact that we have a world at all depends upon [language] and presents itself in it. The world as world exists for man as for no other creature in the world."
Paul Ricœur, on the other hand, proposed a hermeneutics which, reconnecting with the original Greek sense of the term, emphasized the discovery of hidden meanings in the equivocal terms (or "symbols") of ordinary language. Other philosophers who have worked in this tradition include Luigi Pareyson and Jacques Derrida.
Semiotics is the study of the transmission, reception and meaning of signs and symbols in general. In this field, human language (both natural and artificial) is just one among many ways that humans (and other conscious beings) are able to communicate. It allows them to take advantage of and effectively manipulate the external world in order to create meaning for themselves and transmit this meaning to others. Every object, every person, every event, and every force communicates (or signifies) continuously. The ringing of a telephone for example, is the telephone. The smoke that I see on the horizon is the sign that there is a fire. The smoke signifies. The things of the world, in this vision, seem to be labeled precisely for intelligent beings who only need to interpret them in the way that humans do. Everything has meaning. True communication, including the use of human language, however, requires someone (a sender) who sends a message, or text, in some code to someone else (a receiver). Language is studied only insofar as it is one of these forms (the most sophisticated form) of communication. Some important figures in the history of semiotics, are Charles Sanders Peirce, Roland Barthes, and Roman Jakobson. In modern times, its best-known figures include Umberto Eco, A.J. Greimas, Louis Hjelmslev, and Tullio De Mauro. Investigations on signs in non-human communications are subject to biosemiotics, a field founded in the late 20th century by Thomas Sebeok and Thure von Uexküll.
Another of the questions that has divided philosophers of language is the extent to which formal logic can be used as an effective tool in the analysis and understanding of natural languages. While most philosophers, including Frege, Alfred Tarski and Rudolf Carnap, have been more or less skeptical about formalizing natural languages, many of them developed formal languages for use in the sciences or formalized parts of natural language for investigation. Some of the most prominent members of this tradition of formal semantics include Tarski, Carnap, Richard Montague and Donald Davidson.
On the other side of the divide, and especially prominent in the 1950s and '60s, were the so-called "ordinary language philosophers". Philosophers such as P. F. Strawson, John Langshaw Austin and Gilbert Ryle stressed the importance of studying natural language without regard to the truth-conditions of sentences and the references of terms. They did not believe that the social and practical dimensions of linguistic meaning could be captured by any attempts at formalization using the tools of logic. Logic is one thing and language is something entirely different. What is important is not expressions themselves but what people use them to do in communication.
Hence, Austin developed a theory of speech acts, which described the kinds of things which can be done with a sentence (assertion, command, inquiry, exclamation) in different contexts of use on different occasions. Strawson argued that the truth-table semantics of the logical connectives (e.g., , and ) do not capture the meanings of their natural language counterparts ("and", "or" and "if-then"). While the "ordinary language" movement basically died out in the 1970s, its influence was crucial to the development of the fields of speech-act theory and the study of pragmatics. Many of its ideas have been absorbed by theorists such as Kent Bach, Robert Brandom, Paul Horwich and Stephen Neale. In recent work, the division between semantics and pragmatics has become a lively topic of discussion at the interface of philosophy and linguistics, for instance in work by Sperber and Wilson, Carston and Levinson.
While keeping these traditions in mind, the question of whether or not there is any grounds for conflict between the formal and informal approaches is far from being decided. Some theorists, like Paul Grice, have been skeptical of any claims that there is a substantial conflict between logic and natural language.
One debate that has captured the interest of many philosophers is the debate over the meaning of universals. One might ask, for example, "When people say the word rocks, what is it that the word represents?" Two different answers have emerged to this question. Some have said that the expression stands for some real, abstract universal out in the world called "rocks". Others have said that the word stands for some collection of particular, individual rocks that we associate with merely a nomenclature. The former position has been called philosophical realism, and the latter nominalism.
The issue here can be explicated if we examine the proposition "Socrates is a Man".
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 in some way or overlap.
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".
There is a third way, between nominalism and radical realism, usually called "moderate realism" and attributed to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Moderate realists hold that "man" refers to a real essence or form that is really present and identical in Socrates and all other men, but "man" does not exist as a separate and distinct entity. This is a realist position, because "Man" is real, insofar as it really exists in all men; but it is a moderate realism, because "Man" is not an entity separate from the men it informs.
Many philosophical discussions of language begin by clarifying terminology. One item which has undergone significant scrutiny is the idea of language itself. Those philosophers who have set themselves to the task ask two important questions: "What is language in general?" and "What is a particular, individual language?"
Some semiotic outlooks have stressed that language is the mere manipulation and use of symbols in order to draw attention to signified content. If this were so, then humans would not be the sole possessors of language skills. On the other hand, many works by linguist Noam Chomsky have emphasized the role of syntax as a characteristic of any language.
More puzzling is the question of what it is that distinguishes one particular language from another. What is it that makes "English" English? What's the difference between Spanish and French? Chomsky has indicated that the search for what it means to be a language must begin with the study of the internal language of persons, or I-languages, which are based upon certain rules (or principles and parameters) which generate grammars. This view is supported in part by the conviction that there is no clear, general, and principled difference between one language and the next, and which may apply across the field of all languages. Other attempts, which he dubs E-languages, have tried to explain a language as usage within a specific speech community with a specific set of well-formed utterances in mind (markedly associated with linguists like Bloomfield).
Translation and interpretation are two other problems that philosophers of language have attempted to confront. In the 1950s, W.V. Quine argued for the indeterminacy of meaning and reference based on the principle of radical translation. In Word and Object, Quine asks readers to imagine a situation in which they are confronted with a previously undocumented, group of indigenous people where they must attempt to make sense of the utterances and gestures that its members make. This is the situation of radical translation.
He claimed that, in such a situation, it is impossible in principle to be absolutely certain of the meaning or reference that a speaker of the indigenous peoples language attaches to an utterance. For example, if a speaker sees a rabbit and says "gavagai", is she referring to the whole rabbit, to the rabbit's tail, or to a temporal part of the rabbit. All that can be done is to examine the utterance as a part of the overall linguistic behaviour of the individual, and then use these observations to interpret the meaning of all other utterances. From this basis, one can form a manual of translation. But, since reference is indeterminate, there will be many such manuals, no one of which is more correct than the others. For Quine, as for Wittgenstein and Austin, meaning is not something that is associated with a single word or sentence, but is rather something that, if it can be attributed at all, can only be attributed to a whole language. The resulting view is called semantic holism.
Inspired by Quine's discussion, Donald Davidson extended the idea of radical translation to the interpretation of utterances and behavior within a single linguistic community. He dubbed this notion radical interpretation. He suggested that the meaning that any individual ascribed to a sentence could only be determined by attributing meanings to many, perhaps all, of the individual's assertions, as well as their mental states and attitudes.
One issue that has troubled philosophers of language and logic is the problem of the vagueness of words. The specific instances of vagueness that most interest philosophers of language are those where the existence of "borderline cases" makes it seemingly impossible to say whether a predicate is true or false. Classic examples are "is tall" or "is bald", where it cannot be said that some borderline case (some given person) is tall or not-tall. In consequence, vagueness gives rise to the paradox of the heap. Many theorists have attempted to solve the paradox by way of n-valued logics, such as fuzzy logic, which have radically departed from classical two-valued logics.
Abstract and concrete are classifications that denote whether the object that a term describes has physical referents. Abstract objects have no physical referents, whereas concrete objects do. They are most commonly used in philosophy and semantics. Abstract objects are sometimes called abstracta (sing. abstractum) and concrete objects are sometimes called concreta (sing. concretum). An abstract object is an object that does not exist at any particular time or place, but rather exists as a type of thing—i.e., an idea, or abstraction. The term abstract object is said to have been coined by Willard Van Orman Quine. The study of abstract objects is called abstract object theory.Concept and object
In the philosophy of language, the distinction between concept and object is attributable to the German philosopher Gottlob Frege.Connotation
A connotation is a commonly understood cultural or emotional association that some word or phrase carries, in addition to its explicit or literal meaning, which is its denotation.
A connotation is frequently described as either positive or negative, with regard to its pleasing or displeasing emotional connection. For example, a stubborn person may be described as being either strong-willed or pig-headed; although these have the same literal meaning (stubborn), strong-willed connotes admiration for the level of someone's will (a positive connotation), while pig-headed connotes frustration in dealing with someone (a negative connotation).Definition
A definition is a statement of the meaning of a term (a word, phrase, or other set of symbols). Definitions can be classified into two large categories, intensional definitions (which try to give the sense of a term) and extensional definitions (which proceed by listing the objects that a term describes). Another important category of definitions is the class of ostensive definitions, which convey the meaning of a term by pointing out examples. A term may have many different senses and multiple meanings, and thus require multiple definitions.In mathematics, a definition is used to give a precise meaning to a new term, instead of describing a pre-existing term. Definitions and axioms are the basis on which all of modern mathematics is constructed.Denotation
Denotation is a translation of a sign to its meaning, precisely to its literal meaning, more or less like dictionaries try to define it. Denotation is sometimes contrasted to connotation, which includes associated meanings. The denotational meaning of a word is perceived through visible concepts, whereas connotational meaning evokes sensible attitudes towards the phenomena.Index of philosophy of language articles
This is an index of articles in philosophy of language
Alfred Jules Ayer
Alphabet of human thought
Applicative Universal Grammar
Archie J. Bahm
Association for Logic, Language and Information
Bob Hale (philosopher)
Carl Gustav Hempel
Causal theory of reference
César Chesneau Dumarsais
Cheung Kam Ching
Concept and object
Contrast theory of meaning
David Kellogg Lewis
De dicto and de re
Descriptivist theory of names
Direct reference theory
Direction of fit
Donald Davidson (philosopher)
Ethics and Language
European Summer School in Logic, Language and Information
F. H. Bradley
Failure to refer
Form of life (philosophy)
Function and Concept
G. E. M. Anscombe
Gareth Evans (philosopher)
Gordon Park Baker
Ideal speech situation
Indeterminacy of translation
Inferential role semantics
Internalism and externalism
J. L. Austin
James F. Conant
Jonathan Bennett (philosopher)
Journal of Logic, Language and Information
Language and thought
Language of thought
Language, Truth, and Logic
Linguistics and Philosophy
List of philosophers of language
Meaning (philosophy of language)
Mediated reference theory
Metaphor in philosophy
Modularity of mind
Mumbo Jumbo (phrase)
Naming and Necessity
Ordinary language philosophy
P. F. Strawson
Philosophical interpretation of classical physics
Philosophy and literature
Philosophy of language
Principle of charity
Principle of compositionality
Private language argument
Proper name (philosophy)
Redundancy theory of truth
Rhetoric of social intervention model
Richard von Mises
Robert Maximilian de Gaynesford
Round square copula
S. Morris Engel
Sense and reference
Sense and Sensibilia (Austin)
The Naturalization of Intentionality
Theory of descriptions
Two Dogmas of Empiricism
Willard Van Orman Quine
William C. Dowling
Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language
Word and Object
ZhuangziLanguage game (philosophy)
A language-game (German: Sprachspiel) is a philosophical concept developed by Ludwig Wittgenstein, referring to simple examples of language use and the actions into which the language is woven.Logical form
In philosophy and mathematics, a logical form of a syntactic expression is a precisely-specified semantic version of that expression in a formal system. Informally, the logical form attempts to formalize a possibly ambiguous statement into a statement with a precise, unambiguous logical interpretation with respect to a formal system. In an ideal formal language, the meaning of a logical form can be determined unambiguously from syntax alone. Logical forms are semantic, not syntactic constructs; therefore, there may be more than one string that represents the same logical form in a given language.The logical form of an argument is called the argument form or test form of the argument.Martian scientist
A Martian scientist or Martian researcher is a hypothetical Martian frequently used in thought experiments as an outside observer of conditions on Earth. The most common variety is the Martian anthropologist, but Martians researching subjects such as philosophy, linguistics and biology have also been invoked.
The following extract from an essay by Richard Dawkins is more or less typical.
A Martian taxonomist who didn't know that all human races happily interbreed with one another, and didn't know that most of the underlying genetic variance in our species is shared by all races might be tempted by our regional differences in skin colour, facial features, hair, body size and proportions to split us into more than one species.In American structuralist linguistics, the Martian approach is recommended for language description:
The descriptive analyst must be guided by certain very fixed principles if he is to be objective in describing accurately any language or part of any language. It would be excellent if he could adopt a completely man-from-Mars attitude toward any language he analyzes and describes.The hypothetical Martian anthropologist is described in the writings of Noam Chomsky as one who, upon studying the world's languages, would conclude that they are all dialects of a single language embodying a "universal grammar" reflecting a hardwired, genetically determined linguistic module inherent in the human brain.
In philosophy, especially philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, the Martian is often invoked as an example of an intelligent being with a cognitive apparatus that differs from that of humans, e.g. the following example given by Saul Kripke:
I will not here argue that simplicity is relative, or that it is hard to define, or that a Martian might find the quus function simpler than the plus function.In a common rhetorical turn, invoking the Martian scientist forces the reader to observe an obvious state of affairs that is ordinarily overlooked:
If a Martian graced our planet, it would be struck by one remarkable similarity among Earth's living creatures and a key difference.(NB: The similarity Chomsky et al. mean is the universal hereditary language of DNA, while the difference is the lack of a universal language of communication.)Meaning (linguistics)
In linguistics, meaning is the information or concepts that a sender intends to convey, or does convey, in communication with a receiver.Natural language
In neuropsychology, linguistics, and the philosophy of language, a natural language or ordinary language is any language that has evolved naturally in humans through use and repetition without conscious planning or premeditation. Natural languages can take different forms, such as speech or signing. They are distinguished from constructed and formal languages such as those used to program computers or to study logic.Nonsense
Nonsense is a communication, via speech, writing, or any other symbolic system, that lacks any coherent meaning. Sometimes in ordinary usage, nonsense is synonymous with absurdity or the ridiculous. Many poets, novelists and songwriters have used nonsense in their works, often creating entire works using it for reasons ranging from pure comic amusement or satire, to illustrating a point about language or reasoning. In the philosophy of language and philosophy of science, nonsense is distinguished from sense or meaningfulness, and attempts have been made to come up with a coherent and consistent method of distinguishing sense from nonsense. It is also an important field of study in cryptography regarding separating a signal from noise.Norm (philosophy)
Norms are concepts (sentences) of practical import, oriented to effecting an action, rather than conceptual abstractions that describe, explain, and express. Normative sentences imply "ought-to" types of statements and assertions, in distinction to sentences that provide "is" types of statements and assertions. Common normative sentences include commands, permissions, and prohibitions; common normative abstract concepts include sincerity, justification, and honesty. A popular account of norms describes them as reasons to take action, to believe, and to feel.Principle of compositionality
In mathematics, semantics, and philosophy of language, the principle of compositionality is the principle that the meaning of a complex expression is determined by the meanings of its constituent expressions and the rules used to combine them. This principle is also called Frege's principle, because Gottlob Frege is widely credited for the first modern formulation of it. However, the idea appears already among Indian philosophers of grammar such as Yāska, and also in Plato's work such as in Theaetetus.
Besides, the principle was never explicitly stated by Frege, and it was arguably already assumed by George Boole decades before Frege's work.Proposition
A proposition is a tentative and conjectural relationship between constructs that is stated in a declarative form. An example of a proposition is: “An increase in student intelligence causes an increase in their academic achievement.” This declarative statement does not have to be true, but must be empirically testable using data, so that we can judge whether it is true or false. Propositions are generally derived based on logic (deduction) or empirical observations (induction). Because propositions are associations between abstract constructs, they cannot be tested directly. Instead, they are tested indirectly by examining the relationship between corresponding measures (variables) of those constructs. The empirical formulation of propositions, stated as relationships between variables, is called hypotheses . The term proposition has a broad use in contemporary analytic philosophy. It is used to refer to some or all of the following: the primary bearers of truth-value, the objects of belief and other "propositional attitudes" (i.e., what is believed, doubted, etc.), the referents of that-clauses, and the meanings of declarative sentences. Propositions are the sharable objects of attitudes and the primary bearers of truth and falsity. This stipulation rules out certain candidates for propositions, including thought- and utterance-tokens which are not sharable, and concrete events or facts, which cannot be false.Reference
Reference is a relation between objects in which one object designates, or acts as a means by which to connect to or link to, another object. The first object in this relation is said to refer to the second object. It is called a name for the second object. The second object, the one to which the first object refers, is called the referent of the first object. A name is usually a phrase or expression, or some other symbolic representation. Its referent may be anything – a material object, a person, an event, an activity, or an abstract concept.
References can take on many forms, including: a thought, a sensory perception that is audible (onomatopoeia), visual (text), olfactory, or tactile, emotional state, relationship with other, spacetime coordinate, symbolic or alpha-numeric, a physical object or an energy projection. In some cases, methods are used that intentionally hide the reference from some observers, as in cryptography.
References feature in many spheres of human activity and knowledge, and the term adopts shades of meaning particular to the contexts in which it is used. Some of them are described in the sections below.Semantics
Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikós, "significant") is the linguistic and philosophical study of meaning, in language, programming languages, formal logics, and semiotics. It is concerned with the relationship between signifiers—like words, phrases, signs, and symbols—and what they stand for in reality, their denotation.
In international scientific vocabulary semantics is also called semasiology. The word semantics was first used by Michel Bréal, a French philologist. It denotes a range of ideas—from the popular to the highly technical. It is often used in ordinary language for denoting a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation. This problem of understanding has been the subject of many formal enquiries, over a long period of time, especially in the field of formal semantics. In linguistics, it is the study of the interpretation of signs or symbols used in agents or communities within particular circumstances and contexts. Within this view, sounds, facial expressions, body language, and proxemics have semantic (meaningful) content, and each comprises several branches of study. In written language, things like paragraph structure and punctuation bear semantic content; other forms of language bear other semantic content.The formal study of semantics intersects with many other fields of inquiry, including lexicology, syntax, pragmatics, etymology and others. Independently, semantics is also a well-defined field in its own right, often with synthetic properties. In the philosophy of language, semantics and reference are closely connected. Further related fields include philology, communication, and semiotics. The formal study of semantics can therefore be manifold and complex.
Semantics contrasts with syntax, the study of the combinatorics of units of a language (without reference to their meaning), and pragmatics, the study of the relationships between the symbols of a language, their meaning, and the users of the language. Semantics as a field of study also has significant ties to various representational theories of meaning including truth theories of meaning, coherence theories of meaning, and correspondence theories of meaning. Each of these is related to the general philosophical study of reality and the representation of meaning. In 1960s psychosemantic studies became popular after Osgood's massive cross-cultural studies using his semantic differential (SD) method that used thousands of nouns and adjective bipolar scales. A specific form of the SD, Projective Semantics method uses only most common and neutral nouns that correspond to the 7 groups (factors) of adjective-scales most consistently found in cross-cultural studies (Evaluation, Potency, Activity as found by Osgood, and Reality, Organization, Complexity, Limitation as found in other studies). In this method, seven groups of bipolar adjective scales corresponded to seven types of nouns so the method was thought to have the object-scale symmetry (OSS) between the scales and nouns for evaluation using these scales. For example, the nouns corresponding to the listed 7 factors would be: Beauty, Power, Motion, Life, Work, Chaos, Law. Beauty was expected to be assessed unequivocally as “very good” on adjectives of Evaluation-related scales, Life as “very real” on Reality-related scales, etc. However, deviations in this symmetric and very basic matrix might show underlying biases of two types: scales-related bias and objects-related bias. This OSS design meant to increase the sensitivity of the SD method to any semantic biases in responses of people within the same culture and educational background.Sense and reference
In the philosophy of language, the distinction between sense and reference was an innovation of the German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege in 1892 (in his paper "On Sense and Reference"; German: "Über Sinn und Bedeutung"), reflecting the two ways he believed a singular term may have meaning.
The reference (or "referent"; Bedeutung) of a proper name is the object it means or indicates (bedeuten), its sense (Sinn) is what the name expresses. The reference of a sentence is its truth value, its sense is the thought that it expresses. Frege justified the distinction in a number of ways.
Sense is something possessed by a name, whether or not it has a reference. For example, the name "Odysseus" is intelligible, and therefore has a sense, even though there is no individual object (its reference) to which the name corresponds.
The sense of different names is different, even when their reference is the same. Frege argued that if an identity statement such as "Hesperus is the same planet as Phosphorus" is to be informative, the proper names flanking the identity sign must have a different meaning or sense. But clearly, if the statement is true, they must have the same reference. The sense is a 'mode of presentation', which serves to illuminate only a single aspect of the referent.Much of analytic philosophy is traceable to Frege's philosophy of language. Frege's views on logic (i.e., his idea that some parts of speech are complete by themselves, and are analogous to the arguments of a mathematical function) led to his views on a theory of reference.Syntax
In linguistics, syntax () is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences (sentence structure) in a given language, usually including word order. The term syntax is also used to refer to the study of such principles and processes. The goal of many syntacticians is to discover the syntactic rules common to all languages.
In mathematics, syntax refers to the rules governing the notation of mathematical systems, such as formal languages used in logic. (See logical syntax.)
Philosophy of language