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Philosophy of language
The philosophy of language doesn't ask what particular words mean, or
whether particular sentences are true. (Except of course for words and
sentences about the language.) Rather, it asks what meaning in general is.
What is the meanings of the word "meaning"? How do we to understand this concept?
Maybe, on first glance, the philosophy of language doesn't look so
interesting. Talk about the meaning of words sounds like dry boring stuff --
grammar and dictionaries. But remember, grammar books and dictionaries only
codify how we use language. Codification might indeed be boring. But
language itself is extremely important and of daily interest to us all.
Language, meaning, and truth are important not just because they are used
daily with important effects; language has shaped your development, from
your earliest childhood and continuing to the present. You have a whole
integrated set of concepts which you have associated with certain words --
words like "object," "love," "good," "God," "masculine," "feminine," "art,"
"government," and so on. Some philosophers have even thought that it is
impossible to have thoughts without having learned a language. By learning
the meanings of these words, you have shaped an entire view of the universe
and your place in it. This is not to say that your philosophy is only or
just your understanding of what important words mean; of course there's much
more to it than that. But in arriving at your present philosophical outlook,
questions about meaning play a central, extremely important role.
Accordingly it's not by accident that philosophical discussions often begin
by clarifying terminology, drawing distinctions between different senses of
words, and so forth. Yhe philosophy of language is important because
language is important, and language is important because it is so useful in
our relationships and in our development and education.
Language became so central to western, and especially English-speaking
philosophical discussions during the 20th Century that philosophy of
language became virtually synonymous with the main school, analytic
philosophy. This trend began with a reaction against the idealism of Hegel
and Nietzsche. In Principia Mathematica Bertrand Russell and Alfred North
Whitehead attempted to produce a formal language with which the truth of all
mathematical statements could be demonstrated from first principles. Russell
desired to extend this to all possible true statements, a scheme he called
"logical atomism". For a while it appeared that Wittgenstein had succeeded
in this plan with his "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus".
At the same time G. E. Moore was developing an approach which sought to
examine philosophical difficulties by a close analyse of the language used
in order to determine its meaning. In this way Moore sought to expunge
philosophical absurdities such as "time is unreal".
This close examination of natural language is a powerful philosophical
technique. Other practitioners have include J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson,
John Searle, R. M. Hare and R. S. Peters. Wittgenstein himself returned to
philosophy after becoming aware that there was much more to natural
languages than he has summarised in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The
result, "Philosophical Investigations", confirmed the central place of
natural languages in the philosophy of language.
However there is still much that can be done by using formal logic to show
how natural languages might work. Saul Kripke's analysis of reference is a
case in point. Donald Davidson proposed simply translating natural languages
into first-order predicate calculus in order to reduce "meaning" to a
function of "truth".