January 04, 2004

Ordinary language philosophy of language: not a good idea

Once upon a time there was something called ordinary language philosophy. It is generally taken to have been born in the later Wittgenstein as instanced by his Philosophical Investigations, which came out in the 1950s (though the ideas had been taught at Cambridge and Oxford earlier). The idea was that philosophy could be done on the basis of ordinary language. For example, you could do epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) by simply investigating the truth conditions of English sentences with the verb know, and the fundamental questions about the bases of ethics were to be resolved by reflection on the ways in which we use such words as ought. The idea was that the only true philosophical insights were already embedded in the plain common sense that our language has incorporated during its evolution over centuries of use: "The proper function of philosophy is to map out the logical geography or our conceptual schemes", as The Philosophy Pages puts it in describing the views of ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Maybe ordinary language philosophy is faintly plausible for some areas (it did not really survive; it was already under attack by the 1960s); but it seems to me that it would be particularly ridiculous when applied to the philosophy of language itself. The folk wisdom about language that seems to be embedded in English, the phrases that the general public uses to talk about language, suggest that philosophy of language done by mapping out the geography of the conceptual schemes revealed in the way we ordinarily talk about language use would be a complete crock. I can give two very simple examples.

The first stems from the expression to call someone names, which refers to the use of insulting epithets. If I say to you, "Dickhead! You forgot to get milk!", you would say that I had called you a name for forgetting the milk. But of course, this misses the distinction between names and descriptions. If your name is Dickhead and I call you that, it is not insulting. What is insulting is for me to implicitly describe you as a dickhead by using that form of address. A name is exactly what the insulting description dickhead isn't.

The second example is much broader but just as simple. People talk about language as if words express propositions and bear truth values. They don't; sentences do. But hundreds of phrases illustrate that the lay mind as recorded in everyday idiom believes otherwise:

I don't believe a word of it.
I'd like to have a word with you.
What's the word on this reorganization plan?
Give me your word that the check is in the mail.
Some harsh words were said last night.

etc., etc., etc. -- it's a useful exercise to try lengthening the list. Words are of course not true or false; they don't convey messages or state promises; and even in the case of harsh or obscene language, words are not the point. You haven't said a bad word if you say

Some people believe that if you curse a man you can damn him to hell.

But you have if you say

Some people believe that we should be grateful to Jack but I say damn him to hell.

In the first case you are just giving an inoffensive description of a superstitious or religious belief; in the second case you are swearing; but the relevant part (the last four words) is the same in each case. Swearing is not about use of bad words, it's about deploying them in utterances having conventional understandings as oaths, imprecations, or tabooed expostulations, God damn it.

The theory of language that seems to be implicit in everyday English is disastrously naive and stupid, and if elevated to philosophical dogma through ordinary language philosophy it would have reduced the philosophy of language to absurdity.

Which may be why no one ever seems to have tried it.

[Note added later: Cool philosophy dude Brian Weatherson has informed me that the point about idioms like I want a word with you has been made elsewhere: in "The Cult of Common Usage" by Bertrand Russell, in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. In 1953, actually. (Hey, don't give me that pitying look! I'm so-o-o supposed to know about, like, every freaking paper in every freaking philosophy journal since the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the freaking second, is that it? All right. So shoot me.)]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 4, 2004 08:10 PM