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Ordinary Language Philosophy

Introduction | History of Ordinary Language Philosophy
Introduction Back to Top

Ordinary Language Philosophy (also known as Linguistic Philosophy) is a 20th Century philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by forgetting what words actually mean in a language, and taking them in abstraction and out of context. This typically involves eschewing philosophical "theories" in favor of close attention to the details of the use of everyday "ordinary" language. Thus, it argues, the contemplation of language in its normal use, can "dissolve" the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempting to solve them.

So, for example, in answering questions such as "What is Truth?", we cannot assume that there is some actual "thing" which the word "truth" represents. Instead, we must look at the differing ways in which the word "truth" actually functions in ordinary language. In this respect, Ordinary Language Philosophers tends to oppose Essentialism (the idea that all entities have intrinsic properties that can be discerned by reason).

Some see Ordinary Language Philosophy as a complete break with, and reaction against, the "ideal language philosophy" of the Analytic Philosophy movement; others see it as just an extension of, or another stage of, the Analytic tradition. Either way, it became a dominant philosophic school between 1930 and 1970, and arguably remains an important force in present-day philosophy.

History of Ordinary Language Philosophy Back to Top

Analytic Philosophy 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. Its proponents, including the young Ludwig Wittgenstein, W.V.O. Quine and Rudolf Carnap (1891 - 1970), all attempted to improve upon it ("ideal language"), using the resources of modern Logic, in an attempt to make it more unambiguous and to accurately represent the world, in order to better deal with the questions of philosophy.

However, Wittgenstein's later unpublished work in the 1930's began to center around the idea that maybe there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that perhaps many traditional philosophical problems were only illusions brought on by misunderstandings about language and related subjects.

Although heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and his students at Cambridge, Ordinary Language Philosophy largely flourished and developed at Oxford in the 1940s, under Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin (1911 - 1960), Peter Strawson (1919 - 2006) and others, and was quite widespread for a time before declining rapidly in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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