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Ordinary language philosophy

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Ordinary language philosophy is less a philosophical doctrine or school than it is a loose network of approaches to traditional philosophical problems. These approaches typically involve eschewing philosophical "theories" in favour of close attention to the details of the use of everyday, "ordinary" language. They are generally associated with the works of J. L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle and with the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The name comes from the contrast between these approaches and the earlier approaches that had been dominant in analytic philosophy, and are now sometimes called Ideal language philosophy.


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 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 the philosophy.

The sea-change brought on by Wittgenstein's work in the 1930s centred largely around 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 contemplation of language in its normal use, in order to "dissolve" the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempt to solve them. Ordinary language philosophy, also called linguistic philosophy is thus sometimes taken as an extension of, and sometimes as an alternative to, analytic philosophy.

Although heavily influenced by Wittgenstein and his students at Cambridge, 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 dead." Wittgenstein is perhaps the only one among the major figures in this vein to retain anything like the reputation he had at that time.

Central IdeasEdit

Wittgenstein held that the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses, and that that is why philosophers trip over words taken in abstraction. From England came the idea that philosophy has got into trouble by trying to understand words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language (see contextualism).

For example: what is reality? Philosophers have treated it as a noun denoting something that has certain properties. For thousands of years, they have debated those properties. Ordinary Language philosophy would instead look at how we use the word "reality". In some instances, people will say, "It seems to me that so-and-so; but in reality, such-and-such is the case". But this expression isn't used to mean that there is some special dimension of being that such-and-such has that so-and-so doesn't have. What we really mean is, "So-and-so only sounded right, but was misleading in some way. Now I'm about to tell you the truth: such-and-such". That is, "in reality" is a bit like "however". And the phrase, "The reality of the matter is ..." serves a similar function -- to set the listener's expectations. Further, when we talk about a "real gun", we aren't making a metaphysical statement about the nature of reality; we are merely opposing this gun to a toy gun, pretend gun, imaginary gun, etc.

The controversy really begins when ordinary language philosophers apply the same levelling 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' (see Philosophical Investigations). Therefore ordinary language philosophers tend to be anti-essentialist. Of course, this was and is a very controversial viewpoint.

Important names in the Ordinary Language school include: John Wisdom, Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, the later works of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Peter der normalen Sprache fr:Philosophie du langage ordinaire zh:日常語言哲學

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