Ordinary Language Philosophy

wittgenstein by david levine

J. L. Austin

Ordinary language philosophy came out of followers of the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein at the University of Oxford, and was most popular between 1930 and 1970. It is a philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use.

This approach typically involves eschewing philosophical ‘theories’ in favor of close attention to the details of the use of everyday, ‘ordinary’ language. Sometimes called ‘Oxford philosophy,’ it is generally associated with the work of a number of mid-century Oxford professors: mainly J.L. Austin, but also Gilbert Ryle, H.L.A. Hart, and Peter Strawson. The later Ludwig Wittgenstein is ordinary language philosophy’s most celebrated proponent outside the Oxford circle. Second generation figures include Stanley Cavell and John Searle.

The name comes from the contrast between this approach and earlier views of the role of language in solving philosophical problems that had been dominant in analytic philosophy, 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’s 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 philosophy.

By contrast, Wittgenstein would later describe his task as bringing ‘words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.’ The sea of change brought on by his unpublished work in the 1930s centered largely on the idea that there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that many traditional philosophical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 careful attention to language in its normal use, in order to ‘dissolve’ the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempt to solve them.

Wittgenstein held that the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses and that this is why philosophers trip over words taken in abstraction. From England came the idea that philosophy had gotten into trouble by trying to understand words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language. 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 instead looks at how we use the word ‘reality’ in everyday language.

In some instances, people will say, ‘It may seem that X is the case, but in reality, Y is the case.’ This expression is not used to mean that there is some special dimension of being where Y is true although X is true in our dimension. What it really means is, ‘X seemed right, but appearances were misleading in some way. Now I’m about to tell you the truth: Y.’ That is, the meaning of ‘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 leveling 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.’

Therefore ordinary language philosophers tend to be anti-essentialist (essentialism states that for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of incidental attributes all of which any are necessary to its identity and function). Of course, this was and is a very controversial viewpoint. Anti-essentialism and the linguistic philosophy associated with it are often important to contemporary accounts of feminism, Marxism, and other social philosophies that are critical of the injustice of the status quo. The essentialist ‘Truth’ as ‘thing’ is argued to be closely related to projects of domination, where the denial of alternate truths is understood to be a denial of alternate forms of living. Similar arguments sometimes involve ordinary language philosophy with other anti-essentialist movements like post-structuralism.

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