analytical philosophyOverview

A short introduction to the philosophies that study how language is actually used — i.e. not the words only but the social context and intentions behind the utterance. Such philosophies do not provide an all-embracing, unequivocal answer to "the great questions", but they do illuminate and resolve many perplexities.

Wittgenstein's Theory of Games

If language is not a self-sufficient system of signs without outside reference, nor a set of logical structures, what else could it be? Social expression. Rather than pluck theories from the air, or demand of language an impossible logical consistency, we should study language as it is actually used. So suggested Wittgenstein. {1} Much that is dear to a philosopher's heart has to be given up — exact definitions of meaning and truth, for example, and large parts of metaphysics altogether. And far from analyzing thought and its consequences, philosophy must now merely describe it. But the gain is the roles words are observed to play: subtle, not to be pinned down or rigidly elaborated. Games, for example, do not possess one common feature, but only a plexus of overlapping similarities. Not all words have such subtleties, and physical objects we can name and employ in simple contexts — fetch the hammer! etc. But troubles arise when we make hammer the subject of a more complicated situation. Employ abstract words like events or public and the complications multiply. Go one step further and talk of knowledge, or meaning or truth and we have created the elaborate mystifications that philosophers have hitherto revelled in — i.e. rather than getting on with the job of sorting out the confusions. To see through the bewitchment of language is the task of philosophy.

Words may be simple in the context of a sentence, but they are not simple in the sense of being given to us directly. Philosophers have championed the ostensive definition — the pointing and saying: that is a hammer — but a wealth of understandings and assumptions underlies this simple phrase. And what is understanding, moreover? A mental process, that feeling of bafflement and then relief when we grasp the point? Wittgenstein thought not. Such feelings are not essential, nor the visual images that may accompany thought. We should avoid any notion of an interior, private language, an impossibility once we realize that language is a consistent, shared activity. We may 'know' our own inner experiences, but that knowledge has to be through concepts that gain and keep their meaning through public usage. Anyone who used the word angry, for example, in a private way to refer to mild feelings of euphoria would soon find himself in difficulty: synonyms, experiences and social contexts would not cohere.

Gilbert Ryle and Common Sense

Wittgenstein left no fully worked-out system behind him, but his subtlety and stringency of thought were very influential. Gilbert Ryle, as early as 1931, called philosophy the task of detecting of the sources in linguistic idioms of recurrent misconstructions and absurd theories. {2} His 1949 book The Concept of Mind attacked the Cartesian notion of a disembodied mind in a physical body, the "ghost in the machine". We should not worry how an elusive mental entity could control a physical object. Men were not machines but clever animals, and their thinking is only a more subtle form of animal intelligence. And as for asking what thinking is — that was a "category mistake", since thinking is an activity, not an entity. If propositions have something in common — thinking intelligently, let us say — then the concept of thinking intelligently is simply a handy abbreviation for a family of propositions.

We should also respect the everyday distinctions of words. Knowing how is quite different from knowing that, and we learn to ride a bicycle without knowing the mechanics involved. When we judge mental activities in others we are not making untestable inferences from private streams of consciousness, but drawing conclusions from their public behaviour. Seeing and achieving are achievement- rather than process-words, and when we imagine something we are not seeing some inner picture but using our knowledge to "think how it would look". Many conundrums are resolved if we think what we are actually doing. A scientist's view of matter may very different from the man in the street's, but they are both valid, concentrating on different aspects.

J.L. Austin and Intention

Common sense will resolve many difficulties, thought Ryle, and we do not need detailed linguistic analysis. But his part-contemporary, J.L. Austin, {3} looked at language more closely, though without reducing everything to linguistics. Even though "Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth making, in the lifetimes of many generations" {4} philosophy was compelled to straighten out usage to some extent. Austin analyzed with great subtlety the philosophical distinctions between could and should, knowing and promising, and what we mean by real or corresponding. He did not accept Russell's view that sense data are the foundations of knowledge, the starting points from which true propositions could be built. His best-known contributions came in his William James Lectures How to do Things with Words {5} where he distinguished utterances by the acts they performed. Locutionary acts conveyed meaning (e.g. tell us the storm is coming), illocutionary acts conveyed force (e.g. warn us that the storm is coming) and perlocutionary acts produced a certain effect (e.g. succeed in warning us that the storm is coming). The terminology has not caught on, and indeed Austin died prematurely, without substantiating these approaches, but his work unsettled many easy assumptions — distinctions between stating and describing, the factual and the necessary, is and ought. Meaning lies in the total speech act, said Austin, and not in the constituent propositions abstracted from context and intention.

Strawson, Searle and Grice: Speech Acts

Along similar lines P.F. Strawson {6} renewed the attack on Russell's theory of descriptions. Since the sentence: The King of France is bald could be used variously — as a statement about a past king of France, to make a joke, tell a story — its meaning does not depend on whether there actually exists a present king of France. Sentences do not consist of propositions, each one assigning predicates to logically proper names, and logicians who ignore context produce statements that are unreal and irrelevant.

Such views did not go unchallenged, and indeed many branches of logic (modal, deontic, free-value) have attempted to overcome the limitations of formal logic, if limitations they are. {7} But the view persists that philosophers should be able "to give philosophically illuminating descriptions of certain general features of language such as reference, truth, meaning and necessity." And without disposing of the problems. John Searle {8} does not ally himself with linguistic philosophers in supposing the great questions of philosophy are artifacts of language used to express them: indeed he characterizes the school as too often having a nice ear for linguistic distinctions but not the theoretical machinery to arrive at sound conclusions. And in building on and systematizing Austin's work, he emphasizes that meaning includes both what the speaker intended and what he actually said — i.e. the function of a sentence and its internal structure.

Searle built on Austin's view that speech is rule-governed and that we should understand those rules. But he also recognized a greater number of different types of speech act (perhaps exceeding ten thousand) but grouped them under five general categories — assertives (stating, reporting), directives (requesting, ordering), commissives (promising, offering), expressives (thanking, apologizing, congratulating), declaratives (correspondences between propositions), and categories of content & reality (sentencing, christening). {9}

Paul Grice was more concerned with differences in intention between the said and the meant, and in analyzing conversational situations. {10} Implication was conveyed by general knowledge and shared interest. And an action intended to induce belief would have to a. induce that belief, b. be recognize as such by the hearers, and c. be performed with every intention of being recognize as such. His cooperative principle introduced maxims of quality (things are not said which are known to be false or for which there is no evidence), quantity (appropriately informative), relation (relevant), and manner (brief, orderly, not obscure or ambiguous). {11}

What is the standing of these IBS (intention-based semantics) theories? Perhaps the current favourites, but not winning the assent of all. The devil is in the details. Logically set out, an early IBS theory might look like: {12}

Speaker S means m in uttering expression x, iff for some listener L and feature F, S intends:

1. L to think that x has this feature F,

2. L to think (at least partly on the basis of thinking x has this F, that S uttered x intending L to think m),

3. L to think (at least partly on the basis of thinking that S uttered x intending to think m) that m.

The feature F (which might be, say, that it's snowing) then has to be defined in wholly psychological terms. This can be done, but F then makes further claims on S and L. The matter becomes increasingly complicated and the expressions can be stymied by ingeniously devised questions.

Michael Dummett's Theory of Meaning

But we shouldn't suppose that context altogether alters understanding. Whatever the intent — request, excuse, reminder — we understand the sense of close the window, and this sense must call on some principles, thought Michael Dummett. {13 } We show our understanding by using a word or phrase properly. Dummett's approach would have a core of reference, a shell of sense and a supplement of force or intent. It would apply to any expression, basic or derived, and include some understanding of the conditions that need to be satisfied when we say, for example: this is London. But these are not truth conditions in Davidson's sense, nor of the Logical Positivists in resting on sense data. Moreover, Dummett argued, we cannot always know the real or full situation, when sentences may not be simply either true or false.

Ad Hoc Study of Language

Perhaps we should put away grand theories and study language on an ad hoc basis, as a scientist does, making as few assumptions as possible. Of all the schools of analytical philosophy, the pragmatic is the most arbitrary and heterogeneous. Included are philosophical contributions by Rorty, Quine and many others, aspects of sociology theory, and some branches of linguistics (phonetics, laboratory analysis of verse metre, psycho-linguistics, etc.) Many workers in this group are realists: they believe that the world exists independent of our minds or senses. The methods of science therefore apply — i.e. objective analysis, observation, deduction of laws that hold independent of the investigator and his society.

W.V. Quine, {14} for example, disputed the traditional distinction between analytic (i.e. true logically) and synthetic (true by reference to experience), arguing that logic has just the same status as empirical science. The world is a world of physical facts, and any statement could be made true if enough adjustments were made to the procedures through which we arrive at judgement. Nothing systematic could be said about the meaning of individual sentences as such. Nor could we be certain of making a translation between different languages by simply pointing to the common object named: the very action of coupling word and object calls on more (untranslated) language than the one naming word.

A deeper scepticism informs the work of Richard Rorty, {15} who concludes that philosophy has no more finality than literary criticism or cultural theory. He attacks the correspondence theory of truth (that truth is established by directly comparing what a sentence asserts to the "facts applying), and indeed denied that there were any ultimate foundations for knowledge at all. No belief is more fundamental than any other, and philosophy should liberate itself from its traditional occupations with the "great questions". In place of adversarial analysis we should instead try to create an edifying theory of understanding, one that is socially based, combining scientific and cultural understanding with the traditions that provide our shaping perspectives. Truth is not a common property of true statements, and the good is what proves itself to be so in practice: pragmatism, in short.

The last are somewhat nihilistic views, critical of philosophy's aspirations. Davidson, Kripke and Dummett, to mention only the most distinguished contemporary philosophers, very much disagree, and any picture of scientists as isolated and disinterested gatherers of experimental data is a naive one. Observations come theory-laden, and scientists are guided in their procedures by the theories they wish to test, by tradition, peer competition, institutional pressures and the encouragement or otherwise of the state.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page. 


1. pp. 431-41 in John Passmore's A Hundred Years of Philosophy (1978).
2. pp. 449-59 in Passmore 1978. Also Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind (1949).
3. pp. 459-67 in Passmore 1978.
4. pp. 459-60 in Passmore 1978.
5. P.F. Strawson's Intention and Convention in Speech Acts (1964).
6. pp. 469-72 in Passmore 1978.
7. pp. 6-9 in John Passmore's Recent Philosophers (1988).
8. pp. 19-21 in Passmore 1988. Also John Searle's The Philosophy of Language (1971) and Intentionality (1983).
9. Geoffrey Leech and Jenny Thomas's Language, Meaning and Context: Pragmatics (1990). Also Chapter 10 in Bernard Harrison's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (1979).
10. pp. 21-2 in Passmore 1988. Also Paul Grice's Logic and Conversation (1975).
11. Leech and Thomas 1990. Also Chapter 4 of Simon Blackburn's Spreading the Word (1984).
12. Chapter 9 of Stephen Schiffer's Remnants of Meaning (1987).
13. pp. 76-86 in Passmore 1988.
14. W.V. Quine's From a Logical Point of View (1953).
15. pp. 117-21 in Passmore 1988, and Richard Rorty's The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (1967).

Internet Resources

1. Analytic Philosophy. Wikpedia's entry: brief but with links.
2. Sorites. . Electronic magazine of analytical philosophy: technical.
3. Electronic Journal of Analytical Philosophy. Archived 1993-98 papers.
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Duncan Richter 2001. Straightforward account of life and work.
5. Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein. J J O'Connor and E F Robertson. Oct. 2003. Short biography with reference to his work.
6. Ludwig Witgenstein. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with brief references.
6. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Analysis of Language. Garth Kemeling. Oct. 2001. Brief account of his importance.
8. Gilbert Ryle. EJAP issue (1998) devoted to Gilbert Ryle.
9. Gilbert Ryle. Brief articles from various sources.
10. Gibert Ryle's The Concept of Mind. Alex Scott. 2003. Summary of Gilbert Ryle's 1949 book.
11. Analysis of Ordinary language. Garth Kemeling. Oct. 2001. Brief entries on Ryle, Austin and Strawson.
12. J.L. Austin. Dec. 203. Wikpedia's entry: brief but with links.
13. J.L. Austin Revisted. J.L. Speranza. 2002.
. . Comments in the light of Sperber and Wilson's (1995) work.
14. Conversation with John Searle. Harry Kreisler. 1999. Easy introduction to Searle and his outlook.
15. Searle, John.
. Brief introductions to main ideas.
16. Minds, brains and programs. John Searle. 1980.
. Introduction to Searle's Chinese Room argument.
17. The Chinese Room Argument. Larry Hauser 2001. The Chinese Room argument in more detail.
18. John Searle. The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach. William Lawford. 2001.
. An extended series of articles, somewhat technical.
19. Grice, Herbert Paul. Christopher Gawker. Brief introduction to his ideas.
20. Grice, H. Paul. Kent Bach. Entry in MIT Encyclopaedia of the Cognitive Sciences.
21. Michael Dummet. Benjamin Murphy. Extended entry in Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
22. W. V. Quine. Wikepedia introduction.
23. W.V. Quine. Introduction to Quine's life and work.
24. Willard Van Orman Quine 1908-2000. Extensive bibliographies and notes on this Quine homepage.
25. Richard Rorty. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, with good references.
26. Consequences of Pragmatism.
Review in the (Marxist) A Miniature Library of Philosophy.
27. Rorty, Putnam, and the Pragmatist View of Epistemology and Metaphysics. Tweed Rockwell. Spring 2003. Dewey versus Rorty in American education.