Philosophy Pages

    Dictionary    Study Guide  Logic   F A Q s
  History Timeline Philosophers   Locke

Analysis of Ordinary Language

Two generations of British philosophers joined with Wittgenstein by engaging in philosophical activity of the new sort. Although their individual interests differed, all shared the commitment to careful analysis of ordinary language and the confidence that this method would tend to dissolve traditional philosophical problems.

John Wisdom

Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom tempered Wittgensteinian emphasis on ordinary language with the common-sense approach of Moore. Thus, although he agreed that metaphysical and theological statements are technically non-sensical, Wisdom supposed that they may nevertheless play an important role in human life. In "Gods," for example, he explored the functions and uses of religious language considered independently of its claims to truth about a supernatural deity.

The early article "Philosophical Perplexity" indicated the direction of Wisdom's analytic method. Although he acknowledged that the resolution of a philosophical problem involves only a recommendation for revisions in our linguistic usage, Wisdom maintained that even meaningless philosophical assertions can serve a positive function provided that they are not directly misleading. Assertions are bound to be misleading, he supposed, when they point out illusory similarities among expressions that have distinct functions. Thus, for example, it makes sense to doubt whether or not that really was Newt Gingrich I saw in the Atlanta airport on Friday, but an effort systematically to doubt whether or not there really is an external world is pointless and confusing.

Even the most outrageously misleading philosophical questions, Wisdom held, may serve a valuable function in human life. Although they cannot be answered directly (as logical and empirical disputes can), these conflicts over the appropriate way to speak about the world may be resolved through creative decisions about ordinary language and its limits. Hence, the philosophical obsession with paradox and falsehood has its own unique value.

In fact, Wisdom argued that philosophical and psychological analysis function similarly in this respect. Since philosophical puzzlement is often akin to a neurosis blocked from achieving its goal, the assertion of direct falsehoods may therefore have a beneficial effect. Even in cases about which we rightly despair of ultimate resolution, then, genuine progress may be possible in the steps we take in discovering more about the origins and extent of our puzzlement.

Gilbert Ryle

Life and Works
. . Methods
. . Concept of Mind
Internet Sources

Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, on the other hand, took a more ambitious line in the application of conceptual analysis. Ryle argued in "Systematically Misleading Expressions" (1932) that philosophical analysis of ordinary language can clarify human thinking by eliminating inappropriate linguistic forms. Negative existential assertions, generalizations from experience, proper-name identifications, and referential descriptions, Ryle pointed out, all tend to be expressed in statements whose superficial grammatical form mistakenly engenders the hypostasization of non-existent objects of various sorts; the solution in each case is to substitute a less misleading statement. The proper function of philosophy is to map out the logical geography or our conceptual schemes.

In The Concept of Mind (1949) Ryle offered an extended analysis of mental concepts, designed to show the utter absurdity of traditional mind-body dualism. Although traditional language divides the inner (mental and non-spatial) aspect of human life from the outer (bodily and spatial) aspect, he noted, efforts to describe the inner life invariably appeal to the language and models of bodily motion and interaction. Thus, for example, "I had a headache yesterday but it went away," or "My mind is full of useless information." The only way to speak about my supposedly private mental life is by drawing analogies to physical processes.

What this reflects, on Ryle's view is the category mistake of assimilating behavioral concepts to notions about mentality, the mistaken supposition that there must be a "ghost in the machine," an intelligent inner pilot guiding the complex movements of the human body. But this Ryle argued, is like meeting Uncle Joe and Grandma and Mom while wondering where the family really is. Resolution of our conceptual difficulties in this regard, he supposed, lies not in the reduction of mental predicates to material ones, but rather a simple recognition that statements about perception, memory, belief, and other mental states are nothing more significant than a series of short-hand ways of describing human behavior of identifiable sorts. Cartesian dualism is an elaborate myth.

J. L. Austin

Life and Works
. . Ordinary Language
. . Speech Acts
Internet Sources

Although less confident about the prospects of philosophical progress, J. L. Austin placed his emphasis even more exclusively on ordinary language. The very observation of linguistic behavior is itself a worthwhile activity, Austin believed, especially with regard to practical matters. We should usually assume that ordinary language embodies all of the practical distinctions that will prove useful in human life. The philosopher's role is to clarify by investigating and cataloging the most commonly employed grammatical constructions.

Thus, in "A Plea for Excuses" (1956), Austin himself patiently noted the complexities of our language about human actions that appear to be worthy of blame. The key distinction, he supposed, is between a justification, which denies that the performed action was wrong, and an exuse, which instead denies that the agent was responsible for performing it. Careful attention to particular cases of exculpatory speech, including precise word-order and varying emphasis, etymological studies, and the special function of adverbial qualifying phrases, are crucial to the task. Legal precendents and abnormal psychology may also be helpful in understanding why some efforts to excuse fail. In the last analysis, Austin supposed, excuses are properly seen as setting limits to the ascription of moral responsibility, by stating explicitly how they differ from the more usual cases.

Another target of Austin's discriminating analysis of ordinary language was the philosophical account of perception in terms of sense-data. Austin maintained that the traditional fuss over sensibilia turns out to be unnecessary once we notice that the argument from illusion fails to establish a genuine distinction between problematic and veracious instances of perceiving. Moreover, analysis of ordinary-language claims about knowing reveals (apart from artificial philosophical worries) no interest in or reliance upon experiential incorrigibility. Thus, debates over the supposed ontological status of the objects of our perception are simply pointless.

In the William James lectures at Harvard—later published as How to Do Things with Words (1962)—Austin drew a series of careful distinctions between ways in which language functions in ordinary speech acts. Most particularly, he pointed out that performative utterances such as promising, pledging, or vowing accomplish their purposes without implying any referential representation of reality. These illocutionary acts, therefore, can never be true or false, although they may turn out to be relatively successful or unsuccessful. What Austin suggested is that language for intentional mental states—"I believe," I know," or "I suppose," etc.—is illocutionary in its functions. Thus, first-person reports of such states are best understood as announcements of my intention to behave in certain ways, to "act as if" I believed, knew, etc.

Peter Strawson

Even in application to logical theory, conceptual analyst P.F. Strawson proposed reliance upon attention to language rather than to formal logic, with its over-emphasis on truth and falsity. Thus, Strawson resisted positivistic efforts to provide pseudo-deductive foundations for empirical reasoning and dared to challenge the legitimacy of Russell's vaunted theory of descriptions.

On Strawson's view, Russell failed to distinguish between meaningful sentences on the one hand and their customary use to refer on the other, mistakenly supposing that all successful reference must either name or describe that to which it refers. In some cases (including the notorious, "The present king of France is bald.") a sentence can be meaningful even though—because its customary reference fails—it is neither true nor false. As always, more careful attention to the context of ordinary language will avoid the philosophers' muddles.

In his later work, Strawson employed similar methods in pursuit of what he called "descriptive metaphysics," an effort to report accurately the conceptual framework embodied in ordinary language without altering it through abstract speculation. (Just such a cautious procedure, Strawson supposed, underlies the philosophical work of Immanuel Kant.) Consider, for example, the ways in which particular things are identified through time in everyday speech. Since references to the spatio-temporal framework, Strawson argued, are necessary even for the re-identification of mental states, it follows that persons are irreducible unitary particulars, identifiable in space and time.

. . . . .
History of Philosophy
Previous Next

Creative Commons License
The Philosophy Pages by Garth Kemerling are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

©1997, 2011 Garth Kemerling.
Last modified 12 November 2011.
Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:
the Contact Page.