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Philosophy and Language

Mind Your Language!

Two philosophical traditions with an interest in common.

Many philosophers in the latter part of the 19th century and beyond followed in the footsteps of Hegel’s systematic philosophy. However, around the end of the 19th century there was an intellectual revolt against Hegelianism led by G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell which is the root of the split between the philosophical traditions to which we now refer as ‘Continental’ and ‘Analytic’.

Analytic Philosophy

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein

From about 1910-30 they attempted to reform language to make it more logical as a tool for describing the world.

Early WittgensteinTractatus Logico-Philosophicus (published 1921)

Introduced the ‘picture theory’ of language: a meaningful sentence is a logical picture of the world.

Later WittgensteinPhilosophical Investigations (published 1953)

Introduced two new ideas: Language is a set of tools and language is a type of game: Language is made meaningful by the way we use it.

Ordinary Language Philosophy – (Oxford University approx. 1945-1970)

Painstaking analysis of the nuances of everyday speech, believing overlooked distinctions to be the source of many philosophical errors. Leading lights of this philosophical school included J.L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and Peter Strawson.

Stephen Schiffer – philosopher of language. Examines the ways in which language carries meaning, in books including Meaning and Remnants of Meaning.

W.V.O. Quine – ‘radical indeterminacy of translation’. (See Word and Object, published 1960) Quine claimed that a proposition from an unknown language can be translated in an unlimited number of ways depending on the context.

Donald Davidson – ‘radical indeterminacy of interpretation’. Everyone speaks their own personal ‘idiolect’ and there can never be complete confidence in interpreting another speaker’s meaning. [see ‘Do Languages Exist?’]

Noam Chomsky – linguist. Says humans have innate grammar: we are born with grammatical structures already in our brains which help us to grasp the particular languages we learn. [see ‘Do Languages Exist?’]

Continental Philosophy


The theory of the interpretation of texts. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) It developed into a study of all the ways communications work and came to include semiotics, which is the study of all kinds of signs.


Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the later Jean-Paul Sartre. Try to avoid the distortions imposed by your cultural and linguistic spectacles by examining the raw unprocessed data of experience.


1950s-60s: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and others argued that language is a self-referential system of definitions, a self-supporting structure of conventions. Words get their meaning from each other, not from an external reality.

Post Structuralism

From the late 1960s on authors such as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze draw on Marx and Freud to question all authority and all absolutes such as truth, reality and meaning. Questions even the processes of definition and relation which supposedly underpin language for the structuralists. Literal meaning becomes impossible and we must fall back into poetry. [see ‘To Express It Is To Explain It’]


Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (published 1967) argues that any piece of writing will inevitably contain contradictions which when made explicit will undermine its structure. Texts contain the seeds of their own downfall. Speech embodies centrisms (logocentrism, phallocentrism etc.) and binary oppositions. As all the world can in a sense be treated as a text, this gives us a literary tool for the analysis of reality and human society in general. [see ‘Derrida On Language’]

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