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What’s New in… Philosophy of Language

The 20th century saw the complex relationship between language, mind and world become absolutely central to philosophy. Steven Geisz guides us through the debates, the different positions and the latest thinking.

We can see philosophy of language as beginning with two broad questions: (1) What is the relationship between language and the world?; (2) What is the relationship between language and the mind?

Regarding the first question, there are, obviously, numerous connections between language and the world. For instance, speakers use language to describe how the world is, and both language and language users are themselves parts of the world. Typically, the use of language to describe the world is glossed by saying that language is a type of representation, and that words or sentences refer to the world (or chunks of it). The word ‘dog,’ for example, can represent a particular furry creature, and the sentence ‘That dog is mangy’ can represent the fact that the creature in question is a mangy one.

Traditionally, questions about representation and reference have been taken as a starting point for philosophical questions about the language-world relationship, such as: What is linguistic representation? How do words refer to anything at all? Or in more ordinary terms: What gives words their meanings, and what is it for a word to even have a meaning?

Turning to the language-mind relationship, there are myriad connections between language and mentality. Speakers use language to express, more or less accurately, what they are thinking. If Robin is thinking that Pat is a jerk, she can say that. Furthermore, what people can think is, in important ways, influenced by what they are capable of expressing in words. After all, to even be able to think the thought that zen koans are annoyingly sublime, for example, one needs to have concepts such as those of zen and sublime – and having such concepts is, in some intimate way, linked to being able to correctly use the words ‘zen’ and ‘sublime.’ Thus, there are important connections between language and mentality.

One way of bringing these connections into focus is to ask: Does thought have priority over language, or does language have priority over thought? In other words, does what we can think determine what we can say, or vice versa? Traditionally, philosophers have seen mind as having priority over language, insofar as the very meanings of words have been seen as derivative of the thoughts, beliefs, ideas, and/or intentions of speakers. Clearly, there is something correct about this. However, as with any philosophical issue, there are those who argue that the seemingly obvious is not true.

Apart from the priority issue, if we construe the languagemind connection in a certain way, we can see mind as being linguistic in nature and structure. If so, then it seems that both words and ideas (or both sentences and thoughts) are representations of the world. Indeed, this common conception of language and mind has, arguably, been the standard; language and mentality have been seen as two sides of the same representational coin.

If such a representational account of both language and mind is adopted, the original two questions about the language-world and language-mind connections have great import for a third question: what is the mind-world relationship? Indeed, throughout twentieth-century philosophy of language, it was largely accepted that the language-mind connection is strong enough for philosophical reflection about language to help us understand the mind-world relation.

In light of this, philosophers of language have often been seen (and have seen themselves) as engaged in a core area of philosophical inquiry. Questions about language have been treated, at least in analytic and much so-called “post-analytic” philosophy, as holding the key to the deepest questions about metaphysics and the mind – questions about the very nature of reality and about how our minds reach out to it.

In what follows, I will first weave my way through the central heritage of analytic philosophy of language: the clash between descriptivist and causal theories of reference. After sketching the main features of that debate, I will briefly survey the current terrain and introduce some of the more exciting (and controversial) recent developments.

Descriptivist Theories of Reference

The German logician and mathematician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) is credited with introducing the distinction between reference (Bedeutung) and sense (Sinn). The reference of an expression is the thing it picks out, the object to which it refers. The sense of an expression is trickier to define, but it is, more or less, the way in which a linguistic expression picks out its referent.

For example, the expression ‘Abbie Hoffman’ has as its referent the anarchist famous from the 1960’s counterculture movement in the United States. The expression “the author of Steal This Book” has that same person as its referent. Thus, the name ‘Abbie Hoffman’ and the phrase “the author of Steal This Book” have the same reference. Nevertheless, they pick out the person who is the referent in very different ways. Someone could know Abbie Hoffman by name and also understand the sense of the phrase “the author of Steal This Book” without knowing that the name ‘Abbie Hoffman’ and the phrase ‘the author of Steal This Book’ have the same referent; the reason for this is that the two expressions have different senses. It is difficult to say exactly what such a sense consists in, but we can at least understand the gist of the sense/reference distinction by way of such expressions which share reference but obviously differ in sense.

Our ordinary talk about the meaning of a word, phrase, or sentence can be seen as blurring this sense/reference distinction; the meaning of an expression involves both the sense and the reference of that expression, at least in paradigmatic cases. But understanding the distinction provides a way into a key debate – that between descriptivist and causal theories of reference.

At the heart of early discussions in twentieth century philosophy of language was descriptivism, a theory which claims that certain kinds of words or expressions refer to their referents via complex descriptions of some sort. To understand descriptivism one needs to understand the sense/reference distinction: descriptivism aims to show how it is that certain terms get hooked up to their referents in the world. One also needs to understand what the sorts of descriptions invoked by descriptivist theories of reference are. To spell that out, I will very briefly survey Bertrand Russell’s highly influential account of descriptions and its concomitant descriptivist theory of reference. (In what follows, I will present Russell’s theory in terms slightly different from Russell’s own; nothing substantial hangs on these expository differences.)

In the first third of the twentieth century, the British philosopher, mathematician, and man-about-town Bertrand Russell offered an account of definite descriptions – expressions of the form ‘the so-and-so,’ as in the sentence “The tofu is frightening.” (With minor alterations, Russell’s account also applies to indefinite descriptions – expressions of the form ‘a so-andso’.) Russell argued that definite descriptions are not simple referring expressions; they are not expressions which refer in a simple and direct way to whatever their referents are. Rather, Russell proposed that definite descriptions have a complex logical structure, allowing them to hook up to the world only indirectly.

Consider the sentence “The philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415 c.e. was a Neo-Platonist.” That sentence contains the definite description ‘The philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415 c.e.’ (a long definite description, but still of the form ‘the so-and-so’). The individual picked out by this expression happens to be Hypatia, but Russell would argue that the definite description does not simply refer to her in the way in which the name ‘Hypatia’ seems to refer. Instead, Russell would say that the definite-description-containing sentence “The philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415 c.e. was a Neo-Platonist” should be analyzed as:

1. At least one individual was a philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415 c.e.;

2. at most one individual was a philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415 c.e.; and

3. that individual was a Neo-Platonist.

Likewise, any definite-description-containing sentence of the form ‘The A is X’ gets analyzed as:

1. At least one object was an A;

2. at most one object was an A; and

3. that object is X.

The upshot is that Russell treats sentences containing definite descriptions as having a more complex logical structure than their apparent grammatical structure (a move somewhat similar to that made, in a different context, by Chomsky). While a definite-description-containing sentence of the form ‘The soand- so is X’ seems to be a simple subject-predicate sentence, it is not. Instead, sentences containing definite descriptions pick out individuals/objects indirectly – as that which satisfies the complex, three-part analysis.

Now, what does this have to do with the general question about the language-world connection? While Russell’s analysis of definite descriptions applies most obviously to definite descriptions themselves, Russell argued that it also had much wider implications. To see why, we need a bit more background.

Russell’s account of definite descriptions seems to contrast such descriptions to ordinary proper names, such as ‘Hypatia’ or ‘Baltimore’. Such ordinary names seem to act as mere labels. They seem to “reach out” and refer to objects directly, whereas definite descriptions, as Russell analyzes them, only pick out objects in the world indirectly. Thus, Russell’s analysis of definite descriptions seems to imply a stark contrast between definite descriptions, on the one hand, and ordinary proper names, on the other.

Not so fast, however. Russell argued that most ordinary proper names are not really simple referring expressions, either. Rather, Russell thought such ordinary proper names were themselves masked definite descriptions. Thus, a name such as ‘Hypatia’ isn’t a simple label, directly referring to the woman whose name it is. Instead, it is (according to Russell’s descriptivism) an abbreviated definite description – such as: ‘The philosopher murdered by a mob in Alexandria in 415c.e.’. As such, sentences containing ordinary proper names get analyzed in the same three-pronged way as sentences containing definite descriptions.

Russell did think that there were a few names which were really logically proper names – that is, names which directly referred and which were not masked descriptions. However, he argued that such logically proper names (in contrast to ordinary proper names) were the exception, not the rule. (Indeed, his examples of such logically proper names were limited to indexicals such as ‘this’ and ‘that.’)

Thus, according to a description theory of reference, ordinary proper names are really short for definite descriptions. As such, they have a rather complicated logical structure; they do not simply reach out to their referents in any direct way. Rather, they indirectly hook onto their referents via descriptions. The meaning of a name, according to such a view, is more complicated than it seems.

A descriptivist theory of reference can be easily extended to other sorts of words, such as natural kind terms (such as ‘water,’ ‘dog,’ or ‘planet’). Such words will themselves be treated as masked descriptions. Thus, a descriptivist theory of the natural kind term ‘water’ claims that it picks out the stuff it does via some description. The description in question could be ‘the colorless, odorless stuff which yuppies get out of overpriced plastic bottles with a French name.’ A descriptivist theory of natural kind terms sees their reference as indirect, via the logically structured, information-laden descriptions which are implicit in their meanings.

John Searle and others further extended descriptivism, developing a cluster theory of reference. According to a cluster theory, ordinary names and natural kind terms hook onto their referents not via single descriptions, but rather via loose clusters of descriptions. The details get quite intricate, but the general idea is that cluster theories are looser, more nuanced versions of Russellian description theories of reference.

Whatever its exact flavor, descriptivism construes the language-world connection (and, derivatively, the mind-world connection) as involving information which is conveyed via the implicit descriptions which specify the true logical structure of ordinary words. In essence, descriptivism treats key terms in language as reaching out to the world via a complex apparatus. Descriptivists say that the word ‘Baltimore’, for example, refers to the chunk of the world it does through some implicit, logically structured description(s) such as ‘the one and only city of such-and-such size in Maryland located north-east of Washington D.C.’

If descriptivism is correct, than we can expect (in theory at least) that speakers could know exactly what, if anything, they are referring to. When we use the word ‘unicorn,’ for instance, we know that unicorns, if there are any such things, are horse-like creatures with single horns. Of course, there are no unicorns, but we know what we are attempting to refer to: the word ‘unicorn’ refers to whatever it does via the implicit description it is, in some sense, short for.

One upshot of descriptivism is that there need not really be, in the world, anything which answers to key meaningful words in our language. Names and kind terms mean what they mean, whether or not there is anything “out there” which they pick out; their meanings are specified by the descriptions they are short for. Thus descriptivism is, in some ways, amenable to skeptical and/or anti-realist metaphysical views – in a way in which causal theories of reference are not. Such a possibility might seem either liberating or disturbing, depending upon one’s philosophical inclinations

Causal Theories of Reference

The real importance of descriptivist theories can only be seen in contrast to their major alternative: causal theories of reference. Such theories, developed in different ways by Saul Kripke, Gareth Evans, and Hilary Putnam in the early 1970’s, deny that ordinary names and natural kind terms refer via descriptions. Instead they take reference to be a causal affair. A name such as ‘Hypatia’, for example, is not a masked definite description. Instead, causal theorists insist that what makes ‘Hypatia’ refer to Hypatia (rather than to something else or even nothing at all) is that there is some appropriate causal chain leading from the person who was Hypatia to any meaningful utterance of that name.

For example, Pat might say, “Hypatia is my favorite Neo- Platonist.” By using the word ‘Hypatia’ Pat successfully refers to Hypatia. The reference-link between the name ‘Hypatia’ and its referent (i.e. Hypatia herself) consist in an appropriate causal chain. Perhaps Pat learned the term from Francis, and Francis learned the term from Bobby, and Bobby learned it from …. Each time someone learned the term from someone else, she becomes causally linked to that person’s usage of the term. If we trace the chain back far enough, we will find someone – perhaps Hypatia’s mom – who first used the name. That person was in direct causal contact with the referent of the term (i.e. she could reach out and pinch little Hypatia, perhaps). As Kripke would say, Hypatia’s mom performed a linguistic baptism by naming the baby (with whom she was in direct causal contact) ‘Hypatia’. By so doing, Hypatia’s mom gave the name ‘Hypatia’ its reference. Anyone throughout history appropriately connected to that initial linguistic baptism will also be able to use the name ‘Hypatia’ to refer to Hypatia.

According to causal theories, the reference of a proper name is not via some embedded, implicit, information-laden description. Instead, reference is a more direct affair – it consists of a special causal connection between the referent and the word, initially established by a linguistic baptism-event, and then extended through time and space via causal connections between speakers. It is key that what is passed through links in the causal chain is not an implicit definite description; rather, it is the reference-constitutive causal chain itself. And, as in the case of descriptivism, a causal theory of reference for names can easily be extended to natural kind terms. Thus, causal theories of reference provide an answer to the question about the languageworld relation: for a large and important class of words, they refer to the world by being causally connected to it. Reference, according to such a theory, is a special sort of causal connection.

As with any philosophical account, the devil is in the details, and much has been written on how to flesh out causal theories of reference. Without delving into such details, however, we can see an important contrast between descriptivist and causal theories of reference. Whereas descriptivism does not require that there actually be a referent of many of our meaningful terms (and so can be amenable to skepticism and/or antirealism), causal theories demand that there actually be something in the world which is the referent of many key terms. Thus, since ‘water’ is a meaningful word, there must be water “out there” in the world. Water just is whatever metaphysically real stuff there is out there at the end of the appropriate causal chains leading back from our utterances of the word ‘water.’ Thus causal theories of reference have been used to bolster various metaphysical realist positions.

A second major difference between descriptivism and causal theories is that causal accounts do not, in general, allow speakers to have the same sort of privileged access to the facts about reference that descriptivist accounts do. If my use of the word ‘water’ refers to whatever is at the end of the appropriate causal chain, then it is possible (though hopefully unlikely) that I am referring to something I-know-not-what when I meaningfully use the word ‘water.’

The Current Landscape

Armed with some knowledge of the descriptivism/causal theory debate (and a modest amount of chutzpah) one can find one’s way in most important current discussions in the philosophy of language. Very briefly, in the remaining space, I will sketch the current state of philosophy of language.

Much recent work has actively engaged with the legacy of Noam Chomsky’s theories in linguistics. The Chomskian connections are varied, but the trend of active engagement with linguistics shows the influence, within philosophy of language, of W.V.O. Quine, who advocated treating philosophy as essentially intertwined with empirical science. Such naturalism constitutes an influential (and perhaps dominant) strand within current philosophy of language. It treats legitimate philosophical inquiry about language as part of, and thereby constrained by, current research and/or dogma in the scientific field of linguistics.

There are also connections between the philosophy of language and philosophy of mind. According to one common view, the way language refers to the world is ultimately derived from the way our minds internally represent the world. If so, then any full account of the language-world connection depends on an account of the mind-world connection. Thus, questions about linguistic reference are intertwined with recent theories of mental representation or mental content. In philosophy of mind, ‘naturalized’ theories of content typically aim to show how we can explain mental representation (and, derivatively, linguistic representation) in physicalist terms. The literature here is mammoth, ranging from Jerry Fodor’s Chomsky-influenced ‘Language of Thought’ hypothesis (which explicitly treats mentality as consisting of language-like representations) to ‘connectionist’ models of mentality which are not language-like in any obvious way (and which might even deserve to be called non-representational – although that has been hotly debated). The general trend is to see the language-world connection as dependent upon the nature of mentality. Consequently, the descriptivist/causal theory debate within philosophy of language is accompanied by a parallel debate in philosophy of mind.

There has also been a recent interest in questions about pragmatics – the use of language. This work shows the influence of the speech act theorists of the 1950’s and 60’s (most notably J.L. Austin), although often it is done against a theoretical backdrop that is antithetical to many of their key concerns. In particular, much recent work on pragmatics does not give language use the central importance that it was given by Austin (and also by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Ryle, and P.F. Strawson in different ways and contexts). Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable.

Interesting feminist work has engaged with the traditions of analytic philosophy of language. Various writers have argued that an increased critical focus on gender (as well as race, class, sexual orientation, and so on) can enrich our philosophical thinking about language. Much of this work questions the ways in which power relations have been neglected by previous theorists. By raising such issues, such feminist work shows affinities both to analytic speech act theory and to various strands of continental philosophy. One good collection of recent work is Sally Haslanger’s Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge, and Reality.

Finally, there is the important work of Robert Brandom at the University of Pittsburgh. Self-consciously drawing on a number of philosophers who have been neglected within philosophy of language (most notably Hegel and Wilfrid Sellars), Brandom has developed a systematic theory called inferentialism which, in many ways, turns the standard perspective of philosophy of language on its head. Rather than attempting to understand language (and mind) in terms of the notions of representation and reference (as was characteristic of the descriptivist/causal theory debate), Brandom takes the notion of expression as primary, thereby shaking up standard assumptions within philosophy of language (and other philosophical sub-fields).

In conclusion, it should be remembered that philosophy of language is intertwined with other areas of philosophical inquiry. Epistemological and metaphysical questions (especially about the nature of truth and modality – two topics neglected in this short overview) are inseparable from any worthwhile inquiry about language, and the most interesting work within philosophy of language shows why the divisions between it and other philosophical sub-fields are clunky and artificial.

© Steven Geisz 2001

Steven Geisz is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

[Thanks to Brook Sadler for helpful comments on this article.]

Finding out more

Want to know more about philosophy of language? Try these books!

General anthologies and textbooks:

Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. by Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny. 2nd edition. MIT Press, 1999.

A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. edited by Bob Hale and Crispin Wright, Blackwell, 1997

Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. by William J. Lycan. Routledge, 1999.

The Philosophy of Language. edited by Aloysius Martinich, 4th edition. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Pragmatics: An Introduction. by Jacob L. Mey. 2nd edition. Blackwell, 2001.

Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions. by Andrea Nye. Blackwell, 1998.


Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. by Robert Brandom. Harvard University Press, 2000.

Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, & Discursive Commitment. by Robert Brandom. Harvard University Press, 1994.

Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge, and Reality. edited by Sally Haslanger Philosophical Topics, vol.23, no.2, 1995.

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