Ordinary language philosophy

Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical methodology that sees traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use. "Such 'philosophical' uses of language, on this view, create the very philosophical problems they are employed to solve." Ordinary language philosophy is a branch of linguistic philosophy closely related to logical positivism.
This approach typically involves eschewing philosophical "theories" in favor of close attention to the details of the use of everyday "ordinary" language. It is sometimes associated with the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and a number of mid-20th century philosophers who can be split into two main groups, neither of which could be described as an organized "school". In its earlier stages, contemporaries of Wittgenstein at Cambridge University such as Norman Malcolm, Alice Ambrose, Friedrich Waismann, Oets Kolk Bouwsma and Morris Lazerowitz started to develop ideas recognisable as ordinary language philosophy. These ideas were further elaborated from 1945 onwards through the work of some Oxford University philosophers led initially by Gilbert Ryle, then followed by J. L. Austin. This Oxford group also included H. L. A. Hart, Geoffrey Warnock, J. O. Urmson and P. F. Strawson. The close association between ordinary language philosophy and these later thinkers has led to it sometimes being called "Oxford philosophy". More recent philosophers with at least some commitment to the method of ordinary language philosophy include Stanley Cavell, John Searle and Oswald Hanfling.

Central ideas

The later 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 this came the idea that philosophy had gotten into trouble by trying to use words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language. For example, "understanding" is what you mean when you say "I understand". "Knowledge" is what you mean when you say "I know". The point is that you already know what "understanding" or "knowledge" are, at least implicitly. Philosophers are ill-advised to construct new definitions of these terms, because this is necessarily a redefinition, and the argument may unravel into self-referential nonsense. Rather, philosophers must explore the definitions these terms already have, without forcing convenient redefinitions onto them.
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 truth 'is' a 'thing' that 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.
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. But strictly speaking, this is not a position derived from Wittgenstein, as it still involves 'misuse' of the term "truth" in reference to "alternate truths".


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 too confused to help solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. Frege, the Vienna Circle, the young Wittgenstein, and W.V. Quine all attempted to improve upon it, in particular using the resources of modern logic. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus Wittgenstein more or less agreed with Russell that language ought to be reformulated so as to be unambiguous, so as to accurately represent the world, so that we can better deal with philosophical questions.
By contrast, Wittgenstein later described his task as bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use". The sea 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 are 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 careful attention to language in its normal use, in order to "dissolve" the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempt to solve them. At its inception, ordinary language philosophy was taken as either an extension of or as an alternative to analytic philosophy. Now that the term "analytic philosophy" has a more standardized meaning, ordinary language philosophy is viewed as a stage of the analytic tradition that followed logical positivism and that preceded the yet-to-be-named stage analytic philosophy continues in today. According to Preston, analytic philosophy is now in a fifth, eclectic or pluralistic, phase he calls 'post-linguistic analytic philosophy', which tends to 'emphasize precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic, and to deemphasize the imprecise or cavalier discussion of broad topics'.
Ordinary language analysis largely flourished and developed at Oxford in the 1940s, under Austin and Ryle, and was quite widespread for a time before declining rapidly in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is now not uncommon to hear that ordinary language philosophy is no longer an active force. Wittgenstein is perhaps the only one of the major figures of linguistic philosophy to retain anything like the reputation he had at that time. On the other hand, attention to language remains one of the most important techniques in contemporary analytic thought, and many of the effects of ordinary language philosophy can still be felt across many academic disciplines.


One of the most ardent critics of ordinary language philosophy was a student at Oxford, Ernest Gellner who said:
Gellner, effectively, criticized ordinary language philosophy in his book Words and Things published in 1959.

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