Ordinary language philosophy

What is ordinary language philosophy?

First, ordinary language philosophy should be distinguished from philosophy of language, which is a subfield of analytic philosophy. Ordinary language philosophy is an historical episode in analytic philosophy whose practitioners, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), believed that all of the major problems of philosophy were either pseudo-problems that could be dispelled with reference to ordinary language, or genuine problems that could be solved by investigating how certain words were used. It should be stressed, however, that although ordinary language philosophers focused on how words were used, they were not interested in simply describing common usage. Rather, they were interested in the meanings of words or the concepts named by words; ordinary usage was investigated in order to determine meaning.

Indeed, Wittgenstein himself was aware that language, taken superficially, could be "bewitching." Furthermore, this determination of meaning seems to have been a reflective, rather than an empirical process. The ordinary language philosophers conducted no surveys; neither did they attempt to determine actual usage by consulting with sociologists or linguists. (This is important, because in the early twenty-first century experimental philosophy proceeds by just such empiricism.)

In addition to Wittgenstein, prominent practitioners in the heyday of ordinary language philosophy included the American advocates O.K. Bouwsma (1898-1978)

Words and their meanings might seem like simple concepts on the surface, but Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that language usage is not easily defined at all. (iStock).

Words and their meanings might seem like simple concepts on the surface, but Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that language usage is not easily defined at all. (iStock).

and Norman Malcolm (1911-1990), and the British discussants John Wisdom, (1904-1993), J.L. Austin (1911-1960), and H.P. Grice (1913-1988).

What was Ludwig Wittgenstein's major insight concerning ordinary language and philosophy?

Wittgenstein's (1889-1951) work in ordinary language philosophy was published posthumously; his lecture notes and notebooks came out as Philosophical Investigations (1953) and The Blue and Brown Books (1948). Wittgenstein's interest in ordinary language represented a shift from his earlier interest in an ideal representational or "picture theory" of language to the ways in which human beings actively use language to go about the business of life.

Wittgenstein believed that the multiple uses of language cannot be codified and that key words cannot be neatly defined, but rather that we are engaged in overlapping series of "language games." Language games are like other games that are loosely related through "family resemblance," even though it is impossible to provide a definition of a "game" that will cover all of them. Wittgenstein used the simile of family resemblance because if one looks at the members of a large family, while they do not look exactly alike, there may be features that some share. For example, siblings and cousins might have the same hair color, or they might share certain similar facial structures inherited from their parents.

What Wittengstein meant in calling language a game was that how we use language is a self-contained system of practices with many implicit rules. Sometimes we cannot even say what the rules are, so Wittgenstein thought it was better not to concentrate on describing the rules, but to pay attention to actual language usage instead.

What is the method behind ordinary language philosophy?

The correct philosophical approach in ordinary language philosophy is not to construct abstract systems of meanings but to "look and see" how words actually function in real life. Such investigation is a kind of philosophical therapy against an occupational tendency to create abstractions and strictly imposed generalizations. Philosophers should turn to language so as to "let the fly out of the bottle."

This was Wittgenstein's metaphor and philosophers still use it when they want to describe solving a problem by changing the framework in which the problem is posed. For example, in "letting the fly out of the bottle," one doesn't try to influence the fly directly, but instead changes the angle at which the bottle is held.

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