Philosophy and Language

Philosophy, when it started in ancient Greece with Thales, was the combined name for all knowledge. Aristole, inspite of his views on slavery, is simultaneously the founder of logic, ethics, politics, physics and biology. Although natural sciences and social sciences have grown out of Philosophy, today in 21st century, Philosophy is still left with many important branches of knowledge, like, logic, ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy of religion and philosophy of science.

In 20th century, analytical philosophy became prominent in the English speaking world, thanks to Moore and Russell. Philosophy of language became prominent with Wittgenstein of Cambridge and Gilbert Ryle of Oxford. In analytical philosophy, there is a stress on clarifying the meaning of terms and making subtle distinctions between meanings, which were not made earlier, and which throw new light in solving old philosophical problems. For example, the famous distinction between descriptive meaning and emotive meaning.

The prominent language philosopher of 20th century, Wittgenstein, has said that philosophy is a battle against bewitchment of mind by language. According to him, the philosopher (the wrong kind of) is like a fly in the bottle, which got inside, but doesn’t know how to get outside. In his view, all philosophical problems are pseudo problems, which can be dissolved by describing the various uses of the “trouble making” words. For example, the word “time” presents no problem when used in the actual language. But it becomes a big philosophical problem when philosophers cut it out of the context and make it an abstract problem like: what is Time?

The solution, according to Wittgenstein, is to bring back the word to how it is actually used in the language. The problem gets automatically dissolved.

Language philosophers, like Gilbert Ryle of Oxford, became a little more technical. Gilbert Ryle in his paper “Systematically Misleading Expressions” has made a distinction between the grammatical form of a statement and its logical form. Sometimes, he says, the grammatical forms of sentences are similar, but their logical forms are different. Philosophers, with their special interest in the logical form, get astray if they take the grammatical form on its face value.

So, in the twentieth century western philosophy, Philosophy of Language has become prominent. We must know how to do things with words. In other words, we must use words very carefully, clarifying the meaning all the time. Otherwise, we are going to land up with worst kinds of linguistic confusions, and create absurd philosophical problems for ourselves. Language has many traps for the unwary.

Guest Blog by Dr Ramendra on the occasion of World Philosophy Day

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