Ordinary language philosophy

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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."[1] Ordinary language philosophy is a branch of linguistic philosophy closely related to logical positivism.[1]

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 that can be split into two main groups, neither of which could be described as an organized "school".[2] 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 Peter Strawson. The close association between ordinary language philosophy and these later thinkers has led to it sometimes being referred to as "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[edit]

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 understand words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language (cf. contextualism).

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 (for example) 'Truth' 'is' a 'thing' (in the same sense that tables and chairs are 'things'), which 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' (cf. Philosophical Investigations). Therefore, ordinary language philosophers tend to be anti-essentialist. Of course, this was and is a very controversial viewpoint. 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. However, strictly speaking, this is not a position derived from Wittgenstein, as it still involves 'misuse' (ungrammatical use) 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 being too confused to help solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. Frege, the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), the young Wittgenstein, and W.V. Quine, all attempted to improve upon it, in particular using the resources of modern logic. Wittgenstein's view in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus more or less agreed with Russell's that language ought to be reformulated so as to be unambiguous, so as to accurately represent the world, so that we could better deal with the questions of philosophy.

By contrast, Wittgenstein would later describe his task as bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use",[3] 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 were 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 the 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 (also called linguistic philosophy) had been 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' that tends to 'emphasize precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic, and to deemphasize the imprecise or cavalier discussion of broad topics'.[4]

Ordinary language analysis largely flourished and developed at Oxford in the 1940s, under Austin and Gilbert 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.[5] Wittgenstein is perhaps the only one among the major figures of linguistic philosophy to retain anything like the reputation he had at that time, on the other hand, the 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.


Critics have pointed out that ordinary language philosophy can leave unconscionable ideologies such as racism and imperialism, which have encoded themselves in ordinary language, immune to resistance. Silvia Federici, for example, writes:

Modern imperialism finds its ideological justification in the now fashionable linguistic philosophy which either regards all meanings as wholly arbitrary (e.g., Quine, White, Goodman, etc.), or reduces them to the facticity of everyday discourse (e.g., Wittgenstein, Austin, etc.). In this fashion, all meanings are either equally unfounded, or they can be founded only in the domain of the given; in either case, imperialism is implicitly justified, for, in the first case it is regarded as at least as rational a system as any other, thus neutralizing any possible rational arguments for its debunking, or else, in the second case, since all meanings reduce to the given and the given is, in fact, imperialist, imperialism itself becomes the criterion of all meaningfulness. ... The abstract categories of imperialism are neither exempt from the need of a foundation, nor will the fact that they are coextensive with ordinary discourse provide them with the needed foundation.

— Silvia Federici, "Viet Cong Philosophy: Tran Duc Thao," Telos vol. 6, p. 104 (1970)

One of the most ardent critics of ordinary language philosophy was a student at Oxford, Ernest Gellner who said:[6]

"[A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate, he didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation, it is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation, it wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong, it was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is."

— Ernest Gellner, Interview with John Davis, 1991


  1. ^ a b Sally Parker-Ryan (April 3, 2012). "Ordinary language philosophy". The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  2. ^ VC Chappell (1964). Ordinary Language: essays in philosophical method. Englewood Cliffs N.J. : Prentice-Hall. pp. 2–4. 
  3. ^ See §116 in Ludwig Wittgenstein (2009). Peter Hacker; Joachim Schulte, eds. Philosophical Investigations (Translation by Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe, 4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 1405159286.  Posthumously published in 1953. Part 1: Philosophical Investigations; Part 2: Philosophy of Psychology - A fragment.
  4. ^ Aaron Preston (March 25, 2006). "Analytic philosophy". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 
  5. ^ Lynd Forguson (July 2001). "Oxford and the "epidemic" of ordinary language philosophy". The Monist: The Epidemiology of Ideas. 84 (3): 325–345. 
  6. ^ Interview with Gellner by John Davis, section 2. Quoted by Yaniv Iczkovits (2012). Wittgenstein's Ethical Thought. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1137026359. 

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

  • Austin, J. L. How to do things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • -----. "A Plea for Excuses". In Austin, Philosophical Papers, ed. J. O. Urmson & G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961.
  • -----. Sense and Sensibilia, ed. G. J. Warnock. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Hanfling, Oswald. Philosophy and Ordinary Language.
  • Hart, H. L. A. "The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1949.
  • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.
  • -----. Dilemmas.
  • Strawson, P. F.. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
  • -----. "On Referring". Reprinted in Meaning and Reference, ed. A.W. Moore. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1993.
  • John Wisdom, Other Minds, 1952, Philosophy & Psychoanalysis, 1953, Paradox and Discovery, 1965
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Blue and Brown Books
  • -----.Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Secondary sources[edit]

External links[edit]