What Killed Ordinary Language Philosophy?

by Frank B. Ebersole

A few years ago there emerged a prosperous movement in philosophy which came, unfortunately, to be called "ordinary language philosophy". It immediately attracted hosts of criticism, so many, so rapidly, that it was almost as though there were critics waiting for it who knew it was unacceptable before it emerged. And it was subjected to criticism that amounted to complete dismissal even before there was time for the critics to give it careful examination.

I would like to begin by considering the main criticisms that have been made against ordinary language philosophy. And I will imagine what I believe to be correct and conclusive replies to each of them.

"Ordinary language philosophy" is taken to be the philosophy that evolves from the belief that a careful consideration of some features of ordinary or everyday language can shed light on many philosophical problems. "Ordinary" came to be the word used, understood in opposition to the symbolic "language" introduced by Wittenstein in the Tractatus , and widely adopted as the ideal form for giving a philosophical "analysis". (In this paper I will abbreviate "ordinary language philosophy" by OLP, and "ordinary language philosophers" by OLPrs.)

(1) The first objection to ordinary language philosophy is a direct frontal attack. OLP is unacceptable because philosophy is not concerned with words, but with realities. Words may name realities, but it is the reality not the words that are the object of the philosopher's investigation. E.g. when Socrates asks "what is knowledge" he is not interested in the words "knowledge" or its cognate "know." It was commonly thought that OLP adopted as a principle the idea that every question or proposition could be translated from the material into the formal mode. When that translation is made the question "What is knowledge?" becomes "What does the word 'know' mean?"

It is hard to make a pointed reply to this because it is so vague and grand. It seems to come from a picture of language as something humans have created, made of words that are related to reality in whatever way the human creators mean them to be. The most pointed reply I can think of is this. If you are concerned with the word "knowledge" and you want to know what dictionary writers give as its meaning you consult a dictionary - and the entry in the dictionary will likely begin with the phrase "Knowledge is...," i.e. the dictionary will give as the meaning of the word, the reality namely knowledge itself. Suppose a philosopher were to ask "What does the word 'duck' mean?" Dictionary answer is "A duck is a medium-sized water bird," or something like that. In talk of words and meaning, meaning and reality are not separate things as our critic suggests.

(2) The second objection is this: if the ordinary language philosopher is concerned with such questions as "What is the meaning of the words 'justice,' or 'knowledge'" he will likely produce answers by consulting his own use of these words: he will think of circumstances in which he is called on to say something or other containing the words "justice," or "knowledge."

Some critics of OLP have said that this informal, introspective method is unacceptable. Scientific advances in linguistics have produced more precise methods than these old introspective ones. The results found and reported by OLPrs are inaccurate, biased and out of date.

What can one say in reply to this? In the first place such Socratic questions make only a small part of the questions asked by OLPrs. And secondly, the criticism is simply wrong. Linguists have no other means for answering such questions than the old fashioned ones: they must ask themselves, as educated speakers of English, how the word in question is used, think of examples, ask friends, consult writings, etc.

(3) There is another criticism that has to do with how we determine the meaning of words. In searching for the meaning of a word, the OLPrs main method is to invent examples in which some speaker uses the word (and he may consider related examples in which the word is not used). Consider the word "voluntarily." For this word he will construct examples in which a speaker does something he says he has done voluntarily, and the philosopher may discover that all the actions spoken of as voluntary actions are actions that are undesirable or regrettable and which are compelled or forced or something like that. He may conclude that we would not say of an action that it was voluntary when it resulted in something to be desired. So he may conclude that voluntary actions are un-compelled and undesirable. He will think that this gives a fair preliminary account of the meaning of "voluntary", viz. a feature of actions that are undesirable and non-compelled. The critics will promptly object to this. The fact that the action is undesirable is no part of the meaning of voluntary. It is simply one of the conditions on which we say that an act is voluntary. The fact of being voluntary is one thing and an entirely different thing from the condition which leads us to say that the act is voluntary. An action may well be voluntary although the conditions are not right for us to say it is voluntary. Because of this complication the OLPr cannot correctly proceed simply by considering examples and what is said by speakers in them.

This objection raises many questions, but perhaps the simplest reply for the OLPr is to say that he is not concerned with meaning in some sense that does not allow of the conditions for saying.... He may even say that he is not concerned with "meaning" at all: instead we ought to ask how we talk of meaning in everyday affairs.

(4) The fourth objection is this: if philosophical inquiry is to have language as its object, it will have to deal with problems that arise in one particular language or another. For example, one philosophical question has always been "What is perception?" This divides into the more specific questions: "What is hearing, feeling, tasting, seeing?" Take one of these. Consider the question "What is seeing?" The OLPr will construe this as the question, "What is the meaning of the verb 'see'?" And, although he does not realize this, the question becomes "What is the meaning of the English verb 'to see'?" It has never been the intent of philosophy to deal with matters that are exclusively English, or German or Swedish. Also, the critic would not be satisfied by "see" or "visual perception" in any of these other languages or in Afghanistan or Cherokee. The critic objects because the fact that the question is expressed in English places an unacceptable limitation on it. It is based on the assumption that English words are directly connected to realities, that English is a privileged ontological language.

A philosopher may be puzzled by the strange things philosophizing leads him to think. He may wonder, is it really possible that the world was created only a few moments ago and that all his memories are mistaken? He reads an OLPr and is led to examine how we use the words 'memory' and 'possible'. He thinks of examples in which someone speaks of remembering something and other examples where he says he thought he remembered something but was mistaken. Also, he asks when we speak of something being possible, and of many other things. He may come finally to see that his question "Can all memories possibly be wrong?" grew out of mistaken ideas about these things. Will the critic of OLP now say, "You have only cleared up your puzzle in English." The "real" puzzle (the reality in this case) exists for other languages as well, and philosophy cannot be satisfied by any result that is not universal. Now surely the correct answer for the OLPr to give him is: "I was concerned with my puzzle, my disturbed feelings, and I dissolved them. The fact that I did this through thinking about English expressions is irrelevant." "Here is my problem and here is my solution." Satisfactory ending.

Suppose the OLPr is troubled by the Socratic question "What is knowledge?" and he proceeds to give the question his usual linguistic turn. "It will then become "What is it to which we apply the word 'knowledge'?" Suppose, further, that after many tries he becomes satisfied with the answer "knowledge is the body of true things that have been established by examination, experiment, observation."

Will the critic say that this answers the Socratic question only in English, and if it is the correct answer, it will only be correct in the English language. Surely the OLPr should reply, "What has English, or any other language, to do with it?" (And, incidentally, the definition of "knowledge" is an "incorrect answer"; but certainly not just an "incorrect answer in English".)

The critic of OLP will say: the fact that the OLPr translates the question into the formal mode in English shows that he assumes English is an ontologically proper language, and before he has the right to go on, he must show that English is indeed an ontologically satisfactory language. My curt reply in the name of the OLPr is "Can you ask the question or state the sample answer in an ontologically correct language? I haven't the faintest idea what that would be.

This much seems clear. The critic seems to think that the philosophically important part of language consists of nouns and noun phrases. These are the units of language that have a direct relation to the real world. But the words are used in the company of other words in many ways according to rules of grammar and style. This makes such language a kind of map of reality. Each language is its own characteristic map, different from that of any other language. Hence some languages represent reality better than others - simply as languages. They incorporate a better ontology. Perhaps Navajo is ontologically superior to English. The OLPr, since his language is English, will come to ontological conclusions that are incorrect. Before reaching conclusions from an examination of his language the OLPr must first investigate the relevant features of reality so that he can find out whether his language conforms or distorts. By confining his investigations to his own language the OLPr will be misled by its ontological inadequacies. Mistakes of this kind were made by philosophers long before the advent of OLP. Because of the subject-predicate form of his language, Aristotle was led to think that in addition to attributes, reality contained substances that held and supported them. Bergson and Whitehead thought that language gave us a static map of things and prevented us from properly seeing change and process.

This complaint about the ontological defectiveness of languages must be distinguished from another complaint. Some languages may have more and better categories for certain things and organisms. Eskimo languages, I'm told, have many more names for kinds of snow than our English has. But this does not force an ontological mistake upon us. If the Eskimo terminology is an advantage it is a simple matter for us to adopt it for English. And this alteration of our language does not raise any ontological question.

OLPrs will share with their critics the view that human languages originated in pre- historic times and evolved a structure in keeping with the fact that they were instruments with practical purposes. They were adapted as aids in hunting, building homes, growing crops, making war. OLPrs will probably also share with their critics the view that languages have never put behind all the characteristics of their primitive origins. When we find a characteristic which leads us to make mistakes, we change it. Many of the changes will be for scientific or ethical reasons: bad classifications, some based on morally unacceptable attitudes. But never, I think, for ontological reasons. Some philosophers have deplored the fact that languages had names for periods of time or are grammatically based on the substance-attribute idea. But it is unimaginable that any language change could end their complaints.

The critics of OLP do seem to think that they find many defects in language, and in their philosophical writing they set about to change them. And they imagine that OLPrs must accept ordinary language as it is and in its entirety. In so far as all of this adds up to a criticism of OLP, the replies are these: (l) OLPrs are not opposed to language changes. (2) The critics of OLP think that dealing with realities instead of words calls for introducing new words in place of the words of ordinary language. But these proposed changes never take place. (3) The idea of an ontologically defective language is unintelligible.

What is the conclusion of all of this? I think I have shown that the critics of OLP have not demonstrated OLP to be wrong, not, that is, by the arguments I have reviewed. I think the opposition is mainly one of disposition. OLP was new and required an entirely different outlook. The opposition may be a case of "If it's new and different it can't be the real thing."

One more thing. I think that the critics and the OLPrs simply do not have the same aims. The critics are looking for doctrines, theories, systems. The OLPrs are after something different: insight, illumination. They want to see something different in the problems of philosophy, something you can look at long and hard and not see.

Philosophers, whether they are OLPs or critics of OLP, are not good at writing about their aims in philosophy. One finds very little devoted to it and that little is not very helpful. E.g. Wittgenstein makes cryptic remarks about the purpose of his philosophizing. (See Philosophical Investigations , S 133.)

"The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question...."

This is typical, and not very helpful. John Wisdom perhaps is the exception. Almost all his works are an illustration of a method in philosophy - and it seems his main purpose is to show how easy it is for philosophers to be simple-minded.

This will not help you to create a system of general statements - a philosophical system that puts together God, freedom, science, justice, happiness.

September 2003

(From: Nameless Philosophy Group at http://web.willamette.net/~tiktin/philosophy, where comments on the essay can be found.)

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Ebersole: "Conversation With a Dead Philosopher"

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