What is Ordinary Language Philosophy (Brief)?


Ordinary Language Philosophy is a method to approach traditional problems in philosophy as misunderstandings of the use of words. In particular, the argument is that philosophers often forget that words have ordinary meanings in language and are not always to be understood in an abstract sense. Defenders of Ordinary Language Philosophy thus pay closer attention to how words are understood ordinarily and attempt to dissuade philosophical discussion to be about solving age-old philosophical problems. Instead, the method ‘dissolves’ the alleged philosophical problem by viewing language as an everyday activity. The method became particularly prominent in the mid-20th century through the works of Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and Peter Strawson, while research into these thinkers continues to this day.

Some typical examples given for Ordinary Language Philosophy are questions such as, ‘What is the Truth?’ or ‘What is real?’ Precisely because such words do not refer to objects in the world, the objective is to see how such words as ‘truth’ and ‘real’ function in everyday language. Doing so would give us a variety of ways to understand ‘truth’, leading to a more fruitful position than a philosophical puzzle.

Ordinary Language Philosophy stands in direct opposition to Essentialism – loosely, that there is an essence or something inherent to the objects in the world (or the world itself) – that can be understood by applying other philosophical methods, particularly through the use of reason. Additionally, Ordinary Language Philosophy has been analysed by some as a radical break from ‘ideal language philosophy’ of the early 20th century – and by extension therefore also as a break from Analytic Philosophy.

History of Ordinary Language Philosophy

The early developments in Analytic Philosophy dismissed the use of language in philosophy. Ordinary language was thus understood to have little to no value in helping us understand metaphysical and epistemological questions. Philosophers of the Vienna Circle, such as Rudolph Carnap and Willard Van Orman Quine and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought that language could be improved through the use of Logic – thus forming an ‘ideal language’. Their aim was to make language less ambiguous, to model it after science and mathematics, in order to represent the world clearer and less equivocal manner.

Wittgenstein’s work in the 1930s started to see language more fluidly. He thus broke with the aims of the Vienna Circle and though of language in intrinsically different terms: it was not ordinary language that needed improving, but rather it were our views of philosophical problems that rested on an illusory understanding of how language functions. Philosophical problems thus came to be understood as deep misunderstandings of the use of language as described above.

Ordinary Language Philosophy can be seen as continuation of Wittgenstein’s (and his students’) work at Cambridge University. It was taken up by Gilbert Ryle, J. L. Austin, and Peter Strawson at Oxford University. After siginficant attention was given to Ordinary Language Philosophy in the 1940s and 1950s, the next two decades saw a prompt reduction in its prominence as philosophers moved from the study of language to the study of the mind.

Further Reading

Austin, J. L. (1976). How to Do Things with Words, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ryle, G. (2000). The Concept of Mind, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Soames, S. (2012). Philosophy of Language, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Strawson, P. F. (2014). Philosophical Writings, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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