Philosophy of Language

The philosophy of language is a broad term that can describe the way different aspects of philosophy relate to language, the way language is considered in human thought or the way it is conceived. Different perspectives within philosophy analyze language in different ways and take interest in different aspects of it. Many of the debates relate to discussions within psychology, cognition and linguistics. Additionally, the fascination with language extends far into other fields, where its fluctuations and manipulations have puzzled and captivated scholars for centuries. The great religions of the world maintain their own views, doctrinal or traditional, on language as well. Many monotheistic religions consider language to be an essential element of human society, designed to be a form of communication to facilitate growth and prosperity. This can be extrapolated from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God creates new dialects in order to hinder the building of a great tower that would project human greatness. In Judaism and other faiths, the source language of holy texts or basic concepts of the religion often takes on a degree of sanctity as well, becoming a conduit of holiness and thus meaningful or purposeful in and of itself. In Judaism, Hebrew or even Aramaic has been attributed this sort of sanctity; in Islam, Arabic and perhaps Persian or Turkish.

The ancient Greek philosophers took a more direct approach to language. Plato wrote inconclusively on the topic of whether language was a natural outgrowth or a convention of humanity. He claimed more often than not that there were natural aspects of vocabulary and phonemes. However, he could not prove that every sound inherently had meaning or lent something to the definition of any word that combined various phonemes. Aristotle took to analyze the semantics of sentences in a similar fashion, with the idea that language and its understanding would be based on a mental abstraction of meaning based on the possibilities provided by the lexicon. However, he thought each word was essential and had some degree of absolute meaning, inhibiting variation in meaning. Formerly, he would have been promoting nominalism. Aristotle draws a hierarchy, where words stand for thoughts and thoughts conceptualize things.

The field of the philosophy of language is thought by some to have been overcome by science, specifically linguistics, in a similar fashion to metaphysics or alchemy being absorbed by physics and chemistry, respectively. However, this view might be challenged based on the unique role of language in many biological and neurological sciences, where abstract theory remains necessary to theorize how language or faculties of language might affect us. Kierkegaard advocated for a more intense focus on language in Western philosophy, believing it had been ignored by modern philosophers and their recent predecessors. The 1916 publication by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, Course in General Linguistics, develops a theory of structural linguistics that resembles the later theories of Noam Chomsky. They divide between an abstract, mental language and the tangible, expressed form of language we hear in words or other symbols. These ideas resemble the later biological theories of Chomsky that relate a deep and surface structure to language, where the expressed combinations of words, i.e., surface structure, symbolizes a wordless thought, i.e., the deep structure of an expression. However, Chomsky criticizes the limiting notions of structural linguistics and proclaims that there is an infinite amount of sentences that can be created with source material for language. He proposes the description of a framework in which all sentences can be formulated rather than trying to cocoon the host of language into a limiting generality.

Chomsky also proposes somewhat of a return to abstract philosophy in the way science examines language, this time accepting an abstract structure that is not so tangible until it is expressed, studying the so-called metasemantics of language before it is expressed. More broadly, Robert Stainton labels this "I-language," the "internal language" of people. Mixed in with this debate is the usage of conventions or norms in defining how language works. One problem with this has been the inability to define to what extent something "conventional" should be regular enough to be labeled as such. However, many social theorists also postulate that the way people organize depends much on our communication and understanding of the expressions we pass to one another. Symbolic interactionists would accept conventions in order to justify human organizations.

Relating back to the theories of Plato, it continues to be debated how much language is an innate element of human behavior. Most linguists and psychologists today view language as something learned through osmosis more than instruction. Additionally, theorists like Chomsky view the human brain as hard-wired to use language. He refers to a "universal grammar" evidenced by a finite set of rules for grammar structure in human languages that are inevitably conceived and guarded by human societies and restrain the shifts in language.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Philosophy of Language and the Challenge to Scientific Realism
Christopher Norris.
Routledge, 2004
The Limits of Language
Stephen David Ross.
Fordham University Press, 1994
Wittgenstein's Tractatus: A Dialectical Interpretation
Matthew B. Ostrow.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language
Howard Wettstein.
Oxford University Press, 2004
The Origin of Language: Aspects of the Discussion from Condillac to Wundt
G. A. Wells.
Open Court Publishing, 1987
Wittgenstein, Empiricism, and Language
John W. Cook.
Oxford University Press, 2000
Departing from Frege: Essays in the Philosophy of Language
R. M. Sainsbury.
Routledge, 2002
Sense, Reference, and Philosophy
Jerrold J. Katz.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Quine and Davidson on Language, Thought, and Reality
Hans-Johann Glock.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Philosophy for Linguists: An Introduction
Siobhan Chapman.
Routledge, 2000
The Origins of Complex Language: An Inquiry into the Evolutionary Beginnings of Sentences, Syllables, and Truth
Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Nature and Language, with An Essay on "The Secular Priesthood and the Perils of Democracy"
Noam Chomsky; Adriana Belletti; Luigi Rizzi.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Locke's Philosophy of Language
Walter R. Ott.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
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