Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy

Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy

Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy

Concepts in Social and Political Philosophy

Excerpt

It is evident that an enormous number of human activities take place in and by means of the use of language. Indeed this is so evident that, as long as we remain in societies in which we are fluent speakers of the particular language there employed, we ordinarily take language and our capacity to communicate by using it completely for granted. What we regard as important and sometimes problematic are the things we think, do, and desire; and the things in the world that we communicate about, not the language we use in thinking, acting, and communicating about the world.

If we pause to think about language and the ease with which we put it to such varied and important uses, however, it may well seem the most important, most extraordinary, and most problematic phenomenon of all. We switch on the radio and spin the dial, catching a sentence or two, and, learning what is on, reject one station for another. We overhear snatches of a conversation on the train and form judgments about the speakers. We write a letter to a newspaper with a circulation of thousands and never doubt that the readers will, at some level, understand what the letter says. In countless ways and circumstances we take for granted our capacity to communicate effectively with very large numbers of people, ranging from our most intimate family and friends to total strangers.

How are such things possible? How can they be explained so that we can understand not only that we do what Wittgenstein called a "prodigious diversity" of things with language, but how it is possible for us to do so? What is it, exactly, for a sentence, a phrase, or a word to mean something? How can sounds or marks on paper convey thoughts, understanding, and emotions most of which have never before been expressed or conveyed in the same ways and many of which are about actions, ideas, perceptions, and so on, that neither the speaker nor the auditor, the author nor the reader, have ever experienced or ever will experience except as expressed in language? These and the many questions lurking beneath their surface are not easy questions to answer.

In the twentieth century much of philosophy has taken what the philosopher Gustave Bergmann has called the "linguistic turn." Of course philosophy has always been done, could only be done, in language. And of course numerous philosophers from Plato forward gave thought to language itself, how it works, what can be done with it, and the implications of its prominent role in human thought and action. But it is a distinctive feature of much twentieth-century philosophizing that it not only is done in language, but is done primarily or at least often by means of the analysis of language. On the one hand, philosophers have tried to solve problems in moral and political philosophy, epistemology, and other subfields of the discipline . . .

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