Analytic Philosophy

Ordinary Language Philosophy

What is ordinary language philosophy?

First, ordinary language philosophy should be distinguished from philosophy of language, which is a subfield of analytic philosophy. Ordinary language philosophy is an historical episode in analytic philosophy whose practitioners, inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), believed that all of the major problems of philosophy were either pseudo-problems that could be dispelled with reference to ordinary language, or genuine problems that could be solved by investigating how certain words were used. It should be stressed, however, that although ordinary language philosophers focused on how words were used, they were not interested in simply describing common usage. Rather, they were interested in the meanings of words or the concepts named by words; ordinary usage was investigated in order to determine meaning.

Indeed, Wittgenstein himself was aware that language, taken superficially, could be “bewitching.” Furthermore, this determination of meaning seems to have been a reflective, rather than an empirical process. The ordinary language philosophers conducted no surveys; neither did they attempt to determine actual usage by consulting with sociologists or linguists. (This is important, because in the early twenty-first century experimental philosophy proceeds by just such empiricism.)

In addition to Wittgenstein, prominent practitioners in the heyday of ordinary language philosophy included the American advocates O.K. Bouwsma (1898–1978) and Norman Malcolm (1911–1990), and the British discussants John Wisdom, (1904–1993), J.L. Austin (1911–1960), and H.P. Grice (1913–1988).

Words and their meanings might seem like simple concepts on the surface, but Ludwig Wittgenstein maintained that language usage is not easily defined at all. (iStock).

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