Ordinary language philosophy

Ordinary language philosophy

Ordinary language philosophy is a philosophical school that approaches traditional philosophical problems as rooted in misunderstandings philosophers develop by distorting or forgetting what words actually mean in everyday use.

This approach typically involves eschewing philosophical "theories" in favour of close attention to the details of the use of everyday, "ordinary" language. Sometimes called "Oxford philosophy", it is generally associated with the work of a number of mid-century Oxford professors: mainly J.L. Austin, but also Gilbert Ryle, H.L.A. Hart, and Peter Strawson. The later Ludwig Wittgenstein is ordinary language philosophy's most celebrated proponent outside the Oxford circle. Second generation figures include Stanley Cavell and John Searle.

The Wittgenstein scholar A. C. Grayling (Wittgenstein, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1988, p. 114) is certain that, despite the fact that Wittgenstein’s work might have played some "second or third-hand [part in the promotion of] the philosophical concern for language which was dominant in the mid-century", neither Gilbert Ryle nor any of those in the so-called "ordinary language philosophy" school that is chiefly associated with J. L. Austin were Wittgensteinians. More significantly, Grayling asserts that "most of them were largely unaffected by Wittgenstein’s later ideas, and some were actively hostile to them".

The name comes from the contrast between this approach and earlier views of the role of language in solving philosophical problems that had been dominant in analytic philosophy, now sometimes called ideal language philosophy. Ordinary language philosophy was a major philosophic school between 1930 and 1970, and remains an important force in philosophy today.



Early analytic philosophy had a less positive view of ordinary language. Bertrand Russell tended to dismiss language as being of little philosophical significance, and ordinary language as just being too confused to help solve metaphysical and epistemological problems. Frege, the Vienna Circle (especially Rudolf Carnap), the young Wittgenstein, and W.V. Quine, all attempted to improve upon it, in particular using the resources of modern logic. Wittgenstein's view in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus more or less agreed with Russell's that language ought to be reformulated so as to be unambiguous, so as to accurately represent the world, so that we could better deal with the questions of philosophy.

By contrast, Wittgenstein would later describe his task as bringing "words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use".[1] The sea of change brought on by his unpublished work in the 1930s centered largely on the idea that there is nothing wrong with ordinary language as it stands, and that many traditional philosophical problems were only illusions brought on by misunderstandings about language and related subjects. The former idea led to rejecting the approaches of earlier analytic philosophy – arguably, of any earlier philosophy – and the latter led to replacing them with the careful attention to language in its normal use, in order to "dissolve" the appearance of philosophical problems, rather than attempt to solve them. At its inception, ordinary language philosophy (also called linguistic philosophy) had been taken as either an extension of or as an alternative to analytic philosophy. Now that the term "analytic philosophy" has a more standardized meaning, ordinary language philosophy is viewed as a stage of the analytic tradition that followed logical positivism and that preceded the yet-to-be-named stage analytic philosophy continues in today.[citation needed].

Ordinary language analysis largely flourished and developed at Oxford in the 1940s, under Austin and Gilbert Ryle, and was quite widespread for a time before declining rapidly in popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is now not uncommon to hear that "ordinary language philosophy is dead"[citation needed]. Wittgenstein is perhaps the only one among the major figures of linguistic philosophy to retain anything like the reputation he had at that time. On the other hand, the attention to language remains one of most important techniques in contemporary analytic thought, and many of the effects of ordinary language philosophy can still be felt across many academic disciplines.

Central ideas

Wittgenstein held that the meanings of words reside in their ordinary uses and that this is why philosophers trip over words taken in abstraction. From England came the idea that philosophy had gotten into trouble by trying to understand words outside of the context of their use in ordinary language (cf. contextualism).

For example: What is reality? Philosophers have treated it as a noun denoting something that has certain properties. For thousands of years, they have debated those properties. Ordinary language philosophy instead looks at how we use the word "reality" in everyday language. In some instances, people will say, "It may seem that X is the case, but in reality, Y is the case". This expression is not used to mean that there is some special dimension of being where Y is true although X is true in our dimension. What it really means is, "X seemed right, but appearances were misleading in some way. Now I'm about to tell you the truth: Y". That is, the meaning of "in reality" is a bit like "however". And the phrase, "The reality of the matter is ..." serves a similar function — to set the listener's expectations. Further, when we talk about a "real gun", we aren't making a metaphysical statement about the nature of reality; we are merely opposing this gun to a toy gun, pretend gun, imaginary gun, etc.

The controversy really begins when ordinary language philosophers apply the same leveling tendency to questions such as What is Truth? or What is Consciousness?. Philosophers in this school would insist that we cannot assume that (for example) 'Truth' 'is' a 'thing' (in the same sense that tables and chairs are 'things'), which the word 'truth' represents. Instead, we must look at the differing ways in which the words 'truth' and 'conscious' actually function in ordinary language. We may well discover, after investigation, that there is no single entity to which the word 'truth' corresponds, something Wittgenstein attempts to get across via his concept of a 'family resemblance' (cf. Philosophical Investigations). Therefore ordinary language philosophers tend to be anti-essentialist. Of course, this was and is a very controversial viewpoint. Anti-essentialism and the linguistic philosophy associated with it are often important to contemporary accounts of feminism, Marxism, and other social philosophies that are critical of the injustice of the status quo. The essentialist 'Truth' as 'thing' is argued to be closely related to projects of domination, where the denial of alternate truths is understood to be a denial of alternate forms of living. Similar arguments sometimes involve ordinary language philosophy with other anti-essentialist movements like post-structuralism.


  1. ^ Philosophical Investigations, §116, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, (New York: MacMillan, 1953)

Important works of ordinary language philosophy

  • Austin, J. L. How to do things with Words, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.
  • -----. "A Plea for Excuses". In Austin, Philosophical Papers, ed. J. O. Urmson & G. J. Warnock. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1961.
  • -----. Sense and Sensibilia, ed. G. J. Warnock. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Hanfling, Oswald. Philosophy and Ordinary Language.
  • Hart, H.L.A. "The Ascription of Responsibility and Rights". Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society1949.
  • Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965.
  • -----. Dilemmas.
  • Strawson, P.F.. Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
  • -----. "On Referring". Reprinted in Meaning and Reference, ed. A.W. Moore. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1993.

John Wisdom, _Other Minds_ 1952, _Philosophy & PsychoAnalysis_ 1953, _ Paradox and Discovery, 1965

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Blue and Brown Books
  • -----.Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Secondary sources on ordinary language philosophy

  • Passmore, John. A Hundred Years of Philosophy, revised edition. New York: Basic Books, 1966. See chapter 18, "Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language Philosophy".
  • Soames, Scott. Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century: Volume Two, The Age of Meaning. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Ordinary Language Philosophy: A Reappraisal - edited by Anthony Coleman & Ivan Welty.

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