Philosophy of language

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The philosophy of language is the discipline of philosophy that deals with language and meaning , especially with the relationship between language and reality and the relationship between language and consciousness (or thinking ).

It is also a sub-discipline of general linguistics . It can also be viewed as a sub-area of semiotics , i.e. H. the general theory of signs. The philosophy of language is closely related to logic in that the analysis of the logical structure of language also belongs to the philosophy of language. The philosophy of language also includes the philosophy-oriented philosophy, which includes anthropological considerations on the position of man as a being able to speak. Language criticism is sometimes also included in the philosophy of language .

A distinction must be made between language analysis as a philosophical method and philosophy of language as an examination of the subject language. Studies of the philosophy of language have existed since antiquity, but they have only been referred to as 'philosophy of language' since around the middle of the 19th century (although the term was already in use earlier, in 1748 by Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis ).

Language analysis as a philosophical method

Language analysis as a philosophical method has been around since ancient times. However, it has a central position in analytical philosophy of the 20th century, whose various currents, for example in the tradition of the late Ludwig Wittgenstein or Willard van Orman Quine, philosophical problems, for example in epistemology or the philosophy of mind, primarily with reference to linguistic-philosophical methods discussed. The philosophy of language was seen as a fundamental discipline within philosophy. Peter Bieri comments critically:

“Language analysis as a means of philosophizing, of course, existed earlier, starting with Plato and Aristotle, exemplified by Abälard and Ockham, with the early Husserl, with Bolzano and Meinong. And what is even more decisive: the language-analytical phrase could only serve as a criterion for delimiting analytic philosophy if the dogma could be maintained that all interesting questions of philosophy can be presented as questions about words and their logical structure of sentences. But this dogma has long since fallen, even among the analytical philosophers themselves. How to understand mental causation, or our will to morally restrict our freedom of action, or rationality, or justice - these are questions on which language analysis does not lead very far. "

The view that philosophy of language is a fundamental discipline is also known as the linguistic turn . Richard Rorty describes it more precisely as "the view that philosophical problems can be solved or resolved by either reforming the language or better understanding the language we are currently using." With this, Rorty names two different approaches, the so-called philosophy of the ideal Language and the philosophy of normal language.

Philosophy of ideal language

The philosophy of the ideal language regards the natural languages as deficient, since they did not meet the strict demands of logic due to various inaccuracies . The aim of this approach is to revise or even replace natural languages ​​for scientific purposes with an ideal, formal language .

The project has proven difficult to implement. The fundamental problem is that every language, even a formal language, has to be interpreted and the language of interpretation is usually our natural language. Nevertheless, this approach has proven to be very fruitful, because thanks to the research into logical and conceptual relationships, important findings have been made about the structure of a formal language.

The mathematician, logician and philosopher of language Gottlob Frege is considered to be the founder of the philosophy of ideal language, and he wanted to realize this project in his conceptual writing. Other important representatives Bertrand Russell , who along with Alfred North Whitehead , the Principia Mathematica wrote, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his early years, d. H. as the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , Rudolf Carnap and other representatives of early analytical philosophy as well as Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen , the founders of Erlangen's constructivism .

Philosophy of normal language

The philosophy of normal language does not regard natural languages ​​as deficient, but as completely useful for the purpose for which they are used, namely for communication in the social environment. The task of the philosophy of language is not to revise or replace the language, but to describe it, for example by identifying conceptual or regulative contexts or - as some representatives would add - to explain it.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is considered to be the founder of the philosophy of normal language in his later years. H. as the author of the Philosophical Investigations . Other important representatives are Gilbert Ryle , John Langshaw Austin and Peter Strawson .

The approach has contributed to the development of speech act theory, which has become an important part of linguistic pragmatics . The fertility of normal language methodology is also evident in numerous philosophical debates, including debates about the relationship between spirit and matter (the traditional treatment of which, according to Ryle, leads to pseudo-problems).

For some critics, the associated conservative trait, i.e. sticking to the existing language, seems problematic for various reasons. It is criticized that in the context of normal language approaches, explanations and justifications are circular or are only valid within the scope of certain language systems. Every now and then it is claimed that the philosophy of normal language leads to naturalistic fallacies in normative problems.

Approaches to language

One can distinguish between different approaches to language: analytical philosophy, philosophical anthropology, language criticism and structuralism.

Analytical philosophy

In analytical philosophy, language is investigated using language analytical methods. The founding fathers of the analytical philosophy of language include Gottlob Frege , Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Philosophical anthropology

In philosophical anthropology, the essence of man is examined. The language ability of humans is an essential distinguishing feature to animals. This is the subject of investigation by Johann Gottfried Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt . Humboldt puts forward the thesis that conceptual language differences between peoples cannot be traced back to a common reason , but can instead be explained through the study of languages. These considerations were carried on by Ernst Cassirer in his work Experiment on Man .

Language criticism

Language is examined and criticized as a social means of exercising power . According to Michel Foucault's discourse theory, there is no discourse that is not determined by power relations. The rules of discourse define for a certain context what should be said and what must not be said and which speaker can say what when.

In contrast, Jürgen Habermas suggests the ideal of a power-free discourse. He combines communication with the normative foundations of society and, in his main work, Theory of Communicative Action, provides a sociologically well-founded examination of the role of communication in social life in democratic societies.

The sexist discrimination and oppression of women through language - for example, by stereotyping and derogatory remarks - is in feminist linguistics studied. Feminist philosophy is interested, among other things, in the distinction between sex and gender and the (also linguistic) construction of gender ( doing gender ).

Structuralism and Semiotics

Language is studied in structuralism as a system of signs . Ferdinand de Saussure is considered to be the founder of structuralism . Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss made important contributions . In dealing with structuralism, post- structuralism developed . Important post-structuralists are Michel Foucault , Jacques Derrida , Gilles Deleuze , Roland Barthes , Jacques Lacan and Judith Butler . Jacques Derrida developed the deconstruction . In the meantime, biosemiotics , a branch of semiotics, investigates the use of signs in nature that is not animate one.

Language and reality


The fact that there are referring (i.e. referring) expressions seems unquestionable: the name "Socrates" denotes the Greek philosopher. If one now advocates a referential theory of meaning, i. H. if one asserts that the meaning of an expression is in its reference, then the following problem arises: two expressions which have the same reference, i. H. which are coextensional do not necessarily have the same cognitive value. The famous example of Gottlob Frege is:

"The evening star is the morning star".

The term “evening star” and the term “morning star” have the same reference, namely the planet Venus, but the first term denotes the brightest star in the evening, the second the brightest star in the morning. The sentence can thus be identified with the help of identifiers , i. H. of expressions of the type "der / die / das A" formulate as follows:

"The brightest star in the evening is the brightest star in the morning."

But that does not solve the problem, because the first label has the same reference as the second and, if the referential theory of meaning is true, should have the same meaning. However, this is not the case, because someone can know that the brightest star in the evening is Venus without knowing that the brightest star in the morning is also Venus. How is the problem to be solved? There are basically two approaches to a solution, the approach by Gottlob Frege and the approach by Bertrand Russell .

  1. Frege suggests that one understands labels as expressions which have an extension (meaning in Frege's terminology) and an intension (meaning in Frege's terminology).
  2. Russell suggests that labels should not be viewed as referring expressions at all, but that sentences in which labels appear as a conjunction of three quantifying sentences. For example, the sentence “The brightest star in the evening is the brightest star in the morning” would be analyzed as follows: There is at least one brightest star in the evening and at most one brightest star in the evening, and this star is the brightest star in the morning. This would explain why someone can know that the brightest star in the evening is Venus without knowing that the brightest star in the morning is also Venus.

Peter Strawson has criticized both approaches, as has Keith Donnellan , who tries to solve the problem by distinguishing between attributive and referential use.

Proper names are another problem . How are proper names to be analyzed? There are two approaches to solving this, too, first the approach represented by Russell and Frege, and secondly the approach represented by Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam .

  1. Frege and Russell - who, in contrast to the analysis of labels, agree when analyzing proper names - propose that proper names are basically not proper names at all, but should be analyzed as labels. Kripke has criticized this approach as follows: If it were true that proper names are basically identifiers, then it would not be possible that a person would not have the attribute ascribed to them; however, this contradicts our intuition. For example, if one interprets the name "Socrates" as "the wisest philosopher in Greece", then it would not be possible that Socrates was not the wisest philosopher in Greece; but that seems very possible to us: Socrates would still be Socrates even if he were not the wisest philosopher in Greece.
  2. Kripke suggests to understand proper names as directly referring expressions, which get their meaning in an original baptismal act. Putnam transfers this approach to names for natural species such as “gold” and “water”.


Traditional theories of meaning assume that the meaning denotes an object. However, these theories have the problem that sentences containing expressions that refer to nothing - for example: "Pegasus is a winged horse" - have no meaning according to them. (If one introduces fictitious objects to solve this problem, other problems arise.) In addition, there are many expressions such as conjunctions and prepositions that do not seem to refer to anything.

Modern theories of meaning in the spirit of the philosophy of normal language pose the question of how it comes about that a sign has meaning. With this they come to the view that the meaning of an expression is not an object, but is formed through the use of the sign. As a result, various theories of meaning have developed.

  1. The approach pursued by Ludwig Wittgenstein merely aims to provide a description of the language, not an explanation. The terms language game , grammar and rule play an essential role in this description .
  2. The approach developed by Willard Van Orman Quine replaces the concept of meaning with that of verification: what a sentence means is determined by how it is checked (verified) with regard to its truth (see verificationism ). Quine is based on an original situation of understanding: How can you understand an utterance by a speaker when you are completely unfamiliar with his language? Quine thinks that in this situation one has to do a radical translation, whereby the exact meaning of the utterance remains undetermined (thesis of the underdetermination of the meaning).
  3. The approach developed by Donald Davidson tries to answer the question of how it is possible that competent speakers of a language can understand new sentences straight away. The obvious answer is that language is composed in a compositional way , that the meaning of a sentence is determined by the meaning of its components and their composition. Davidson tries to formulate a compositional theory of meaning as a theory of truth in the form of the theory of Alfred Tarski . Davidson's theory of meaning is basically a theory of interpretation . Like his teacher Quine, he assumes an original situation of understanding. Davidson believes that it is not about radical translation, but radical interpretation . The so-called principle of benevolent interpretation (principle of charity) is decisive for the construction of the theory . Michael Dummett counters Davidson's theory that truth conditions are relevant to meaning only insofar as the speakers have the ability to recognize them.
  4. The approach developed by Paul Grice tries to analyze the concept of meaning with that of the intention: what a sign means is what a speaker means by it, i. H. what he intends with it in a very specific sense (see meaning of the speaker ).

Language and action

Speech acts

He who speaks not only represents something, but also does something. John Langshaw Austin formulated this finding in a series of lectures in 1955 (published in 1962 as How To Do Things With Words ). Austin distinguishes between three acts that run simultaneously, the locutionary, the illocutionary and the perlocutionary. To put it simply, something should be said , done or brought about with an utterance . For example, when someone utters “Shoot this animal!”, Then he is saying that the person addressed should shoot the animal (locution), he has advised or ordered them to shoot the animal (illocution) and he has them (under Circumstances) convinced that she should shoot the animal down (perlocution).

Some utterances are so-called explicit performative utterances; the speaker explicitly states the illocutionary role of his statements, for example: “I am warning you!” A performative utterance is neither true nor false; it may or may not succeed. The so-called conditions of success for performative utterances apply as a criterion in the analysis of utterances.

John Searle tries to systematize Austin's approaches to a speech act theory. Among other things, he undertakes a classification of speech acts . He differentiates between five types of speech acts: representative / assertive (e.g. claiming something), directive (e.g. asking someone for something), commissive (e.g. promising someone something), expressive (e.g. thanking someone) ) and declarative (e.g. baptize someone). It is debatable how helpful this classification is.


Sometimes we mean what we say; more often, however, we mean something different or something more than what we say; we just hint at it. For example, in response to the question of where to get gasoline, someone says that there is a gas station around the corner. With that, the person did not say that you could fill up with petrol there, they merely indicated it.

Paul Grice tried to understand this aspect of meaning as implicature. The term “implicature” is a made-up word that only has a clearly defined meaning within Grice's theory - and further developments thereof. The basic idea of ​​Grice is to view linguistic communication as a rational action based on the so-called principle of cooperation . Various conversation maxims are subordinate to this principle , for example that a speaker should make his contribution as informative as possible. If we say more or something different than we mean, but are still cooperative, then this is due to one of these maxims not being observed or being violated.


If a word is used not in its literal but in a figurative meaning, one speaks of a metaphor (Greek μεταφορά "transference", from metà phérein "to carry elsewhere"). According to Aristotle, there is a similarity between what is literally referred to and what is meant figuratively. For example, the metaphorical phrase “You are my sun” does not mean that the person addressed is actually a sun, but that they are similar to them in a way that has to be determined more precisely. But how is a person like a sun? One could say that a person “shines” or “shines” like a sun. But then you would need a metaphor again. If one tries to answer this question, one always seems to have to resort to metaphors.

According to Donald Davidson, it is misleading to speak of a metaphorical meaning. Words have literal meanings and can be used metaphorically. John Searle suggests, following Paul Grice, to explain this usage as an implicature : When a speaker says “You are my sun”, he implies that the person is like a sun in a way that is still to be determined. But it is still not clear how the “how” is to be understood.

Language and awareness

Linguistic relativity

Like Wilhelm von Humboldt before them, the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf advocate the thesis of linguistic relativity: They claim that thoughts are relative to a language in that certain thoughts can only be formulated and understood in certain languages. They believe that they can prove this with empirical studies of the language of Indians and Eskimos, among other things. Donald Davidson , on the other hand, advocates the thesis that all people, insofar as they communicate with one another, have the same conceptual scheme, because a fundamentally different conceptual scheme would not be understandable for us.


Language is also a means of understanding . Hermeneutics is the investigation of understanding and thus also of language as a means of understanding. Friedrich Schleiermacher is the founder of hermeneutics . Wilhelm Dilthey , Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer provided essential impulses for a renewal of hermeneutics in the twentieth century .


Language is also a means of communication. A particularly well-known communication model is the Organon model (1933) by Karl Bühler . Bühler differentiates between a representation, expression and appeal function of the sign. Roman Jakobson expanded the model to six functions in 1960.

The sender-receiver model (1949) developed in the information theory of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver is considered the standard model of message transmission . Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson have shown that this model for explaining human communication falls short and must be expanded by an inferentialist model.

The relevance theory developed by Sperber and Wilson in the book Relevance (1986) connects Fodor's modular theory of mind with thoughts of Grice. The theory basically consists of two principles of relevance. The first is that the human mind tends to maximize the relevance of the input. The second says that every communicative utterance carries a presumption of optimal relevance. This explains linguistic communication.

Language acquisition and language skills

Noam Chomsky at the 2003 World Social Forum

How can we explain that people can learn their mother tongue so quickly? There are two classic views in language acquisition research, first formulated by Noam Chomsky and Jean Piaget .

  1. The nativism advocated by Chomsky assumes that people have a so-called universal grammar . Nativists such as Chomsky, Jerry Fodor and Steven Pinker think of a universal grammar as an innate syntactic knowledge. Language acquisition by children can only be explained by assuming such knowledge.
  2. The classic counterparty of nativism is the cognitivism , the first time in childhood Piaget's theory of development Cognition has been developed. Cognitivist theories assume that language acquisition can be explained by people's thinking abilities and that one does not have to fall back on an innate universal grammar. In recent years, classic cognitivism has been increasingly supplemented by an interactionism that places greater emphasis on the social interaction of people. The suggestion of the anthropologist Michael Tomasello goes in this direction . Tomasello suggests that people have general cognitive skills that they use to communicate.

History of Philosophy of Language

The beginnings of the philosophy of language go back to antiquity. The   theory of ideas of Plato leads to the problem of predication : How do the individual things to the universals? Aristotle continues with the linguistic-philosophical investigations and develops propositional logic . In the Middle Ages, philosophers like Abelardus and Duns Scotus undertook logical and linguistic-philosophical investigations. William von Ockham developed nominalism (see Universities dispute ). To distinguish it from other philosophies, various aspects were considered and rejected, such as methodological nominalism and an opposition to psychologism, but no criterion is considered to be fully established.

The modern philosophy of language has established itself as an independent discipline with the development of modern logic by Gottlob Frege in his epochal work on conceptual writing; this work is characteristic of the philosophy of ideal language. The philosophy of normal language begins with Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations . Both traditions have led to the development of new knowledge and the exploration of new areas.


Philosophy Bibliography : Philosophy of Language - Additional references on the topic


Introductions to German-language encyclopedias
  • Kuno Lorenz : Philosophy of Language. In: Jürgen Mittelstraß (Hrsg.): Encyclopedia Philosophy and Philosophy of Science. Volume 3. Metzler, Stuttgart 1995.
General introductions in German
Introductions in German to special topics
  • Sybille Krämer: Language, speech act, communication: positions of language theory of the 20th century. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-518-29121-1 .
  • Elisabeth Leiss: Philosophy of Language. W. de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2009, ISBN 978-3-11-020547-3 .
  • Eike von Savigny : The philosophy of normal language. A critical introduction to the "ordinary language philosophy". Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1993 (1969), ISBN 3-518-28671-4 .
  • Dieter Teichert , Christiane Schildknecht : Philosophy in literature. Suhrkamp, ​​1995, ISBN 978-3-518-28825-2 .
  • Dieter Teichert: The infinity of language and the limits of understanding ; in: U. Arnswald u. a. (eds.): Hermeneutics and the limits of language. Mautius, Heidelberg 2012, 57–74.
Introductions in English
  • Simon Blackburn : Spreading the Word: Groundings in the Philosophy of Language. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1984.
  • Michael Devitt , Kim Sterelny : Language and Reality. 2nd Edition. Blackwell, Oxford 1999, ISBN 0-262-54099-1 (good introduction from a naturalistic point of view).
  • Richard Larson and Gabriel Segal, Knowledge of Meaning: an Introduction to Semantic Theory. MIT Press, Cambridge 1995 (Introduction to Philosophical Semantics for Philosophers and Linguists).
  • William Lycan : Philosophy of Language. Routledge, New York 2000, ISBN 0-415-17116-4 (very simple and clear).
  • M. Platts: Ways of Meaning: an Introduction to Philosophy of Language. 2nd Edition. MIT Press, Cambridge 1997, ISBN 0-262-66107-1 (an introduction to the philosophy of language with Davidson's theory as a background).
  • Kenneth Taylor : Truth and Meaning. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language. Blackwell, Oxford 1998, ISBN 1-57718-049-6 (an introduction which also introduces intensional semantics).

Text collections

Text collections in German
  • Christian Bermes (Ed.): Philosophy of Language. Alber, Freiburg 1997.
  • Günther Grewendorf and Georg Meggle (eds.): Linguistics and philosophy. Athenaeum, Frankfurt am Main 1974.
  • Ludger Hoffmann (Ed.): Linguistics. A reader. 3. Edition. de Gruyter, Berlin 2010.
  • Jonas Pfister (Ed.): Texts on the philosophy of language. Reclam, Stuttgart 2011.
  • Georg Meggle (ed.): Action, communication, meaning. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1993.
  • Ursula Wolf (Ed.): Proper names. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1983.
Text collections in English
  • Robert M. Harnish (Ed.): Basic Topics in the Philosophy of Language. Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York 1993.
  • Jennifer Hornsby and Guy Longworth (Eds.): Reading Philosophy of Language. Selected texts with interactive commentary. Blackwell, London 2006.
  • Peter Ludlow (Ed.): Readings in the Philosophy of Language. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1997.
  • AP Martinich, The Philosophy of Language. 3. Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1997.
  • P. Yourgrau (Ed.): Demonstratives. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1993.

Collections of articles

  • Georg W. Bertram, David Lauer, Jasper Liptow, Martin Seel: In the world of language. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2008.
  • Michael Devitt , Richard Hanley (Eds.): The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Language. Blackwell, Oxford 2006.
  • Gareth Evans , John McDowell (Eds.): Truth & Meaning: Essays in Semantics. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1976.
  • Bob Hale , Crispin Wright (Eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Blackwell, Oxford 1996.
  • John Hawthorne, Dean Zimmermann (Eds.): Language and Philosophical Linguistics. Philosophical Perspectives. Volume 17. Ridgeview, Atascadero, California 2004.
  • Philip Hogh, Stefan Deines (Ed.): Language and Critical Theory. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2016.
  • Jerold Katz (Ed.): The Philosophy of Linguistics. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1985.
  • Ernest Lepore , Barry C. Smith (Eds.): The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Ernest Lepore, Truth & Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Blackwell, Oxford 1986.
  • AW Moore (Ed.): Meaning & Reference. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1993.
  • Nathan Salmon , Scott Soames (Eds.): Propositions & Attitudes. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1988.
  • J. Tomberlin (Ed.): Language and Logic. Philosophical Perspectives. Volume 7. Ridgeview, Atascadero, California 1993.
  • J. Tomberlin (Ed.): Logic and Language. Philosophical Perspectives. Volume 8. Ridgeview, Atascadero, California 1994.
  • J. Tomberlin (Ed.): Language and Mind. Philosophical Perspectives. Volume 16. Ridgeview, Atascadero, California 2002.

Web links

Wiktionary: Philosophy of language  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations



more links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Metzler Philosophy Lexicon. "Semiotics" entry.
  2. ^ Metzler Philosophy Lexicon. Entry "Philosophy of Language".
  3. ^ Wilhelm Traugott Krug : General concise dictionary of the philosophical sciences. 2nd edition, Leipzig 1832-38, Volume 3, pp. 847 f.
  4. ^ A b Philosophy of Language I. In: Historical Dictionary of Philosophy. In: HWPh . Volume 9. pp. 1514-1524.
  5. ^ Philosophy of language II. In: Historical dictionary of philosophy. In: HWPh. Volume 9. pp. 1524-1527.
  6. ^ Scott Soames: Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Volume 2, Princeton University Press, 2003.
  7. Peter Bieri : What remains of the analytical philosophy. In: DZPhil. 55 (2007) 3, p. 340.
  8. ^ Richard Rorty: The Linguistic Turn. Essays in Philosophical Method. Chicago University Press, 1967, ISBN 0-226-72569-3 , p. 3.