Philosophy of language: what does it consist of?

The philosophy of language deals with essential and general aspects of human language, such as its nature, its relationship with thought and the world, its uses and limits. We detail it below.

Last update: 05 July, 2022

The philosophy of language is the branch of philosophy that studies language from a general and fundamental perspectiveaddressing issues such as its nature, its relationship with thought and the world, its use and its limits, as well as aspects related to translation and interpretation.

Because his approaches are more conceptual than empirical, the philosophy of language is different from linguistics. Furthermore, linguists often study language for descriptive purposes, analyzing its forms, levels, and functions. Instead, philosophers take a more abstract approach, detached from practical description.

What is language?

To understand what the philosophy of language consists of, we must first define what is meant by language. This is a system of signs through which individuals communicate. These signs can be sound (like speech), bodily (like gestures) or graphic (like writing).

Now, the use in human beings is remarkable, since we are the only being in the world with the ability to express ourselves through an articulated language.

In addition, language in human beings has a variety that allows the following:

  • That human thought is complex.
  • Describe the past or speculate about the future; and thus deliberate and plan in the light of their own beliefs.
  • Imagining counterfactual objects, events and states of affairs, so it is closely related to intentionality.
  • Share information and communicate beliefs, speculations, attitudes and emotions.
  • Create the human social world, framing people in a history and a common life experience.

Also, language is an instrument of understanding and knowledge. For example, the specialized languages ​​of mathematics and science allow human beings to construct theories and make predictions about matters that they would otherwise be unable to address.

Language connects us with other aspects of reality that would be impossible to address without this ability.


History of the philosophy of language

Language is a fundamental aspect for the human species and its development. That is why, since ancient times, it has been approached by philosophy from different angles.

ancient philosophy

In the West, language research dates back to the 5th century BC. c. with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. For example, in the dialog CratylusPlato questioned whether the names of things were determined by convention or by nature.

In this case, he was against convention. Well, this allowed anything to be conventionally called by any name.

For its part, Aristotle was interested in questions of logic, categories, and the creation of meaning.. He separated things into categories of species and genera. He thought that the meaning of a predicate was established through an abstraction of the similarities between various individual things. This theory was later called nominalism.

medieval philosophy

For their part, medieval philosophers were keenly interested in the subtleties of language and its use. For many scholastics, this interest was sparked by the need to translate Greek texts into Latin.

Saint Augustine, for example, proposed that the sign is a material reality that evokes in the understanding an alien reality.. In this way, the linguistic sign is constituted by an intrinsic union of sound and meaning.

Considering this Augustinian position, very similar to the one established by Plato, it could be assumed that there is a direct connection between the sign and the thing it represents.

modern philosophy

Although language was addressed before modernity, it was not until this time that it began to arouse greater interest. This gives rise to two different approaches to language comprehension. According to the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, they would be the designative and constitutive theory.

On the one hand, the designative theory conceives of language as an instrument that allows us to designate things and ideas. Thus, this approach takes an atomistic stance on language, emphasizing the individual’s relationship to words. The most prominent representatives are Thomas Hobbes (1588-1779), John Locke (1632-1704), and Etienne Bonnot de Condillac (1714-1780).

Instead, the constitutive approach conceives of language as something prior to individuals, that constitutes the world they inhabit and that expresses and transforms their ways of being. In this sense, he develops a holistic view, in which language predefines the conditions of existence of human beings and whose proper understanding is not achieved from the actions undertaken by individuals.

The main representatives of the constitutive current are Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835).



contemporary philosophy

The two aforementioned approaches will develop in parallel until the 20th century. From then on, the constitutive theory of language begins to gain greater relevance.

In particular, thanks to the birth of modern linguistics, with Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). And thanks also to the contributions of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), a reference to modern logic and the distinction between meaning and reference.

Now, based on these contributions, language began to take a central role in Western philosophy. In fact, the phrase “linguistic turn” is often used to refer to the increasing and remarkable emphasis that contemporary philosophers placed on the subject.

Later, with the development of analytic philosophy, there is a growing interest in ordinary language. This implies a shift in the emphasis previously placed on formal languages.

Among the philosophers who tackled ordinary language are GE Moore (1873-1958) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who defended that ordinary language was the substratum to understand formal languages. For the latter are but particular cases of the general phenomenon of language and its derivations, which arise from the ordinary.

The everyday or ordinary use of language is the basis for its other forms, according to contemporary philosophy.

Problems addressed by the philosophy of language

Some of the problems addressed by the philosophy of language are the following:

  • Nature of language: Is language an entity created rationally to satisfy the psychological need to communicate with others or is it an innate and specific ability to acquire a natural language?
  • The problem of the universals: Do universals have a direct connection to a real, abstract entity (realist perspective) or do they just represent a collection of individual objects (nominalism)?
  • Translation and interpretation: the impossibility of determining the meaning and reference of the different languages, based on a literal translation of the words, is raised. For the linguistic system of a given community goes beyond the literal translation of each sign or expression.

a complex subject

To conclude, it is pertinent to emphasize that the philosophy of language is a fairly broad and complex branch that encompasses different perspectives around its phenomenon of study.

However, this fact should not surprise us. For human language is a diverse entity that still hides unresolved issues.

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