Philosophy of language takes central place in contemporary philosophizing and its dealt in quite different manners in the analytic and continental traditions (roughly, the modern-day Anglo-Saxon and German-French philosophical schools respectively). In the analytic tradition, philosophy of language has focused on the characterization of meaning, on the explanation of language use and understanding, and on the relationship between language and reality. The continental tradition, instead, language has been seen an institution emerging within certain biological and socio-political structures. Champions of the first approach are authors such as Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Paul Grice, and Willard Quine; the second approach was particularly influenced by the figures of Martin Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur.
How is it that certain entities come to mean other entities: how should we think of relationship that takes place between the two? According to the idea-view – dating back at least to the medieval period and then developed e.g. by Locke – meanings are but ideas within agents’ minds. According instead to the truth-conditions-view – defended in modern times by Gottlob Frege, Alfred Tarski and Donald Davidson – the meaning of a proposition (notice that here we are talking about full-fledged propositions, and not single expressions) are the conditions under which it is true or false. Finally, according to the use-view – advanced by Ludwig Wittgenstein – the meaning of an expression is its use, i.e. what an agent can accomplish by using the expression.
Language, Mind, and Thought
What is the relationship between the words we utter and our thoughts? Does it take the thinking typical of a human mind to have a language? Questions of this sort were particularly momentous during the 1970s and 1980s, when artificial intelligence was promising to shape up a new order for the world in which machines would have done much of the thinking for humans. A paper by Berkeley philosopher John Searle (1932) – titled "Minds, Brains, and Machines" (1980) – was especially influential on this debate. Searle argued that machines cannot think because they lack a feature which is proper only of minds: intentionality.
Intentionality doesn’t have anything to do with an agent’s intention to do or not to do something (e.g. to go to the movie or to stay home tonight); rather, intentionality is the capacity of our thoughts to be about something without being that thing. Your idea of a vanilla ice-cream is not the ice-cream, but it is about it. Only organized minds such as the one possessed by human beings – according to Searle – go through this sort of processes. Searle’s position was attacked on a number of counts (see here for a more in depth detailed analysis), in a debate that lived to these days.
Language and Convention
In his Ph.D. dissertation, philosopher David Lewis (1941-2001) argued that the nature of language is conventional. He explained the sort of conventions that are characteristic of any language in terms of certain regularities of behavior. This direction of research has been taken up and developed over the last few years also due to the interest of disciplines such as economics and political science and is now a fertile and promising field of study.
Language and Societal Structure
The continental as well as the feminist philosophical traditions have also stressed some key aspects of language, namely the importance that it plays in shaping up reality. Under some radical accounts, language is everything there is to reality – there is no possibility of existence outside of language. Other important research has pointed at how terminological choices have been use as power instruments for example in expressing gender differences.
Further Online Readings
The entry on Philosophy of Language at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The entry on Philosophy of Language at the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The entry on Feminist Philosophy of Language at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
A page with some useful Philosophy of Language links, maintained by the Open Directory Project.
The page for the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University.