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The key problems of philosophy of language

The problem of language is one of the oldest issues with which we struggle. and this
problem had to, of course, interested philosophers. What makes this subject so interesting?
We may say, like Martinich for example, that since language seems to be characteristic of
human beings, to know about language, is to know something about being human 1.
Language is something that differentiates us from the animals and the rest of the natural
world, and in that sense the exploration of language is exploration of human nature, of our
place in nature and it will allow better understanding of human itself. Further thing that
attracts attention of philosophers, is problem of language and reality. We know that many
philosophers have held that language is a reflection of reality, and if we could understand the
structure of language, we could understand the structure of reality as well. This statement
connect to many other problems of language. We may even go back, and ask: is there any
reference between reality and language? And if there is, how is it possible, is it natural or is it
only our convection? And, if language reflect reality, what is the nature of it? Is it artificial, or
natural? And is it really so, that if we know the structure of language, we know the structure
of reality?
In order to deal with all these questions we have to deal with some of the key problems
of philosophy of languae, and the most important are: truth and meaning, speech acts,
reference and descriptions, names and demonstratives, propositional attitudes, interpretation
and translation, and the nature of language.
Truth and Meaning - this chapter focus on problem of meaning. Unfortunately,
category of "meaning" itself is far from clear - meaning itself has many meaning or
senses2, this creates a lot of complications. We need to know precisely what meaning
mean, how else can we analyze language, and determinate what truth is, or when something is
true. Defining terms and condition of understanding meaning, and answering to the
question what is meaning? and what is truth? are one of main concern of philosophers of
language. Of course we need to remember that problem of meaning is strongly connected with
problem of truth. These problems were ones of the central issues of reflection on language
from the very beginning. In everyday language, we refer to the category of the "meaning",
when we want to eliminate confusion, as to the understanding of a term. In literature, we can
1

A. P. Martinich, Introduction, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford
University Press 2001), pp. 1
2
A. P. Martinich, Truth and Meaning, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York:
Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 30

find many explanation of possible ways of understanding the "meaning", in which reference is
often several different possible ways to use. We can understand meaning, as a way of
understanding utterance or way of use utterance. Also, it is often analyze in terms of sense,
function, role, consequence, importance, purpose or result. Systematic study of meaning
began in the framework of analytic philosophy.
According to Donald Davidson and his work Truth and Meaning we can start to
explore the problem of meaning. Davidson points at very important issue that a
satisfactory theory of meaning must give an account of how meaning of sentences depend
upon the meaning of words3. One of proposition says that we should start with by assigning
meaning to each word of a sentence, but then how can we tell the meaning of hole sentence
only by its parts. For it seems that this approach leads to a regres ad infinitum. On the other
hand, Frege tried to avoid this problem by claiming, that the entities corresponding predicates
are "unsaturated" or "incomplete" in opposed to entities corresponding to the names. Frege's
solution is to treat predicate as a special case of functional expressions and sentences as a
special case of complex singular terms. But if we identify meaning of sentence (expression)
with its reference, we will occur problem, that is consequence of assumption: logically
equivalent to that singular terms shall have the same reference unit, and entity does not
change its reference, when one of its component is replaced by another with the same
reference. Results is that the two sentences with the same logical value have the same
reference. However, if the meaning of a sentence is its reference, all the sentences with the
same a logical value are synonymous - but this consequence is obviously difficult to accept.
To deal with the uncomfortable conclusion Davidson proposes a different approach
certain holistic view of meaning. If sentences depend for their meaning no their structure, and
we understand the meaning of each item in the structure only as an abstraction from the
totality of sentences in which it features, then we can give the meaning of any sentence (or
word) only by giving the meaning of every sentence (and word) in the language 4. According
to the holistic view of meaning, meaning of a sentence depends on the structure of the last
one, and if we understand meaning of each parts of structure only by abstraction from a set of
sentences in which it occurs, we can give the meaning of any sentence (or word) only when
we give the meaning of each sentence (or words) in language. Frege claimed that only in the
context of the sentence the word has meaning. It might therefore be noted that only in the
3

D. Davidson, Truth and Meaning, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford
University Press 2001), pp. 98
4
Ibid. pp. 100

context of the language of the sentence (and hence the word) has meaning. In this theory, for
every s means p we have to be able to replace every p with matching sentence that gives
meaning to s.
an adequate theory of meaning must entail all sentences of the form s means m
. [] imagine p replaced by a sentence. Sentence as we have seen, cannot name meanings,
and sentences with that prefixed are not names at all unless we decide to 5. Theory will work
if for every sentence (to replace p) gives the meaning of s. (T) s is T if and only if p.
What we require for meaning for a language L is that without appeal to any (further)
semantically notions is place enough restrictions on the predicate is T to entail all sentences
got from schema T when s is replaced by a structural description of a sentence of L and p
by that sentence. (T) s is T if and only if p (Tarski's Convention T). Theory of meaning for a
language L shows how the meanings of sentences depend on the meanings of words, if it
contains (recursive) definition of truth in L. Connection between Tarski's definition of truth
and concept of meaning is: definition works by giving necessary and sufficient conditions of
truth of each sentence and that means, showing in some way the meaning of the sentence; if
one knows the schematic meaning of the language, he knows what it means - for any sentence
- to be true, and this in turn is (in a certain sense) equivalent to understanding the language.
Speech Acts. People communicate in very different ways, but always, we need
language to communicate, and things that we do, when we want to communicate something
are speech acts. Philosophers started to wondering, how is it possible that we can
communicate with speech acts? And how to understand speech act, what are they and what is
their typology? In this approach speech acts need to be understand very widely so, it is not
only about the words. to mean something is first of all for a person to mean something;
and, if the person successfully communicates what he means, he has performed a speech
act6. In theory of speech acts, it worth to mention position of logical positivist. They belief,
that philosophy should be like science, and that it should describe the world. In consequence
of that approach, they find only true of false statements meaningful, valued. Rest of stamens,
for example, that contain words like good, evil; were consider pseudostatements, and
worthless for philosophy. Of course, we can see right away, that because of this strict
approach, we miss a lot of nature or structure of speech acts. This attitude change in the
beginning of XX century, inter alia, thanks to J.L. Austin. His theory of performative
5

Ibid. pp. 101


A. P. Martinich, Speech Acts, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford
University Press 2001), pp. 123
6

utterance change way of studying speech acts. Austin introduced the idea that to say
something is to do something. As a Searle was point out later, this means that a general theory
of speech is a part of action. Austins idea is important because people often think that there is
an important distinction between talking and doing 7. Austin, also thanks to his
performative utterances, manage to prove that logical positivists were wrong. Because this
kind of statements -

performative utterances; for example: and now i pronounce you

husband and wife do not describe, but do, so they are still valuable and meaningful even if
they do not meet the criteria of logical positivists. The subject of speech acts is very
interesting, that is why I will explore it.
Problem of speech acts was introduced above, now I would like to clarify the subject
referring to J.L. Austin and his essay Performative Utterances. In this article Austin
introduces concept of performative utterance, it is something new, that has not yet been
describe and classified, even though we are all familiar with it, and of course it is a speech act.
Author shows, that philosophers treaded utterance one - dimensional: But still philosophers
have assumed that the only things that are interested in are utterance which report facts or
which describe situation truly or falsely 8. This approach started to crack, as we can not
definitely, and always say which is which, and that leads to nonsense. Also, as we well know,
there are different kinds of statements, that we use to express our emotional state or to
influence others etc., and we can not say if they are true of false, because they simply do not
submit to this criteria. On this lanes people have now adopted new slogan, the slogan of
different uses of language9. One of different uses of language are perfomative utterances
They will be straightforward utterances, with ordinary verbs in the first person singular
present indicative active, and yet we shall see at one that they couldnt possibly be true or
false. Furthermore, if a person makes an utterance of this sort we should say, that he is doing
something rather than merely saying something 10 . Termination of the sentence is performing
all or part of an act, it does not describe, report, only saying something. Austin give us a lot of
examples: I apologize, I name this ship Queen Elisabeth, I bet you will be sick
tomorrow, or even example form above, when bride or groom says I do or I take you as
me beloved wife.

Ibid. pp. 123


J. L. Austin, Performative Utterances, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York:
Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 130
9
Ibid. pp. 131
10
Ibid. pp. 131
8

We have to remember that the statement is not usually, if at all, the only thing
necessary to be considered for the performed action. Always it is necessary that the
circumstances under which words were spoken, are somehow relevant, and very often it is
necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons, also done some significant physical
or mental activities, or spoke additional words. Austin describe condition that determine
successful performative utterances. First of all, there have to be known conventional
procedure, causing a conventional effect. This procedure must be recognized as a
conventional procedure, having a conventional effect. This procedure must include saying
certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, where particular person and the
circumstances of the case must be suitable for the schema of a specific procedure that has
been established. All participants have to perform the procedure, both correctly, as well as
completely. When, as often happens, the procedure is intended for use by persons having
certain thoughts and feelings, or to initiate, as a corollary, a participant in a proceeding, the
person involved, thus invoking the procedure, must actually have these thoughts and feel
these feelings, and the intention of the participants, have to be proceeding in a certain way,
and also really need to proceed in the following manner. In case of violate any of these rules
performative utterance will be unsuccessful.
Reference and Descriptions. Problem of reference connect with what was said in the
beginning of essay - that language is reflection of reality. It is quite natural, intuitive
statement. But how it is happening, how is it possible that we can speak, name, describe,
outside, physical objects? This is where reference enters language attaches to the world
through relation of reference which holds between subject and particulars 11. For example,
words Katie is pretty refers to concrete person ,who exist in time and space, moreover we can
tell that the this concrete person is pretty. In this example word Katie is subject, because we
are talking about specific person, and is pretty is particular, because it is one of her feature,
but we can also say that about other subject. This idea, of reference seem to be very suitable.
It seem; in simple way to explain, how language reflect reality. Unfortunately, reference
causes also many complication. One of problems is that, language can refer to not existing
things, persons, like literature or movie characters, or unicorns and dragons. As language
refers to reality, does, it make this creature exists is our physical world? That seem to be
logical consequence, but of course, it is wrong conclusion. Focusing on article by Bertrand
Russell I will explore problem of description.
11

A. P. Martinich, Reference and Descriptions, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New
York: Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 192

Bertrand Russell considers problem of description focusing of singular form of word


the. Firstly, we have to introduce descriptive functions. This are expressions like: the
father of x or the sine of x. There are two kinds of descriptions : definitive, they are phrase
of the form the so and so , and second kind indefinitive phrased a so and so.
Indefinitive descriptions, are statement like, e.g. I met a men; I met a unicorn. They do
not have to be true, but they can always be false - they are still significant. Suppose we wish
to make some statements about a so and so where so and so are those object that have
a certain property , i.e. those objects x for which the propositional function x is true. (E.g. if
we take a man as our instance of a so and so, x will be x is human). What we have
to keep in mind, is that indefinitive descriptions, if right analyzed, are significant, because all
parts of a so and so are not represented. Important is that objects describe by
indefinitive descriptions may exists if there is at least one true component.
Names and Demonstratives. Names specify things, thoughts that we want to express.
They name, call objects, which is necessary for successful communication. Without names we
would be lost in vastness of objects, also we would be lost in individuals, names can specify
general object as well as individuals. To clarify subject of names I will referee to Johns Stuart
Mill essay Of Names.
Mill perceive names as words. Names specifying something, imaginary or real. We
have individual names, e.g. every persona have a name, but not all objects require individual
name, for these we create names form other words, that way we can name what we mean in
this very moment. Mill give us example of this stone, we can use words this and stone
in many other ways, and objects, beside the one particular moment when we mean it.
To clarify issue of names, we will start form distinguishing general names form
singular names. There is a great difference between these two. A general name is, familiarly
defined, a name which is capable of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of each of an
indefinite number of things. An individual or singular name is a name which is only capable
of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing 12. There are names, general names,
that can be assigned to many objects, Mill gives us example of word man with which we can
define many people, Mary, John, Stella they are all man. General names then, express certain
qualities. Contrary singular names, they define only one object, and even thought name John
can be assigned to many persons, these people do not have any certain general quality. For
12

J. S. Mill, Of Names, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford University
Press 2001), pp. 266

example, we can say, that Mary, John and Stella, they are all man and all man use language,
this is certain quality, that we can assign to name man, however situation looks different with
singular term. We can not say, that all that are named John have blond hair, or speak Japanize,
there is no quality that we could show that would be assigned to all Johns.
There is another important distinction that we have to show. The distinction between
general and collective names. A general name is one which can be predicated of each
individual of a multitude; a collective name cannot be predicated of each separately, but only
for all take together13.
Another general difference is between concrete and abstract names. A concrete name
is a name which stands for a thing; an abstract name is a name which stands for an attribute of
a thing14. Concrete names is a name of an object: John, this cup, the mountain, are concrete
names. Abstract names stands for attributes of object, the name of feature of some objects,
like whiteness. Mill gives us an example: old is a concrete name, but old ages is a name of
one attribute of old. Concrete name stand in opposite of abstract names.
The most important distinction of names is connotative and non - connotative. A non
connotative term is one which signify a subject only, or an attribute only. A connotative term
is one which denotes a subject and implies an attribute 15. Connotation then is a term that
gives some additional information not only about the subject, but also about its features.
General terms e.g. a person, tree, dog, table, etc. not only denote objects, but also connote
(express, imply) some of their attributes. These are feature characteristic for objects belonging
to the class denoted by the given name, therefore determinate that some objects are persons,
trees, dogs, tables. Names denote specific objects, and connote general attributes. So if
connotation is a complex of features for a given class of objects then connotation is meaning
and denotation - marking. However, the names of the same denotation may have different
connotation. For example: the symbol of love and muscle pumping blood even though
they denote the same thing, they have different connotation. It is also important that singular
names denote but do not connote. This means that the proper noun John is limited to the
specific, individual object, in this case to the John. The connotation, which is characteristic of
knowledge and, therefore, a set of features attributable to the specific object is not proper for
individual names.
13

Ibid. pp. 267


Ibid. pp. 267
15
Ibid. pp. 268
14

Propositional attitudes. This chapter refers to statements and sentences that describe
situation. It is connected with way of using language, with our emotional state an our state of
knowledge. We use words to describe many situation, that we see, feel, belief, experience.
This specific words like : I belief, I see, I know, I hear, I trust etc. may change sense, meaning
of full sentence. Moreover they got far reaching consequences, and by using this phrases we
just assume certain state of facts, rules ect. Philosophers were wondering how to handle this
kind of statements, how to explain them with terms of philosophy of language. Bertrand
Russell name them propositional attitude verbs.
Metaphor. We use metaphor, when we want to say something indirectly, when we do
not mean literally what we just said, but when we want to show some similarity. It is so called
figure of speech, when we want to communicate something but by another form. a figure
of speech in which a word or phrase denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of
another in order to suggest similarity between them [] metaphor always involve
comparisons between two things16. It is very significant for study of language, as it involve
structure, development and nature of language.
Interpretation and Translation. There are two sides to communication: the meaning
conveyed by the utterer or speaker and the understanding achieved by the audience 17. That is
one of the most important things in language, to communicate, but if we do not understand
each other, we fail to communicate. That is why interpretation is so significant. Even if my
communique is understandable for me, as long as recipient will not understand it, we will fail
to communicate, and understanding others statement happens by interpretation. Translation is
a little bit different as it requires another language.

translation is supposed to

preserve the meaning of the original utterance, while it is unlike interpretation, which aims at
going beyond the meaning of the utterance 18. Despite the fact, that interpretation and
translation seem to be different, many philosophers tread them interchangeably. In this part of
essay I will try to explain problem of interpretation reefing to Donald Davidsons essay Belief
and the Basic of Meaning.

16

A. P. Martinich, Metaphor, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford
University Press 2001), pp. 433
17
A. P. Martinich, Interpretation and translation, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New
York: Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 459
18
Ibid. pp. 460

Meaning and belief paly interlocking and complementary roles in the interpretation of
speech19. Always when we talk, when we use language, use - so to speak, speech - we
interpret what our speaker said, that is - we give certain meaning and beliefs to his utterances.
There is infinity of utterances that we interpret, so in order to explain; how interpretation,
beliefs and meaning, that we give to our speaker; works we need to apply to certain
mechanism. This mechanism correspond to theory. Theory of interpretation connects with
psychology, linguistic and philosophy. The main problem for Davidson is how we can
determinate if such a theory is true?. The simples way to verify theory is by applying to
empirical implications, if they are true then theory is true as well.
The Nature of Language. Problem of nature of language is very complex and various
issue, and at the same time basic. The main question here is, of course - what is the nature of
language?. Many philosophers over the years provide very different approaches. To
understand nature of language we need to understand how it works we need to explain
words, signification and general terms. In order to clarify this issues I will referee to Johns
Locke Of Words.
Man by nature is create to life in society, in order to do that we need to communicate.
We learned to articulate sound, we named them words, but animals are as well able to create
sounds, even learn words, but it is still something different form what people do, as we use
language. Words for man stands for internal conceptions, they are marks of ideas that are in
our minds. It allow us to communicate, as when we speak we referee to ideas that we have in
minds. However vastness of names, words would made communication very confusing, as we
would had to have distinct name for everything, that is why we use general terms, that mark
multitude of things. those names becoming general, which are made to stand for general
ideas, and those remaining particular, where the ideas they are used for the particular20.
There is also other kind of words, that do not referee to ideas, in fact, they do not referee to
anything, these are words like: nihil, barrenness. This words task is to mark absence of idea.
Ideas are internal, this causes problem how we can communicate if we referee to
ideas that are in our minds? To cope with this problem one must find some external sensible
signs that ones internal ideas are made of, but are also known to others. But even when we
talk to each other, we referee to ideas in our minds, of course we can understand each other.
19

D. Davidson, Belief and the Basic of Meaning, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New
York: Oxford University Press 2001), pp. 464
20
J. Locke, Of Words, in: The Philosophy of Language, ed. A.P. Martinich ( New York: Oxford University
Press 2001), pp. 509

For example: when I referee to cat, my hearer will think of idea of cat that he has in his mind,
but if the hearer do not know what is cat, therefore has no idea of cat in his mind, then word
cat signs to nothing and we will not be able to talk about it. In every language some ideas
are commonly accepted, that is, even though we all have internal ideas, we can communicate.
However, we do not learn word form our imagination, they stand also for reality of things.
There may be a confusion, as we know some sounds, words our hole life, we might assume
that thoughts are more of words than things, but it is false assumption. As we learn words
firstly, and as long as they do not have reflection of idea in our mind we just repeat sound, like
parrots. Language, using it, and using words themselves is right only with connection of ideas
that we have.
It may seem; considering plurality of things that exists, that every single one of them
should have distinct signification, name. But, as we know, this is not how language works,
there are general terms. Firstly, because it is impossible for human to frame, name, memorize
and use every single distinct particular existing thing. Secondly, even if it would be possible,
it would be useless, moreover it would not help communication, contrary it would make it
very difficult, as we would have only few or even non, shared ideas in our mind to referee to.
Thirdly, it would have no use in improving knowledge, typology would be impossible, and it
would cause a lot of confusion and chaos. Of course we use particular names Besides person,
countries also, cities, rivers, mountains and other the like distinctions of place have usually
found peculiar names, and that for the same reason; the being such as men have often an
occasion to mark particularly, and as it were, set before others in their discourses with
them21. We approach point where it needs to be explain: how general words come to be
made. General words are made by general ideas, that is, the ideas that are separated form time
and place. General terms are made by complex of fitting feature of particular things. Thanks
to general terms we can speak of species etc. We need to remember that they are nothing more
then abstract ideas. general and universal belong not to the real existence of things; but
are the inventions and creatures of the understanding, made by it for its one use, and concern
only signs, whether words or ideas22. However general term do not signify plurality, they
rather mark sort of things, or essence of things.
It is plain to see, that (as I said in introduction), Philosophy of Language is very
complex matter. What I find particular interesting is Austins performative utterance. His fresh
21
22

Ibid. pp. 512


Ibid. pp. 513

view on speech acts, make us realize even more how strong and powerful speech, language is
- that to say something is to do something. He manage to show that logical positivist were
wrong with their true or false criteria as a determination if sentence is meaningful or not.
Austin showed open mind in matter of language and its schema, structure, without excluding
big part of it and that brought us close to understand language. It may seem peculiar, but form
me performative acts strongly connects to psychoanalysis. As Freud, just like Austin claimed,
that to say something is to do something, of course he was referring to emotions, repress
memories, etc. but nevertheless still naming, saying those things, is more doing then
describing, as it changes mental and, very often also, physical state of patient. And we need to
remember, that thanks to Austin, emotional statements are as meaningful as strict science
statements. That of course is more suitable approach to language and gives more true
picture of it, and it clarify lots of rules, way of working of language. It shows that, Philosophy
of Language is very far reaching discipline and that language is present in every aspect od
human life, so it should be no surprise that so many thinkers, great minds and tones of
literature were devote to this subject.