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“The problem of philosophy is a linguistic problem, and every disagreement can be traced back to a difference in interpretation.”

“No wonder we know that the deepest problems are not really problems at all.”

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

The reason for the existence of problems in philosophy is that when the philosopher uses language, he uses it in a way that differs from the way it is used in daily life, or in other words, and we find that the words that come out of his mouth do not lead to the same results that we are accustomed to requiring.

Types of ambiguity that we may encounter in language:

1- One word may have two different meanings, or in other, more precise terms, there may be two words that share the same phonetic sign, such as the word like (like - like).

2- Not distinguishing between different meanings on the basis that we did not take into account their use in the context in which they are formed; When a word is used in different contexts, the same word seems to have different meanings. Note that language verbs, such as the verb try, have a different meaning in the phrase: "I'm trying to solve this mathematical equation" than in the phrases: "I'm trying to remember what I've forgotten" and "I'm trying to sleep."

((The meaning of a word is determined according to its actual use in the language, and the different contexts in which it is composed)). – Usage theory

Wittgenstein was the first to entrust the rules of logic - if they are, if we analyze them - to the rules of language, thus creating a kind of balance between the rules of logic on the one hand and the rules of language on the other hand, on the basis that the form of logic and the form of language are similar, and therefore thought and language are two things. One. Wittgenstein expressed this by saying: “Thought is the matter of meaning.”

Alan Wood, quoting Russell, wrote: “I have been forced, with pain, to believe that nine-tenths of what is called philosophy is nothing but idle talk, and that the only part of it which is precise and precise is logic, and since this part belongs to logic it does not enter into Department of Philosophy. He added, for his part, in response to Russell’s words: “What Russell should not have said is: Most of philosophy is nonsense. Rather, he should have said: Most philosophers are false. I think this is what he really meant, but his etiquette prevented him from saying that.” It is an argument that can be taken more seriously than others. If we were to rank the human race according to average intellectual honesty, I would put professional cricketers in first place, then I would put scientists next to them, then professional philosophers in a much lower rank, and that it is It is impossible for a cricketer to be a phony or a charlatan, for if he pretends to be better at his game than he is, his situation will be exposed from the first ball he plays, just as a scientist who introduces a theory usually knows that it can be proven true or false by scientific testing. As for the philosopher, he does not need Except to write a book that no one understands, without anyone being able during the remainder of this philosopher’s life to confirm whether he is a genius or a pretender. Thus, it becomes easy for us that the ranks of philosophers include a certain percentage of pretenders, but this does not prove that philosophy is in In itself, it is a less valuable work than science or cricket.)

So the problem of philosophy is a linguistic problem? And it's falsity depends on the philosopher use of language?

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  • 2
    @ScottRowe -- "No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks." (Mary Shelley) Commented Feb 19 at 5:00
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    @YuriZavorotny - the idea that Evil as deviation from the good originates with Socrates. Commented Feb 19 at 9:42
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    Having said that, it is difficult to assert that there are no genuine philosophical problems: nature of Truth, of Good, of Beauty,... Commented Feb 19 at 9:50
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    I would say that, under the assumption of strict materialism, Wittgenstein's assertion is correct, but that's a very strong assumption and must be justified on philosophical (i.e. not merely semantic) grounds. Commented Feb 19 at 17:28
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    From an outsider's perspective, the problem with philosophy is that it is a shallow pool that philosophers try to make deep. Once stripped down to its essence, philosophy is just basic assertions. The rest is wordgames. Natural philosophy used to be a mixture of maths, science, and rhetoric. Maths and science have been split off to be incredibly diverse, useful, cooperative disciplines. Philosophy has been left behind without the things that make maths and science flourish (the rigour of maths or the experimental data of science). Philosophy is now (and has been for many decades) more a quest
    – Xavier
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:41

10 Answers 10

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Many difficulties encountered in philosophy are indeed related to the inherent imprecision of language. The problem is perhaps more fundamental than your examples suggest, since if it were just a matter of certain words having several well-defined meanings, we could resolve it by simply adding a suffix to each ambiguous word to denote which of its meanings we intended. The real issue is that we cannot define abstract words with arbitrary precision, since each attempted definition relies upon the use of other abstract words that are themselves imprecise. As a consequence there is an unavoidable degree of fuzziness. It is also likely that a similar fuzziness extends to our thoughts, and is not just a property of the words we use to convey them.

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    Maybe we should use fuzzy logic more?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 19 at 0:38
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    @ScottRowe Since reality is fundamentally fuzzy, that seems entirely appropriate. For example, anybody who has ever sincerely listened to both sides of an acrimonious divorce cannot have any doubt that the many worlds theory is real. Any attempt to find truth, good or beauty (to quote Mauro), let alone love (to quote and dismiss Virgil) is doomed from the start. Commented Feb 20 at 18:56
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Philosophy, most simply, means reasoning about things, and reasoning is distinct from linguistics. Linguistics merely has to do with defining terms. So, if we must resolve a problem by reasoning besides merely defining terms, then the problem is not only linguistic.

So, the question is whether all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues.

Let's pose this as a disjunction: either 1) all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues, or 2) they do not (at least one philosophical problem cannot be resolved linguistically).

Notice that #1 is a philosophical problem. Clearly it is not purely a linguistic issue, since we have to think about the statement and evaluate whether it is true or not, as in this very post we are applying non linguistic deductive logic to analyze the statement. Therefore, if #1 is true, then not all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues.

If #2 is true, then not all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues.

Since we get the same conclusion from both clauses of the disjunction, then by the law of disjunction elimination we can conclude that not all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues. Therefore, Wittgenstein is wrong.

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  • This is the way to solve these problems! Reason them out of existence once and for all.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:15
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    Law of excluded middle @DanielFBest
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 20 at 0:30
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    Though, the use of LEM (and disjunction elimination) is entirely redundant. By the point of "Therefore, if #1 is true, then not all philosophical problems reduce to linguistic issues.", you've proved that #1 ⇒ ¬#1, which is equivalent to #1 ⇒ (#1 ⇒ ⊥), or just #1 ⇒ ⊥, i.e, ¬#1. The rest of the proof just says that if you started from ¬#1, you'd also get ¬#1.
    – mudri
    Commented Feb 20 at 10:17
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    @mudri you're right, as phrased my argument is actually nonsensical. I'll have to think if it can be saved by rephrasing.
    – yters
    Commented Feb 20 at 20:05
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    Hold silent to reason about things without the use of language! Commented Feb 24 at 20:03
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There is a view propagated in analytical philosophy that most problems of philosophy result from linguistic carelessness – as stated in a pointed form by Wittgenstein:

For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday. (Philosophical Investigations No. 38).

The view that philosophical problems are simply linguistic problems is not shared by all philosophers. E.g., it was not shared by Karl Popper.

He emphasizes that he solved Hume’s problem of induction. And surely, the problem of induction from epistemology is not a linguistic problem.

Nevertheless philosophical discussions become worse when the partners do not use clear words and agree about the meaning of their concepts – and this deficit is not seldom.

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So the problem of philosophy is a linguistic problem? And it's falsity depends on the philosopher use of language?

Yes.

Communication requires a sender, a receiver and a communication channel (here: language). All three of them can be the cause of miscommunication.

Aside from that, it is worthwhile to point out that not every single utterance of every single philosopher has linguistic problems. There is a significant percentage of philosophical statements which are perfectly able to be expressed, transported and understood by the majority of people involved, and can be hugely insightful.

From that it also follows that there can be of course other problems, that are not linguistic at all. People can understand each other perfectly well, but still disagree.

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  • What OP is saying I think is that all disagreements in philosophy are rooted in language misunderstandings. However, I think he's entirely wrong (and not because I'm misunderstanding his words)
    – TKoL
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:47
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    Yes, that is my opinion too, @TKoL, and I have added that sentiment to my short answer.
    – AnoE
    Commented Feb 19 at 14:08
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You ask:

So the problem of philosophy is a linguistic problem? And it's falsity depends on the philosopher use of language?

The canonical responses fall into two categories: yes and no. This is because not all philosophers agree on the question. In fact, many philosophers have strong views on what philosophy is. Thus, there are different metatheories about philosophy which form the basis for studying metaphilosophy. This notion that most if all of philosophy reduces to language use was popular with the logical positivists, ordinary language thinkers, and many post-positivist analytic thinkers.

So, among thinkers and analytical philosophers after the linguistic turn, the answer is yes, and I'll speak to that thesis regarding the views of Wittegenstein, Ayer, Ryle, and others, who take a deep interest in how language impacts philosophy. Before I lay out a few thoughts, I'd recommend Szabo's and Thomason's Philosophy of Language (GB). The scope of the relation of philosophical problems to language at this point should be self-evident to anyone who makes the effort to familiarize themselves with the philosophy of language.

Let's face it: without language, there is no philosophy as it is understood. But the question of reducing all of philosophy to language might be radical and excessive, even with Wittgensteinian thinking about language. Some have criticized the obsession with the analytical and syntactical analysis as an approach to all of philosophy. Modern philosophy of science, for instance, has lost the forest in the trees according to Zammito in his A Nice Derangment of Epistemes (GB) where in his final chapter he chides philosophers from becoming obsessed with radical linguistic concerns.

So, the best answer is that if concepts are related and adjacent but not subsumed by language, then there is a heavy overlap between the question of semantics and philosophy, but not a complete overlap. Linguistics is the science of language, and therefore has only a partial interest in philosophical discourse, and a realist philosophical position would posit that the problems that present are external and independent of language even if language is required to communicate experience. Therefore some philosophical problems are grounded in problems of making sense of experience independent of language.

My personal view is that language is constructed to reflect experience, but does not encompass it. Therefore, the realist/anti-realist debate is largely about how one chooses to reconcile how best to construct language to reflect experience, and that language cannot resolve that question. Thus, implicit in that claim there is an appeal to LW's language games to claim that intention independent of language is the driving force of philosophical discourse. Philosophical problems are not produced exclusively by language, but instead in the cognitive conceptual apparatus that is intertwined with spontaneity of sensation, questions of will and action, and intuition (SEP).

Thus, philosophical problems are inextricably bound to language, but the determination of truth and falsity lies outside of the faculty of language itself. (For one scientific theory that addresses the science impacting this sort of cognition, see Damasio's somatic marker hypothesis.)

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Go back to basics; regardless of what language you speak, or how many words, memes, or ready-made-by-your-language concepts are in it are available to describe the concept, if the philosophical point is not basically translatable into "human speak", i.e. universal it's not relatable. If that is the case, it might be prudent to simplify or adjust the argument until you reach the resonant frequency of it where anyone can understand the point. Regardless of linguistics, if the basic concept is not understood, the words don't matter.

I'm new here from other SE sites, so just to explain where I'm coming from: a training in psychology, a career in programming and a life long enjoyment of philosophy and poetry.

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  • For small values of 'anyone'.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:09
  • @ScottRowe Can you explain further? Thanks.
    – Absinthe
    Commented Feb 19 at 12:55
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    Sure, you say "where anyone can understand the point", but there often seem to be large groups of people who are not understanding in the same way as others.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:16
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    @ScottRowe Thanks for the clarification. That was my point really; perhaps it's necessary to reduce arguments to the point where literally everyone can understand them, then we achieve a (human) universal constant variable.
    – Absinthe
    Commented Feb 19 at 22:22
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I think it is important to put forward an other aspect of philosophy. The users of this SE are predominantly leaning toward analytical philosophy which would more or less agree with your claim. This comes directly from the fact that, broadly speaking, a fundamental axiom of analytical philosophy is the maxim from Wittgenstein which says that

What can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.

And even more, there is a specific interpretation that prevails, namely that what we haven't yet managed to say clearly likely can't be said--and that whereof one must be silent, one should forget it. This is why you won't find terms such as "Being" (as in "das Sein" in Heidegger), "Good" (as in the greek Ἀγάθων in Plato), "Truth" in its metaphysical sense and so on. This is also why analytical philosophy is so close with formal logic and linguistic: with this interpretation, if something can't be apprehended with the tools of formal logic, it likely can't be said clearly (yet?) and so it should not be said and, finally, it should be forgotten.

On the other side, say from the blurry side of "continental philosophy", I don't think that many people would strongly disagree with the idea that "What can be said at all can be said clearly"--only, they would rather focus on the first half (What can be said ?) rather than on the second (saying things clearly). Naturally, this implies working with things that can't be said clearly, as we may be still working toward a way of saying those clearly. So the cut off, when it comes to the language is shifted: it meddles with a greater variety of objects at the obvious cost of clarity. And when Russel reads Hegel and except to read it like your everyday book (or even his everyday math book), this is simply the clash between two different fundamental approaches of philosophy.

And with this second approach, the "continental" one, philosophy does not have to do, in the first place, with reasoning and deducting, but rather with the language: it tries to get closer to the things with the language. As you observed there are ambiguity in the daily language, and also things that we have trouble saying. And philosophy, in this second sense, starts exactly where the natural language fails: it is the inquiry into those difficulties with the idea that those point toward something deeper and that getting rid of those altogether would also mean losing the access to that thing. As such it can't not deal with those difficulties and to some extent work with them.


As an addendum, we could wonder which interpretation of the second half of the sentence ("and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent.") is also at the basis of the continental approach. While the general picture is less clear, I believe that, surprisingly, it is rather in line with Wittgenstein idea. For him, keeping silence about those in no way means forgetting about those; he was very annoyed when the positivists of the Vienna Circle totally misunderstood this sentence. On the very contrary, keeping silence means taking care of not veiling those things that can't be said with hopeless attempts, and to let those appear as clearly as they can--out of the language. This one of the reason why he was taxed of mysticism by advocates of the analytical approach.

Eventually, and as a remark, I believe that the analytical approach of philosophy is not reconcilable with the idea that Wittgenstein exposes in the second half of his sentence: refusing to deal with the limitations of the language is also refusing to deal with what lies beyond.

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  • +1 Though I disagree on your last claim. I think any sufficiently naturalized epistemology admits that rationality and language use are grounded in cognition outside of language itself.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 19 at 16:11
  • +1 For underscoring the analytic v continental dichotomy. I would inter alia add one more point. Everyone here almost by definition, speaks English, mostly monolingually. Not French, German, Russian... Hindi, Swahili. In particular, Not French
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 19 at 16:26
  • @JD This last claim is indeed absolutely debatable--which is why I wanted to put it forward as a belief. That said, I think I agree with what you say and that it is not contradictory with this belief. A bit less shortened, the reasoning would be: by focusing on things that can be said clearly we get used to a "super-efficient" language and so less attentive to what is outside this language--say, some aspects of rationality for example. But tell me if I misunderstood your comment.
    – Johan
    Commented Feb 19 at 17:35
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    I commented not to challenge you, but to frame the debate for the OP. :D I'm not sure a forum like this could even give an adequate treatment of the debate legs.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 19 at 18:18
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    @JD No worries, didn't felt like you being challenging :)! I just wanted to be sure what your observation regarding cognition and language implied. As for this debate, I am sure that I am not ready yet to go down this rabbit hole haha.
    – Johan
    Commented Feb 20 at 16:31
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Three quotes from Heidegger. Consider them and reconsider your question.
Or at least consider reconsidering your question

  1. Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man

  2. The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking

  3. Making itself intelligible is suicide for philosophy

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  • +1 Quotation 3 is an interesting interpretation of the phrase 'philosophical suicide' as distinct from that presented in The Myth of Sisyphus.
    – J D
    Commented Feb 19 at 18:21
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Re:"The problem of philosophy is a linguistic problem, and every disagreement can be traced back to a difference in interpretation."

Not if your you define your key terms and use clear and unambiguous statements.

It is very ironic that you brought up Wittgenstein. The guy was not only quite mysterious and confusing but also a highly depressive person. And a lot of his statements, although apparently simple, where ungrounded or even made no sense at all. My favorite is his known statement "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world." Not only it is a totally unrealistic proposition --as if one's view of the world, i.e. one's reality, depended exclusively on language-- but even not serious, esp. for a "thinker", let alone a philosopher.

Also, if the statement you start with in your topic were true, then we would have a lot of problems with all the philosophical discussions that date since the dawn of civilization. And all written works since then would have little value ...

This is the kind of conclusion one can arrive to when one follows Wittgy's statements like this`.

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  • It's curious — you claim that W's statement is unrealistic, unserious, unphilosophic. Have you ever had a thought without some sort of sentence that carried the thought? What kind of thoughtless thought was that? For more see Lera Boroditski
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 24 at 19:39
  • @Rushi, do you mean that one's reality, worldview, experience(s), etc. consist of thoughts? I really don't see what thought and thinking , much less "sentences" have anything to do here ... Thoughts consist of images. They may or may not include words.
    – Apostolos
    Commented Feb 25 at 11:38
  • That our words (or lack) can quite literally set buildings on fire and kill people was documented by Whorf
    – Rushi
    Commented Feb 25 at 16:41
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Wittgenstein is one of the more radical advocates of the Analytic Philosophy movement, and his selections here reflect some of the suspect thinking within that movement. I will try to list then discuss the core assumptions.

Premise 1, Wittgenstein starts with the premises that philosophy is reasoning.

This is a peculiarity of the Analytic movement. Socrates, and Plato, considered philosophy to be the pursuit of knowledge, or of understanding.

Popper's approach to philosophy is that it is the set of all problem areas or subjects that we do not yet understand well enough to have been characterized and turned into their own separate disciplines.

Reasoning is helpful in trying to gain better traction on this residue of "most difficult problems," but is not the only tool that might be useful.

Premise 2, that reasoning, and thinking in general, are necessarily linguistic.

The focus on "reasoning" by the analytic movement drives them toward the need to define terms explicitly, and then articulate explicit propositions. However, we can see form introspection that we do non-propositional and non-linguistic thinking. When one stares into a fire, and enjoys the play of changing patterns, that is non-linguistic thinking. When one does a mental space transform, to figure out if an object will fit into a space (when, say, loading a car), this is not just non-linguistic thinking, it is non-linguistic "reasoning" problem solving.

The denial of non-linguistic thought is a clear error in Wittgenstein's thinking.

Discarded Premise 3, that the vagueness of ordinary language make it impossible to clearly articulate and evaluate philosophic claims

The analytic movements focus on reasoning led to the realization that general usage of terms is often extremely vague. Equivocation is a frequent consequence of communicating with standard language, as most complex words have from half a dozen to dozens of sometimes subtlety different definitions.

This led to the development of formal logic languages, to try to make philosophic propositions more clear, and their evaluation more consistent. There is a good summary here: https://ericrose04.wordpress.com/2019/05/14/what-is-analytic-philosophy/

Note Wittgenstein is considered the most eloquent advocate of Ideal Language Philosophy. However, Wittgenstein himself lost faith in the utility of ideal language, because of its inability to articulate the subtleties of our world. In a full reversal, he ultimately became an outspoken advocate of Ordinary Language Philosophy: https://iep.utm.edu/ord-lang/#SH2c

Note these passages are from after Wittgenstein's reversal on ideal vs. ordinary language.

Premise 4, all metaphysics , and most of philosophy is nonsense

Wittgenstein, in both his ideal and ordinary language phases, was deeply offended by Hegelian metaphysics, and Hegel's dominance of philosophic thinking. he sought to expel all metaphysics from philosophy, and constrain philosophy to issues of logic and linguistics.

Neither logic nor linguistics address at all the major life questions that we humans turn to philosophy to answer, so there has been significant pushback against Wittgenstein's presumption here. Karl Popper's response, paraphrased, is that metaphysical questions are the most interesting and important issues in philosophy.

The methods by which Hegel derived his metaphysical claims were to look at sociological and historical trends in human history, and draw conclusions about the nature of our world from them. His method was far more like that of "intuitive" historians than of sociologists (he was writing before sociology became a well established science). The appropriate response to Hegel is to challenge the validity of the data he used, and his extension to claims about the universe rather than limiting his conclusions to claims about human social dynamics.

Premise 5, use of ordinary language will dissolve philosophic problems

This is the core claim of the Ordinary Language Philosophy movement. It is -- now -- widely considered to be false.

Of note, the most significant of the OLP philosophic works was Gilbert Ryle's The Concept of Mind. In The Concept of Mind (TCoM), Ryle argued for behaviorism. His thesis was that what we REALLY MEAN when we refer to mind, is dispositions and behaviors, not some hidden inner thing. Note that Ryle's usage of "mind" is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from that of actual ordinary language! Today, most philosophers are extremely embarrassed about the half century of dominance of behaviorism on both psychology and philosophy of mind!

So -- OLP, in practice, was used to do exactly what its advocates claim they were opposed to. In the hand of OLP philosophers: "when the [OLP] philosopher uses language, he uses it in a way that differs from the way it is used in daily life, or in other words, and we find that the words that come out of his mouth do not lead to the same results that we are accustomed to".

The first movement based on the Early Wittgenstein, Logical Positivism, is now considered the most thoroughly refuted philosophical movement of the 20th century. The movement based on this ordinary language version of Wittgenstein, Ordinary Language Philosophy, never gained enough traction to be "refuted", it has mostly just faded away and been forgotten.

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