I wanted to know what are the current status of philosophy of language. What is valid today? What philosophers are accepting? For example, during the beginning of the XX centry, we have Frege's views of sense and reference, then with Russell's theory of descriptions; during the WI, we have Wittgenstein's Tractatus and the picture theory. But, of all of this developments, which one survived? I ask this because I wan't to start studying grammar, and I found a little troubling, because I don't understand the "logic" behind it. So, any reference would be welcome. Have a nice day.

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    You can see the SEP entry on Philosophy of Linguistics and the IEP entry on Philosophy of Language and much more (searching IEP for "Philosophy of Language"). Apr 27, 2014 at 13:23
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    Contemporary philosopher of language Scott Soames has produced three wonderful texts that you should check out: (1) Philosophy of Language; (2) Philosophical Analysis in 20th Century, 2 Volumes; and (3) The Analytic Tradition in Philosophy: Volume 1 The Founding Giants. Apr 27, 2014 at 18:23
  • Are you interested in studying the grammar of a particular natural language or in grammar as some set of rules used to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences in any language (in the formal language theory sense)? Apr 27, 2014 at 18:23
  • I'm interest in both things. I want to study the "specifics" so I can learn better my native language (portuguese); and the general philosophical approach, so I can really learn how language works (just the "mechanical" knowledge doesn't interest me). Thank you for the references, they appear very good, especially (3).
    – Ricardo
    Apr 27, 2014 at 18:30
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    There is no better way of getting aquainted with current philosophy of language than reading the relevant texts. An excellent anthology is 'Readings in the philosophy of language'. Ed. P. Ludlow. Cambridge, Mass. 1997. This anthology not only contains the most important texts from the most important fields of the philosophy of language (with the possible exception of issues concerning semantic relativism), but also linguistic (formal semantical) implementations of the text's ideas.
    – sequitur
    Apr 27, 2014 at 21:04

2 Answers 2


The work of Noam Chomsky is generally accepted as the cutting edge of linguistics and because of his contributions many people regard him as the most relevant living intellectual in the world.

The basis to Chomsky's linguistic theory is that the principles underlying the structure of language are biologically determined in the human mind and hence genetically transmitted. He therefore argues that all humans share the same underlying linguistic structure, irrespective of socio-cultural difference. In this he opposes the radical behaviourist psychology of B.F. Skinner, instead arguing that human language is unlike modes of communication used by any other animal species.

Chomskyan linguistics, beginning with his Syntactic Structures, a distillation of his Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, challenges structural linguistics and introduces transformational grammar. This approach takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax characterized by a formal grammar; in particular, a context-free grammar extended with transformational rules.

Perhaps his most influential and time-tested contribution to the field is the claim that modeling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" or "creativity" of language. In other words, a formal grammar of a language can explain the ability of a hearer-speaker to produce and interpret an infinite number of utterances, including novel ones, with a limited set of grammatical rules and a finite set of terms. He has always acknowledged his debt to Pāṇini for his modern notion of an explicit generative grammar, although it is also related to rationalist ideas of a priori knowledge.

A popular misconception is that Chomsky proved that language is entirely innate, and that he discovered a "universal grammar". Chomsky simply observed that while a human baby and a kitten are both capable of inductive reasoning, if they are exposed to exactly the same linguistic data, the human will always acquire the ability to understand and produce language, while the kitten will never acquire either ability. Chomsky labeled whatever the relevant capacity the human has that the cat lacks as the language acquisition device, and he suggested that one of the tasks for linguistics should be to determine what the LAD is and what constraints it imposes on the range of possible human languages. The universal features that would result from these constraints are often termed "universal grammar" or UG. Though Chomsky generated the universal grammar theory with the belief that language is uniquely human, a series of studies from various laboratories have shown the existence of acquired language in several great ape species, including common chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. Thus, great apes at least partially possess whatever mental functions might underlie the LAD, and are therefore important species of study for exploring the neural basis of language.

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    linguistics and philosophy of language are not the same discipline. I'm not saying this is a good thing, just saying it.
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2014 at 15:40
  • i just assumed (possibly incorrectly) that a complete theory of linguistics and philosophy of language would be the same thing. Jul 6, 2014 at 15:50
  • For reasons I don't understand (I'm an ethicist in modern philosophy and Chinese philosophy), the two fields aren't the same. Nor does either overlap much with philosophy of literature.
    – virmaior
    Jul 6, 2014 at 15:52
  • How do you understand Structural Linguistics? Jul 6, 2014 at 22:24

A couple of years ago, Vyvyan Evans published a book (The Language Myth), in which he tries to dismantle the foundations of the decades long research done under the umbrella of Generative Grammar. Evans' work has been however torn apart by the proponents of Generative Grammar (see Hornstein's blog) for reasons I will not delve into here. What I do want to point out however is another suggestion Evans makes, namely, that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the philosophy of language/linguistics.

Evans seems to be willing to suggest that the neo-Whorfian school will become the mainstream. The thing is, Khunian changes are announced every so often. Five years ago, for example, the French linguist Gilbert Lazard underlined his idea that a Pure Linguistics is the only possible theory which could bring linguistics closer to the status of a real science, dismissing the universalist approach and embracing the Saussurian distinction between language and speech and analysing language in consequence, namely, as a system of signs (la langue) and the conditions of its use in discourse (la parole).

I guess, a better picture of the current status in the philosophy of language should include, beside Chomsky's Generative Grammar, the neo-Whorfian effort as well as the Pure Linguistics. If GG will remain mainstream or if any of the other two will gain some momentous remains to be seen.

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