Wikipedia says:

Analytic philosophy" can refer to: A general philosophical tradition characterized by an emphasis on clarity and argument (often achieved via modern formal logic and analysis of language) [emphasis mine]

What are some examples of how analyzing language can help solve philosophical problems?

EDIT: It strikes me that the analysis of language is analogous to a method of proof in math. For example, someone might ask me: "Why is it useful to analyze the group structure of arithmetic?" I could tell them Lagrange's theorem, and how Euler's theorem follows, and even if they didn't understand the first thing about groups, I believe I could convince them that the idea could be useful.

So what's an example of a problem that seemed difficult in philosophy, but the answer was illuminated by the analysis of language?

  • Could you maybe tell us a little more about what you are trying to find out here? "Helpful" is not very specific. And in general "examples of where analysis of x is helpful in philosophy" -- well, when you are doing philosophy of x, right? I am not sure how constructive this is as formulated; is there any chance I could persuade you to clean this up and provide some more context on the problem you are trying to solve here? – Joseph Weissman Aug 28 '11 at 17:32
  • @Joseph: I've tried to clarify, but I have to admit I don't understand what was wrong with the original post. Someone claims "In order to solve problems, X is useful." I'm merely asking for an example. – Xodarap Aug 28 '11 at 18:23
  • Asking for examples is not problematic if the scope if specified clearly. But it is very difficult to know where to begin when the question is so broad. Please consider reformulating this to more clearly specify the scope; I might suggest asking a bit more simply -- which are the most significant examples of philosophers using linguistic analysis and for what purpose. But anyway it seems to me like you are really trying to get at some resources where you might be able to get started learning about the method and its history, rather than just trying to assemble a list of instances of its use. – Joseph Weissman Aug 28 '11 at 18:32
  • 1
    Lots of original philosophical works (e.g. Socratic dialogs, Maimonides' A Guide to the Perplexed) are essentially exegeses of word meanings. What is a friend? What is justice? What does it mean to 'perceive'?. And that's just analysis of particular words. Logic, a large part of philosophical practice, is how to combine words and concepts formally. – Mitch Aug 28 '11 at 18:47
  • As it stands this question is very broad, it would take me 3 hours to compose a proper answer. There is no one such thing as philosophical analysis of language. There are many different and partly contradictory approaches to philosophical problems that all pay careful attention to language: Ordinary language philosophy as practiced in Oxford around 1960s, Grice's critique and modifications to it, Wittgenstein's therapeutic method of pointing out mistaken analogies/pictures of language, Carnap's use of explication, Dummett's idea of philosophy of language as first-philosophy etc. – Johannes Sep 29 '15 at 17:04

The most simple example i can think of is the category mistake, a kind of fallacy. A known aphorism is:

Not Seeing the Forest For the Trees

Stanford Encyclopedia:

Most famously, Ryle (1949) introduced the idea of the category mistake as a way of dispelling the confusions he thought to be rampant in the Cartesian theory of the mind, and thus of dissolving many apparent problems in philosophy of mind. According to Ryle, one makes a category mistake when one mistakes the logical type or category of a certain expression (1949, 16-17). Thus, e.g., a foreigner would make a category mistake if he observed the various colleges, libraries, and administrative offices of Oxford, and then asked to be shown the university. The foreigner mistakes the university for another institution like those he has seen, when in fact it is something of another category altogether: “the way in which all that he has already seen is organized” (1949, 16). The category mistake behind the Cartesian theory of mind, on Ryle's view, is based in representing mental concepts such as believing, knowing, aspiring, or detesting as acts or processes (and concluding they must be covert, unobservable acts or processes), when the concepts of believing, knowing, and the like are actually dispositional (1949, 33). Properly noting category distinctions may help alleviate a variety of philosophical problems and perplexities, and the idea of the category mistake was widely wielded (by Ryle and others) with this aim.

Another important advocate of this common fallacy in philosophy is Ludwig Wittenstein, he covers a lot problems of language in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


The clearest example, in my opinion, is `on denoting'. There, a logical analysis of the definite description in language is used to offer an account of how we can meaningfully talk about non-existent objects, such as unicorns, without having to commit ourselves to their existence (as abstract object, for example) - see meinong for such a view.

The way Russell did this was to analyse a proposition such as `the present king of France is bald' as, there is an x((x is the king of france and x is bald) and, for any y, (if y is the king of france then y=x)). This then allows us to talk about the present king of france or unicorns without having to commit ourselves to the existence of such things.

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