The better way to phrase it is: "Are there objective truths about language?" -- this question is parallel to the question of moral realism: "Are there objective moral truths"?

One way to interpret moral subjectivity is that it implies that "what people consider to be moral, is moral.". My analog for language is that "what constitutes language is just how people speak". This would be subjective in the sense that if everyone started behaving differently then language would change -- language is just what people do when they communicate.

On the other hand, linguistic realism would imply that there are facts or features of language that exist independent of anyone's actual speech -- maybe something like Plato's forms: there is Platonic Language, and then human languages are its shadows.

I know this is probably not settled, but I'm not even sure of who has addressed it, so, mainly I'm looking of indications of the main schools of thought, and outlines of their rationales. I believe that I need to be better acquainted with this question before examining theories of meaning, because how I interpret any particular theory of meaning will depend on the disposition of this question.

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    The absence of objective truths about language would entail the impossibility of a science such as linguistics. Could you be more specific about the scope of this search for objectivity? Where is the problem? Are you talking about meaning? Jun 15, 2015 at 21:21
  • My intuition is the opposite: if language is just what people do (subjective -- in a sense at least), then linguistics (as the study of how people speak) is OK, but the philosophy of language is in trouble since all of the study of language is subsumed in just (that style kind of) linguistics. Thus for the philosophy of language to be anything other than cataloging what people do (for me: linguistics), there must be objective principles to language as a thing.
    – Dave
    Jun 15, 2015 at 21:35
  • Mathemaatical logic in a broad sense could be summarized as the study of formal languages, which, among other things, provides the theoretical basis for constructed languages used in computer programming. I haven't studied philosophy of language, but imagine that a good starting point for a systematic investigation of its foundations might begin with a survey of formal systems.
    – David H
    Jun 15, 2015 at 21:51
  • @André Souza Lemos Linguistics studies human use of languages, not "language itself", so its existence is perfectly consistent with no "objective truths" about language (whether or not they exist). Just like religious studies do not require existence of objective truths about religion (which we wouldn't know even if they did exist).
    – Conifold
    Jun 15, 2015 at 23:46
  • We may be disagreeing about what "objective" means. Jun 15, 2015 at 23:50

3 Answers 3


Your view is similar to that of late Wittgenstein, after the so-called "linguistic turn". In Philosophical Investigations published in 1953 he writes “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language”. He describes linguistic activity as a collection of "language games", "consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven", interrelated by "family resemblance", but with no underlying unity. In particular, meanings, while being intersubjective to make communication possible, do not necessarily reflect something objective.

This was a reaction against traditional theories of meaning, which Wittgenstein himself once supported, where elements of a language are supposed to refer, either to something in "reality", or to a mental representation. In its modern form such traditional semantics is due to Frege, and is generally accepted in broad outline in analytic philosophy. It does commit one to a form of realism, and in case of Frege even to mathematical platonism.

However, while it is convenient in scientific contexts this view of language is seen by many, including the late Wittgenstein, but especially in the continental philosophy, as reductive and not doing justice to the actual usage. Wittgenstein pointed out for example that "speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life", that concepts do not need to be clearly delineated to be meaningful in linguistic exchanges, and argued that none of that is accounted for by the semantics of reference. While there undoubtedly are referring words in languages, such as simple nouns whose referents are indicated to a child by pointing, overall the semantics of reference takes the dictionary view of what the meanings "ought to be", rather than reflects how they actually function when natural languages are used.

Linguistics itself is mostly focused on studying the actual usage, but the opposing approaches are somewhat reflected in descriptive grammar, which represents the common usage, and prescriptive grammar, which is normative. To quote from Linguistics SE "Even today, prescriptive grammaticists are merely a vocal minority, as they have been throughout all of history. This should be obvious since they tend to oppose language usage which they deem incorrect but is in common usage and common usage is, by definition, common". But prescriptive grammaticists "serve a somewhat useful purpose. They help to codify and propagate the standard dialect. A standard dialect is important for ensuring mutual intelligibility across a wide audience". One could say that prescriptive grammar is a social device by which intersubjectivity of language is maintained, that it is especially crucial in contexts requiring precision like sciences, and that the semantics of reference is its philosophical expression.


I do not dispute Conifold's answer, but would like to add a different perspective.

As I see it, and according to what could be understood as a fundamental tenet of structuralist and post-structuralist conceptions of language, it is not just that what constitutes language is how people speak, but also that the human condition itself is created in and through speech.

What still intrigues me about your question is the conjugation of objectivity and independence of manifestation. As was conjectured by the comment from David H, only in pure mathematical terms can these two demands be met. In other words, "facts or features of language that exist independent of anyone's actual speech" are a matter of logic, or, if you include virtual manifestations of language (as Peirce has proposed) of theoretical semiotics.

In any case, linguistic realism is perfectly compatible with an empirical study of language, it actually would benefit greatly from the absence of Plato from the scene.


It's a very intriguing question.

I think to answer it well and carry the analogy well, we need to distinguish between two uses of the word "language" and think about how they relate to the ideas at work in debates about moral realism. One a certain level, language as in "French language" refers to something that a group of people use to communicate. Clearly, the specific rules and conventions of this language are different from say the "Romanian language" or "Cantonese language."

On a certain level, there are clearly no objective (and eternal) facts about "language" in the terms of a single specific language. Grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary all change over time. Maybe at any given moment, we could say French has some specific set of these rules and practices.

A second meaning of language which I think appears at some points in your question is the idea of language -- not as the specific linguistic practices of one group but as the features necessary for any language to work. I.e., are there "facts" about language in general.

Morality too can bleed between these two uses (some authors use "ethics" for the systems of particular groups and "morality" for the universal type -- others the opposite; the usage is entirely inconsistent between authors and translations). I take it that the debate about moral realism is primarily about the second type of usage but bleeding into the first.

Looking primarily at the second sense of language, I take it that Chomsky and others are committed to linguistic realism insofar as they identify deep features of languages that they think are quintessential to its form. Others will also be linguistic realists if they believe that languages relate to communicating about and manipulating a natural world that has objective features. (i.e., any language is a language precisely insofar as it enables us to talk to each other about this world, so this world-fit will be a feature of language per se).

Linguistic anti-realists would tend to be post-structuralists and deconstructionists (e.g. Derrida) and others who think that the language blocks we're manipulating don't map onto "a real world" or "given" in any deep or meaningful way.

In the second sense, I don't see late Wittgenstein as necessarily being a lingustic anti-realist. To acknowledge language is a tool that works in certain contexts implies that language works. Whether he then is a lingustic anti-realist hinges on whether he thinks that it works only in an imaginary play-land or in the actual world which would require words to at times pick out and meaningful link to the world. I'm not an expert on reading his journals (most of the writings outside of TLP and PI), so I don't have a strong opinion either way, but I would tend to read him as a realist about language in the second sense of "language" which I take to be a better parallel to moral realism than the first sense, which I take would be akin to moral philosophers debating whether the moral system of Finland is the one true moral system.

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