If I recall correctly, analyzing a concept in ordinary-language philosophy involved taking inventory on how the term for the concept is used by the speakers of the language across contexts, thus revealing a family of related concepts for which the word stands.

At first blush, this methodology doesn't seem to leave much room for discussions of what a given term ought to mean, or what concept or concepts ought to answer to a given term.

But is this a mistaken or limited view of ordinary language philosophy? Could ordinary language philosophers discuss what, for example, what terms such as "morally permissible" ought to mean?

2 Answers 2


From my understanding, ordinary language philosophers take it upon themselves to determine how a certain term is used in language, as a means to denote how it ought to be used. Thus, I would say that there certainly is room for discussions, but it's important to note what these discussions will be centered on.

Ordinary language philosophy tries to formally define terms based on how they are already used in languages, not come up with new semantics themselves. This means that ordinary language philosophers would argue on how exactly to turn the use of a term in common language into a more formal definition. To use Wikipedia's example of "reality," ordinary language philosophers would debate on how the word's use in common language ought to translate into some agreed upon definition and context for the word.

The idea that ordinary language philosophy does not leave much room for such argumentation would come from the fact that this philosophy does not really try to create theories for itself, unlike most other philosophies. Instead, it builds theories on existing language, and the fact that it has this foundation could lead one, as you say, to arrive at this conclusion "at first blush." However, the foundation of language is a very flexible and loosely defined one; ordinary language philosophers are tasked with determining how they ought to build their definitions and concepts upon these foundations, and so there is certainly much room for argumentation.

Therefore, the answer to your question:

Could ordinary language philosophers discuss what, for example, what terms such as "morally permissible" ought to mean?

Is: certainly, but you have to keep in mind their specific source of epistemology. All philosophers argue from their own epistemology; primarily logic, but there are also many points of difference, such as when a rationalist argues from theory while an empiricist argues from physical observations (not that the two are mutually exclusive). Ordinary language philosophers argue from the epistemology of existing language, and it is about how different philosophers perceive this language that there would be argumentation. Therefore, you could expect significant argumentation among ordinary language philosophers about what certain terms ought to mean, and you will find that they try to establish normative definitions - it's just that these definitions and arguments take their epistemology from language.

In summary, this parallelism is useful: Empiricists create normative definitions and argue about what terms ought to mean from their physical observations. Rationalists create normative definitions and argue about what terms ought to mean from their mental reasoning. Ordinary language philosophers create normative definitions and argue about what terms ought to mean from their observation of language.


I think you might have ordinary language philosophy backwards. My recollection of the origin of ordinary language philosophy was that it appealed not to a statistical/empirical analysis of what a large number of people said about how they use words, but instead appealed to what one native speaker thought about the usage of the word after quizzing oneself.

I think it was the critics of that method that suggested that a sample of one is a poor sample, and in order to do ordinary language philosophy properly, one ought to do surveys of how words are used 'in the wild'.

There's really interesting questions about skepticism embedded in there - the notion that the only way you can get to what a word means is by asking everybody else what they think it means rather than just asking yourself. If it's a technical term that's not well understood... you must ask someone else. But if it's an ordinary word?

I'm not sure about "morally responsible", but I thought a good example of how appeals to ordinary uses of language influences a philosophical debate is that ridiculous so-called paradox: "This sentence is false." In ordinary use, the question that arises is "Which sentence?". The 'paradox' appears to emerge when that sentence is taken out of ordinary use and made a thing in itself. Instead of pointing to something else, people make it point to itself.

I don't think ordinary language philosophy is 'positive' in the sense that it leads to the "really real". Human is the best it aims at. I got the sense that its role is, in a way, negative: to bring things back to the everyday concepts and dispel philosophical 'problems' which only appear to be problems when the language, removed from their human contexts, is taken to be something which it is not - a thing in itself.

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