Ever since the "linguistic turn", philosophers have been keenly aware of the need of analyzing certain questions about language.

In retrospect, John Searle, in Expression and Meaning, notes "the philosophy of language is a branch of the philosophy of mind; therefore no theory of language is complete without an account of the relations between mind and language and of how meaning is grounded in the more biologically basic intrinsic intentionality of the mind/brain."

Searle seems to be saying this: talking about facts of language presupposes commitment to facts about the psychology of humans who are language users.

An argument for this conclusion could be along this thread:

1.) Words are used by a community of language users

2.) Words have determined meaningfulness in the community in which they are used

3.) Words, as physical sounds or written shapes, are not inherently meaningful

3.) If something linguistic determined the meaningfulness of words, then that linguistic item would be in need of determination, since it too would not be inherently meaningful

4.) On pain of an infinite regress, what gives words meaningfulness must be non-linguistic.

5.) Since words are meaningful only to the people who use them, the meaningfulness of our words is derived from the way we use them

6.) An account of this derivation relation must describe facts not only about word usage, which does not inform us as to how words can actually derive meaning, but about the people from which words derive their meaning.

7.) To understand facts about the people using language is to understand facts about human psychology, activity, and intention.

8.) A philosophy of language then, presupposes a philosophy of mind.

By 'presuppose' it isn't meant that every philosophy of language must include an account of the mind by a necessary law.

Instead, 'presuppose' means to describe this derivation relation, and the idea that a philosophy of language won't be comprehensive if it doesn't take account of facts about language users.

It is also to suggest that accounts that do not see a distinction between language and thought are not accounts in the philosophy of language, but rather the philosophy of mind.

Finally, if this argument is sound, it seems to establish that language use is not an autonomous activity, but is instead a mode of expression made possible because certain non-linguistic things operate in a certain way.

  • note that Searle hedged his bet in the quoted passage by going from "mind" to "mind/brain".
    – user20153
    Commented Nov 9, 2016 at 20:56
  • you asked 2 distinct questions. One about philosophy of language, another about theory of language. very different ideas-the latter could be a scientific (empirical) theory.
    – user20153
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 0:02
  • even in philosophy there is no reason to think a philosophy of language could not get along without a philosophy of mind. beware of thinking Searle has the last word on this - many philosophers think he's dead wrong.
    – user20153
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 1:00
  • @mobileink I only used Searle as one example to serve a general point. Whether there are arguments for the position that a philosophy of language presupposes a philosophy of mind or not is a matter that I would expect someone answering this question to go about including in their answer.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 1:10
  • Perhaps the question would be better focused if you gave an argument of Searle's for theory of language presupposing theory of mind and asked how others would respond to it. As it is, the scope is too broad, "presupposes" is too vague, and the answer to "does every theory..." is a trivial "no" (think of formal languages). Some philosophers reject the idea simply because they do not find it well motivated. Also, even if command of human language "presupposes" mind somewhere in the background it does not mean that there can not be a theory describing that language independently of that mind.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 4:39

2 Answers 2


There is rarely a consensus that some philosopher is "right" about something. But there is a general sense in analytic philosophy that the linguistic turn exhausted itself by 1990s, and exactly because of stumbling at the issues related to the philosophy of mind, to which the focus shifted. But the interrelation the relation is seen as more of a mutual dependence than "presupposition". Philosophy of mind certainly did not attain the status of the "first philosophy" that the philosophy of language enjoyed during the linguistic turn. Burge gives an interesting analysis of the specific reasons in his historical survey Philosophy of Language and Mind: 1950-1990:

"Gradually but unmistakably, in the latter part of the 1970s, the philosophy of language lost its place as the dominant starting point for philosophical activity... Moreover, there has been a perceptible shift of ferment toward issues in the philosophy of mind. Some reasons for this change are internal to the subject. The discussions of meaning by Quine and Grice showed that there is a systematic interplay between meaning and propositional attitudes, like belief and intention. Although most discussion of language made some reference to this relation, there had been little concentrated reflection on the propositional attitudes. Therefore, dialectical pressure built toward a shift to the philosophy of mind.

Another internal reason was that some of the most difficult and persistent specific problems within the philosophy of language accounting for Frege's puzzle about Hesperus and Phosphorus in the light of the new theory of reference, accounting for the cognitive value of demonstratives, giving an account of the truth conditions and logical form of sentences about propositional attitudes, explicating de re belief-all pointed toward the philosophy of mind. A broader internal reason is that the philosophy of language seemed to have exhausted some of its promise in illuminating traditional philosophical questions, the questions that drew most philosophers into the subject... As I have intimated, one ground for this shift was that many philosophers felt that philosophy of language had done its job that the natural development of philosophical reasoning led into the philosophy of mind, or other adjacent areas."

He is seconded by Dummett in The Logical Basis of Metaphysics (1991), but he sees more structural continuity between what was accomplished during the linguistic turn, and the subsequent philosophy of mind. In his view, assigning "priority" to either mind or language is of little practical consequence:

"It has until recently been a basic tenet of analytical philosophy, in its various manifestations, that the philosophy of thought can be approached only through the philosophy of language. That is to say, there can be no account of what thought is, independently of its means of expression... In recent years, a number of analytical philosophers, prominent among them the late Gareth Evans, have rejected the assumption of the priority of language over thought and have attempted to explain thought independently of its expression and then to found an account of language upon such a prior philosophical theory of thought. On the face of it, they are overturning the fundamental axiom of all analytical philosophy and hence have ceased to be analytical philosophers. In practice, the change makes a difference only at the very beginning: once their basic philosophy of thought is in place, all proceeds much as before.

The thesis of the priority of language over thought in the order of explanation is, obviously, important in itself; but its acceptance or rejection makes comparatively little difference to overall philosophical strategy... An analysis of the logical structure of sentences can be converted into a parallel analysis of the structure of thoughts, because by 'logical structure' is meant a representation of the relation of the parts of the sentence to one another that is adequate for the purposes of a semantic, or rather meaning-theoretical, treatment; it is that syntactic analysis in terms of which we may explain the sentence's having the meaning that constitutes it an expression of a certain thought.

  • I don't really see anything in your answer that qualifies the thought that the relation between philosophy of language and philosophy of mind is codependent. In what way do you think they depend upon each other? Also, your answer doesn't really talk about whether and how a philosophy of language does or doesn't presuppose a philosophy of mind. You reference Dummett; I would say that his reasoning for thinking theses about priority are irrelevant is circular, since he presupposes that 'logical structure' is equivalent to linguistic expressions.
    – Mithrandir
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 1:08
  • 1
    @Mithrandir A version of interdependence thesis is currently defended by Brandom, among others philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/38564/… As for Dummett, he has arguments to support his theses, but you'd have to read more of his than a quote, even a long one. Many, after Quine, reject on general grounds (naturalized epistemology) the very idea of "priorities" and "presuppositions" when it comes to structuring knowledge. The issue is vast and controversial, I only pointed out some viewpoints.
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 10, 2016 at 1:35

Searle says something a wee bit different:

"Language-ing" about facts of language requires a commitment to facts about conscious language users and militating against a long tradition of "languishing" in suppositional speculation not grounded in the correspondence of utterance and what is empirically verified.

See chapter 9 in "The Construction of Social Reality" for Searle on truth and correspondence. See this review of Savas L. Tsohatzidis' (ed.), "John Searle's Philosophy of Language: Force, Meaning and Mind".

In short, no - respect for obtaining knowledge of language does not necessarily require respect for obtaining knowledge of "mind" although a sufficiently adequate explanation of language will address intentionality. But, yes, it is arguable that any respect for obtaining knowledge of language is built upon a background informed by a respect for obtaining knowledge of consciousness whether explicitly articulated or not. The two necessarily overlap.

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