This may be a strange question, but here's the breakdown. I work on a concept that has received very little philosophical attention. For this reason, I have to consult good old dictionaries (Oxford, Webster, etc.) to just get a basic grasp on the concept. Now, as philosophers, we do not often engage with dictionaries in this way. Philosophy ultimately goes beyond or deeper than the ordinary use or understanding of a word. But I have to start from somewhere. It's tricky to figure out how to go about the whole matter. So, back to the question: does anyone here know about a piece of philosophical work or of a philosopher who consulted ordinary language dictionaries, and then worked their way up (so to speak), to a philosophical disambiguation/definition of the concept? I need to see how someone (masterfully) handled this situation. Any suggestions on how to go about it methodologically would be great too.

  • 1
    Not sure if they consulted dictionaries, but you can look into the Oxford group of ordinary language philosophers, especially Austin.
    – Conifold
    Mar 14, 2019 at 8:47
  • Jargon and reinvented terminology utilizing borrowed language does absolutely nothing to promote scholarship. It is comparable to a thieves' cant. Its only function is to preserve a facade of 'authority' and to protect certain material interests (such as "intellectual property", itself a sad joke).
    – Bread
    Mar 14, 2019 at 11:37
  • Thanks @Conifold.
    – Ella
    Mar 14, 2019 at 16:16
  • @Bread, what do you mean? English is not my first language, and I'm finding it diffucult to understand what you are saying. Maybe use (oops I mean, utilize) different words (oops,I mean jargon).
    – Ella
    Mar 14, 2019 at 16:18
  • asinine question alert, but what's really the difference between philosophical analysis and consulting a dictionary?
    – user35983
    Mar 15, 2019 at 12:32

2 Answers 2


Welcome, Elia.

As usual, Conifold's arrow hits the target. I'm not aware of any philosopher of note who worked solely or mainly from a dictionary but the so-called Oxford ordinary-language philosophers of the late 1940s to 1960s believed that an examination of ordinary language could throw light on philosophical problems. J.L. Austin (1911-60), the principal figure, relied mainly on his own linguistic intuitions supplemented by those of colleagues such as Geoffrey Warnock and J.O. Urmson - though the dictionary could have played a role in their inquiries.

Austin called his method, 'linguistic phenomenology', though the label never caught on. The exact flavour of his attitude to ordinary language is captured in the following passage from 'A Plea for Excuses' :

Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men (sic) have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth making, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, because they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and practical matters, than any that you are I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon - the most favoured alternative method. (J.L. Austin, Philosophical Papers, 3rd ed., ed. G. Warnock & J. Urmson, Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1993: 182.)

Austin did not suppose that all philosophical problems could be solved or elucidated by appeal to ordinary language. His point was that if, for example, we ask what it is to do something voluntarily, a proper first step is not to pore over the word as if it represented an isolated concept, but to see the various ways, marked out in ordinary language, in which we would say or imply that an action was not voluntary or not fully voluntary : it was an accident (I barged into you because the train jolted), it was a mistake (like making an error in arithmetic), I did it negligently (I didn't mean to do it, I just didn't take enough care) and so on and on.

Ordinary language is only an aid to reflection, to borrow Coleridge's phrase. It is not the be all and end all of philosophy but it has resources that can be of use to a philosopher.

Aristotle took a different but related view of ordinary language in his Method of Opposites (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. V, 1:5-7, 1129a17-30). If you want to understand a word or (really) a concept, look at all the operative contrasts in ordinary language. J.R. Lucas offers the example of a 'fact':

We ask " What is it being contrasted with? Is it a fact as opposed to a fiction? Or as opposed to a theory? Or as opposed to an interpretation ? Or a question of fact as opposed to a question of law? " This in itself is enough to show that there is no one unitary concept of a fact, but rather a whole sheaf of concepts, bound together indeed, but distinct. (J.R. Lucas, 'On Not Worshipping Facts', The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), Vol. 8, No. 31 (Apr., 1958), pp. 144-156: 145.)

  • Thank you for your helpful answer, Mr Thomas. Luckily I don't want to solve all my philosophical problems by consulting a dictionary! It's just one small step,or a springboard from whence to orientate my thoughts. Just like you said through Coleridge, it's only aiding my reflection. It just gives me a little semantic stability, because I can't just make up the def. of a concept (that I want to treat philosophically) willy-nilly. I just don't want to bluster into it like an amateur: hence my search for philosophers who make a graceful transition from ordinary to philosophical language.
    – Ella
    Mar 14, 2019 at 16:35
  • Thank you so much - I am glad to have been of help.And I wish you well in your graceful transition from ordinary to philosophical language. Hope PSE will be useful. Best - Geoffrey Thomas.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 15, 2019 at 8:58

In Heidegger's works there are many instances where he starts by considering an ordinary (ancient) Greek word and spins out a philosophical history from it. Occasionally this could be fascinating. Also he has a tendency to assert that only Greek and eventually German are the languages suitable for philosophy.

Barbara Cassin coordinated a massive work with the title Vocabulaire européen des philosophies undertitled Dictionnaire des intraduisibles which became its English title (Dictionary of Untranslatables / Princeton U.Press 2014). Among its main points is the demonstration that doing philosophy while sticking to a single language, be it Greek, Latin, German or English, has serious shorcomings.

Inventors of artificial languages who are the subject of Umberto Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language (1993) could be a place to look for treatments leading up or down.

Hope this helps.

  • Here is the Cassin book at Amazon and it appears to be at a bargain price to me. I have used this book, and it is very interesting, and it represented a lot of hard work in the making. Btw the copy I used was in the reference section of the main branch of a large county library (USA). This library was later "downsized" and is now being remodeled. I hope this book will survive the downsizing.
    – Gordon
    Mar 15, 2019 at 1:26
  • amazon.com/…
    – Gordon
    Mar 15, 2019 at 1:26
  • Fascinating! Thank you sand1 and @Gordon. So true that one cannot just stick to one language. The funny thing about the word that I am investigating is that it seems untranslatable into its related Romance languages, (and as far as I can see, Germanic languages). So I'm definitely reading Cassin. Thank goodness our campus library has it (here in South Africa to be vague). And I always have time for an Eco book. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts. Again, thanks for taking the time to answer, sand1!
    – Ella
    Mar 15, 2019 at 6:50

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