I'm looking for pointers towards texts that treat the issue of "doing philosophy with language" as a foundational problem-- which must be justified in order to go on and make meaningful statements about "normal" problems in philosophy.

Short explanation:

I've read from epistemology texts. I understand them but I don't believe them. The texts I've found so far don't discuss or attempt to show that they are not merely playing a language game, but rather are making progress in philosophy.

I'm looking for thought and texts that attempt to justify or "bootstrap" language, or the terms of discussion. I'm looking for a philosophy that includes the problem of doing philosophy itself, especially communicating philosophy with language, as a foundational issue.

Long explanation (feel free to skip):

What do I mean by 'doing philosophy with language' as a foundational problem? Let's ask: what's the goal of a philosophy text? Many natural and quick answers are similar to:

The goal of a philosophy text is to say something true and valuable (or to "gain clarity") about fundamental questions.

But what does this mean? It's well acknowledged that there are different theories of truth and value. What then does it mean to "do philosophy", and how is it possible that by doing it we could achieve something? My argument here frames the basic issue in epistemology-- how can something be known?-- but in terms of "meaning" rather than "truth". So, borrowing from epistemology, it seems there must either be "foundational" axioms of meaning, or a "coherentist" process by which a text can create and justify its own meaning as a whole (or some mix of the two).

I have looked at contemporary epistemology texts (including texts about skepticism) but so far every text I've come across seems to make the tacit assumption that it's okay to just start writing in English about epistemology. I'm looking for texts that question everything that happens or must exist before the first sentence can be written and understood.

Wittgenstein (and his secondary literature) has been the most helpful so far. To rephrase what I'm trying to get at-- to the best of my understanding, the epistemology texts I've seen fail to address the possibility that they themselves are playing a language game rather than making progress towards truth and knowledge.

Can you recommend any texts that might enlighten my thinking? Have I made a mistake or somehow misconceived the problem? Happy to hear any thoughts you have.

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    If you are looking "for a philosophy that includes the problem of doing philosophy itself" and ""meaning" rather than "truth""phenomenology comes to mind. Husserl even used similar foundational language. But "doing philosophy with language" is confusing in this context. Why would epistemology involve language rather than the experience itself, directly, with language as an imperfect communication medium, and an afterthought? The linguistic turn was largely a turn away from meaning towards extensional truth values and language games.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 10, 2019 at 5:59
  • @Conifold thanks for your comment! I'll try to clarify "doing philosophy with language", please let me know if it's still confusing. I think it's an open question whether epistemology must involve language or whether experiences themselves are enough. But language is still necessary when communicating that experience to others. Maybe it's an "afterthought" for the person writing. But I think it's still relevant for everyone else. Language seems necessary to say anything in philosophy; my premise is that the possibility of progress through saying things must be addressed first. Does that help? Commented May 10, 2019 at 6:18
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    "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch discusses the use of language in the context of epistemology in chapter 7, but you should read chapter 3 first.
    – alanf
    Commented May 16, 2019 at 8:30
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    In a similar vein, "foundational problem" is language, so what philosophical basis is there for stating the phrase? John Dewey addresses "doing philosophy with language" in Essays on Experimental Logic by saying that language, with everything else including philosophy of language, is inextricably "experiential" (I paraphrase and simplify a lengthy introduction). A consequence of experience in Dewey's sense is that "foundation" is not necessary for "doing philosophy with language" and doing so leads to avoidable problems. "Experience" is normally not well understood by Dewey's critics. Commented May 19, 2019 at 20:19
  • @JonathanCender I agree, there is no "given" basis for stating "foundational problem", but philosophy may be able to provide that basis. I think I broadly understand the pragmatist perspective put forth by Dewey and others. I haven't pursued reading their original works because while I am sympathetic to Pragmatism it seems less likely than other areas to address my concerns. I am moreso trying to understand how contemporary epistemology regards the "bootstrapping" problem of giving an account of how doing philosophy can lead to something like truth or knowledge. Commented May 28, 2019 at 19:12

1 Answer 1


I will make several suggestions, although I am not certain that I interpret the question as intended. The strongest case (arguably) for philosophical foundations to epistemology in modern times, including the idea that positive sciences require such an inquiry into their foundations to function properly, was emphatically made by Husserl throughout his life. The locus classicus is the first volume of his Logical Investigations. The second volume introduces his signature solution, phenomenology, along with a meaning-centered theory of language. The meaning is interpreted as generated by intentional (meaning-giving) acts of consciousness, and the linguistic constructions are portrayed as paralleling the compounding of those acts.

In this early period Husserl was rather optimistic about the ability of language to express and communicate phenomenological insights, falling into the traditional illusion about the transparency of language. In later years he came to increasingly recognize the "problem of language", in particular given its historical development and intersubjective nature. The original, static, phenomenology of contemplating/constituting fixed essences (carriers of meaning) was complemented by genetic phenomenology, a kind of idealized history of essence constitutions that uncovers the roots of meaning under the subsequent "sedimentations", and explorations of intersubjectivity. On the former the relevant works are Formal and Transcendental Logic and Crisis of European Sciences (specifically devoted to analysis of meaning, and its loss, in science), and on the latter, Cartesian Meditations.

The Husserlian tradition was continued, with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Gadamer devoting much attention to phenomenological theory of language. Early (pre-deconstruction) works of Derrida also fall into this tradition. What came to be called hermeneutics, methodology of interpretation, is also highly relevant to foundational questions about language and meaning. Gadamer's Truth and Method is considered a classic of philosophical hermeneutics.

All philosophers I mentioned so far fall into the continental tradition. This is because analytic tradition rejected the traditional meaning-centered (intensional) view of language (attaching signs to meanings in a crude Augustinian description) as naive, and posited reference as the underlying primitive. Starting with Frege's context principle (words only mean in the context of a sentence), the sense came to be increasingly identified with extension, set of situations that make sentences true. Naive correspondence ideas about reference were quickly replaced with more complex holistic (Quine, Davidson) and pragmatist (Wittgenstein, Austin) theories, but the focus remained extensional. It is out there, in the empirical world, in the communal practices and customs, that the "meaning" was to be sought, not in here, in the independent realm of mental or ideal essences.

But since Wittgenstein's idea of language games was mentioned as helpful I will make a suggestion. First, late Wittgenstein really meant both words in "language games". They are not purely verbal activities, they are also games, as in practices. While analytic tradition abolished the self-standing realm of meanings, in its best moments at least, it does not dissolve meaning in a hollow sea of signs. The intersubjective, and perhaps foundational, significance of language is to be sought in the activities, interactions, with both other speakers and the world directly. Indeed, the mastery of language is a quintessential example of knowledge-how, a skill which is learned and developed, and developed in interaction with both the community, and the reality itself. If it is anywhere it is there that the foundation of epistemology, and the primordial basis of knowledge is to be found, upon which the conventional shell of its linguistic expressions rests.

The most comprehensive (again, arguably) attempt to develop this line of Wittgenstein's thought (and also the more directly epistemological insights of Sellars) is due to Brandom. One of his major departure points, which he himself emphasizes, is discarding Wittgenstein's idea that "language has no downtown", all language games are on equal footing. According to Brandom, there is a privileged language game, the game of giving and asking for reasons (Sellars's term), which forms the basis of our rationality, and opens up the possibility of rational knowledge. Brandom's notes on Sellars are rich in epistemological ideas. His theory of language is developed in Making it Explicit, Articulating Reasons is a more accessible introduction.

  • This is a very helpful answer, and I really appreciate the work you put into writing it. I'll need some time to consider the ideas/texts/people you've referenced but I'll comment again once I have a reply. Commented May 12, 2019 at 0:43
  • I read sections from most of the texts in your answer. Didn't get much out of Husserl, Gadamer, or Derrida, but Brandom's books are the best I've found since Wittgenstein, particularly Between Saying & Doing! Can't thank you enough for directing me to them! In Brandom's interview with 3:AM magazine he recommends the work of Huw Price, Sebastian Rödl, and Mark Wilson, which I may look at in the future if I need more reading material. Commented Jun 10, 2019 at 18:44

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