In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ancient Philosophy of Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Investigations
  • Presocratic and Socratic Philosophers
  • The Epicureans
  • The Stoics
  • Sextus Empiricus
  • The Commentators
  • The Church Fathers
  • Nature and Convention
  • The Origin of Names
  • Signification and Meaning
  • Homonymy and Ambiguity
  • Linguistic Fallacies
  • Sentence Structure, Predication, and Truth/Falsehood

Classics Ancient Philosophy of Language
Francesco Ademollo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0217


Ancient reflection on language seems to have been initially pursued neither systematically nor for its own sake, but rather in the context of other kinds of inquiry. Various converging pulls can be identified. On the one hand, the Eleatic investigation of being involved a critique of the relation between language and reality; on the other, in the 5th century the philological and literary study of the poets (especially Homer), along with the development of rhetoric and of sophistic reasoning, attracted attention to the specific ways in which language works and is structured. As far as we know it was Plato who started a new phase of more abstract and autonomous inquiry into such topics as the signification of names, the structure of sentences, and truth and falsehood. After Plato, theoretical interest in language became more systematic with Aristotle and the Stoics, also on account of their intense work in a closely related area, namely logic (which will not be covered in the present article, though the boundaries between logic and the philosophy of language are sometimes vague and arbitrary). It was then left to the commentators and the grammarians (also not included in the present article for their own sake but dealt with in a number of works cited) to preserve, systematize, and sometimes conflate the impressive achievements of those earlier ages.

General Overviews and Investigations

Steinthal 1890–1891 and Kneale and Kneale 1962 are classic accounts dealing with many specific topics that are relevant here. Leszl 1985 provides a short overview of the subject. Everson 1994 is a systematic collection of various essays on language in ancient philosophy. Frede and Inwood 2005 contains various valuable contributions on Hellenistic philosophy.

  • Everson, Stephen, ed. 1994. Language. Companions to Ancient Thought 3. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An excellent collection of essays ranging over all the main Greek authors and schools. Several of its chapters are individually referred to elsewhere in this article. Includes a very extensive bibliography.

  • Frede, Dorothea, and Brad Inwood, eds. 2005. Language and learning: Philosophy of language in the Hellenistic age. Papers presented at the Ninth Symposium Hellenisticum, held in Haus Rissen, Hamburg, Germany, 23–28 July 2001. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482526

    An excellent collection of essays (several referred to elsewhere in the present article) by a number of specialist scholars on various subjects in Hellenistic philosophy of language.

  • Kneale, W., and M. Kneale. 1962. The development of logic. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Illustrates the development of logic—understood in a broad sense, which includes the philosophy of language—down to the 20th century.

  • Leszl, Walter. 1985. Linguaggio e discorso. In Introduzione alle culture antiche. Vol. 2, Il sapere degli antichi. Edited by M. Vegetti, 13–44. Turin, Italy: Boringhieri.

    A survey, in Italian, of the various aspects of the ancient philosophy of language.

  • Steinthal, Heymann. 1890–1891. Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft bei den Griechen und Römern, mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die Logik. 2d ed. 2 vols. Berlin: Dümmler.

    A great classic, offering a systematic treatment (in German) of popular, philosophical, and grammatical views of language in Antiquity. While obviously dated in various respects, it has never been replaced by anything strictly comparable in scope, and it is still worth consulting on a number of issues.

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