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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Major Figures
  • Theories of Meaning
  • The Nature of Language
  • Rule-Following and Meaning Skepticism
  • Truth
  • Analyticity
  • Direct Reference and Rigid Designation
  • Indexicals and Demonstratives
  • Propositional Attitudes
  • Speech Acts
  • Metaphor
  • Minimalism and Contextualism in Semantics

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Philosophy Philosophy of Language
Michael P. Wolf
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0063


The term “philosophy of language” is generally used more restrictively than newcomers to the discipline might expect. While philosophers of almost every stripe have something to say about language, people who speak of “philosophy of language” generally intend to restrict it to philosophers in the analytic tradition over the last one hundred years or so. This entry reflects that general convention. The entry also breaks the field down by major topic areas, with each later topic including at least one cornerstone work (usually more) and greater attention to recent papers of interest. The topics above (beyond the review of textbooks and supplements) may be thought of as falling into major groups based on a number of larger themes and questions in the field. After some historical review, we consider what our view on what languages must be: how do things become meaningful within a language and how do speakers adhere to the rules governing the language? We then look at how truth should be understood and, more narrowly, whether there are analytic truths (statements that are true in virtue of the meanings of their terms). Questions of how words themselves come to refer to or stand for parts of the world are then considered, both invariantly and in ways that are sensitive to context, including expressions of propositional attitudes. Two sections after that address more pragmatic matters in the philosophy of language: what is it to perform a speech act (and thus communicate with others) and what is it to use an expression metaphorically, deviating from accepted usage and yet being acknowledged by other speakers? We close with a review of an emerging debate between minimalists and contextualists over the degree to which the meanings of most of the language are fixed.

General Overviews

There have been several new volumes in the last ten years offering a comprehensive view of the entire field of philosophy of language. Lepore and Smith 2008, Devitt and Hanley 2006, and Hale and Wright 1999 all offer comprehensive treatments of the field, where not long ago there would have been only anthologies. Of these three, Lepore and Smith 2008 is the most encyclopedic, while Hale and Wright 1999 and Devitt and Hanley 2006 offer greater depth on those issues they treat. For an online resource, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has a great deal of content on philosophy of language but not a comprehensive entry on the entire field. Wolf 2006 may serve as a useful primer, particularly for undergraduate audiences.

  • Devitt, Michael, and Richard Hanley, eds. The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Language. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Anthology of original essays, but with much more emphasis on theories of reference and different categories of terms (e.g., names, mass terms, anaphora). Well suited as a supplement to graduate topics courses geared toward those interests, and perhaps paired with Davidson 2007 (cited under Textbooks and Anthologies).

  • Hale, Bob, and Crispin Wright, eds. A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631213260.1999.x

    Anthology of original essays on numerous topics. Similar to Lepore and Smith 2008, though with fewer topics and more attention to realism and connections to metaphysics. Suitable for graduate students and possibly students in some advanced undergraduate courses.

  • Lepore, Ernest, and Barry C. Smith, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199552238.001.0001

    Very extensive anthology—forty-one essays—on numerous topics in the philosophy of language and linguistics. Intended more as a reference work on the current state of numerous topics, most of which could be read without reference to others. Suitable for graduate students and possibly students in some advanced undergraduate courses.

  • Wolf, Michael P. “Philosophy of Language.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2006.

    Brief but comprehensive overview of the analytic tradition in philosophy of language. Major figures are covered, and the emergence of major theoretical traditions and subfields are explained. Suitable for upper-level undergraduates and above.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.