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

  • Introduction
  • Handbooks and Textbooks
  • Journals

Linguistics Philosophy of Language
Bernhard Nickel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0081


Language is a central component of human existence. This platitude gives rise to at least two motivations to study the philosophy of language. The first is to better understand how language fits into other human activities, such as communication and the transmission of knowledge (rather than merely the transmission of belief) and the ways speech acts can be used to accomplish a number of different aims. It is part of this research approach to investigate, for example, in virtue of what basic linguistic facts such as reference obtain or for that matter whether there even is such a thing as reference. The second attempts to use language as a medium through which to study at least apparently nonlinguistic subject matters. This strategy found its most elaborate articulation in the work of the logical positivists, who sought to analyze such metaphysical concepts as causation, law of nature, and the whole domain of mathematics in linguistic terms. This latter research approach has fallen into disfavor with the resurgence of robustly metaphysical theorizing in the 1970s and a recognition of the importance of the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. Semantic results consequently do not directly lead to results about the subject matter we use language to discuss. In the early 21st century we still see connections between language and nonlinguistic subject matters, but these tend to be “closer” to language, such as logic and psychology. It is especially the impact of the semantics/pragmatics distinction that has kept philosophy of language and linguistics quite closely connected, since philosophers who study language need to take care to ground their theorizing in the data without overshooting what the data can support.

Handbooks and Textbooks

There are a number of comprehensive and high-quality reference works in philosophy of language, including Hale and Wright 1997 and Lepore and Smith 2006. In many cases, the articles or books are written by authors with a serious acquaintance with linguistics. These handbooks may be supplemented with textbooks on philosophy of language that seek to show how a number of issues in philosophy that are treated separately in handbooks are related to each other. Two outstanding sources are Blackburn 1984 and Lycan 2008. Two monographs that are very explicit on the relationship between linguistics and philosophy of language are Hornstein 1986, written from the perspective of a linguist, and Soames 2010, written from that of a philosopher. Coffa 1993 and Friedman 1999 are excellent discussions of logical positivism and the role language played in their modes of inquiry. Zalta 2011 is an online resource that offers reference materials on many issues of philosophical concern, including many in philosophy of language. The articles are usually of high quality and are updated regularly.

  • Blackburn, S. 1984. Spreading the word. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A single tour through a number of key issues with an emphasis on the “big picture” issues, such as pragmatism and the nature of convention.

  • Coffa, J. A. 1993. The semantic tradition from Kant to Carnap: To the Vienna station. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A historical discussion covering post-Kantian philosophy up to the Vienna Circle, focusing especially on the role that semantic theorizing plays in understanding a priori knowledge.

  • Friedman, M. 1999. Reconsidering logical positivism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Pays particular attention to the connections between the linguistic theories of philosophers in the Vienna Circle and their views on scientific inquiry.

  • Hale, B., and C. Wright, eds. 1997. A companion to the philosophy of language. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Collection of essays on core areas of philosophy of language. The essays are substantive contributions to the fields they cover and are opinionated but are excellent starting points nonetheless.

  • Hornstein, N. 1986. Logic as grammar: An approach to meaning in natural language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Presents a theory of language and meaning that is driven fundamentally by the need to account for language acquisition. Articulates a theory that places great emphasis on syntax and opposes theories that use reference.

  • Lepore, E., and B. C. Smith, eds. 2006. The Oxford handbook of philosophy of language. Oxford: Clarendon.

    A collection of overview essays that emphasize a broader coverage of topics and literature within each topic.

  • Lycan, W. G. 2008. Philosophy of language: A contemporary introduction. 2d ed. Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

    Overviews encompassing key areas, such as direct reference, truth-conditional semantics, and theories of names and descriptions.

  • Soames, Scott. 2010. Philosophy of language. Princeton Foundations of Contemporary Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Begins with a concise overview of the history of philosophy of language couched in terms of a single, consistent terminological framework—very useful as a companion to reading classic papers. Also makes some proposals about future topics for philosophy of language as distinct from linguistic semantics.

  • Zalta, Edward N., ed. 2011. The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Stanford, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford Univ.

    Contains a host of continuously updated and high-quality articles on many points of philosophical concern.

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