- Language has been the focus of the analytic tradition in twentieth-century philosophy. A good deal of that philosophizing about language has drawn its inspiration from a simple-sounding idea: to understand a word is to know how to use it. The formulation is particularly associated with Wittgenstein. But the idea itself has had immensely wide influence. It was important in logical empiricism - the empiricism of Vienna in the thirties - and also in ordinary language philosophy in Oxford after the Second World War. It can be traced to the nineteenth century: for example, one might see it as a central feature of Peirce's pragmatist conception of meaning, or as a generalization on the reflections of philosophically minded mathematicians and scientists, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, about the meaning of scientific and mathematical calculi. (Notable among many were Mach, Poincare and Hilbert.) From the idea that use exhausts meaning important consequences have seemed to flow: the elimination of metaphysics, the dissolution of sceptical paradoxes - the pseudo-problematic nature of certain classical philosophical questions.
- This essay will not trace the nineteenth- and twentieth-century sources of the idea. Nor will it examine the question of its grand philosophical implications, though these possible implications are of major importance. Our task here will be simply to assess the idea itself. We shall examine how it leads to a distinctive conception of meaning which I will call the 'epistemic conception' (1.3-5). Verificationism, an influential doctrine about meaning associated with Vienna Circle, may be presented as a special case of this conception: 2.1-3 will consider what verificationism is, its difficulties, and whether there can be a non-verificationist but still epistemic conception of meaning. In 3.1-2 I will argue that important insights contained in the epistemic conception can be retained even if we treat them as insights about the normative nature of concepts rather than as insights about the form of language-rules. And I will consider the effect of doing this on an influential doctrine whose modern form is closely associated with the epistemic conception of meaning - the doctrine that the a priori is the analytic.
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