Some Questions About Language – Mortimer J. Adler


Mortimer AdlerWithin the tradition of analytic and linguistic philosophy, as developed in the twentieth century, it was Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” that spelled out most clearly the ontological framework presupposed by Russell’s program, following Leibniz, of making the structure of language isomorphic with the structure of reality by employing a series of logical devices. It was Wittgenstein also who was the first to realize, belatedly, the incompatibility of the ideal language game with the actual functions which language performs in daily life and in ordinary discourse.

In his later work, “Philosophical Investigations”, Wittgenstein returned to a much broader conception of meaning as distinct from existential denotation. He did this by dint of a painfully detailed analysis of ordinary speech, designed to show that any reconstruction of ordinary speech in terms of existential denotation is based on a given philosopher’s prior ontological commitments or belief about reality disguised under the cloak of a logistical system. This gave rise, within the tradition of analytic and linguistic philosophy, to the movement or school which is devoted to the analysis of ordinary language or everyday speech.

Although it is a move in the right direction, this approach to language shares one feature in common with the program of logical reconstruction it seeks to replace, namely, that it provides no account of meaning in the broad sense adopted by Wittgenstein, no solution of the basic problem of how meaningless notations become the meaningful words which are recorded in the lexicon of any language; and consequently, no account of how ordinary language is successfully used for the purposes of communication. In short, it fails to provide us with the essential rudiments of a sound and adequate philosophy of language.

I can sum this up by stating the three questions to be answered by a philosophy of language, and answered first and foremost because they underlie all other questions that can be raised about language. After the questions have been stated, I will then, by reference to them, characterize three approaches to the consideration of language, only the third of which I regard as sound and fruitful.

The three fundamental questions are as follows:

  1. What is it that confers referential meaning on otherwise meaningless marks or sounds, thus making them into the meaningful words of a language? This is a question about the genesis of meaning.

  2. What is it that meaningful words refer to when they have referential significance? This is a question about the referents of name-words, not of all words, for particles do not have referential significance.

  3. What is the character of human discourse in its use of ordinary language? Can ordinary language be used satisfactorily by the philosopher as well as by others for the purpose of communication and for the expression of knowledge; or must it be replaced by a much better instrument logically devised to do what ordinary language cannot do? This is a question which asks whether ordinary language really does what it appears to be doing, or instead deceives us because it does not do what it appears to be doing.

The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

The three different approaches to the philosophical consideration of language are as follows:

A. “The syntactical approach,” of which Russell’s program of logical syntax is an example. This approach answers the third of the foregoing questions by rejecting ordinary language and by replacing it with a logically constructed or syntaxed language which reflects a series of prior ontological commitments. It, therefore, sees no need at all to answer Question 1; and its answer to Question 2 is as follows: since referential meaning is identical with existential denotation, the referent is always a real existent.

B. “The ‘ordinary language’ approach,” exemplified by the later Wittgenstein and his followers. This approach answers Question 3 to the extent that it favors the retention of ordinary language for philosophical as well as for ordinary discourse. However, it fails to explain why and how ordinary language can be used successfully for these purposes because it totally sidesteps Question 1, and because its inadequate answer to Question 2 consists merely in the observation that some words have referential meaning and some do not, with the additional observation that it is better to treat all words as if they did not have referential meaning and so, instead of looking for their referents, pay attention to how they are used.

C. “The semantic and lexical approach,” exemplified by the philosophy of language set forth in this book. This approach also commits itself to ordinary language as a satisfactory instrument of both philosophical and everyday discourse. It answers Question 3 by showing that human discourse, using ordinary language, really does what it appears to be doing, and it is able to show this by the way in which it answers Questions 1 and 2: Question 1 by explaining the genesis of referential meaning by the voluntary imposition of meaningless notations on the objects of our apprehension; Question 2 by seeing that apprehended objects are the referents of the name-words we use. And although the answers it gives to Questions 1 and 2 involve presuppositions and certain ontological and psychological posits, none of these is a prior commitment; all are posterior to the consideration of language itself.

The third approach has its roots in an earlier philosophical tradition which originated with Aristotle, was elaborated by Aquinas, and was applied to the consideration of language by Jean Poinsot, a contemporary of Thomas Hobbes. Poinsot wrote a systematic treatise on signs that dealt with the fundamental problems of meaning and laid down the basis for the answers which the third approach gives to Questions 1 and 2. If Poinsot’s influence had prevailed in modern times, instead of that of Hobbes and Leibniz, modern thought might have been spared many of the little errors which have had such serious consequences not only for philosophy in general, but for the philosophy of language in particular. In addition to Poinsot, Edmund Husserl and his followers are modern authors who approach the consideration of language without prior ontological commitments and with insights that contribute to the solution of the basic questions about meaning. The rudiments of a sound and adequate approach to the philosophy of language can be found in modern thought, but not within the orbit of what, in the twentieth century, has come to be called “linguistic philosophy”.

The Moral Liberal recommends Mortimer J. Adler’s, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought

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Mortimer Jerome Adler (1902 – 2001) was an American philosopher, educator, and popular author. As a philosopher he worked within the Aristotelian and Thomistic traditions. He worked for Columbia University, the University of Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, and Adler’s own Institute for Philosophical Research. Adler went on to found the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. He founded and served as director of the Institute for Philosophical Research. He also served on the Board of Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica from its inception and became its chairmen. Spearheading the fifteenth edition of Britannica he was instrumental in the major reorganization of knowledge embodied in that edition. He founded the Paideia Program, a grade-school curriculum centered around guided reading and discussion of difficult works (as judged for each grade). With Max Weismann, he founded the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas. He also served along with Max Weisman on the Board of Directors of Jonathan Dolhenty’s Radical Academy.

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