Introduction to Linguistic Philosophy


I. E. Mackenzie

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Foundational Issues

    Part II: Naming

    Part III: Definite Descriptions

    Part IV: Nonextensional Contexts

    Part V: Generality

  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to Palma.


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    The Scope of this Book

    Linguistics is the empirical study of natural languages. Philosophy of language is concerned with the underlying nature of the phenomena that linguists study. And linguistic philosophy is an approach to the philosophy of language. This approach is perhaps exemplified best by Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, which stresses the importance of always seeing how language is used rather than assuming it to conform to some preexisting logical structure.

    This book is about philosophy of language in general, but the conception of meaning that emerges is fundamentally Wittgensteinian in inspiration. It is designed above all for linguists with an interest in the deeper issues of their science, although it may well be of interest to anyone of a philosophical disposition. It presupposes no prior acquaintance either with the philosophy of language or with linguistic theory.

    The book's aim is to give the reader a solid foundation in the field. As a consequence, it is concerned primarily with the grandees of linguistic analysis: Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Carnap, Quine, and so on. Anyone who has read and understood the book should feel equipped to deal with advanced work on most topics in semantics and philosophy of language.

    Some Important Terms

    Although this book does not presuppose any technical knowledge, there are a number of terminological distinctions that are made so frequently that some acquaintance with them is essential.

    Sentence and Utterance

    A sentence is an abstract unit constructed according to appropriate syntactic rules. For example, of the following two expressions,

    (1) Smith is raking the leaves,

    (2) Raking the leaves,

    only (1) counts as a sentence in English.

    Sentences are realized in discourse through utterances. For example, all performances of Hamlet begin with the same sentence but a different utterance.

    The term ‘utterance’ is actually ambiguous, because it denotes both the act of uttering something, as in

    (3) His utterance of those words provoked much amusement,

    and the product of this act, as in

    (4) That was a rather objectionable utterance.

    Some linguists disambiguate between the two senses, employing the expressions ‘utterance act’ and ‘utterance signal’, respectively. In this book, the single term ‘utterance’ is used because the context is generally sufficient for disambiguation.

    Sentence and Proposition

    A proposition is taken to be what is expressed by a declarative sentence (used with assertoric force). From that perspective, the proposition expressed by a sentence p in English is identical to the proposition expressed by any sentence, in any language, that is synonymous with p.

    Propositions are often identified with the objects of belief, assertion, and so on in sentences such as these:

    (5) Amanda believes that England will never win the football world cup.

    (6) John said that a gale was blowing.

    The subordinate clause in these and similar sentences is often held to designate a proposition.

    Use and Mention

    A linguistic expression may be used to make a statement, ask a question, issue a command, and so on, but it may also be mentioned. Consider the name ‘London’ in the following sentences:

    (7) London is the capital of Great Britain.

    (8) ‘London’ contains six letters.

    In (7), the word ‘London’ is a name of the city London. That is to say, the sentence is about London. In this case, the name ‘London’ has simply been used, in accordance with the general conventions governing its application. Sentence (8), on the other hand, is about the name ‘London’: It does not assert that the city London contains eight letters. Thus, in sentence (8), the expression ‘London’ is not used but mentioned, which is why it appears between inverted commas or single quotation marks.

    The distinction between use and mention can be generalized into a distinction between object languages and metalanguages. An object language is a language viewed as an object of study or semantic analysis. The metalanguage is the language in which statements about the object language are made. Thus (8) is a metalinguistic sentence.

    Extensional and Nonextensional

    Normally, any two expressions standing for the same object can be exchanged one for the other without altering the truth-value of the containing sentence. For example, the two descriptions ‘the capital of Peru’ and ‘the south American city with the oldest university’ both designate the same thing, namely, Lima; so just as the sentence

    (9) The capital of Peru is on the River Rímac is true, so is

    (10) The south American city with the oldest university is on the River Rímac.

    The principle just illustrated follows naturally enough from the idea that if one thing is identical to another, anything that is true of the one must be true of the other; this principle holds good for a very large number of cases. The contexts in which it holds are called extensional contexts. Contexts where it does not hold are called, unsurprisingly, nonextensional contexts. Sentence (11) below exhibits a nonextensional context,

    (11) Jones thinks that Isaac Newton died in 1727, for the truth of (11) does not secure the truth of

    (12) Jones thinks that the author of Opticks died in 1727,

    despite the fact that Newton and the author of Opticks are one and the same.

    The Structure of the Book

    The philosophical study of language is not a systematic program. Rather, particular aspects of language have received substantial treatment because they are considered to be of fundamental conceptual significance. The structure of this book reflects this circumstance and contains discussions only of those areas of language that are of genuine philosophical interest.

    The book is divided into five sections. The first is concerned with foundational issues, such as truth, meaning, and the nature of language. The other four deal with the specific linguistic phenomena that have attracted the most philosophical attention, that is, names, descriptions, nonextensional contexts, and quantification. There is no “core” to the book, in the sense of one or more chapters being more important than the others. Nor is it absolutely necessary to start at the beginning. Thus Chapter 10 may be attempted before Chapter 6 and so on. Where a chapter presupposes an understanding of something that is explained elsewhere in the book, a specific cross-reference is always given.


    I wish to acknowledge the help of the following people: Jenny Saul, Nigel Armstrong, Andrew Linn, Alex Schwartz, Jim Hurford, and my parents. Any remaining errors are entirely my responsibility.

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    About the Author

    I. E. Mackenzie is currently Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was educated at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation was on the semantics of Spanish verbal categories and was supervised by John Lyons. His research interests are diverse, ranging from the philosophy of language to Spanish and Latin American linguistics. He has published articles and reports on the philosophy of language, Spanish semantics, and language contact in the Andes.

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