I regularly listen to NPR.
Say what you want about that. I ain’t gonna stop.
A few Saturdays ago, I was listening to a show called Radiolab.
It’s a pretty good show.
The topic that week was language.
They talked about Shakespeare, and how children and hearing-impaired people learn to speak. They even talked about rats and their inability to tie together concepts like “blue” and “to the left”. Nowhere in the entire hour-long show did I hear the words “philosophy of language”. No Frege. No Russell. No Saul Kripke. No Hillary Putnam. No Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not a peep about the Vienna Circle.
Yes. There is such a thing as philosophy of language.
Philosophers have opinions about everything.
I was a little disappointed. And for some strange reason, I kind of felt left out. After all, what’s the point of taking a philosophy of language class if NPR won’t even discuss the topic?
I guess I should have figured that no one would mention philosophy of language on the show. When most people think of language (if anyone ever thinks of language at all) I thinking that very few people ever think about the fact that philosophers have anything to say about it. And really, I can’t fault the folks at Radiolab for omitting philosophy of language. They want people to listen to the show.
Other disciplines offer us explanations for the way the world works, but sometimes, even in the most disciplined of disciplines, we get confused about what we really mean when we say something or even about what we are thinking about. Philosophers of language aim to clear up our confusion over language and make clear the things we are thinking about.
Remember: we think of our world in terms of language. If we’re confused about concepts (we think about) or meaning (of the words that we speak), our beliefs about the world (aka reality) won’t do us much good.
Because those beliefs might be wrong.
Despite what NPR might have us believe, language isn’t just about acquisition or how many words William Shakespeare invented.
By the way, Shakespeare invented a lot of words.
If you’ve ever used the words uncomfortable, unreal, or lonely, you can thank Bill Shakespeare.
Language isn’t merely the proper usage of syntax and grammar. Language is also about meaning. It’s about what we are talking about. It’s about having the proper the correct thoughts about what we are thinking about.
There’s more to a simple phrase like “Clark Kent is Superman” than you might know.
Ok, let’s take the statement “The present king of France is bald”. First, we can see that we’ve made a claim about the king of France. Ok, now what do we mean when we say that the present king of France is bald? Well, we might ask if what we’ve said is true or false.
That’s because everything we say is either true or false*.
So, for the statement “The present king of France is bald” to be true, there must be a king of France, he must be bald, and he must be sitting on the throne right now. If we wanted to say this philosopher-like, we’d say something like this:
There is a X such that: X is the king of France and X is bald. And, for all Y, if Y is the king of France, then Y is identical to X.
The folks at NPR may have neglected to mention it, but language is about definite descriptions, propositions, sense, reference, sense-data, rigid designators, language games, signifieds and signifiers.
Oh man, wait a minute, why am I explaining any of this?
It won’t do you any good when you’re listening to NPR, anyway.