Current of thought developed mainly in England from the beginning of the 20th century, and aimed mainly at the study of language in its various aspects (scientific, daily, ethical, logical, etc.), favoring the analysis of specific problems over the elaboration of broad and comprehensive systems.
From the school of G.E. Moore to the Tractatus of L. Wittgenstein
Bringing the premises of traditional English empiricism to their final consequences, G.E. Moore founded a school in Cambridge, wherewith thirty years of teaching (1911-39) deeply influenced all English philosophy, a school destined to develop. The acceptance of a conscious realism leads Moore to assume as an essential task of a philosophy the clarification of the implicit assumptions, on the linguistic level, of common sense, in order to more rigorously guarantee the realistic assumptions (even if his method is composite and still suffers from psychological suggestions).
On the other hand, starting from mathematical investigations and taking cues from the work of G. Frege and G. Peano and from the mathematical teaching of A. Whitehead, without however neglecting theories such as those of A. Meinong on ‘objects’, B. Russell arrives at a logical and linguistic investigation of mathematical propositions, which leads on the one hand to the theory of defined descriptions, and on the other to the theory of types. L. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus logico-philosophicus (1922), in which the results and problems of both Frege’s and Russell’s researches converge, as well as the introduction of original logical techniques (propositional calculation using the matrix method), poses the need to formulate a philosophy of language in which traditional gnoseological, metaphysical and ethical problems are absorbed.
It is usual to trace back to philosophy the logical positivism that, by drawing inspiration from some statements of Tractatus, elaborates with M. Schlick the so-called principle of verification («The meaning of a proposition is the method of its empirical verification»), proposing a radical anti-metaphysical reductionism. The meeting of logical positivism and American pragmatic currents, following the emigration to the USA of most of the exponents of the neo positivist movement (such as R. Carnap, H. Reichenbach, C.G. Hempel), determines a confluence of interests and creates a mutual stimulus.
The most significant products can be considered W.V. Quine’s essays on ontological and semantic problems, N. Goodman’s research on phenomenal languages and inductive inference, H. Putnam’s studies on the problems of meaning, truth, and realism, and S. Kripke’s studies on modal logic and the reference of linguistic terms.
New hypotheses of language analysis
Meanwhile, in the second phase of his thinking, Wittgenstein, whose teaching at Cambridge (1929-47) had proved to be extremely fruitful, and had influenced the whole English cultural environment, turned his attention to language not so much in its structure as in the multiplicity and variety of its uses and functions, proposing the theory of linguistic games.
The Platonic-Aristotelian conception of language supported by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus and implying a mirroring language-reality correspondence is thus abandoned; the prerequisites for the construction of a rigorously formalized ideal language are dropped, as well as the model of reductionist analysis, and the investigation shifts to the problem of the different linguistic levels, the different roles of the various grammatical parts of discourse in various contexts, and the possibility of identifying varied syntaxes.
These theses are linked to the exponents of Oxonian philosophy whose most significant representatives, besides A.J.T.D. Wisdom, are G. Ryle, who links his analyses on the mind to behavioral cues, J.L. Austin, P.F. Strawson, who particularly develops the theme of the relationships between formal logic-informal logic and linguistic analysis, M. Dummett, who reformulates the ontological dispute between realism and idealism in terms of rival theories of meaning, and S. Toulmin, R.M. Hare and P.H. Nowell-Smith for ethical problems, preceded on this ground by the important study of the American C. Stevenson (Ethics and Language, 1944).
Starting from the second half of the 1960s, the perspective of analysis inaugurated by Austin with the posthumous How to do things with words (1962) has become increasingly more widespread in philosophy. This perspective conceives discourse as a set of linguistic acts characterized by their particular strength. Austin’s proposal of the concept of performative utterances, i.e. utterances that do not describe an act but serve to perform it, has been welcomed with interest. H.P. Grice’s work, who proposes a definition of meaning not related to words or phrases but to the ‘intentions’ of the speaker to produce effects on the audience, derives from the same perspective aimed at explaining language in pragmatic terms.
A systematic presentation of the concept of language and philosophical problems initiated by Austin can be found in J.R. Searle’s work, Speech acts (1969), where speech is presented as a form of behavior and its rules are fully described. In D. Davidson, perhaps the author who has enjoyed the greatest fortune since the 1970s, the study of meaning, in line with the positions of his master Quine (whose strict behaviorism he rejects, however), is above all equivalent to an empirical investigation of the statements believed to be true by the speakers of a community and the connections between these statements and the wider background of the speakers’ beliefs.
At the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps the most important novelty is the attention to psychological and ‘mental’ issues. The interest in the philosophy of the mind (or philosophical psychology) is obviously not new in philosophy: it goes back at least to Ryle and Wittgenstein, who was however interested in depriving of any foundation, based on their linguistic analyses, the traditional mind-body dualism of Cartesian origin. Over the years, although the monistic orientation of the majority of analytical philosophers has not disappeared, more and more space has been given to the typically mental and psychological aspects that oversee the main human activities.
The study of the mental aspects related to meaning has had the effect of overlapping the investigations of the philosophy of language in the strict sense with those of philosophy of the mind, and particular emphasis has been acquired, in this area of intersection between the two sub-areas of philosophy, by the problem of intentionality, i.e. the tendency (theorized in the Middle Ages, but rediscovered by F. Brentano) of linguistic assertions and mental states to be typically addressed to extra-linguistic or extra-mental objects, so to have an intrinsic content (intentionality).
Intentionality is at the center of the attention of many analytical philosophers, from Searle and D.C. Dennett to J. Fodor, and it is probably the subject that reveals more than any other the broadening of philosophy’s interest in that type of psychological and mental questions, once considered to be only analyzable in exclusively linguistic terms.