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Philosophy of Modern Language

Logical Syntax And Semantics, Logical Positivism And Its Challengers, Philosophy Of Language Since Quine, BibliographyFounders of the Twentieth-Century "Linguistic Turn"

Although discussions of language in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century philosophy foreshadowed many issues that came to full bloom in the twentieth century, before the twentieth century language was thought to have a secondary role in understanding the special place human beings have in the world. The fundamental concern was the problem of knowledge. How is it possible for human beings to have knowledge of the world? The solution for both rationalists and empiricists was to be found in the nature of mind since, as was universally held, all we can know directly are the ideas of our own minds. To solve this problem of knowledge, philosophers had to account for how we grasp generalities (and not just particulars) and how we determine which of our ideas represent the world truly.

Language was seen as the public conventional medium for communicating private thought. A simple denotational theory of meaning predominated. The meanings of words are their denotations, the objects that the words stand for or denote, or the ideas of particular objects. Proper names, like "Silver," denote particular objects. There was great controversy over what general terms, like "horse," denote. Three major positions emerged: (1) realism or Platonism, the view that general terms name real abstract objects (horsiness); (2) conceptualism, the view that terms stand for abstract ideas or concepts (the concept of horsiness); and (3) nominalism, the view that a term is general if it denotes more than one particular object. The important problem concerned the nature of abstract ideas. The solution to the problem of general words would follow from this.

Founders of the Twentieth-Century "Linguistic Turn"

In the twentieth century, Anglo-American philosophy took "the linguistic turn." Instead of seeking solutions to problems of knowledge and thought in an examination of the nature of our ideas, philosophers looked to the nature of language. This great shift began with Gottlob Frege's foundational work in mathematical logic.

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