Reconsidering Ordinary Language Philosophy: Malcolm’s (Moore’s) Ordinary Language Argument

Essays in Philosophy 11 (2):123-149 (2010)
The ‘Ordinary Language’ philosophy of the early 20th century is widely thought to have failed. It is identified with the broader so-called ‘linguistic turn’, a common criticism of which is captured by Devitt and Sterelny (1999), who quip: “When the naturalistic philosopher points his finger at reality, the linguistic philosopher discusses the finger.” (p 280) The implication is that according to ‘linguistic’ philosophy, we are not to study reality or truth or morality etc, but the meaning of the words ‘reality’, ‘truth’, ‘morality’ etc. Ordinary Language philosophy has fallen so thoroughly into disrepute because it is supposed to advocate that not only are we to study words and meanings rather than the phenomena themselves (which is apparently bad enough), but we must restrict that study to words and meanings as they occur in the language used by the ordinary speaker. A number of preposterous corollaries have been taken to follow from this view. Most seriously, perhaps, and irritatingly, is that any theory which contains ‘non-ordinary’ uses of expressions is thereby ‘meaningless’ or simply false – which is clearly absurd. In this paper I show that this is a completely inaccurate picture of Ordinary Language philosophy. My aim is to correct these persistent misinterpretations, and make possible a more sensible reassessment of the philosophy.
Keywords Philosophy of Language  Ordinary Language Philosophy  History of Analytic Philosophy
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