The Philosophy of Language

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as theories in logic began to advance and philosophies regarding the mind began to change drastically from previous accounts, a revolution in understanding language occurred. This event is referred to as the “linguistic turn.” Philosophers began to focus on the meaning of language, the use of language, the cognition of language, and how language and reality relate to one another.


The philosophy of language attempts to understand how meaning comes about from the parts that make up a sentence. In order to understand the meaning of language, the relationship between entire sentences and parts that are meaningful need to first be examined. According to the principle of compositionality, a sentence can be understood based on an understanding of structure (syntax) and the meaning of the words.

There are two accepted methods in understanding how meaning comes about within a sentence:

Syntactic Structure

The syntactic tree focuses on grammar and words that make up the sentence, while the semantic tree focuses on meanings of words and the combinations of these meanings.

In regard to learning language, there are three main schools of thought:

  1. Innatism: The notion that some syntactic settings are innate and based on certain parts of the mind.
  2. Behaviorism: The notion that a very large amount of language is learned through conditioning.
  3. Hypothesis Testing: The notion that children learn syntactic rules through postulation and testing hypotheses.


The roots of the “linguistic turn” occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, as language started to be viewed as the focal point in representing the world and understanding belief, and philosophers began to place emphasis on the meaning of language.

John Stuart Mill

In his work in empiricism, John Stuart Mill examined the meaning of words in relation to the objects they refer to. Mill claimed that in order for words to hold meaning, one must be able to explain them based on experience. Therefore, words stand for impressions made from the senses.

While some disagreed with Mill’s empiricist viewpoint, many philosophers agreed with Mill’s belief that denotation should be the basis of meaning, rather than connotation.

Philosophical Definitions

DENOTATION: When the definition of a word is the literal meaning of what it is describing. For example, using the word snake to describe the actual reptile this word is affiliated with. CONNOTATION: When the definition of a word suggests a quality or attribute. For example, using the word snake to mean “evil.”

John Locke

According to John Locke, words do not represent external things; rather, they represent ideas within the mind of the person saying them. While these ideas are presumed to then represent things, Locke believed the accuracy of the representation does not affect that word’s meaning.

With that in mind, Locke set out to eliminate the natural shortcomings of language that naturally arise. He suggested that people should never use words without having a clear idea of those words’ meanings; people should attempt to identify the same meanings of words used by others so as to have a common vocabulary; people should be consistent with their use of words; and if a meaning of a word is unclear, one should then define it more clearly.

Gottlob Frege

The work of German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege focused mainly on logic. However, as his investigations in logic became more in-depth, Frege realized that, to continue pursuing his work, he first needed to understand language. By doing so, he created some of the most groundbreaking work in the philosophy of language.

Frege questions identity, names, and the expression a = b. For example, Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens. However, if a = b is informative, how come a = a is trivial and doesn’t actually provide any new information?

Frege believed that it is not simply the objects that are relevant to the meaning of a sentence, but how the objects are presented. Words refer to things in the external world—however, names hold more meaning than simply being references to objects. Frege broke sentences and expressions up into two parts: the sense and the reference (or meaning). To Frege, the sense of a sentence is the objective, universal, and abstract thought the sentence is expressing and the “mode of presentation” of the object that is being referred to. The reference, or meaning, of a sentence is the object in the real world that the sentence is referring to. The reference represents a truth-value (whether something is true or false) and is determined by senses.

Frege expresses this theory as a triangle:

Frege's Triangle

The intersection of line a and line b is the same as the intersection of line b and line c. Therefore, this statement is informative because we are presented with two different modes of presentation. To say the intersection of line a and line b is the same as the intersection of line a and line b only presents one single mode of presentation, and is therefore trivial.

Frege concludes that there are three parts to a name (though all three are not necessarily needed in every case):

  1. Sign: The word or words used (for example, Mark Twain).

  2. Sense: The way to get at what is being referred to by the sign (for example, the psychological implications we have of Mark Twain—he is a humorist; he is the author of Tom Sawyer; etc.).

  3. Referent: The actual object being referred to (for example, Mark Twain is also Samuel Clemens, who is also the author of Tom Sawyer).


Intentionality is another important topic with regard to the philosophy of language. Intentionality is defined as the particular mental states that are directed toward objects or things in the real world. Intentionality is not about one’s intention to do something or not do something, but rather, the ability of our thoughts to be about something. For example, you can have a belief about roller coasters, but a roller coaster itself cannot be about anything. Therefore, mental states like fear, hope, and desire have to be intentional because there must be an object that is being referenced.

Nineteenth-century German philosopher Franz Brentano argued that only mental phenomena could show intentionality. Later, twentieth-century philosopher John Searle questioned how the mind and language has the ability to force intentionality onto objects when such objects are not intentional on their own. In his theory of speech acts, Searle concludes that actions have intentionality as well, because language is a form of human behavior and an action on its own. Therefore, by saying something, one is actually performing an action, and intentionality is present in actions.

In a much-debated discussion on artificial intelligence, Searle argued that machines would never have the ability to think. Searle claimed that machines lack intentionality and that only an organized mind, like that of a human being, is able to perform intentionality.