Ordinary Language Philosophy

David Weinberger explains Ordinary Language Philosophy. Why didn't they tell me about this at Oxford?
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

(Warning: Rambling Entry)

I studied Philosophy for three years at Oxford. I loved some of it and some of it did my head in. I have forgotten nearly all of the content. Indeed, if I hadn’t learnt the lyrics of Monty Python’s Philosophers Song I’d have a hard time remembering the names of the blighters whose works I tried to understand.

The only bit of Wittgenstein that lodged in my mind was this:

So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.

This piece of priceless wisdom was buried in his legendary, and dreaded, private language argument. I’m afraid one inarticulate sound wasn’t enough for me. Nor were quite a few articulate but rude ones. And old Ludwig was trying to make a rather serious point here.

Yet the other day – further proof of my desperate need to get out more – I did one of those online personality tests that informed me that I was a visionary philosopher. Go figure.

Anyway, only now in middle-age do I learn from David Weinberger about Ordinary Language Philosophy…

Here’s what he tells me (in the middle of piece on identity)

Ordinary Language philosophy arose as a way out of some vexing problems. For example, we’ve banged our heads against the wall for thousands of years trying to figure out what “reality” is. What makes something “real”? Is it because it has matter? Is it because it exists independent of our awareness? If so, how could we tell? And is that where headwaiters come from? Many thousands of bored freshmen (and one Woody-Allen-ish gag) later, we’re no closer to understanding what makes reality real.

Along come the witty Ordinary Language philosophers. Stop with all the pondering of those special words in philosophy, they say. Instead, they recommend, look at how we use them words in casual conversation, for that’s where words get their meaning. For example, “reality” shows up in phrases such as “In reality,…” in which it functions like the word “However.” We don’t spend thousands of years trying to figure out what “However” is because we know it’s just a way of telling listeners that we’re about deny what we just said. Only philosophers make the mistake of thinking that “reality” is the name of something. In short: Ordinary Language analysis subverts the attempt to figure out meanings in abstraction from how they are used.

Boy, I would love to have deployed that wisdom when worrying about the tree in the quad and whether it existed when the Master of Balliol wasn’t looking at it. Or whatever it was.

Slightly more seriously, I think this is a great challenge to conversations about abstractions that abound in organisations and, admittedly, here in this very blog. I love the idea of looking at what language does, not fretting about it’s deep meaning.

PS You’ve got to love Weinberger’s small print:

JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by David Weinberger. He denies responsibility for any errors or problems. If you write him with corrections or criticisms, it will probably turn out to have been your fault.

Subscription information, or requests to be removed from the JOHO mailing list, should be sent to . There is no need for harshness or recriminations. Sometimes things just don’t work out between people.

Dr. Weinberger is in a delicate nervous state, but if you want to send positive comments to him, his email address is…

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