Centrum för kognitiv semiotik (CCS)

Humanistiska och teologiska fakulteterna | Lunds universitet


Explaining the Basic Weakness of Ordinary Language Philosophy

Esa Itkonen (University of Turku, Finland)

Putnam (1981: 109-110) characterizes the tenets of ordinary language philosophy as follows: “(1) the ‘rules of language’ are constitutive institutionalized practices (or norms which underlie such practices), and as such have the ‘public’ status that I have described; (2) at the same time, it was claimed that only philosophers (and not linguists) could discover these mysterious things”. It follows that “philosophy of language is brimming with talk about rules of language; but in practice no examples of these rules are ever given” (Itkonen 2003: 16).

The problem is created by the fact that ‘rule of language’ is required here to satisfy a pair of contradictory desiderata: on the one hand, to be public (i.e. self-evident); on the other, to be profound (i.e. not self-evident, and certainly not to linguists!). How is this contradiction solved? - By showing what are the rules of language that we do have as a matter of fact (instead of any mysterious and non-existent entities). Now, what we have, is the ‘ascent’ from pretheoretical, unsystematic certainty to theoretical, systematic uncertainty, as described in great detail in Itkonen (1978) and (2003). To sum up, what is public is trivial (and not profound), and what is profound is not public (but results from individual theoretical effort).

It still needs to be explained what made this misunderstanding possible, in the first place. As I see it, the reason lies in Wittgenstein’s view (which, to be sure, he maintained less than consistently) that philosophy is a purely descriptive undertaking which “leaves everything as it is”. But this cannot be right: “The problem for epistemology is not ‘why do I believe this or that?’ but ‘why should I believe this or that?’” (Russell 1967 [1940]: 14, quoted and discussed in Itkonen 2003: 75). Some ramifications of this large issue will be explored.


  • Itkonen, Esa. 1978. Grammatical theory and metascience. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Itkonen, Esa. 2003. What is language? A study in the philosophy of linguistics. University of Turku: Publications in General Linguistics 8.
  • Putnam, Hilary. 1981. Reason, truth, and history. Cambridge UP.
  • Russell, Bertrand. 1967 [1940]. An inquiry into meaning and truth. Pelican Books.