Linguistic Philosophy Lowdown

Language goes to core of what it is to be human, and has preoccupied philosophers, academics and many of the rest of us too, well, probably forever. So what are some of the key critical perspectives on the development and social effect of language and why does it matter?

By: Paul Dicken,   5 minutes

In the preface to their 2022 book The Language Game Morten H Christiansen and Nick Chater set out how their text suggests that language is and develops in an ongoing, evolving game of charades. It is “a limitless collection of loosely connected games, each shaped by the demands of the situation and the shared history of the players.”

No wonder the philosophy of this game – fundamental to human nature – inspired Natasha Brown in her writing of Assembly. It’s an area ripe for exploration in fiction.

Here’s a run through of some deep thinkers that have mused over how language works and the power of meaning, among other, often abstract, interrogations of words.

bell hooks

Writer and cultural theorist, bell hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952, deliberately used and interrogated language in her work, writing under the lower case pseudonym bell hooks from 1978 to train the reader focus on her work rather than herself. hooks appears in Assembly, her words from Postmodern blackness quoted in the text: “We must engage decolonization as a critical practice.”

In that 1990 essay hook writes: “Disturbed not so much by the “sense” of postmodernism but by the conventional language used when it is written or talked about and by those who speak it, I find myself on the outside of the discourse looking in. As a discursive practice it is dominated primarily by the voices of white male intellectuals and/or academic elites who speak to and about one another with coded familiarity.”

In her obituary for hooks (who passed away in 2021) in The Guardian journalist Margaret Busby wrote that for hooks, it was “that act of speech, of ‘talking back’… that is the expression of our movement from object to subject – the liberated voice.”

Jacques Derrida

The effects and operation of language in society was a preoccupation of the Algerian-born philosopher Jacques Derrida. In one of his major works – Of Grammatology (first published in France in 1967) – Derrida describes how writing “is at the same time distinction into groups, classes and levels of economico-politico-technical power, and delegation of authority, power deferred and abandoned to an organ of capitalization.”

“It is therefore the game of the world that must be first thought; before attempting to understand all the forms of play in the world,” adds Derrida in his development of the notion of grammatology.

In an act of deconstruction (the critical and philosophical approach associated with Derrida), the translator of Derrida’s Of Grammatology into English (1997 edition), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, spends several pages of the ‘translators preface’ interrogating the very idea of a preface: “A pretense at writing before a text that one must have read before the preface can be written. Writing a postface would not really be different…”

Spivak tells us that Derrida “has reminded us to say it anew, that a certain view of the world, of consciousness, and of language has been accepted as the correct one, and, if the minute particulars of that view are examined, a rather different picture (that is also no-picture, as we shall see) emerges.”

As you can also see, this is language theory at a high conceptual level.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Considered a founding figure of modern linguistics, and a subject of detailed critique by Derrida, Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics influence came through Course in General Linguistics, published three years after his death in 1916.

A concept of language as signifiers defined by their difference to each other – rather than having innate meaning – was developed by Saussure in lectures delivered at the university in his native Geneva. This material was used by colleagues to create Course in General Linguistics which went on to form the basis of structuralism in critical theory.

The Oxford Research Encyclopedias’ describe Saussure’s key concept as “an approach to languages as systems of signs, each sign consisting of a signifier (sound pattern) and a signified (concept), both of them mental rather than physical in nature, and conjoined arbitrarily and inseparably. The socially shared language system, or langue, makes possible the production and comprehension of parole, utterances, by individual speakers and hearers.

“Each signifier and signified is a value generated by its difference from all the other signifiers”.

Noam Chomsky

In a different linguistic lane, American cultural critic and linguist Noam Chomsky argued that we acquire language innately. That we are born with a “faculty of language”. In Reflections on Language Chomsky writes “The language faculty, given appropriate stimulation, will construct a grammar; the person knows the language generated by the constructed grammar. This knowledge can then be used to understand what is heard and to produce discourse as an expression of thought”.

In The Language Game, Christiansen and Chater say that in the 1950s and ’60s Chomsky was “aiming to wrench linguistics from the study of culture and reconstruct it on abstract mathematical and scientific foundations.”

But Christiansen and Chater take issue with language acquisition and usage – based on an inherited universal grammar – as all biology: “The supposedly universal features of sounds, grammar and meaning turned out to be no more than an unsubstantiated myth: within and between languages, variety, disorder and exceptions reign.”

That leads us to Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889 and ended up at Cambridge University in 1911 studying philosophy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that Wittgenstein is considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. What did he have to say about language?

Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language,” writes the Encyclopedia.

This game is where words acquire meaning through their use, with meaning learnt and understood through the family resemblances words have.

Wittgenstein’s ideas are developed and explored by Christiansen and Chater in The Language Game who see language “as arising through spontaneous order from disparate charades-like communicative episodes”.

Roland Barthes

French sociologist and linguist Roland Barthes has fun playing with language in his famous collection of articles and essays Mythologies, which lays bare the mythologies of mass culture perpetuated through language and imagery.

In his introduction to the 2009 Vintage edition of Mythologies Neil Badminton recounts how Barthes’ work on culture myths attracted the attention of the myth makers: he was given a contract by the ad agency Publicis “to analyse the semiology of the Renault company.”

And what’s not to like about this text, containing such great lines as: “Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it, history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from.”

Like Mythologies, which sharply dresses down the cultural myths being made by language (and other signifiers of meaning) in the mid-20th century, Assembly is a devastating critique of the myths language perpetuates, and the hypocrisies it hides, in the early decades of the 21st century.


Image credits: Ludwig Wittgensetin: Moritz Nähr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Read Amy Greenough’s feature, which inspired this story, and discover more in the latest issue of Strike in print, available to buy from our shop now.


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