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Language Philosophy and Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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We EFL teachers are accustomed to finding our big ideas about language in the work of applied linguists such as Michael Halliday, Henry Widdowson, Chris Candlin, Nunan, Kajru and Carter. But there are other sources of big ideas about language, such as literary critics: for instance, I.A.Richards (The Principles of Literary Criticism), William Empsom (Seven Types of Ambiguity), Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.) and Sir Frank Kermode (Shakespeare’s Language) – and also philosophers of language. Whereas linguists are primarily interested in language as such, and literary critics in literary language, language philosophers are interested in wider questions such as how language relates to reality, language and the mind, language and knowledge, language and truth, etc. This article discusses the ideas of four philosophers who have made important contributions to our understanding of language, and whose ideas have influenced language teaching theory and practice. They are Ludwig Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, Paul Grice and John Searle.

To appreciate the philosophy of Wittgenstein, it is useful to know something of his background and the intellectual milieu from which he sprang. Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889, the youngest son of a wealthy Viennese industrialist. The family mansion was an intellectual and artistic centre of Viennese society: Brahms’ clarinet quintet received its first performance at a musical soiree there: Freud, Mahler, Bruno Walter and Kokoschka were frequent guests. His brother was the famous one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein. This was the milieu in which the young Wittgenstein grew up, and which influenced his philosophical development.

Originally, Ludwig was set to follow his father in the family business. After technical studies in Linz and Berlin, he went to Manchester University in England to study aeronautical engineering. But while there, he developed a passionate interest in mathematics and logic, and heard about the work of Bertrand Russell. In 1911, he called on Russell in his rooms in Cambridge.

Russell was then a leading figure in the international movement to make philosophy more scientific and to clear away the clouds of Hegelian metaphysics which had dominated European philosophy for the previous 100 years. Russell believed this Hegelian philosophy to be pernicious nonsense. He and his friend and colleague Alfred North Whitehead had recently completed their monumental Principia Mathematica, which demonstrated the logical foundations of mathematics. Russell was working on his new philosophy of Logical Atomism, which sought no less than to describe the logical foundations of the world. He was looking for a gifted collaborator to work with him

Russell was immediately impressed by Wittgenstein’s intellectual ability. He had found his collaborator. Wittgenstein abandoned his engineering studies and settled in Cambridge as Russell’s student. He quite soon started work on his first masterpiece: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He continued to work on it while on long holidays in Norway, and then while serving in the Austrian army in the First World War. He completed it while on active service fighting the Russians on the Galicia front (he was recommended for the highest Austrian medal for valour – their equivalent of the Victoria Cross). His traumatic war experience deeply influenced the final form of the Tractatus: what had started as a treatise on logic evolved into a kind of poem on life’s deepest truths. At the end of the war, Wittgenstein was taken prisoner by the Italian army, but he was able to smuggle the text of the Tractatus out to friends in Vienna and Cambridge. The book was finally published in German in 1921 and in an English translation (with a forward by Russell) on 1922.

At one level, the philosophy of the Tractatus can be interpreted as a form of Logical Atomism. At this level, the aim of philosophy is to reveal scientific truths about the world of the most general kind. Ordinary language being inadequate to express such truths, it is necessary to develop a logically pure language in order to describe the world accurately and faithfully. Such a language generates a network of logically consistent propositions which mirror the logical structure of the world. The Tractatus presents a blueprint for such a logical language. At another level, the Tractatus is a meditation on the mystical. It is quite unlike most other works of philosophy. It contains no discussion: it aims to present bare truth. It is written in a series of aphorisms: ‘the world is what is the case’, ‘ethics and aesthetics are one’, ‘death is not an event in life’, ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. The book was enormously influential. It inspired much of the work of the scientific philosophers of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of Reality and A.J.Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. The Tractatus became a Bible for the scientific spirit in philosophy.

Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy on the 1920s. He worked as a gardener in a monastery, and taught children in an Austrian village school. He also practised for a time as an architect, designing an ultra-modern house for his sister. He gave away his vast personal wealth and led the life of a solitary ascetic. He had a few meetings with members of the Vienna Circle, though he never attended that society’s formal gatherings. He was eventually persuaded to return to Cambridge and resume his work in philosophy by his friends John Maynard Keynes, the economist, and Frank Ramsey, the logician and philosopher, in 1929. During the next few years, Wittgenstein repudiated his earlier philosophy and developed a new one. This new philosophy forms the heart of this article.

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