Language Philosophy and Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe

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.

The lectures in which Wittgenstein first presented his new ideas became legendary. A few disciples would gather in his rooms in Trinity College, sitting on deck chairs, and would then take part in agonised Socratic debate. Wittgenstein would pose a problem, and invite comments. These comments would be subjected to penetrating analysis – often interrupted by long periods of silence while Wittgenstein thought. Nothing was published at the time, but lecture notes were circulated to the elect. They have all been published since, and the editors include many outstanding philosophers and other leading thinkers of the second half of the 20 th century, such as Elizabeth Anscombe, Norman Malcolm and G.H. von Wright (and my old Headmaster, Sir Desmond Lee, classical scholar, philosopher and educationalist). The fullest exposition of these new ideas is contained in Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously in 1953. The new philosophy that emerged from these sessions amounted to the most radical revolution on philosophy since Kant. Much of the new philosophy concerns language, and is of central importance to those professionally involved with language.

Two of Wittgenstein’s innovations stand out as having particular relevance to language teaching: (1) a new philosophy of language in which meaning is interpreted as ‘use’, rather than conformity to an abstract system (as in the Tractatus) and (2) a new conception of philosophy as a means of disentangling conceptual confusions caused by language muddles. Let us look at these innovations in more detail.

(1) The repudiation of his earlier concept of philosophical analysis. In the old system, language was conceived as a system founded on a calculus of strict rules. The propositions generated by these rules were thought to reveal (Wittgenstein) or to describe (Russell) the most general features of reality. The task of philosophy was to classify these propositions through analysis, thus laying bare the logical structure of the world. This is the view that Wittgenstein repudiated. In his new philosophy of language, the meaning of a word is its use, not what it denotes. Language not only describes things: it also does things. Language is a tool box which enables us to do things: it is not just a device for describing things. Language can also be interpreted, in a favourite analogy of Wittgenstein’s, as a collection of games. Games have rules. We do not follow the rules of chess when playing draughts, or soccer when playing cricket or rugby. To play language games, we need to know and follow the appropriate rules. These rules stem from life, and the use of language is inter-woven with the life of language-users. We master a language when we are closely involved with the life that underpins that language. Language training presupposes shared realities and shared ways of behaving within a language community.

Wittgenstein wrote: ‘if a lion could speak, we would not understand him’: not because his growls are unclear, but because his whole world is so different from ours that we cannot understand it. Russell made a similar point when he said: “if I could teach my dog to speak, he would never learn to say: ‘my father was poor but honest’ Dogs don’t think this way – they have no conception of honesty. Similar reasoning can perhaps sort out today’s muddled thinking about chimpanzee ‘language’ – to what extent do they ‘really’ understand human language? Wittgenstein’s new ideas, originally developed in the 1930s, later played a crucial part in the evolution of communicative language teaching and its theoretical support in the 1960s and 1970s.

(2). A new view of the purpose of philosophy. The purpose of philosophy is no longer to present sublime visions of ultimate truth and goodness, as in the work of Plato or Spinoza. It is simply to clarify our thinking. It is a handmaiden of understanding, rather than a produce of new truths. For Wittgenstein, many so-called philosophical problems are the result of language muddles. Problems like the relation of mind and body, the paradoxes of free will and determinism, and the nature of the soul – all these problems can all be resolved by analyzing how confusions in language cause confusions in our minds. Confusion usually arises when we try to use language that is appropriate for one kind of situation in a different situation for which it is not adapted. Once we see the confusions, all becomes clear. We have, to use Wittgenstein’s vivid image, let the fly out of the bottle.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy has much to offer language teaching. If language is a tool box for doing things, we should focus on helping our student to use the tools effectively, with lots of practice at doing things with words. If language is like a collection of games, we should teach our students to score linguistic goals and hit language centuries and win language chess games and generally get the ball over the language tennis net: we should give our students plenty of practice at playing these language games. (No-one ever learned to kick goals or score centuries or discuss hypotheses without practice).

And if language can sort out conceptual problems, let us apply philosophical analysis to unresolved issues in our field. Do we acquire language or do we learn language? What real processes, if any, do these words stand for? What, if any, is the relation between the two processes? Wittgenstein believed that the right procedure, when confronted with a puzzle like this, is to examine the ‘problem’ language as it is used in ordinary situations. Ordinary language reflects centuries of experience and has survived, in a Darwinian manner, a great deal of criticism and tough use – it has proved its fitness. Ordinary language is usually, Wittgenstein thought, sensible and true to reality. So how is the word acquisition used in ordinary language? In ordinary language there is usually a sense of getting something for nothing – something a bit disreputable - about acquiring things. ‘Have you heard? George has just acquired a nice new young wife…. The old devil..’ The term does not comfortably fit the process of mastering a language, and distorts our understanding of that process, causing intellectual cramp. Wittgenstein would surely have agreed with the great linguist Michael Halliday, who advises us to avoid the loaded terms acquisition and learning, and to use the neutral term mastery instead.

What about conscious and unconscious learning? The debate rests on confusions in the use of these words, which lead to muddles in our understanding of what happens when we learn things, and a confused theory of how the mind actually works. The same is true of innate versus learned grammar, and deep and surface structures. In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the troublesome words are analysed until the presuppositions underlying the words are exposed and sorted out, thus revealing the truth. His philosophy also examines scientifically what really happens, and not what the distorting language leads us to think happens. In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, we discover the truth, we are not bewitched by beguiling words, and we avoid intellectual cramp. This kind of philosophy is as relevant to language learning theory and practice as it is to every other academic discipline.

Wittgenstein first formulated these ideas. They were later developed by Austin, Grice and Searle, among many others. Let us look now at the philosophy of J.L Austin.

Austin was a leading Oxford philosopher. After graduating in 1930, he was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls – one of the highest accolades an academic can achieve in Britain, and a clear sign of his brilliant intellect. He later became a Fellow and Tutor of Magdalen College in Oxford. In his book Personal Impressions, Isaiah Berlin gives a vivid portrait of the young Austin. At that time, he writes: ‘Austin had no settled philosophical position. He did not hold with programmes. He did not wish to promote or destroy one establishment in the interests of another. He treated problems piecemeal as they came, not as a part of a systematic reinterpretation. His thinking was characterized by extreme clarity. He had a very clear, sharp and original intellect’. He could be cantankerous, too. A.J.Ayer once said to him, during a philosophy meeting: ‘Austin, you are like a greyhound who doesn’t want to run himself. You bite all the other greyhounds so that they can’t run either’. Something of this character comes out in his writing, as he draws ever finer distinctions and endlessly qualifies statements. Austin was also a musician: he loved to play unaccompanied Bach on his violin.

In 1937, Austin and Isaiah Berlin held a series of regular Thursday evening meetings for young Oxford philosophers to discuss philosophical questions. Topics included the verification principle, and how we know that other minds exist. There were never more than seven or eight people present: they included Gilbert Ryle (author of the controversial The Concept of Mind), A.J.Ayer, and Stuart Hampshire – all leading figures on the subsequent development of language philosophy. As the discussions proceeded, it became clear to Austin, as it had to Wittgenstein before him, that many of the problems they discussed were caused by confusions in our use of language. One source of such confusions was binary polarities suggested by the forms of language, such as empirical versus logical truth, and factual versus ethical statements (eg ‘is’ cannot be converted into ‘ought’?) Such apparently clear and simple distinctions often distort the truth, which is usually more nuanced, and less black and white. Philosophers, Austin believed, need to seek out the grey and complex truth masked by such over-precise dichotomies. Another source of confusion was the so-called category mistake. In The Concept of Mind, Ryle describes how an American tourist in Oxford, who had seen the Bodleian Library and the Sheldonian and some of the colleges, asked him: ‘but where is the university?’ ‘These things are the university’, Ryle replied. ‘The University is everything that happens here and all the people and buildings connected with it. It is not something else, apart from the buildings and the people.’ The category mistake is to confuse a ‘university’ with a ‘thing’: a University is a sort of collective noun. John Wisdom at Cambridge University used to quote a charming example of this problem in his spring term lectures. ‘It is getting warmer, the daffodils are out on the Backs, and the girls are wearing their pretty dresses. But where, oh where, is spring?’ – as if we were expecting Persephone to come tripping over the meadows. The myth of Persephone is beautiful, and it has its own poignant symbolic truth. But it does not provide a scientific explanation for what happens in spring time. Philosophy, Austin believed, is riddled with category mistake problems in which we are bewitched by a mythical Persephone instead of examining how things actually work – problems like the nature of the mind, causation, memory, intention and the will. Whitehead used to call the same problem ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ – in other words we think that because there is a WORD, there must be a THING to correspond to that word, whereas often the word describes a process or a way of combining things, not a discrete thing.

During the Second World War, Austin worked on Eisenhower’s staff. He helped to plan D Day – a task perfectly suited to his meticulous and organized mind. Back in Oxford after the war, Austin set up a new set of regular philosophy meetings. This time the philosophers met on Saturday mornings, with the aim of examining small-scale problems in the hope that solutions to small problems would lead to solutions of bigger problems. Some sessions were devoted to the rules of games: each participant was asked to bring a book of rules of different games for the group to study. The analysis of the rules for games led to a better understanding of rules in general, including the rules of language. On another famous occasion, each member of the group was asked to being a kind of scissors: garden shears, kitchen scissors, nail scissors, sewing scissors, surgeon’s scissors etc. The group then tried to decide which was a tool, which an implement, a utensil, an appliance, a piece of equipment, a kit, a device or a gimmick. Gradually, the ‘fit’ between thing and word became sharper and light was thrown on philosophical problems concerned with the relation between language and the world.


These sessions provided the seedbed where his important work on language philosophy grew. His most significant original contribution to language philosophy was the notion of ‘performatives’, or expressions which do things rather than describing things. Performatives are analysed in detail in the posthumously published How to Do Things with Words, which was based on his notes for a series of lectures given by Austin at Harvard University in 1955. Here are three examples of performatives. ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ (naming); ‘I do’, said in answer to the wedding ceremony question ‘do you take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?’ (marrying); and ‘I bequeath my second best bed to my wife’ (leaving things to others in a will). The generic term ‘performative’ stands for all such functional expressions. Austin’s term ‘illocutionary force’ refers to the various kinds of performance, eg promising, warning, obeying, threatening etc. His term ‘perlocutionary force’ refers to the effect of the performance on other people. Thus, when I say ‘I do’ in the wedding ceremony, the illocutionary force is ‘promising to marry’, and the perlocutionary force is the effect of my words on the woman I marry.

Austin divided performatives into five categories, as follows (with examples):

  1. Verdictives: judging, pronouncing, estimating, convicting, acquitting, diagnosing
  2. Exercitives: I appoint, dismiss, excommunicate, order, urge, recommend, demand
  3. Commissives: I promise, intend, plan, agree, disagree, oppose, swear, undertake
  4. Behabatives: I apologise, thank, compliment, commiserate, bless, challenge, vote
  5. Expositives: I mean, affirm, deny, state, identify, tell, ensure, object to, repudiate

How to Do Things with Words was a seminal influence in the development of functional/notional language teaching theory and practice. It is also a rich source of excellent recipes for functional language lessons, containing many dishes not included in our normal fare. This little book can help us to teach not only how to request, apologise, thank and offer (common fare), but also how to convict and acquit, condemn and release, appoint and dismiss, oppose and undertake, to compliment and to complement, to ensure and insure, and to interpret and to query (less common fare). It is not only a major work of philosophy, but it is also full of imaginative and practical ideas which can enrich our classroom practice.

Let is now turn to Paul Grice. Grice was a Fellow and Tutor at St John’s College, Oxford from 1938 to 1967. He them moved to the USA, where he was Professor of Philosophy at Berkeley, University of California, until his death in 1988 at the age of 75. He made many important contributions to philosophy, including a new approach to ethics based on a reinterpretation of the notion of ‘justice’ in Plato’s Republic, and his famous analysis of what he called ‘the logic of conversation’. Grice’s writings have a magisterial, fastidious clarity.

Logic and Conversation, originally a talk delivered as one of the William James lectures at Harvard in 1967, is a key text for language teaching. When we take part in a conversation, Grice maintained, we follow certain principles. The over-arching one is the

Cooperative Principle. We agree to make such conversational contributions as are required by the accepted purpose of the talk exchange in which we are engaged. This cooperative principle may be subdivided into four sub-categories: quantity, quality, relation and manner.

The category of Quantity generates the following maxims:

  • Make your contribution as informative as required
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required

The category of Quality generates the following maxims:

  • Say only what you believe to be true
  • Do not way that for which you lack evidence

The category of Relation generates simply ‘be relevant’

The category of Manner generates:

  1. Avoid obscurity
  2. Avoid ambiguity
  3. Be brief
  4. Be orderly

These principles and maxims were designed to explain how human conversation works. Some people found the explanation clear and enlightening, but others criticised it on the grounds that the maxims did not correspond with reality. Few people, they pointed out, conduct conversations in this admirably organized manner – perhaps they should, but they don’t. Critics pointed to the plays of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, with their so-realistic dialogues full of non-sequiturs. These plays, they claimed, are a more accurate reflection of real conversation than Grice’s elegant model. Grice replied to these criticisms in an Epilogue written in 1986. The principles, he wrote, applied to ideal conversations, not to most conversations as they are actually conducted. They are intended to supply a framework for understanding how conversation works and how it is linked to its context. The principles of conversation are also an example of Grice’s view of language as embedded in the flow of human life. They can help language teachers, because they provide a principled framework for teaching our students how to converse – not only in ordinary conversation, but also in business meetings and formal encounters like diplomatic negotiations. Grice’s theory of logic and conversation has also been influential in the development of the speaking examinations of the University of Cambridge examinations in English – a further point of intersection between language philosophy and language teaching.

Grice is best known today for this one article. However, like most Oxford philosophers, he was a master at drawing distinctions between related words, and his work in this area is also of value to language teachers. For instance, how exactly does ‘I know’ differ from ‘I believe’? We can say ‘I firmly believe’, but we cannot say ‘I firmly know’. ‘I try’ differs from ‘I intend’: ‘trying’ implies difficulty or failure, while ‘intending’ has no such implication. Grice traced the concepts underlying these words in the great detail, thereby increasing our understanding of how language works, and how it influences our thinking.

Grice’s work is highly relevant to language teaching. He gives us a framework for teaching the language of conversations and professional meetings – we can modify the framework to reflect messy and Pinterian reality, but Grice gives us a starting point. He shows in detail how language links into the flow of life, and how to interpret the implications of what people say, as well as their surface meanings. He gives us a powerful analysis of shades of meaning. And he writes in a wonderfully lucid and elegant style which can serve as a model for all who wish to improve their written English style.

Let us turn, finally, to John Searle. Like Paul Grice a generation ago, he is a professor of philosophy at Berkeley, University of California. An American, he studied with J.L.Austin at Oxford, and then returned to America, where he helped to disseminate his teacher’s ideas. He has made many important contributions to the field of language philosophy, starting with his brilliant Speech Acts of 1969. Other key texts include: The Rediscovery of the Mind (1994) and Consciousness and Language (2003). He is still active today.

Three aspects of Searle’s work are of particular importance to language teaching: (1) his seminal book Speech Acts, and especially its analysis of functional language and its critique of the doctrine ‘the meaning of a word is its use’ (2) his analysis of ethical propositions, and (3) his theory of mind, which provides a coherent and comprehensive framework for his theories of language. Let us consider these in turn.

(1) Speech Acts and Functional Language. Suppose I say: ‘your house is on fire’. Is it sufficient to say that the meaning of this utterance is something like ‘danger – call the fire brigade’? Searle thinks not. Although this is its use, there is a reference to facts too. Searle holds that performative utterances possess both an illocutionary force (eg a warning, as here), and a propositional reference (eg your house and the fire). This reinterpretation of performative utterances solves various philosophical puzzles by integrating language function into a broader language context. It provides a more coherent framework for teaching functional language than the somewhat limited Wittgensteinian aphorism ‘the meaning of a word is its use’. On a broader canvas, this move played a part in reintegrating scientific description and descriptive language into philosophy, a development that has been particularly influential in the USA with the work of Quine and his followers. Searle’s interpretation of how functional language works has clear implications for language teaching: the teaching of functions is best done within a clear context.

(2) Ethical propositions. In traditional philosophy, it was thought to be impossible to derive ought from is, because the worlds of fact and value are different. Searle famously demonstrated not only that ought can be derived from is, but that in practice we do it all the time. Consider the statement: ‘I promise to refund you this money’. This entails the proposition: ‘there is an obligation on me to refund you this money.’ This entails the further proposition: ‘I ought to refund you this money’. In other words, ought can be derived from is. Searle’s explanation for what looks at first like sleight of hand – just a trivial trick – is that ethical judgements relate to human affairs – to human inventions and human institutions and organizations: to money and its obligations, to marriage, to government, to sport and to clubs and societies, for instance. The world of ethics is the world of people, not things or animals. The problem of is and ought derives from a confusion between the language proper to human affairs and the language proper to things. If this view is accepted, many philosophical problems are resolved.

For instance, this theory explains why many apparent statements of fact have the illocutionary force of commands. Consider the following example, for ever etched on my memory. When I was engaged to my future wife some years ago, we visited her Italian family, who lived in a small town near Verona. On Sunday morning, my fiancée, who was very advanced and liberal in her thinking, announced that she was not going to church. Her outraged father stood up and declared: ‘domenica, la donna va in chiesa’. (On Sunday, women go to church). My fiancée went to church. A philosopher might have been puzzled by her action: no command was given, and my father-in-law had only made a statement. However, my fiancée understood very well that her father’s words had the force of a command, and, as a properly brought up Italian girl, she obeyed her father.

Searle explains all this by saying that the full meaning of her father’s words can only be rightly interpreted in the context of the society in which he and his daughter lived. In that society, at that time, women went to church and obeyed their fathers, whatever may or may not have happened in Britain, America or other societies. In that society, her father’s statement had the illocutionary force of a command: his is had the effect of an ought, or rather a must. And the same principle is true, claims Searle, of all ethical statements. Ethical propositions have the force of commands within the system where they belong, whether they are formulated as statements or orders. They are also as true in their own way as scientific descriptions are in their different way: they are true within the context of the society to which they belong. This analysis offers a coherent and satisfying treatment of ethical expressions, unlike that of the Logical Positivists, who declared all ethical statements to be merely expressions of feelings and devoid of scientific validity. Searle’s treatment of this topic has deeply influenced language teaching practice: we happily teach statements as commands, and logical inference as moral imperative. We teach language as it actually used in society, not according to some preconceived theory that does not fit the facts.

(3) Searle’s Theory of Mind. Searle provides an account of how the brain works that gives principled theoretical support for communicative language teaching methods. The subject is too vast and too complex to be summarized adequately in this article. I explore the topic in detail in other articles I have written for Modern English Teacher. Interested readers are referred to ‘Is Grammar Innate?’ and ‘The Shibboleths of TEFL’ - and to Searle’s books. Let two references suffice to give an introduction to the topic here.

Here is a quote from The Rediscovery of the Mind: ‘In our skulls there is just the brain with all its intricacy, and consciousness with all its colour and variety. The brain produces the conscious states that are occurring in you and me right now, and it has the capacity to produce many others that are not now according. But that is it. Where the mind is concerned, that is the end of the story. There are brute, blind neurophysiological processes and there is consciousness, but there is nothing else. If we are looking for phenomena that are intrinsically intentional but inaccessible in principle to consciousness, there is nothing there: no rules, no rule following, no mental information processing, no unconscious inferences, no mental models… no language of thought, no LAD, and no universal or innate grammar’. To sum up, Searle paints a rigorously scientific picture of the mind, with no reliance on metaphysical entities.

Searle’s view of language and the mind is incompatible with the picture that Chomsky paints. Language philosophy has many criticisms of Chomsky’s theory of mind, with its innate and universal grammar, deep structures and so on. In 2002, Searle published The End of the Revolution, a review of Chomsky’s most recent book New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. The review is sympathetic but critical. Many of the arguments used by Searle are similar to those which Wittgenstein employed to criticize his own Tractatus in the 1930s. ‘There is no logical structure underlying language’, ‘there is no ghost in the machine’, ‘grammar was made by man, not by God’ (Wittgenstein). ‘There is no universal grammar common to all languages; there is no Language Acquisition Device in the brain; grammar is not innate but mastered through experience of language and life; there are no deep structures in the brain; language has many functions other than describing things’ (Searle). This review provides insight into Searle’s scientific theory of mind, and is also a valuable contribution to clear thinking about Chomsky’s theories. (Searle is not the only philosopher to have doubts about Chomsky’s theories. Professor Norman Malcolm, a protégé of Wittgenstein, once wrote: Chomsky and his followers are a new tribe of philosophical savages….’)

Searle’s theory of mind is important for language teachers because it provides a coherent and verifiable explanation for how language really works. Together with his analysis of speech acts and functional language, and his account of ethical statements, Searle’s theory of mind provides a scientific foundation for our work in teaching languages.

Let us conclude. What does the philosophy of language offer to language teachers? It offers many things, including: a broad vision of the place of language in human affairs; new perspectives on old ideas; principled support for the fundamentals of communicative language teaching and learning; fresh insights into language games, language rules, meaning, functions and how language really works; deeper understanding of the language of conversation and professional meetings; the stimulus of scintillating minds - and a deeper understanding of language itself.

Suggested further reading

J.L.Austin: How to Do Things with Words (OUP, 1962)

A.J.Ayer: Language, Truth and Logic (OUP, 1936)

Isaiah Berlin: Personal Impressions (Pimlico, 1998)

Paul Grice: Studies in the Way of Words (Harvard University Press, 1989)

P.M.S Hacker: Wittgenstein’s Place in 20 th century Analytical Philosophy (Blackwell, 1996)

Ray Monk: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Cape, 1990)

Gilbert Ryle: The Concept of Mind (OUP, 1949)

John Searle: Speech Acts (CUP, 1969)

The Rediscovery of the Mind (MIT Press, 1994)

Consciousness and Language (CUP, 2003)

The End of the Revolution (Harvard Review of Books, 2002)

Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (RKP, 1922)

Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell, 1953).

(NB. An earlier version of this article was published in Modern English Teacher in July 2003)


Mark Lowe studied philosophy at Cambridge University. He has maintained his involvement with the subject, and is particularly interested today in the uses of philosophy in sorting out real-world problems. He likes to play the piano in his free time.

He is currently Director of Studies at International House, Tbilisi, Georgia.

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