Philosophy of language

Asa Kasher
Table of contents

Philosophical studies of natural language serve two purposes: (a) They enhance our understanding of the role played by language within the framework of major facets of human life, such as thought, knowledge or scientific explanation, and (b) they enhance our understanding of language itself. Pragmatics, in some sense of the term, has been involved in the pursuit of each of these purposes. A particularly illuminating example of how pragmatics, in a sense, appears in a philosophical study of language of type (a) is Bas van Fraassen’s philosophical theory of scientific explanation (van Fraassen 1980). Van Fraassen’s starting point is the threefold division of properties and relations into syntactic, semantic and pragmatic, as introduced by Charles Morris and used in Morris (1955). Applying this division to theories in science, an interesting distinction emerges between syntactic aspects of a theory, such as the property of consistency, semantic aspects thereof, such as empirical adequacy and verisimilitude, and presently most interestingly, its pragmatic aspects, such as context-dependency. Van Fraassen’s view is that “the language of theory appraisal, and specifically the term ‘explains’ is radically context-dependent” (1980: 91). On van Fraassen’s view, an explanation is an answer to a ‘why?’-question about certain facts, as compared to certain contextually determined alternatives that are not the case: ‘why does this material burn yellow, rather than …?’. Moreover, an explanation involves not only certain facts and certain contrastive alternatives, but also a contextually determined respect in which an answer is sought to the ‘why?’-question. In one respect, the question ‘why does the blood circulate through the body?’ is related to causal answers in terms of the heart pumping the blood through the arteries, while in another respect, the question is related to functional answers in terms of bringing oxygen to every part of the body tissue.

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