Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Linguistic philosophy

core definition

Linguistic philosophy is an approach to philosophy that concentrates on the study of language.

explanatory context

Linguistic philosophy is concerned with how language is actually used, taught and developed in everyday discourse. It is assumed that this kind of analysis will illuminate, dissolve or transform traditional philosophical problems.


The argument is that such problems persist because philosophers have been misled by superficial grammatical similarities of language. Thus, relevant differences in the functions of terms have been overlooked or deliberately set aside in an attempt at uniformity. The first job of linguistic philosophy is to clarify linguistic statements.


Linguistic philosophy is therefore an analytic activity that concentrates on sensitivity to niceities of language rather than relying on a set of doctrines or rigidly prescribed method.

Which features of language linguistic philosophy concentrates on depends on the particular philosophical problems that it is attempting to engage and clarify.


The boundary between linguistic philosophy and linguistics is not a clear one. Further, there are some similarities between linguistic philosophy and ethnomethodology.


While having extensive origins this kind of approach is encapsulated in post-1945 English language philosophy. Notable contributors are Wittgenstein, Ryle and J.L Austin.

analytical review

Wildman (1994–2010) wrote:

Wittgenstein corrected his early work in his other breakthrough book, Philosophical Investigations (1953). This is, from one point of view, the manifesto of linguistic philosophy.

In that book he emphasized the vagueness and ambiguity of life and language against his positivist obsessiveness about clarity in the Tractatus. There are no essential definitions such as Socrates is famous for requiring of his interlocutors, according to the later Wittgenstein. Rather we use words to talk about life according to conventional and pragmatic rules, which he called "language games," and the vagueness of the world is expressed in the fuzziness of language.
Is this fuzziness of ordinary language a problem? Well, we all participate in many, many of these overlapping patterns of discourse, and inculcate our children into them as they grow. We know when our language, and that of others, works and when it doesn’t according to the criteria of these language games. So ordinary language appears to do very well. We get confused, according to Wittgenstein, when we get tricked by our own acuity, and try to force the world to be less vague and interesting than it actually is. We think up precise technical definitions (of the good, say, or of God or love or justice or salvation or humanity or Trinity) because of an obsession with essences, and thereby create "philosophical problems" because our essence-definitions do not fit the vague world; clearly, our philosophical problems are pseudo-problems.
Definition: It follows that the task of philosophy is to protect us from being outsmarted by our own linguistic intelligence, to dissolve philosophical problems by diagnosing them in detail as pseudo problems. It is a kind of therapeutic activity, therefore, and consists not in learning about books and ideas so much as paying attention to the world as it is.
Religion and theology, on this view, can exist, because we can speak about God and salvation, etc. The only problem is that our language is at its very vaguest at these places because reality itself is so elusively vague. We must be careful, therefore, not to take ourselves and our theologies too seriously, lest we become entrapped in all kinds of theological pseudo-problems, even as philosophers have become ensnared in philosophical pseudo-conundrums.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Wildman, W., 1994–2010, Positivism, Analytic Philosophy, and Linguistic Philosophy, available at, accessed 26 January 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Wittgenstein, L., 1953, Philosophical Investigations. Oxford, Blackwell.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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