Using Language in Conceptual Analysis

I have used language in conceptual analysis as often as I have thought-experiments, examples, intuitions, analogies and argument. I take all the aforementioned to be parts of the toolkit philosophers using when doing philosophy, and I suppose I do so almost without question. To some degree, I do not know how one could do philosophy without them. That said, I am aware of growing concern of particular methods philosophers have employed and I take such criticism seriously.

For example, many professors in my department I do not find analogies to be particularly helpful or interesting. They have argued that analogies do no work, for you could have just told your reader the content of your argument without the use of the analogy. Thought-experiments and intuitions are being scrutinized greatly in recent years by the experimental-philosophy movement.

At a recent conference I attended a fellow speaker mentioned that Miranda Fricker is not a huge fan of employing language in philosophical inquiry. According to Fricker, language cannot be used to draw any substantive metaphysical truths. If that is the case, then there really is no point in using language as support for an argument. This is, of course, a concern for myself as I use language to defend the ideas I put forth in my thesis. In fact, with language I have no argument whatsoever. So, can looking at how we use language tell us anything philosophically interesting?

Well, it seems to me we can make substantive claims looking at how we use language. If not, language can at the very least give rise to suspicions that motivate the need for further investigation.

Language is used to help carve out concepts and ideas, not only for others but for ourselves as well. Words are not always employed with strict definitions, and this holds particularly for common everyday conversation. For example, ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are often used interchangeably. Whether they actually mean the same thing is not relevant in folk conversation, so long as the meaning of the idea they are attached to is understood is all that matters.

I take this to be the concern of someone like Fricker: that folk talk often butchers or otherwise obfuscates the actual meaning of words and the concepts they are properly attached to. As folk talk so often plays so fast and loose with words and their meaning at any given time, it would be a huge error to rely on language as a way of drawing any substantive conclusions.

This is a criticism I agree with; however this is not how I employ language in philosophical inquiry. I employ language by looking at how people use it in times of misunderstanding, confusion or verbal tension. People only play ‘fast and loose’ with language for pragmatic purposes and only when both parties understand what is meant during conversation. But when one party in a conversation does not understand the meaning of the words spoken by the other, then both will employ words in more concise terms to help capture the particular meaning they are trying to communicate.

And that is where the interesting work is: communication breakdowns or misunderstandings. Because if people are able to use words in more precise ways to help distinguish between similar – yet different – concepts, then it means these concepts are distinct from one another. And further, it means that something precise and substantive can be said about the concepts in question.