[From David Crohn, Friend of the Podcast]
Question: How are Ludwig Wittgenstein, this sentence, and shooting your neighbor’s donkey related? I had no idea—until I listened to In Our Time's excellent (not PEL-excellent, but pretty close) introduction to Ordinary Language Philosophy.
OLP was the effort on behalf of a group of post-Wittgenstein philosophers to clarify the way language is used in an everyday context. Without going so far as Wittgenstein’s claim in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics cannot be coherently addressed using words and grammar and must therefore be “passed over in silence,” the OLPers turned their attention toward what everyday, non-philosophical language can and cannot express and how exactly it functions. Eschewing Wittgenstein’s WWI-foxhole austerity, folks such as Gilbert Ryle, J.L. Austin, and P.F. Strawson embraced language for its own sake—it is, after all, the chief medium with which pretty much all philosophers do philosophy.
Philosophers from Plato (in the Cratylus) down to Derrida and beyond have mused over the fact that words have only an arbitrary connection with the things they represent, which, depending on your outlook, can be a source for poetic exhilaration or metaphysical-ontological hand-wringing (or both). Either way, we’re stuck with it. The question for OLP is, "How exactly does ordinary language function and how might it be tweaked so as to more accurately capture everyday experience?" The so-called Linguistic Turn in analytic philosophy took these questions to be at the heart of philosophy (and often addressed them in ways far more lucid and reader-friendly than did continentals like Derrida and his followers).
So the next time you shoot your neighbor’s donkey and aren’t sure whether to fess up by saying you did it “accidentally” or “by mistake,” you may want to consider Austin’s views on this topic. Or at least listen to the podcast.