McGinn, Colin. Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained.
The strengths of the book are twofold. First and foremost, the author provides clear and accessible summaries of the arguments under analysis. For example, regarding Russell's critique of Frege's view that descriptions denote objects, he succinctly summarizes Russell's view by appealing to the concept of the quantifier: "Russell argues that definite descriptions also express propositional functions that do not refer to or denote or name objects. As Frege would put it, they function as quantifiers. Therefore, since quantifiers are different from names, definite descriptions are different from names." Each chapter contains such concise summaries that many other examples could be adduced with ease. Second, the author connects the various texts systematically by setting each into dialogue with the others and by comparing and contrasting their various positions on central issues in the discipline. For example, having reconstructed Kripke's modal and epistemic objections to Frege's description theory of names, McGinn shows how demonstratives cannot be plausibly explained in terms of descriptions. In this way, McGinn applies his analysis of Kripke to Kaplan and Evans's account of demonstratives, and Putnam's discussion of the hidden indexicality of natural kind terminology. As a cautionary note, McGinn regularly offers his own criticism of each author, some of which are quite strongly formulated. Students should be made aware that these are usually McGinn's own; their purpose is to stimulate thought and discussion, and they do not necessarily reflect the consensus of philosophers working in the field.
Despite the strengths of the text, there are omissions worth mentioning that bear on the systematic completeness of the work. Most notably, ordinary language philosophy is almost entirely omitted from discussion. Heavyweights such as J. L. Austin do not appear at all, while Wittgenstein's arguments appear only intermittently or not at all, such as the private language argument. Although McGinn concisely explicates Russell's view that ordinary language misleads us into making logical errors, such as confusing definite descriptions and names, he only briefly mentions Wittgenstein's criticism of the Russellian project: "The formation of this logical language led to the idea that natural language was adequate for practical purposes but deficient for logical ones. This view was the standard one for a long time and shaped philosophy for the first half of the twentieth century--until Ludwig Wittgenstein came along and argued against this view, which we had also held in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus." Instructors wishing to convey Wittgenstein's critique of Russell's view in his later work will need to seek other texts or supplement the explication of Wittgenstein's arguments themselves. Ironically, McGinn will at times appeal to ordinary language in his own critiques of the author's texts, yet he does not systematically discuss ordinary language philosophy in very much detail.
Finally, it may be of some use to note that the texts are not always discussed in chronological order, and this sometimes affects the systematic presentation of the arguments. Kripke, for example, is discussed after Frege but before Russell. McGinn justifies this by arguing that "Kripke's critique is largely directed at Frege and those who follow his lead." One of the drawbacks of this decision is the fact that McGinn never discusses the implications of Kripke's theory for Russell's theory of descriptions. Since Russell also accepts a version of the description theory of names, clearly Kripke's critique has important implications for Russell as well as Frege. For example, the implications of Kripke's account of rigid and nonrigid designation for the problem of negative existentials is never discussed.
Such cautionary tales aside, Philosophy of Language: The Classics Explained is a very clearly written text that will certainly aid both student and instructor in navigating dense and difficult texts. On the whole, the text illuminates difficult and sometimes quite technical philosophy in digestible and accessible terms and is highly recommended as a supplementary text for a course or seminar in philosophy of language. The text achieves what it sets out to do, and used appropriately, would certainly spare the instructor much blood, sweat, and tears in the exegesis of primary texts.--Gregory S. Moss, Clemson University
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|Author:||Moss, Gregory S.|
|Publication:||The Review of Metaphysics|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2016|
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