“Are All Philosophical Questions Questions of Language?” is the title of an article by Stuart Hampshire that was published in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume XXII (1948, pp. 31-48). Hampshire says, first of all, that in order to answer the question of whether all philosophical questions are questions of language, we must be able to distinguish philosophical from non-philosophical, and linguistic from non-linguistic questions.
Regarding the distinction between philosophical and non-philosophical questions, there may be some questions that are borderline in nature; however, there are also many questions that are recognized as being distinctively philosophical. Regarding the distinction between linguistic and non-linguistic questions, there may be some questions that are neither purely linguistic nor purely non-linguistic, but are in fact both linguistic and non-linguistic. Another way of saying this is that if non-linguistic questions are “questions of fact” as opposed to “questions of language”, then there may be some questions that are both “questions of fact” and “questions of language.” There may also be some linguistic and non-linguistic questions that are neither purely “questions of fact” nor purely “questions of language.”
Regarding the question of whether the distinction between philosophical and non-philosophical questions is identical to that between analytic and synthetic questions, Hampshire explains that the answers to questions of language may include not only analytic, but also synthetic statements (statements about the actual uses of words or sentences in a particular language), and that philosophical questions cannot therefore be wholly analytic if they are questions of language.
If all philosophical questions are questions of language, then all philosophical problems may be regarded as linguistic problems, and philosophy may be regarded as an activity involving the analysis of language in order to resolve linguistic confusions, obscurities, or ambiguities. According to this view, problems created by linguistic confusions may dissolve when subjected to linguistic analysis, and such analysis may not require consideration of matters of fact, other than facts about the ordinary uses of language.
However, Hampshire criticizes this view, arguing that many important philosophical problems have been suggested by, or refer to, developments in the physical sciences and mathematics.1 While such problems may be clarified by analyzing differences between the terminology of ordinary language and the terminology of the physical sciences and mathematics, they may not arise solely from confusions or ambiguities in the uses of ordinary language.
Hampshire also criticizes the view that if all philosophical questions are questions of language, then they constitute requests for definitions of, or criteria of use for, the terms they contain. He says that if all philosophical answers are prescriptions for language use or rules for language translation, then we may still be left with no explanation as to why we might, for some purposes, prefer one language to another or why we might decide not to translate.2
Moreover, the question of whether a given way of using language is confusing may in the final analysis be an empirical question. Whether philosophical problems are resolved by clarifying the meaning of words or sentences may also be an empirical question.
Hampshire explains that a “question of language” may be a “question of definition” insofar as it may be a question of how the meaning of words or sentences is to be defined. However, he argues that it’s misleading to say that all philosophical questions are questions of language if the term “questions of language” is taken to mean merely “questions of definition.” Philosophical questions may be empirical, as well as definitional questions.
He concludes that a definitive answer to the question of whether all philosophical questions are questions of language may depend on the particular language in which philosophical questions are expressed, and on whether philosophical questions that arise when one particular language is used also arise when other languages are used. Some philosophical questions may arise with the use of only some, and not all, languages. Whether all philosophical questions are questions of language may therefore be an empirical, as well as analytic question.
1Stuart Hampshire, “Are All Philosophical Questions Questions of Language?”, reprinted in The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method, edited by Richard Rorty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), p. 287.
2Ibid., p. 289.