Today I will discuss one of my favorite topics in philosophy of language, and ‘that is what?’ you ask. Well, philosophy of language is defined as, “the philosophical study of natural language and its workings, particularly of linguistic meaning and the use of language” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Furthermore, it could be summarized as an inquiry about the nature of meaning (of language), theories of ‘truth’, and even the field of linguistics. I could ask, “How could I mention a word without using it?”; this question is a question most, if not all, people have asked. Moreover, how could we talk about a language without using the language itself? Consequently, is there a tool that allows me to make statements about a language without contradicting myself in the process? There is such a tool that will enable you to do these things, and it also allows you to use & mention certain sentences; or even individual linguistic elements such as characters in a language (e.g., such as the English language).
The definition I gave initially might be a little confusing, but to clear things up there are two different types of languages; formal languages, and natural languages. Natural languages are languages that we use to speak with others in everyday life, in contrast, there are formal languages that we do not use to speak with others per se, but are used to lessen the ambiguity (i.e., the many possible interpretations of particular expressions) that comes with natural language by employing very rigorous rules. Also, all programming languages are formal languages, but not all programming languages are formal languages such as logic (note. There are many different systems of logic). If you are familiar with quotes, then you notice how they have been used to call something ‘so-called’; instead of talking about the term that is ‘so-called’ denoted as ‘air quotes’. However, they are not used by linguists, philosophers, or even logicians as air quotes. Instead, they are used to talk about an expression from a given language. It’s used for clarifying between talking about a term, and its referent (i.e., what the term refers to). So, for instance, consider the sentence, “‘Christian’ has nine letters”, and the sentence “Christian, the first name of Serai”. Both of these sentences have the proper noun ‘Christian’, but one is merely mentioning the name; the other is using the name. It’s best not to confuse the two as making the same assertion because I’m sure Christian himself is not composed of nine letters; it’s the name that refers to Christian. If we were to not use these quotations, then the truth of these statements would differ since they would carry a different meaning since the quotations give the very incentive that we are mentioning a word rather than using it. This is called the use/mention distinction, and it is used for this very purpose; to avoid confusion about terms, and their referents.
The use/mention distinction is used for both natural languages, and formal languages. We could even use statements in natural language to talk about expressions in formal languages since we do it in mathematical logic all of the time; we even do it in general mathematics. The use/mention distinction could also take the form of the metalanguage/object-language distinction (i.e., languages that are used to talk about the other language that’s being talked about). For instance, we could use English to talk about a statement from another language such as Japanese, “‘雪は白い’ is a Japanese sentence”. It’s good to see the relationship between these two distinctions, but the metalanguage/object-language distinction is most likely used for formal languages a lot more than to talk about natural languages; so it shouldn’t be confused as being the same concept. This distinction seems to be very useful, and has helped philosophers, linguistics, and logicians throughout the decades. We could generally describe this distinction as being the tool that allows us to describe terms and sentences, and of course, this might be a naïve way of looking at it; but it gives a general understanding of the concept. I say that because there are many different theories out there regarding the ‘use’ of this distinction.
To end this I shall give a passage that could use the use/mention distinction to understand what the knight is saying:
“You are sad,” the Knight said in an anxious tone: “let me sing
you a song to comfort you.”
“Is it very long?” Alice asked, for she had heard a good deal of
poetry that day.
“It’s long,” said the Knight, “but it’s very, very beautiful.
Everybody that hears me sing it – either it brings the tears into
their eyes, or else –”
“Or else what?” said Alice, for the Knight had made a sudden pause.
“Or else it doesn’t, you know. The name of the song is called
“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?’ Alice said, trying to feel
“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little
vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really is ‘The
“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called’?”
Alice corrected herself.
“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called
‘Ways and Means’: but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”
“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time
“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really is
‘A-sitting On A Gate’: and the tune’s my own invention.”
So saying, he stopped his horse and let the reins fall on its
neck: then, slowly beating time with one hand, and with a faint
smile lighting up his gentle foolish face, as if he enjoyed the(Lewis Carroll, Through the LookingGlass, Chapter VIII, 1871)