“Plain Language Philosophy” is an approach to the truth which is available to all of us. Nowadays it is popular with serious philosophers – and often used by those who do not think of it as philosophy at all. In principle it promotes the idea that if we make a statement or a claim, even in the most natural way, we have to be prepared to defend the validity of that expression. In doing so we get closer to understanding what we are saying.
Here’s an example. “All Hottentots are rogues, they should be shunned in normal society.” Almost every word in that statement is susceptible to questioning. Let me suggest just three. You will be able to identify the others.
o what do you mean by “rogue”?
o what do you mean by “are”?
o what do you mean by “should?
And of course your responses to such questions will throw up other words and expressions which need their own clearer definitions.
I would choose Socrates as the champion plain language philosopher. His favoured approach was to ask questions rather than to make definite statements. So, when he was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man, he didn’t just accept or deny it, he went off to ask questions which might lead him to verify the claim. If you had said to him “I need a cup of tea” you might have found him interrogating the word “need”.
So here is an exercise in plain language philosophy: it is somewhat more important than a cup of tea. In each case try and establish the deeper meaning of the verb in each phrase.
“I hope there is life after death. I think there is life after death. I believe there is life after death. I know there is life after death. I am certain there is life after death.”
If you are in an atheistic mood today you can simply turn each proposition into its negative: “I don’t think there is life after death” etc. The exercise is the same.
I hope that working at this exercise will demonstrate to you how easily we make important statements without explaining even to ourselves what we mean. I am not suggesting that you should challenge everyone you meet. You might get as unpopular as Socrates, who died for it. But there will be important statements you encounter in conversation or in the media, or being shouted by the mob which you do need to interrogate through plain language philosophy. But perhaps more importantly you should interrogate yourself. Then you at least can say what you mean, and ensure that you mean what you say.