Once upon a time philosophy of language was, in the jargon of academic philosophers, an “AOS” (area of specialisation) of mine. In those days it was a nightmare being asked what I was working on in non-philosophy settings. In fact, when I met my husband one of our first conversations was about my work on the problem of opacity – why you can’t substitute “Clark Kent” for “Superman” in the sentence “Lois Lane believes that Superman is strong.” He couldn’t fathom that this was a real philosophy problem.
These days, it’s probably easier for philosophers of language to date. They can emphasise the new philosophy of language, the growing part of the field that’s practical. We need philosophers of language to help us sort out all sorts of questions – about slurs, code words, new forms of online speech, novel pronouns and ways of using pronouns, propaganda, and so on. The Forum in this issue is about these kinds of topics and also about how it is that philosophers of language got interested in them.
In fact, I needed the new philosophy of language to think about a problem that came up in the editing of this issue. It was a question an interim editor really doesn’t want to face: What to do with the n-word, which was fully spelled out in a quote from Langston Hughes in Ethan Nowak’s essay on extinct languages? The old philosophy of language is illuminating up to a point. This instance of the word wasn’t the most forbidden sort, because Ethan merely mentioned the term, and didn’t use it, and in fact Hughes merely mentioned it as well. But it takes the new philosophy of language to address further questions.
Does it make a difference that it was a Black man, mid-20th-century, who originally mentioned the word? What if there had been ten instances of the word in Ethan’s article, not one? Now it would seem that their all being mentions isn’t entirely exculpatory. We need to understand what we do by repeating a word with the history that the n-word has. More than one of the articles in our forum, including Ethan’s, shed light on this question.
We’re printing the word, fully spelled out, but what if you think that’s a mistake? What’s the appropriate response? A number of articles in this issue touch on the topic of transgression and cancel culture. With the new topics in philosophy of language come new topics in other areas of philosophy, including ethics.