A not entirely happy name for the philosophical method of taking language, rather than what the language ostensibly concerns, as the primary datum. Rather than studying numbers, or space and time, or the mind, the philosopher distinctively studies the language of mathematics, or physics, or psychology. The ruling thought is that it is only through a correct appreciation of the role and point of this language that we can come to a better conception of what the language is about, and avoid the oversimplifications and distortions we are apt to bring to its subject-matter. We understand a subject by scrutinizing the ideas we hold about it, and our only access to these ideas is by seeing what we say. Put thus broadly almost all philosophical investigation in the 20th century (and much before) has been in one form or another linguistic in its orientation, and the history of philosophy contains constant warnings against the way in which we can be blinded by what Berkeley calls the ‘mist and veil of words’. Philosophers such as Leibniz, Locke, Alexander Johnson, and Wittgenstein have conceived it as their chief task to penetrate this mist. See also formal/material mode of speech.
More specifically, the title is sometimes given to a possibly excessive concern with the contours of everyday linguistic usage, characteristic of some philosophers at Oxford in the years following the Second World War, and sometimes called Oxford philosophy. Practitioners of the approach included J. L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle.