The Philosophy of Virgil Aldrich and a Critique of His View on Philosophy of Language


This research work seeks to identify the philosophy of VIRGIL ALDRICH, an American philosopher, and it also attempts a critique of his view on the philosophy of language. Aldrich, as Philosopher of Arts, distinguished between works of art and natural objects of aesthetic interest. According to him, persons are closely linked to works of art which are artefacts. He argued that persons are not natural kind either. However, his view in Philosophy of Language, Aldrich’s point was extensively elaborated on in his article Some Meanings of Vagueness (1973), where he sees vagueness as that which has no certain representation of an object; that which meaning to an object is not certain, and which is full of ambiguity. He also stressed the vagueness of symbols and vagueness of senses. In a critique of his view, therefore, the researcher tries to look at the problems on how the vagueness has posed a serious challenge.


The concepts of philosophy and language are two wide words in the study of the course philosophy of language. They both need each other for effective expression as in the case of philosophy, while language needs philosophy to properly enhance itself. Philosophy of language is the study which inquires into the origin, analysis and proper use of language. It deals with the problem of language. This is done by identifying how language is gotten, the meaning of conventionalism and determination of linguistic rules. It also involves an enquiry into the usage of nature and origin for analytical purpose. This research work seeks to analyse and criticise the point of view of an American philosopher Virgil Aldrich on his philosophy about the meaning of words.

VIRGIL C. ALDRICH (1903-1998): Brief Biography

virgil-aldrichVirgil Charles Aldrich was born on September 13, 1903, Narsinghpur, India into the family of Floyd Clement Aldrich and his wife Ann Hanley. He was an American philosopher of art, language, and religion.

Early Life and Education

Virgil Aldrich earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1925. He studied at Oxford University in 1927 and then went on to earn a Diplôme d’Études Supérieures de Philosophie at the Sorbonne in 1928 before completing his PhD at the University of California Berkeley in 1931. He married Louise Hafliger on 3 September 1927 and they had one son, David Virgil Aldrich.

Academic Career

Aldrich’s first academic appointment was his appointment as an instructor in philosophy at Rice University in 1931 and Sterling Fellow at Yale University in 1931-32. Promoted to Assistant Professor, he remained at Rice until 1942, when he was appointed visiting a professor at Columbia University from 1942 to 1946. Appointed professor of philosophy at Kenyon College in 1946, he remained there until 1965, serving as visiting professor at Brown University in 1962-63. In 1965, he became a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he remained until his retirement in 1972. On his retirement, he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he became an adjunct professor at the University of Utah.

Until his death on May 28, 1998, at Salt Lake City, Utah, Aldrich served as Director of the Kyoto American Studies Institute in Japan and for short periods was a visiting professor at Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Texas. He served as trustee and president of the American Society of Aesthetics and president of American Philosophical Association.


As stated earlier in his biography, Aldrich made tremendous contributions on Philosophy of Arts, Religion and Philosophy of Language, but his major philosophy was his view on the philosophy of arts. Aldrich dedicated the greater part of his life to the study of philosophy, offering two influential books and literally hundreds of articles and reviews to its ends. The scope of his work included significant contributions primarily in the areas of Aesthetics.

For Aldrich, an account of persons was closely linked to an artwork. Works of arts are not natural kinds but artefacts, distinguishable from natural objects of aesthetic interest, like flowers or mountains. Aldrich added that persons are not natural kinds either. They were “conventional, inventive and artificial”. Unlike pictures, they were natural works of art. Aldrich believed that the analogy was a deep one. Pictures had representational content, they pictured something, according to Aldrich, and the “body” of a picture (its physical constitution) manifested that content. Like pictures, what was “in” persons, their attitudes, thoughts, feelings, etc. was in a relevant sense represented in their bodily activities.

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Aldrich contribution on philosophy of language can be seen in his article: Some Meanings of Vague (1973), where he puts forth a series of definitions of vague objects (i.e. objects which has no definite representation, whose representation is unclear) and sensum, and then argues that any empiricist must account for vague sensum every bit as much as clear sensum, without skirting the issue. He takes there to be many kinds of vagueness – importantly, there is vagueness of symbols and vagueness of senses. Here symbols are anything which is used to refer, including verbal words, signs, pictures, and more. He said that Vagueness regarding symbols can be the same as the vagueness which regards the senses. There can, additionally, be vagueness of the practices surrounding the use of the symbol to refer. These, he suggests, should be avoided.

Aldrich went further to explain his point in analytic philosophy and linguistics, stating that, a concept may be considered vague if its extension is deemed lacking in clarity, if there is uncertainty about which objects belong to the concept or which exhibit characteristics that have this predicate (so-called “borderline cases”), or if the sorites paradox applies to the concept or predicate. He argues that vagueness is inevitable in everyday speech, often even desired effect of language usage. However, in the most specialized text (e.g. legal documents), vagueness is often regarded as problematic and undesirable.


Aldrich stated that vagueness is philosophically important. He said, supposed one wants to come up with a definition of “right” in the moral sense; one wants a definition to cover actions that are clearly right and exclude actions that are clearly wrong, but what does one do with the borderline cases? Surely, there are such cases. Some philosophers say that one should try to come up with a definition that is itself unclear on just those cases. Others say that one has an interest in making his or her definitions more precise than ordinary language, or his or her ordinary concepts, themselves allow; they recommend one advances precising definition.

Vagueness is a problem which arises in law, and in some cases, judges have to arbitrate regarding whether a borderline case does, or does not satisfy a given vague concept. Examples include disability (how much loss of vision is required before one is legally blind?) human life (at what point from conception to birth is one a legal human being, protected for instance by laws against murder?), adulthood (most familiarly reflected in legal ages for driving, drinking, voting, consensual sex, etc.), race (how to classify someone of mixed racial heritage), etc., even such apparently unambiguous concepts such as gender can be subject to vagueness problems, not just from transsexuals’ gender transitions but also from certain genetic conditions which can give an individual mixed male and female biological traits.

Many scientific concepts are of necessity vague, for instance, species in biology cannot be precisely defined, owing to unclear cases such as ring species. Nonetheless, the concept of species can be clearly applied in the vast majority of cases. As this example illustrates, to say that a definition is vague is not necessarily a criticism. Consider those animals in Alaska that are the result of breeding Huskies and wolves: are they dogs? It is not clear: they are borderline cases of dogs. This means one’s ordinary concept of doghood is not clear enough to let us rule conclusively in this case.

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Here, in Aldrich’s philosophy of language, we find the problem of the nature of meaning coming to play. This is because the term vagueness – whether symbolic or sensual (which for Aldrich means the same), is something not certain, something indefinite and ambiguous. His definition of vagueness, however, presents an indefinite representation of objects.

Secondly, from the examples presented in the case of law, vague concepts like race, disability, human being etc. are a real problem because the question of a borderline case is still yet to ascertained whether it can actually satisfy vague concepts or not. So it is left for Aldrich to reconcile that important observation.

Another question Aldrich should consider is the question of synonymous concepts or objects as presented above in the concepts of species where Huskies and Wolves are borderline cases of dogs – does it make them dogs? All these Aldrich should consider words with many representations still remains a problem in philosophy of language.

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We conclude by saying that the problem of meaning remains a core challenge in Aldrich’s philosophy. There can be no definite representation in the use of concepts that are ambiguous. It is pertinent to know that the concept meaning, therefore, forms a great challenge in the use of language in our everyday usage of certain concepts whose representations are uncertain as seen in Aldrich’s view of vagueness.


  1. Analysis, (Aug. 1937), pp. 89–95, published by Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Analysis Committee, Vol. 4, No. 6.
  2. Williamson, T. (1994). Vagueness. London: Routledge.
  3. Philosophy of Art, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 1963)
  4. Edeh, Peter: Lecture Note on Philosophy of Language.
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