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Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism

C.K. Ogden and His Contemporaries

James McElvenny

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Explores the origins of key concepts in semantics and semiotics

This book explores the influential currents in the philosophy of language and linguistics of the first half of the twentieth century, from the perspective of the English scholar C. K. Ogden (1889–1957). Ogden was connected to several of the most significant figures of the modernist period, including Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Victoria Lady Welby, Otto Neurath and Rudolf Carnap. In investigating these connections, this book reveals links between early analytic philosophy, semiotics and linguistics in a crucial period of their respective histories and in turn sheds light on the intellectual history of the early twentieth century.

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1. Introduction

2. The Meaning of Meaning

I. The many functions of language

II. Definition and the canons of symbolism

III. Logical atomism and its allies

IV. The trigonometry of reference

V. Significs and sympathisers

VI. Antagonism and synthesis

VII. Philologists, psychologists and anthropologists

3. Basic English

I. The Enlightenment and modernity

II. Peace and progress

III. The common solution

IV. Basic English and the common solution

V. Panoptic conjugation

VI. Grammatical reform

VII. Bentham and beyond

VIII. Totalitarianism and Newspeak

4. Ogden and the Vienna Circle

I. The Viennese scene

II. The everyday versus metaphysics

III. International picture language

IV. Contact and collaboration

V. Totalitarianism revisited

5. Epilogue

I. Linguistics

II. Natural Semantic Metalanguage


About the Author

James McElvenny is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation at the Department of Romance Studies, University of Potsdam.


This work meets the highest standards of scholarship by any measure. It is masterly in combining succint and broad-ranging coverage. Without exception, the topics treated are carefully reasoned and clearly expressed in every detail. The writing is lively and engaging, infected in places, one ventures to guess, by Ogden’s whimsical approach to style… Ogden allows McElvenny to work with a fine brush and create an overview of intellectual history in the 20th century, integrated to a degree that is all too rarely seen... The breadth and depth of McElvenny’s impeccable work more than earns him the right to title his book Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism.

- W. Terrence Gordon, Dalhousie University, Historiographia Linguistica

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