Phil 424

Philosophy of Language

Time: Monday/Wednesday, 5:45-7:00 pm

Location: YMCA 109

Instructor: Kenny Easwaran

Office: YMCA Building 314, 979-847-6128

Office Hours: Monday/Wednesday, 4:45-5:45, or by appointment.

Prerequisites: Junior standing, and at least one philosophy course other than 240, or permission of instructor.

Course Description: The readings and discussion for this course will focus on issues surrounding meaning, truth, and reference in language, and the way they arise in the various uses to which language is put. We will be primarily reading historically influential works of philosophy and linguistics from the 20th century. We will start with the thought that the meaning of a word is the thing it stands for, but we will quickly see several of the ways in which it must be more complex. We will also discuss the extent to which linguistic meaning is constituted by the intentions of the speaker, the notions of truth or falsity, and the social, historical, and biological context of the speaker.

Learning Outcomes: As in many other philosophy classes, students will further develop skills of summarizing the arguments of others, putting forward their own arguments both in writing and in conversation, and analyzing the ways in which these arguments do and don't succeed. Specific to the topic, students will gain a familiarity with several historically influential views in philosophy and linguistics about the nature of meaning and the way it is constituted in language.

Readings: There is no required textbook for this course. All readings will be available as .pdf files from this website or via e-mail or the library.

Grading Policies: The grade in this course will primarily be based on written assignments, but will also have a component from class participation. 30% of the grade will be based on the 5 written summaries of arguments from some of the articles we are reading. 30% of the grade will be from Paper 1, and 30% of the grade will be from Paper 2. The remaining 10% of the final grade will be based on participation in class discussion.

I will discuss the summary assignments further in the first week of class and give some examples to show what I am looking for. Two of these assignments will be in the first two weeks of the class, and the other three will be in the middle and end of the semester. Paper topics will be discussed further as they get closer, but I will make sure to give several weeks of advance notice, so that you can write outlines and drafts and discuss them with me before you write the final version. Paper 1 will be due on Nov. 1, and Paper 2 will be due during finals week.

Attendance in class is not specifically required, but it will be difficult to properly participate in discussion with your fellow students and develop the relevant skills of clear verbal communication if you do not attend regularly. I will also discuss some of the requirements of assignments in class, though I can fill you in if it happens on a day when you have an excused absence. (See here for university attendance policies.)

For disability accommodations, please contact Disability Services so they can let me know what sorts of accommodations are appropriate.

Remember, an Aggie does not lie, cheat, or steal, and does not tolerate those who do. For further information, see the Aggie Honor System Office.

Paper Topics:

Paper 1: Choose some communicative device or speech act, and explain how it works. That is, give a definition of what it is, an explanation of what it means, and a description of conditions under which it is correct or incorrect to use it, or when it succeeds or fails at doing what it is intended to do. Make sure to consider some borderline cases to show that your conditions are necessary and sufficient.

Some possible ideas for a communicative device or speech act: turn signals in a car, giving a name to a child, First World Problems Woman, saying "hello", etc. Some sorts of borderline cases you might consider: intentionally misusing it (is there a way to successfully misuse it or are they always failures?), accidentally using it, using it where no one else can see it (either with or without your knowledge that no one is around), etc.

The paper should be about 2000 words long (approx. 4-7 pages), though it may be somewhat longer or a bit shorter if that is what is needed for the analysis. Please save the file as a .pdf file and e-mail it to easwaran AT by 11:59 pm on Friday, November 6. Please send me an e-mail by 11:59 on Monday, October 19 telling me the communicative device or speech act you have chosen, and a few quick bullet points outlining what you think the use conditions are and/or some attempted use cases that you might use in the paper to argue your point. If you want to send me an outline or a draft some time along the way, I'd also be willing to give you some feedback on that.

Paper 2: Choose one of the following topics, or suggest another one to me. The paper should be about 2000 words long (approx. 4-7 pages), though it may be somewhat longer or a bit shorter if that is what is needed for the analysis. Please save the file as a .pdf file and e-mail it to easwaran AT When you start thinking about the paper, you should send me an idea of the topic so that I can give you a sense of whether I think it is likely to work out effectively. If you want to send me an outline or a draft some time along the way, I'd also be willing to give you some feedback on that.

  • Millikan, Grice, and Putnam give three very different ways that the meaning of language depends on social interaction. Explain two of them and compare and contrast.

  • Rudolf Carnap (in "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology") advocates the creation of idealized languages for scientific purposes. Kripke, Putnam, Millikan, and others say that much of the meaning of language depends on its social history. Explain one of these ideas and show either how it would cause problems for Carnap's approach or how he could get around it.

  • For the empiricists, meaning is related to knowledge (i.e., how we can verify a sentence), while for Grice and Austin, meaning is related to action (i.e., what we do with a sentence). Show how this contrast can help shed some light on ideas illustrated by one of the other authors we read.

  • Langton emphasizes the ways that certain speech acts can't function when a potential hearer makes certain assumptions about the speaker. In light of Millikan's ideas, how would this affect the development of the language over time?

Topics and Schedule

For each week, please at least look over the required reading before Tuesday's meeting, and you must read it fully before Thursday's meeting. I am also listing some "supplementary readings" for most weeks, which are further readings addressing the topic, sometimes developing it further, and sometimes criticizing it. These may be quite useful to you in writing the two papers, or as starting points in your own personal further exploration of these topics. I will often use ideas from them to direct some of our discussion.

Semantic Reference

Aug. 31, Sept. 2 - Sense

Required reading:

Gottlob Frege, "On Sense and Reference" (1892)

(1948 translation by Max Black - you may use another, or the German original)

Supplementary reading:

Gottlob Frege, "Function and Concept" (1891) (pp. 21-41 of this book)

Gottlob Frege, "Concept and Object" (1892) (pp. 42-55 of this book)

Summary 1: Write up a very short summary of Frege's argument that the meaning of a word is not just what it stands for.

Due by e-mail to at 11:59 pm on Friday, September 4.

Sept. 7, 9 - Denoting

Required reading:

Bertrand Russell, "Descriptions and Incomplete Symbols" (Lecture 6 of The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (1918-1919))

Supplementary reading:

Bertrand Russell, "On Denoting" (1905)

Kent Bach, "Comparing Frege and Russell" (2009)

A summary of Alexius Meinong's views on non-existence is in the article about him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Summary 2: Write up a very short summary of an argument Russell gives to show that a definite description does not refer.

Due by e-mail to at 11:59 pm on Friday, September 11.

Sept. 14, 16 - Metaphysics

Required reading:

Willard Quine, "On What There Is" (1948)

Sept. 21, 23 - Modern views

Required reading:

Irene Heim, "Do Indefinites Refer?" (selections from PhD dissertation (1982) - you can start on p. 11, but I have included the introduction to get a bit more context if you want)

Supplementary reading:

Peter Strawson, "On Referring" (1950)

Bertrand Russell, "Mr. Strawson on Referring" (1957)

Janet Fodor and Ivan Sag, "Referential and Quantificational Indefinites" (1982)


Sept. 28, 30 - Speaker's Meaning

Required reading:

H. Paul Grice, "Meaning" (1948/1957)

Supplementary reading:

H. Paul Grice, "Utterer's Meaning, Sentence-Meaning, and Word-Meaning" (1968) - tries to use the account of utterer's meaning developed in the earlier paper in giving semantic meanings of words and sentences.

H. Paul Grice, "Utterer's Meaning and Intentions" (1969) - tries to clean up some loose ends with the earlier account of utterer's meaning.

Oct. 5, 7 - Semantics/Pragmatics

Required reading:

H. Paul Grice, "Logic and Conversation" (1975)

Oct. 12, 14 - Speech Acts

Required reading:

John Austin, "Performative Utterances" (excerpt from How to Do Things with Words (1962))

John Searle, "What is a Speech Act?" (1965)

Supplementary reading:

John Searle, "A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts" (1975)

John Searle, "Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts" (1968)

Oct. 19, 21 - Silencing

Paper topic due by e-mail by 11:59 pm, Monday, October 19

Required reading:

Rae Langton, "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts" (1993)

Supplementary reading:

Mary Kate McGowan, "Conversational Exercitives and the Force of Pornography" (2003)

Maria Konnikova, "Pornucopia" (2015)

Empiricism and Analyticity

Oct. 26, 28 - Positivism and its rejection

Required reading:

Willard Van Orman Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951)

Supplementary reading:

Rudolf Carnap, "Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology" (1950)

Carl Hempel, "Empiricist Criteria of Cognitive Significance" (1965)

Alfred Ayer, selections from Language, Truth, and Logic (1936)

Nov. 2, 4 - No class - I am out of town

Paper 1 due Friday, Nov. 6 at 11:59 pm

Externalism and Teleosemantics

Nov. 9, 11 - Causal Theory

Required reading:

Saul Kripke, selections from Naming and Necessity (written 1970, published 1980)

Supplementary reading:

Gareth Evans and J.E.J. Altham, "The Causal Theory of Names" (1973)

Summary 4: Write up a very short summary of one of Kripke's arguments.

Due by e-mail to at 11:59 pm on Friday, November 13

Nov. 16, 18 - Externalism

Required reading:

Hilary Putnam, "The Meaning of 'Meaning'" (1975) (up to p. 160 is fine - there is some interesting stuff over the next ten pages or so as well, but towards the end it depends on a knowledge of specific philosophical debates of the time).

Supplementary reading:

Tyler Burge, "Individualism and the Mental" (1979)

Hilary Putnam, "Brains in a Vat" (1981)

John Searle, "Are Meanings in the Head?" (excerpt from An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (1983))

Andy Clark and David Chalmers, "The Extended Mind" (1998)

Summary 5: Write up a very short summary of Putnam's argument that "meanings just ain't in the head".

Due by e-mail to at 11:59 pm on Friday, November 20.

Nov. 23 - catchup

Nov. 30, Dec. 2 - Information and Teleosemantics

Required reading:

Ruth Millikan, In Defense of Public Language (2005)

Supplementary Reading:

Fred Dretske, The Intentionality of Cognitive States (2008)

Karen Neander, Misrepresenting and Malfunctioning (1995)

Dec. 9 - catchup

Assignment: Paper 2, due on December 13