PHIL 424

Philosophy of Language

Time: Monday/Wednesday, 4:10-5:25 pm

Location: YMCA 115

Instructor: Kenny Easwaran

Office: YMCA Building 314, 979-847-6128

Office Hours: Wednesday/Thursday, 2:30-3:45ish, 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 consider various philosophical questions about language. We will be primarily reading historically influential works of philosophy and linguistics from the 20th century. We will begin with the question of how it is possible to understand a sentence you have never heard before (and that no one has ever said before in all of history!), and the questions of whether and how human language differs from other animal communication systems. From there we will proceed through a variety of topics relating meaning and structure, including some of the ways that language can do things (it can legally bind you, it can cause offense, it can express your gender identity, among others).

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 be 1/3 from progress in the written assignments, 1/3 from the final paper, and 1/3 from class participation. Although I will not specifically take attendance, 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, and you may miss important discussions that help explain the reading. 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.)


Tentative dates of writing assignments:

September 19

October 3

October 17 24

November 7

November 21

Writing a philosophy paper is a difficult task that is quite different from many of the other sorts of writing that you have done for other classes. Thus, rather than starting out with a full paper, the assignments will progress through various levels, like in a video game. For each assignment, you'll write a paper at the level that you're on - just as with levels in video games, the idea here is to ensure that you are always working on a task that is challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that it is frustrating. I'll mark each paper as either "complete", "almost", "good effort" or "not much progress". Once one of your assignments is marked "complete", for the next assignment you will move to the next level. Your final grade for the assignments will depend on how far you have progressed through the levels by the last assignment (which is the fifth):

Level 3: Complete=A+, Almost=A, Good Effort=A-, Not Much Progress=B+

Level 2: Complete=B, Almost=B-, Good Effort=C+, Not Much Progress=C

Level 1: Complete=C-, Almost=D, Good Effort=D-, Not Much Progress=F

For each assignment, you should write about a new topic, preferably one we discussed since the last assignment - you won't be re-writing previous assignments. (Sample papers for levels 1 and 2) The particular assignments are as follows:

Level 1 Paper: Short expository paper, 150-300 words.

Choose one particular argument from the readings and state that argument in a paragraph. We will discuss what exactly this means over the first few weeks in class. Remember that in philosophy, "argument" means not just a claim or a view or a theory, but the reason for believing it. It will be helpful in your notes to explicitly write the premises and conclusions of the argument(s) in your papers so that you know exactly what supports what.

Level 2 Paper: Expository paper, 400-600 words.

Explain two related arguments in a slightly longer paper. They might both be from the readings, or one might be from the readings and one from discussion in class. These two arguments should have an important connection to each other - you might explain one argument, and then another argument that aims to refute one of the premises from the first; or you might explain one argument, and then another argument that extends the first; or there might be some other interesting relationship between the arguments. Because this paper has some complexity to it, when you are done with the body of the paper you should write an introductory paragraph that explains what the paper is going to be about, and how the arguments are related to each other.

Level 3 Paper: Expository and critical paper, 700-1000 words.

At this point you're ready to do some original work. This level of paper should include an explanation of two related arguments from the readings or discussions, like a Level 2 paper, and then a new argument of your own showing that one of these earlier arguments is unsound (i.e., it either has a false premise, or the premises fail to support the conclusion). Be sure to consider ways that the author of the earlier argument might respond or object to your criticism, and defend your argument!

(this assignment structure is borrowed from Dustin Locke)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal anti-discrimination statute that provides comprehensive civil rights

protection for persons with disabilities. Among other things, this legislation requires that all students with disabilities be guaranteed

a learning environment that provides for reasonable accommodation of their disabilities. If you believe you have a disability

requiring an accommodation, please contact Disability Services, currently located in the Disability Services building at the Student

Services at White Creek complex on west campus (I'm not sure if this location will remain accurate for the whole semester) or call 979-845-1637. For additional information visit

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.


Monday, August 26: first day of class

August 28: W. Tecumseh Fitch, "Musical Protolanguage: Darwin's Theory of Language Evolution Revisited", 2009.

September 2: H. Paul Grice, "Meaning", 1957.

Further 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.

Dorit Bar-On, "Origin of Meaning: Must we go Gricean?" (2013) - shows how the Gricean account can and can't deal with animal communication.

September 9: H. Paul Grice, "Logic and Conversation", 1975.

Further reading:

Steven Pinker, "The Curse of Knowledge" - how to reverse Grice's advice to figure out how to express yourself clearly in writing

Marcus Kracht, "Introduction to Linguistics" - if you want more details on phonetics, phonology, syntax, or semantics

Video: Tom Scott on "phatic expressions" - what do you mean when you say "how are you?" He has a good playlist of 20 videos about language.

September 16: Gottlob Frege, "On Sense and Reference", 1892.

Further reading:

Gottlob Frege, "Function and Concept" - for more on Frege's idea of concepts, predicates, and functions

September 19 first written assignment due (send as .pdf file to

September 25

Bertrand Russell, "On Denoting", 1905.

Further reading:

Willard Van Orman Quine, "On What There Is", 1948 - applications of Russell's account of descriptions in metaphysics

In case you're as confused as everyone else about what Russell is doing with Gray's Elegy:

Jeff Speaks, handout on the Gray's elegy argument

Nichaolas Ray, "Interpreting Russell's Gray's Elegy Argument"

September 30

Peter Strawson, "On Referring", 1950.

Further reading:

Irene Heim, "Problems Concerning Indefinite Anaphora in Formal Semantics", 1982 - PhD dissertation of one of the leading formal semanticists of the past few decades, developing a more systematic version of Strawson's ideas.

Bertrand Russell, "Mr. Strawson on Referring", 1957. Russell's reply to Strawson.

October 3 second written assignment due (send as .pdf file to

October 7

Saul Kripke, selections from "Naming and Necessity", 1970.

October 14

Hilary Putnam, "The Meaning of Meaning", 1975. (up to p. 160 is fine - the rest is also interesting but depends on more detailed knowledge of some of the contemporary philosophical debates of the time) (also available here if this link isn't working)

October 21

Review week - re-read earlier articles, look back at your notes, come with many questions!

October 17 24 third written assignment due (send as .pdf file to

October 28

John Austin, "Performative Utterances", 1962.

November 4, 6: class canceled - I will be at conferences in North Carolina and Tennessee

November 7 fourth written assignment due

November 11

Chris Hom, "The Semantics of Racial Epithets", 2008. (content warning - if you or a loved one has ever been called a nasty word, take some self-care before and during reading this, and make sure you're not feeling extra stressed and down on yourself when you do)

Renee Jorgensen Bolinger, "The Pragmatics of Slurs", 2018. (this one is a bit milder)

November 18

Continuing discussion of Bolinger

(Nov. 20?) Robin Dembroff and Daniel Wodak, "He/She/They/Ze", 2018.

Further reading: Douglas Hofstadter, "Person Paper on Purity in Language", 1985. (content warning - extended racial metaphors where you won't know whether to laugh or cry)

November 21 fifth written assignment due

November 25

(we may not get to this) George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946.

November 27: class canceled - day before Thanksgiving

December 2: class canceled - redefined day as Friday

December 4: last day of class

FINAL PAPER DUE DEC. 10 (I have to turn in final grades by Dec. 16, and will be traveling that week, so there might be a couple days extension, but not as much as with earlier ones)