PP3LAN-Philosophy of Language

Module Provider: Philosophy
Number of credits: 20 [10 ECTS credits]
Terms in which taught: Autumn term module
Non-modular pre-requisites:
Modules excluded:
Module version for: 2014/5

Module Convenor: Mr Scott Normand


Summary module description:
Philosophy of language explores the nature of meaning, language, and communication. What is it for a word or sentence – things which in and of themselves are simply noises or marks on a page – to mean something? What is it for a word to refer to something in the world? What is it for a sentence to express someone’s thought? More specific questions include the following: What is the meaning of a name? What is ambiguity? What makes a predicate vague? Can the context in which communication takes place affect the content of a particular utterance of a sentence?

Addressing these questions will require an examination of both foundational works in analytic philosophy from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and cutting edge research informed by developments in the cognitive sciences. We will dwell particularly on Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Kripke, Austin, Searle, Grice, and Perry.

To explore some fundamental issues in philosophy of language, including the nature of meaning, understanding, reference and the relation of language and the mind.

Assessable learning outcomes:
By the end of this module, students will be able to give an overview of core approaches to problems in the philosophy of language and critically evaluate them.

Students' oral skills will be improved by their discussion of material on a given topic in the seminar section of this module and group interaction will be encouraged by discussion and questioning in both lectures and seminars.

Additional outcomes:
Students will gain an overview of one of the central topics in Western analytic philosophy, thus acquiring a valuable perspective on other topics studied in their philosophy degree, such as philosophy of mind and metaphysics. The material to be covered will lead students to raise questions about fundamental assumptions concerning natural language and students will be encouraged to explore both classic texts and contemporary research in attempting to answer these questions. Thus students will develop a wide breadth of knowledge in the subject. Furthermore, due to the quite abstract nature of some of the material to be discussed, they will develop skills of abstract and lateral thought, while the connections between the study of the philosophy of language and symbolic logic will help promote their critical thinking skills and their general evaluation of arguments.

Outline content:
Philosophy of Language and the Linguistic Turn:
The central aim of this course is to understand the central place that language came to have in the philosophy of the 20th century. Starting from Frege, philosophers turned to language in order to solve the traditional philosophical problems of the past. This is the key move of analytic philosophy now known as the Linguistic Turn. We will go through some of the major issues in this field chronologically, paying special attention to the application of the study of language to solve philosophical problems.
Phenomena of special interest to us in this respect are Russell’s solutions to the riddle of existence statements; Kripke’s examples of statements are necessary but can be discovered empirically; Putnam’s refutation of scepticism; the treatment of moral language as non-representational; and finally, the puzzles about reference and rule following, which suggest that nothing determines what we mean.
The philosophy of language covered on this course has had a profound impact on other areas of philosophy such as metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of science and epistemology; this is what makes philosophy of language so exciting and so important.

Below is an overview of the main topics we’ll cover. For each topic, you will be required to read:
One (or exceptionally two) key primary article(s) or book extract(s).
The relevant chapter from Morris (2007), whenever applicable.
You should read first the chapter from Morris (2007), and then the primary text it concerns.

In addition, I’ve given for each topic a short list of further primary sources, and some secondary reading (mostly chapters from Miller 2007 and Lycan 2008, referenced above). It is not required that you read this material, but doing so might help with tackling the key primary texts which are required reading and, of course, with exam and essay preparation.

1 The Linguistic Turn: Russell’s theory of Descriptions
•Do all words refer to something? Is the relation between words and the world like the relation between a label and what it stands for?
•How can we say that something doesn’t exist? For example that unicorns don’t exist’, after all, if the word ‘Unicorn’ has a meaning then it must refer to something, and then the claim that it doesn’t exist will be false.
•How can an identity statement be surprising, after all, a statement like Superman is Clark Kent says the same thing as Superman is Superman, which is not surprising.
•Russell’s Theory of Descriptions was an attempt to solve both these philosophical problems and in coming to his solution Russell showed how the analysis of language was the key.
Required Reading:
•Russell, B. “On Denoting” (1905), in Mind. Available in Martinich (ed).
•Lycan (2008), ch. 2.
•Miller (2007), ch. 2.

Further Reading:
•Frege, G. (1892). “On Sinn and Bedeutung”. In The Frege Reader, ed. M. Beaney, Blackwell, 1997. Available in Martinich (ed) as ‘On Sense and Nominatum’.
•Morris (2007), chapter 2-3.
•Russell, B. (1919). “Descriptions”. From his Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, George Allen and Unwin Publishers. Available in Martinich (ed).

2 Russell’s epistemology of meaning
•Can we refer to something if we don’t know anything about it? How can we even think of something if we know nothing about it?
•What kind of knowledge do we need to have of something in order to refer to it?
Is there a difference between a name and a description?
Required Reading:
•Russell, B. “On Denoting” (1905), in Mind. Available in Martinich (ed).
•Russell, B. (1911). “Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 11, 108–128.
Further Reading:
•Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Knowledge by Acquaintance and Knowledge by Description: http://plat

Brief description of teaching and learning methods:
The format for this module contains lectures and seminars; however the distinction between lecture and seminar is blurred. Students should be active in all classes, asking questions and trying to answer the questions posed by the lecturer and other students.

It is desirable that those taking this module have already taken PP2IL (Introductory Logic) or equivalent.

Contact hours:
  Autumn Spring Summer
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Guided independent study 170
Total hours by term 200.00
Total hours for module 200.00

Summative Assessment Methods:
Method Percentage
Written exam 60
Written assignment including essay 25
Oral assessment and presentation 5
Set exercise 10

Other information on summative assessment:
2 x 2,000-2,500 word essays.

Electronic Submission
All coursework should be submitted electronically via Blackboard and in hard copy to the Philosophy office.

Formative assessment methods:

Penalties for late submission:
The Module Convener will apply the following penalties for work submitted late, in accordance with the University policy.

  • where the piece of work is submitted up to one calendar week after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): 10% of the total marks available for the piece of work will be deducted from the mark for each working day (or part thereof) following the deadline up to a total of five working days;
  • where the piece of work is submitted more than five working days after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): a mark of zero will be recorded.

  • The University policy statement on penalties for late submission can be found at: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/qualitysupport/penaltiesforlatesubmission.pdf
    You are strongly advised to ensure that coursework is submitted by the relevant deadline. You should note that it is advisable to submit work in an unfinished state rather than to fail to submit any work.

    Length of examination:
    The final exam will be two hours in which time you will be required to answer two questions from a choice of six.

    Requirements for a pass:
    A mark of 40% overall.

    Reassessment arrangements:
    Re-examination in August by written examination only.

    Last updated: 8 October 2014

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