PP3IPN-Is Philosophy Nonsense?

Module Provider: Philosophy
Number of credits: 10 [5 ECTS credits]
Terms in which taught: Spring term module
Non-modular pre-requisites:
Modules excluded:
Current from: 2019/0

Module Convenor: Prof John Preston

Email: j.m.preston@reading.ac.uk

Type of module:

Summary module description:

This module introduces students to accusations that philosophy, or at least some special part of philosophy, such as metaphysics, is nonsense. We learn about the history of such accusations, their motivations and reasoning, and the problems facing anyone who seeks to make such an accusation stick. We investigate the nature of nonsense, the various kinds it falls into, how nonsense of these kinds might be characterised, and the reasons why philosophers (and others) supposedly produce nonsense.


By the end of this module, you will be able to assess claims that philosophical pronouncements are literally nonsensical, and therefore not even candidates for truth or falsity. You will be able to relate the work of the major philosophers covered to that of other such thinkers, and to other philosophers in the Western philosophical tradition. Your oral skills will be improved by presentation 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. 

Assessable learning outcomes:

Additional outcomes:

You will gain an overview of key thinkers who might be considered ‘nonsensicalists’, such as Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British empiricist philosophers, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Logical Positivists, and ordinary language philosophers from the mid-twentieth century and from today’s philosophical scene. This will provide you with a valuable perspective on other topics studied in your philosophy degree, notably in metaphysics and epistemology, and philosophy of mind and language. The material to be covered will be treated both from an analytic and an exegetical perspective. The module thereby trains both logico-analytic and hermeneutic skills.

Outline content:

The module begins with an introduction to the background of the thinkers in question. This is followed by an introduction to the idea that philosophical claims are not meaningful claims which might conceivably be given a truth-value (knowable or not). The possible and historically actual rationales for this claim are then explored. We look at the idea that there are different kinds of nonsense, and the ways in which some philosophers have resisted this idea. We then explore individual accusations that philosophical claims are nonsense, and assess their merits and problems. Finally, we set out and explore the conditions under which an accusation of nonsensicality might be warranted

Global context:

The module introduces students to a persistent accusation about philosophy, that its pronouncements literally have no meaning. It traces the history of this accusation, the background ideas and motivations of those who made the accusation, and aims to come to a conclusion about whether such an accusation can be sustained. It thereby conveys an understanding of figures and texts from the empiricists and analytic traditions in western philosophy.

Brief description of teaching and learning methods:

The module is taught by lectures and seminars. Students are expected to attend 10 hours of lectures and 5 hours of seminars during the term in which the module’s lecture and seminar classes take place. All students are required to write a single essay from a list of questions supplied by the module convenor. In addition, students will be required to write a short précis of the topic for discussion in each seminar class. Students are encouraged to be active in all classes, asking questions and trying to answer the questions posed by others. A reading list and sample questions will be given out at the start of the course.

Contact hours:
  Autumn Spring Summer
Lectures 10
Seminars 5
Guided independent study: 85
Total hours by term 0 100 0
Total hours for module 100

Summative Assessment Methods:
Method Percentage
Written assignment including essay 100

Summative assessment- Examinations:

Summative assessment- Coursework and in-class tests:

One written assignment, due in week 11 of the term in which the module is taught. 

Formative assessment methods:

Students will write a short précis of the topic for discussion for every seminar class. Some classes may involve quizzes.

Penalties for late submission:
The Module Convener will apply the following penalties for work submitted late:

  • where the piece of work is submitted after the original deadline (or any formally agreed extension to the deadline): 10% of the total marks available for that piece of work will be deducted from the mark for each working day[1] (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.

    Assessment requirements for a pass:

    A mark of 40% overall. 

    Reassessment arrangements:

    Written assignment, to be completed in August/September.

    Additional Costs (specified where applicable):

    Students are required to purchase a copy of the course-text (Ian Dearden, Do Philosophers Talk Nonsense? An Inquiry into the Possibility of Illusions of Meaning, Revised edition (London: Rellet Press, 2013)).

    Last updated: 8 April 2019


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