PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE

Last Updated August 2005

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  1. The Paper
  2. Basic Reading
  3. Topics

1. The Paper

Philosophy of Language is organised around general questions of language and meaning. The nature of language has long been an obsession of philosophers, more recently it has also become the focus of empirical investigation in linguistics. The subject is concerned both with the most general and abstract aspects of language, meaning and knowledge of both and with more specific problems that arise in understanding particular aspects of natural languages.

Certain more elementary aspects of the philosophy of language are covered in Logic and Metaphysics, and it is good to have a grounding in issues surrounding reference and truth covered on that paper. On this paper you will be focusing more on general methodological considerations about meaning and reference: what form should a theory of meaning take; in what does knowledge of meaning consist; what kinds of facts are there about meaning? Certain figures have dominated discussion of language in the twentieth century, from Frege, and Russell on to Wittgenstein's emphasis on use of language over representation, to Quine's scepticism about the determinacy of translation, Grice's attempt to explicate meaning in terms of speaker's intentions, Davidson's work on theories of truth and radical interpretation, to the consequences of Chomskian linguistics. In addition to studying the work of these philosophers, you will have the opportunity to look at particular problems concerning indexical expressions; proper names; the nature of definite descriptions; pronouns and quantified phrases in natural language; indirect contexts and propositional attitude ascriptions; adverbs, adjectives and metaphor.

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2. Basic Reading

Introductory Reading

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Anthologies

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Key Works

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3. Topics

Theories of Meaning

One of the most fruitful ways of addressing the question of what meaning is has been to ask what form a theory of meaning for a particular language should take. In this the work of Donald Davidson has been most influential. Davidson suggests that an adequate theory of meaning for a given language would be one which would suffice for the interpretation of speakers of that language. In addition, he has suggested that a Tarskian theory of truth (look at the reading under the semantic conception of truth in the chapter Logic and Metaphysics) could be employed as an adequate theory of meaning for natural languages.

Is it really possible that there could be a theory of truth for a natural language such as English-how is one to cope with context-sensitive expressions, for example? A truth theory is interpretive where the right-hand side of its T-theorems translate the sentence mentioned on the left-hand side: e.g., '"Elephants wear tutus in the wild" is true in English if and only if elephants wear tutus in the wild' is an interpretive T-theorem, while '"Polar bears smoke cigars" is true in English if and only if London is south of Canberra' is not. A theory of truth could do duty as a theory of meaning only if it was interpretive, but it is conceivable that a theory of truth could be true and not interpretive. What constraints can be imposed on constructing a theory of truth for a natural language which would narrow down the options only to the interpretive ones, and how could a theorist know that a theory was interpretive without already knowing that the right-hand side of the theorems translate the left-hand side?

While the details of Davidson's own account are the subject of much controversy, the idea that we should look at problems of language in terms of the need to construct a systematic and compositional theory of meaning for problematic constructions has been highly influential and is reflected in the way many philosophers both frame and attempt to settle the problems discussed further below.

Meaning & Truth

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Meaning & Anti-Realism

Dummett has been an influential discussant of Davidson's approach to meaning: he both emphasises the need to see an account of meaning as an account of understanding; and that meaning is use. While endorsing Davidson's aim to construct a systematic meaning theory for natural languages, he challenges the idea that truth should be the central notion used to construct such a theory; he places much weight on the need for speakers to be able to manifest their knowledge of meaning, and assertibility conditions in their use of language.

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Grice's Theory

Grice sought to explain facts about the meanings of public languages in terms of facts about mental states and social conventions. A speaker has the intention to lead the audience to have a certain response to his speech act and to recognise his intention in doing so. Are there problems specifying the relevant response, and the intentions involved? Can the account be generalised from one off communication to a shared language? Even if one does not look for a reduction of meaning to the mentalistic facts that Grice appeals to, can his approach give us some account of the nature of speech-acts?

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Quine & Indeterminacy of Meaning

Quine challenges the assumption that there are determinate facts about what someone means. He introduces the much appealed to notion of a radical translator. All facts about meaning, Quine claims, must be accessible to such a translator. According to Quine, it is possible that there could be distinct translation manuals for a language each with an equally good claim to being the correct translation manual.

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Knowledge and Rules of Language

What is it to know a language or to follow rules of language? Chomskian linguistics, as a matter of empirical enquiry, posits a language faculty possessed by each human in virtue of which he or she can come to acquire a language. If Chomsky is right, is it true that we know the languages we speak? Some philosophers have sought to extend Chomsky's account of knowledge of syntax to knowledge of meaning, and there has been a lively debate over what implicit or tacit knowledge of meaning could consist in.

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Meaning as Use: Realism and Irrealism about Semantics

Where the dominant approach to the study of meaning has focused on reference and truth, some philosophers have instead stressed the need to focus on the use that words are put to in order to explain what meaning is. Use-based approaches to meaning have sometimes been thought to lead to scepticism about the existence of rules or of determinate meaning facts. Some have argued that such irrealism about semantic facts is incoherent; others have argued that use-theories do not lead to these consequences anyway.

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Reference

Indexicals & Demonstratives

Indexical expressions appear to have a constant conventional meaning across different speakers, while varying in their reference. Can a semantic theory both account for how indexicals have a constant meaning, and yet in a context fix a referent? Do indexicals cause special problems for a Fregean theory of meaning?

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Proper Names

Must a name have a bearer in order to have a sense? Does one have to know which person is being referred to in understanding a name? Could we treat names as predicates rather than referring expressions?

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Descriptions

What is the best treatment of definite descriptions in a theory of meaning? Does the distinction between referential and attributive uses bear on this? Do recent theories of quantification in natural languages bear on the theory of descriptions?

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Quantifiers in Natural Language & Anaphora

What treatment should we give of terms such as 'every', 'all', 'some', and 'most' in English? In first order logic we translate these using 'unary' quantifiers which attach to single predicates, simple or complex; but no such account is available for terms such as 'most' which seem to belong in the same category. The natural language equivalent of variables in a formal language seem to be pronouns, but are there different varieties of pronoun?

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Propositional Attitude Ascriptions

Many have the intuition that the sentence 'John said that Cary Grant lived in the next street' can be true while the sentence, 'John said that Archibald Leach lived in the next street' is false, even though Cary Grant is Archibald Leach. This suggests that words occurring within 'oblique contexts' have a significance over and above what they stand for. Frege sought to solve this problem by appeal to his theory of sense, but it is not clear how his approach can deal with the use of indexical expressions within subordinate clauses or with the existence of 'quantifying in' to attitude ascriptions-various recent accounts nevertheless attempt to develop Fregean ideas to handle such problems. An alternative approach has been offered by Davidson, with his paratactic theory, which seeks to preserve 'semantic innocence', allowing words to mean the same thing in different contexts, and seeking to avoid any commitment to the existence of abstract items such as Fregean thoughts or propositions. Kripke has questioned whether our intuitions here are coherent, with his notorious Pierre and Paderewski examples, and others have sought to explain the intuitions away as bearing solely on the pragmatics of attitude ascription and not on their semantics.

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Sense, Force & Mood

Can a semantic theory given in terms of truth provide an account of non indicative sentences in natural languages? What is the connection between mood and type of speech act performed?

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Adverbs

What account can we give of adverbs? Can we best understand our use of action verbs in terms of quantification over events?

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Language, Conventions & Idiolects

Is there such a thing as a common language shared by a social group? Or is the notion of a shared language simply a socio political fiction? Chomsky gives one reason for rejecting shared languages and Davidson another.

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Metaphor

What is metaphor? Is there a distinction to be drawn between literal and metaphorical meaning? Can a systematic theory be given of metaphorical meaning?

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