Phil. 154


Philosophy of Language

Philosophy 154

Fall Semester 2003

Prof. Dowden







CATALOG DESCRIPTION: Traditional and contemporary theories of meaning. The connection between language, thought and reality. 3 units.


COURSE DESCRIPTION: Philosophers are interested in language for three reasons, and so are we in this course.

(1) First, they want to know in greater depth how language works. The philosophy of language sets out to provide deep insights into certain general features of language such as reference, truth, meaning and necessity. We will study all of these, but emphasize meaning. As many contemporary philosophers would say, the old philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Hume, and Kant either didn't think about the crucial problems of language, or, when they did, they got it wrong. So much progress has been made since the beginning of the 20th century, that the views of earlier philosophers will be given only passing notice in our course.

(2) Second, since 1950 it has been realized that studying language is a new and effective tool for studying the nature of the human mind.

(3) Third, 20th and 21st century analytic philosophers believe that the other great problems of philosophy should be studied, not only directly, but also via a focus on the language they employ. These philosophers believe that they have new and better approaches to the great problems than did the philosophers of previous centuries. In other words, there has been progress in philosophy, and those persons who are unaware of the philosophy of language are simply not at the frontiers. But this third area of interest will be the least explored of the three in our course.




TEXTBOOKS: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, by Steven Pinker, and Philosophical Perspectives on Language by Robert Stainton. In addition a few short articles will be passed out. The Pinker book is the easier book of the two. We will start with it.


GRADING: Homework questions (44% total), an essay (21%), a final exam (30%), and occasional participation in class discussions and class activities (5%).

  • Homework 1 due Thursday, Sept. 11, 2003.
  • Homework 2 due Tuesday, Sept. 30.
  • Homework 3 due Thursday, Oct. 23.
  • Homework 4 due Tuesday, Nov. 11.
  • Essay due Thursday, Dec. 4.

During the semester I'll pass out sample questions on the readings. Early in the semester, and occasionally at later times, I'll pass out my answer sheets for those questions to give you some guidance. You'll find that your answers to the sample questions will be useful to you for actual homework and test questions. There will be no true-false or multiple-choice questions during the semester. Class attendance is optional, although some parts of the assignments will be on material introduced only during class meetings.




ADD-DROP: To add the course, try to do so by telephone using Casper. If the course is full, then see me about signing up on the waiting list. To drop the course during the first two weeks, use the Casper telephone system. No paperwork is required. After the first two weeks, it is harder to drop, and a departmental form is required, the "Petition to Add/Drop After Deadline." As with any university course, make sure you are dropped officially (by Casper or by the instructor or department secretary); don't simply walk away into the ozone or else you will get a "U" grade for the course, which is counted as an "F" in computing your GPA (grade point average).


LATE WORK: If you have a proper excuse, I'll use your final exam grade for the grade on one missed assignment. There are no make-ups. Contact me right away if you miss an assignment. Class attendance is not required in this course, but it is highly recommended.


PROFESSOR: My office is in Mendocino 3022, phone 278-7384. My weekly office hours will be announced at the first class meeting. Feel free to stop by or call at any of those times. If those hours are inconvenient for you, then we can arrange an appointment for an alternative time. Also, for a quick response, send me e-mail at


GOALS: By the end of the course you will have an overall view of (1) the connection between language and thought, (2) what makes statements meaningful, and true, and (3) how theories of language can resolve philosophical problems. You will have been introduced to many of the major problems in the philosophy of language. You will have some opinions about how to solve those problems and how not to solve them, and so you will have the beginning of a philosophy of language of your own. You also will have developed your philosophical skills for making progress in other areas of philosophy.



FIRST READING ASSIGNMENT: Your first week's reading assignment is the first two chapters of the Pinker book.


DISABILITIES: If you have a documented disability and require accommodation or assistance, please contact me early in the semester so that arrangements can be made.



Week 1. Introduction. Language as a biological adaptation for communicating information.

Read: chapters 1 and 2 of Pinker.

Week 2. Language learning and mentalese.

Fodor says that in order to learn a language, you need a language, so there's a language of thought to begin with when you are born. Is mental grammar a generative grammar?

Read: chapters 3, 4 and 5 of Pinker.

Week 3. Why we cannot build a computer that can take dictation, and why linguistics is a pathway into the nature of the human mind.

Read: chapters 6, 7 and 8 of Pinker.

Week 4. The origins of human language, and the diversity of the world's languages.

Read: "Early Voices: The Leap to Language" by Nicholas Wage, The New York Times, July 15, 2003; and chapters 9 and 10 of Pinker.

Video: "Acquiring the Human Language" #3588, part 2 at LMS.

Week 5. Animal speech and imperfections in the Standard Social Science Model of the mind.

Video: "Understanding Language" #3588, part 3 at LMS.

Film "Can Chimps Talk?"

Read: chapters 11, 12 [only pp. 399-403], and 13 of Pinker.

Week 6. Formal Syntax

Natural language with recursive syntax and combinatorial semantics. Principles and Parameters, Prescriptive and Descriptive Syntax.

Read ch. 1 and 2 of Stainton

Week 7. Direct and Mediated Reference

Russell's Theory of Descriptions; Frege on senses; possible world semantics

Skim ch. 3 and 4 of Stainton

Week 8. The Linguistic turn.

How the study of language is a new tool for progress on the classical problems of philosophy.

Read "Systematically Misleading Expressions" by Ryle and "Necessary Truth" by Quine.



Week 9. The Idea Theory of Meaning

Grice, mental images, Fodor, the Language of Thought.

Read ch. 6 and ch.7 of Stainton

Week 10. Knowledge Issues.

Everybody agrees that humans are innately different than other species, but is human knowledge of language mostly learned, or is it mostly innate? And do language users implicitly know the rules of their language? Rules vs. regularities. Quine on radical translation.

Read ch. 8 of Stainton

Week 11. The Use Theory of Meaning

Indexicals, Strawson on referring, speech act theory, Quine on meanings.

Read ch. 9 of Stainton

Week 12. Conversational implicature, metaphor, Donnellan on the referential use of definite descriptions.

Read ch. 10 of Stainton

Week 13. The need for conventions.

Read pp. 184-5 of Stainton.

Week 14. Language and community

Wittgenstein on private language, Davidson on the limits of convention.

Read the rest of ch. 11 of Stainton

Week 15. Review for the final exam.

Read ch. 12 of Stainton

Week 16. Final Exam.



WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF LANGUAGE? Language is good for some things and poor for others. It's good for ordering cheeseburgers. It's is poor for describing faces. It's the ONLY way to proclaim, "There's NOT a giraffe standing next to me." The great achievements of language are that by using it we can think in deeper abstractions; we can say anything we can think; and only we homo sapiens can say NEW things. What interests philosophers about language?

"Languages are the best mirror of the human mind," said Leibniz. Our course will explore the extent to which the study of language can give us insights into how the human mind works. Chomsky says that investigating the structure of human languages may reveal much about the structure of the human mind. For example, he claims such study may reveal that the mind contains a universal grammar that limits what kind of human languages could ever have appeared on earth throughout its human evolution. Chomsky's student Jerry Fodor claims that we were able to learn the language of our parents because we already knew an innate language--mentalese. This is really our first language, says Fodor, and we never LEARN it. The Chomsky school in the philosophy of language has its critics, as we shall see.

Let's turn now to the other philosophical topics we will explore in our course. Suppose you meet someone from a new civilization. When you go about translating the person's verbal remarks, how would you know when you've successfully figured out the meaning of one of their words? Can you rule out all the alternative possibilities and settle on just one correct one?

And just how bizarre can an unknown civilization be yet still have its language translated correctly into English? What if their language contains no names for anything? Could the people be so bizarre that they don't even use our logic? Philosophers disagree on the answer to these questions.

A principal focus of our course is on the notion of meaning. We want to know what a meaning is, what makes a phrase have a meaning, and so forth.

Dave: Do you ever wonder about the meaning of life, Brad?

Brad: I used to. But I looked it up in the dictionary under "L" and there it was, the meaning of life. It was less than I expected.

Dave: Did you try the thesaurus?

There are three principal kinds of theories of meaning, the thing theory, the idea theory and the use theory. According to the thing theory, a linguistic symbol gets its meaning from the external objects that corresponds to it. According to the idea theory, linguistic symbols corrrespond to internal mental items which, in turn, may correspond to something external tot he mind. The use theory says the meaning of a symbol is determined by how we speakers use it. The three competing theories all have their advantages and disadvantages. The thing theory works particularly well for names, the idea theory works well for sensation words, and the use theory works well for pointing-terms such as "this," "that", "here", and "she".

Are meanings ideas in the mind? Yes, answered many European empiricist philosophers from the 17th to the 20th centuries (Locke, Hume, Mill, Russell). According to this theory of language-meaning, when I say "Madonna is sexy" and mean what I say, my words are connected in a special way to the ideas I have. The idea corresponding to the word "Madonna" is somehow connected to the woman Madonna. Similarly, other words in the sentence are connected to other ideas (for example, "is sexy" is connected to the idea of sexiness), which in turn are somehow connected to things outside of language (sexy persons). Thus, the spoken sentence "Madonna is sexy," means that the Madonna idea of the speaker is connected to one of the sexy persons who are connected to the sexiness idea. This idea theory of meaning was seriously challenged in the 20th century by arguments from Ludwig Wittgenstein and W.V. Quine, as we shall see.

In 1956, Benjamin Whorf claimed that minds using very different languages will construe reality in very different ways. For example, the Inuit Indians are said to have many more words for snow than we have, so when they see what we call "snow" they see something different than English speakers do. Whorfians wonder whether you and I can break free of the grip that English has upon our minds.

Is language basically a set of rules and conventions? Bertrand Russell said in 1921 "We can hardly suppose [there once was] a parliament of hitherto speechless elders meeting together and agreeing to call a cow a cow and a wolf a wolf." In that sense, language is not conventional; there was no founding convention. Yet we persist in saying it is conventional that a cow is called a "cow" and not a "zbgg".

Our language does have grammatical rules. You violate the rules if you say "Saturday don't believe me him," and you violate the rules if you say "John threw" and don't follow this with a direct object. As the U.C. Berkeley philosopher John Searle said, "Speaking a language is engaging in a (highly complex) rule-governed form of behavior. To learn and master a language is (among other things) to learn and to have mastered these rules." But, as M.I.T. philosopher Paul Ziff countered, "Rules have virtually nothing to do with speaking or understanding a natural language. ...A picture of language [which makes rules central] can produce...nothing but confusion. An appeal to rules in the course of discussing the regularities to be found in a natural language is as irrelevant as an appeal to the laws of Massachusetts while discussing the laws of motion." Ziff and Searle can't both be correct, can they?

Philosophers of language are interested also in the problem of machine language. The problem isn't whether some future computer might be able to manipulate sentences to the point where it would be difficult to distinguish the machine's verbal behavior from a human speaker's verbal behavior--though that's an interesting problem for computer scientists. Instead, the problem is whether such a machine, if built, would properly be said to mean something by the sentences it puts out. Our course will be consider arguments on both sides of this controversial issue.

Philosophers disagree with each other about whether the sounds made by any (non-human) animals qualify as being a language. Porpoises, chimpanzees, and whales communicate with other members of their species, of course, but do they really have a language? Some experimenters claim to have taught a chimp to use and understand combinations of words the animal has not previously encountered and that this fact is a nail in the coffin of those who don't believe animals possess real language. Objecting to this line of reasoning, the critics complain that these same experimenters have misinterpreted the evidence and that upon closer examination the experimenters have committed the Walt Disney Fallacy, the fallacy of projecting complex mental beliefs, intentions, and attitudes to animals when in fact the animals don't really have them.

Philosophers of language point out that it's helpful to look at traditional philosophical problems in a new way, through an analysis of the language used in stating those problems. For a simple example, it has been suggested that the correct answer to the traditional philosophical question "How do I know that I exist?" is that the speaker has misused the verb ‘know' and let language "go on holiday". A little attention to language will help to dissolve this and many other traditional problems, says Wittgenstein.


Study tips: As you read an assignment, it's helpful first to skim the assignment to get some sense of what's ahead. Look at how it is organized and what cues, if any, the author provides to signify main ideas (section titles, bold face, etc.). Make your own notes as you read. Stop every ten or fifteen minutes to look back over what you've read and try to summarize the key ideas for yourself. This periodic pausing and reviewing will help you maintain your concentration, process the information more deeply, and retain it longer. Do you notice connections between one article and another, or between the views of one author and those of another? You'll be given sample questions now and then to help guide your studying for future assignments, but answering an actual homework or test question often will require you to apply your knowledge to new questions not specifically discussed in class nor in the book. This ability to use your knowledge in new situations requires study activities different from memorizing. You goal is to improve your skills, not simply to memorize information.





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updated: 9/21/03