Philosophy 1760: Description

In this course, we shall be concerned with philosophical questions about proper names—more precisely, about the relation between names and their bearers, which relation we call 'reference'. This kind of interest in language is a widely known, oft-criticized, and misunderstood feature of 'analytic' philosophy, so it may well be worth saying a few words by way of motivating an interest in such arcane matters. One might reasonably deny, by the way, that any special justification of philosophers' attention to proper names is needed. Reflection on our use of them raises characteristically philosophical puzzles, for example, how there can be significantly different names of one and the same object (e.g., "Samuel Clemens" and "Mark Twain"); how there can be such a thing as a name of an object that does not exist; and what is it for a speaker to understand an utterance of a name.

But the interest questions about language have excited among 'analytic' philosophers is not to be explained entirely in terms of their intrinsic interest. Philosophers' interest in language is a consequence of an interest in general questions about the nature of our thought about the world around us. In many areas of philosophy, we presuppose that we are able to have thoughts or beliefs about an 'external' world. Thus, in epistemology, one leading question is under what circumstances the belief that so-and-so is the case counts as knowledge. Surely we also want to ask exactly how beliefs come to be about things: What makes a belief, say, the belief that snow is white, rather than the belief that three plus four is twenty-two? One suspects that other parts of philosophy presuppose answers to these questions, that their answers might influence the answers given to more familiar philosophical questions. Some such questions can be formulated especially clearly in connection with language. Some philosophers have held that the study of the representational features of thought can proceed only via a study of language. But one need not hold such a strong view to think that the study of language will contribute to the study of thought. Any reasonable theory of representation has to address language, for it is undeniable that thoughts are expressed in language.

It is for such reasons that analytic philosophers spend so much time thinking about language: It is not about language that they take themselves to be thinking but one way in which our thought comes into contact with the world outside us. This also explains why philosophers' interest in language is, in certain peculiar ways, limited: Analytic philosophers tend to worry less about poetic imagery, metaphor, and the like, than some might like; we will say almost nothing about such aspects of language here.

The problems we shall be discussing in this course are basic to many debates in philosophy today. One can not begin to understand current discussions in the philosophy of mind, for example, without some grasp of issues concerning reference. Anyone with a serious interest in philosophy therefore really must take a course like this one.

Richard Heck Department of Philosophy Brown University

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