Philosophy 1760: Description

Philosophy of Language is a very large and extremely active area, and no semester-long courrse could possibly introduce students to all of it. In this course, we will cover three main topics: Questions about meaning and communication; questions about the dependence of meaning on context; and questions about literal meaning and metaphor.

Language is used, among other things, for communication. In part, this is because words mean things, and because we understand them. What is it to understand what someone says? What is it for words to mean what they do? How do we know what our words mean? And how does this knowledge enable us to use language as we do? We will study these questions and others through readings by such philosophers as Donald Davidson, H.P. Grice, Jim Higginbotham, Scott Soames, and Peter Strawson.

Now, it is obvious that words have meaning, and that what a word means in part determines what you can use it to say. But it is also obvious that what a word means does not always completely determine what it is used to say when it is uttered. This is most obvious for words like "this" and "that": Which object one refers to with "this" depends upon details of the circumstances when one uses it. Much the same is true for "I", "you", "here", "now", "yesterday", and the like. And there are lots of other words that seem to exhibit similar behavior. So the use of language seems to involve a complex interplay between relatively stable features of language, such as what a word means in English, and the shifting features of communcative context. We'll spend some time exploring this matter.

Concerning metaphor, our interest will be in how metaphors work, and in particular how "metaphorical meaning" is related to the literal meanings of words. We will read a series of classic papers laying out the main options, and then look at a recent alternative view.

Richard Heck Department of Philosophy Brown University