Philosophy 1765: 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. Then again, one might reasonably deny 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 so-called `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 in the first place: What makes a belief, say, the belief that snow is white, rather than the belief that three plus four is twenty-two? One might well suspect that other parts of philosophy presuppose answers to these questions and that the answers presupposed might influence the answers given to more familiar philosophical questions.

In fact, the problems we will be discussing are not really special to language. They arise as well with respect to our thoughts, beliefs, desires, and so forth. But many of these questions can be formulated especially clearly in connection with language, and much of the existing discussion proceeds in those terms.

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