Philosophy of Language

Curtis Brown



A proposal is due by Monday, October 20. The proposal should be about 400 - 800 words in length, and should include (a) a statement of the thesis you intend to defend (or the question you intend to answer, and what answer you expect to propose); (b) a preliminary indication of the main lines of argument by which you hope to defend this thesis; and (c) what readings (from class, or from your literature review assignment, or possibly from outside research) you expect to discuss in the paper.

The final due date for the paper is Monday, November 24, 2012. The paper should be 3000-4500 words in length (approximately 10-15 pages).

I would be happy to comment on a draft of the paper. If you would like comments on a draft, I highly recommend getting it to me as soon as possible, and certainly no later than Monday, November 5.

The paper must be turned in electronically, by following the "Paper" link on TLEARN and uploading it there. Name the paper "Lastname,Firstname" -- for instance my paper would have the filename Brown,Curtis. Let me know if you have any trouble uploading your paper there.


Please format the paper in Times New Roman, 12 point, with 1-inch margins.

For references and works cited, please follow the MLA format for parenthetical references.


I will be looking above all for three things:

1. Accuracy in your discussion of reading material for the class. The paper must make some use of class material, and should use it in a way that shows you have understood it well enough to apply it to an issue that interests you. When you cite ideas or passages from the reading or from other sources, it is very important to give page references; format does not matter--you can use footnotes, endnotes, or parenthetical references with a bibliography--but it is vital that I know where to look to find the relevant quotation or idea.

2. Clarity of presentation. Clarity is important in any kind of writing, but especially in philosophy: if you don't say exactly what you mean I may not be able to figure out what you had in mind. So I would like for you to write carefully and to organize the paper very explicitly.

3. Argument. It is not enough to make autobiographical comments about what views you prefer to others, or to construct an aesthetically pleasing theory: you need to explain why your views are plausible; that is, you need to support them with critical argument. The paper should have a thesis or main point, and the body of the paper should be devoted to explaining and defending this point. It is easier to attack a position than to defend one; if you want to develop and defend a positive view probably the best thing to do is consider possible objections to the view and show how to overcome them.

Remarks on writing the paper

1. This is not primarily a research paper. Your goal is not to find out what a number of other people have said about your topic, but to develop and defend your own view. I do hope that you will bring to bear material you have learned elsewhere, about philosophy, linguistics, or related areas, and I hope you will do some library research to find other relevant material. But don't get buried under a mass of secondary material; your time will be much more productively spent by examining a small number of articles very carefully than by quickly reading a great deal of material. (Of course, the ideal case may be one in which you quickly read a great deal of material and then select a small number of pieces for a very careful study.)

2. If you are to write a good paper, you will need to write at least two drafts. (No one ever seems to believe me when I say this -- or at least, they think that while it may be true for most people, it isn't true for them. But they're wrong! Even if you can write a decent first draft, a second draft is likely to be much better.) You probably have your own strategies for writing papers, but here is one approach: study the class reading and other material you have found on your topic and begin to gather your thoughts about it. Before writing your first draft, it may be a good idea to just write anything that comes to mind on your topic; ideas will come to you as you write. This is not your first draft! Now you need to organize your thoughts, outline the material you've been thinking about, and write a real draft.  When you write the second draft, clean up the prose, fill in missing steps in your arguments, add material that will make the structure of the paper clear to the reader, and consider and respond to objections to your position. In your final draft, pay careful attention to such mechanical matters as sentence structure and spelling.

3. You should be familiar with the University’s Honor Code. Information about the honor code is available on the Honor Code web site. Note that violations of academic integrity include cheating, counterfeit work (i.e. turning in work that was done by someone else), unauthorized reuse of your own work ("turning in the same work to more than one class without consent of the instructors involved"), and plagiarism.  

Possible topics

I won't give you a list of topics from which to choose. In most cases, you will probably want to write on the same topic you selected for the literature review. However, this is not a requirement, and if you wish to change topics, that's all right.

1. You could write a critical exegesis and evaluation of one or more of the articles or chapters we have read. I can suggest additional readings in connection with most of them if you'd like. Similarly, you could consider two (or more) pieces we have read on opposite sides of an issue and arbitrate their dispute, defending one or the other or perhaps arguing for a position different from either (producing the synthesis to their thesis and antithesis).

2. You could take on a general issue, and make use of several pieces. You could write, for instance, on any of the main issues of the course, for example: Description vs. causal theories of reference; speech act theory; the adequacy of verificationism as a theory of meaning; how we should understand metaphor (or some other interesting linguistic phenomenon in which speaker's meaning and literal meaning differ, e.g. irony, but for some reason metaphor has received much more discussion than other related phenomena). Of course, in general you will need to refine your topic to something more specific.  For example, if you discuss metaphor, then you might consider whether it is always possible to provide a literal paraphrase of a metaphor; whether metaphor is a semantic or a pragmatic phenomenon; whether all discourse is at bottom metaphorical; whether metaphor can be essential to getting a point across or whether it is just ornamental, etc.

I'd be happy to suggest references on any of these topics.

Last update: October 15, 2014. 
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of LanguagePhilosophy Department | Trinity University