Philosophy of Language

Fall 2012

Midterm Review

We have looked at theories regarding two main (related) topics: reference and meaning. I have also listed Russell's logical atomism as a third topic, although it overlaps both of the other topics. Here is a summary of some of the highlights of the material we have discussed on these three topics. You should be familiar with, and able to write about, the issues, terminology, and arguments mentioned or briefly summarized below. Some of the items are sample questions; others are brief summaries of ideas you should be familiar with. I have longer notes on a number of these issues available online (but of course ultimately what you need to be familiar with are the texts themselves).

Description of the Exam

The exam will have two parts. Part I will ask you to give relatively short answers (roughly a paragraph) explaining a basic term or concept we have encountered. I expect to ask seven questions of this type, worth 7 points each. Part II will consist of essay questions. I will ask you to write on two essay questions. Each question will ask you to describe a theory or position we have considered, and then critically evaluate that position in view of criticisms we have discussed. The essays will be worth 25 points each. You will want to be keep track of the time so as not to end up with a 25-point essay to write in a few minutes! I'd suggest spending approximately 5 minutes each on the short answer questions, and twenty minutes each on the essays.

Examples of Part I questions:

1. What does Russell mean by "logical atomism"? What makes it "logical" (and as opposed to what)? What makes it "atomism" (and as opposed to what)?

2. Explain how Grice defines the "speaker meaning" of an utterance by a speaker on a particular occasion.

Examples of Part II questions:

1. Discuss the attractions and difficulties of verificationism as a theory of meaning, with reference to Ayer's development of the theory and Lycan's critical discussion. Include discussion of the following issues: what was the motivation for verificationism? What are its similarities and differences with 17th-century empiricism? What was its conception of the proper role of philosophy? What are two of the more important objections that have been raised against verificationism as a theory of meaning? Conclude with an overall assessment of verificationism.

2. Explain the referential theory of the meaning of definite descriptions. (This part shouldn't take long!) Then explain at least two of the four fundamental objections to this view discussed by Lycan. Give a careful explanation of Russell's theory of definite descriptions, and show in detail how Russell would deal with the objections you explained earlier. Conclude with an overall assessment of Russell's analysis of definite descriptions.

Additional essay questions will be similar to these: the idea will be to describe a view we have discussed, and evaluate it in light of at least two of the objections raised by Lycan and/or discussed in class.

A Few Terms

Some general terminology to be familiar with (most of the terminology you should be familiar with, and which will form possible topics of short-answer questions, is listed below under particular authors or theories):

  1. syntax, semantics, pragmatics
  2. ordinary-language philosophy vs. ideal-language philosophy
  3. type vs. token
  4. use vs. mention
  5. referential vs. attributive uses of definite descriptions

I. Russell's Logical Atomism

My notes on Russell are here, here, and here.

II. Theories of Meaning

Lycan treats theories of meaning as attempts to explain to what he calls the "meaning facts." (See his chapter 5.) These are the apparent facts of:

You should be able to discuss the theories below with reference to these "meaning facts": do the theories explain them? If so, how? If not, is that a problem for the theory?

1. Referential view: the idea that meaning simply is reference. This has severe and obvious problems as a theory of meaning for the entire language, since many linguistic expressions are not referring expressions at all. But it may have more plausibility if applied only to a small subset of the language: for instance, definite descriptions and/or proper names.

A. Definite Descriptions

i. referential theory: the meaning of a definite description is simply its reference

ii. Russell's theory of definite descriptions. (You should be able to describe the theory, and also to explain how it attempts to deal with the four objections above.)

B. Proper names

We have not discussed proper names in much detail yet. (After the midterm, we will study issues about names in much more depth, when we read Kripke's Naming and Necessity.) But there are a few things to be familiar with.

i. Russell's distinction between "logically proper names" and names in ordinary language. Note that Russell thinks that there are very few logically proper names (maybe "this" and "that" under some circumstances), and that most ordinary names are really disguised descriptions. Russell's idea seems to be that ordinary names have associated descriptions, and function basically like shorthand for those descriptions.

ii. Wittgenstein's comments about names. Recall that Wittgenstein suggests that a proper name might not have a single description associated with it, and seems sympathetic to the idea that there may be a cluster of descriptions instead, with a name perhaps referring to whatever satisfies sufficiently many of the descriptions in the cluster.

2. Ideational Theories (Locke reading and Lycan's discussion: this is one of the two views Lycan calls "entity theories")
    (Lockean version: ideas are like images)

My notes on this material are here.

3. Propositional Theories. Lycan discusses these only briefly in his chapter on the ideational theory. I won't ask questions based on his account in that chapter. Questions about propositional theories will instead focus on the more sophisticated propositional theories offered in his chapters on truth-conditions theories of meaning (section 7 below).

4. "Use" theories (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, and Lycan's discussion)

Wittgensteinian ideas to be familiar with include:

My notes on the Wittgenstein reading are here.

5. Psychological Theories (Grice)

Grice's definition of speaker meaning
roughly: S speaker-means P by uttering x if and only if:
(1) S uttered x intending that A (S's audience) form the belief that P;
(2) S intended that A recognize that (1);
(3) S intended that A form the belief that P because A recognizes that (1)

Grice's account of sentence meaning. You don't need to know much about this, as it is only vaguely specified in Lycan, but very roughly the idea is that a sentence S means P if people usually, or under ideal circumstances, speaker-mean that P when they utter a sentence of the same type as S. (By "same type" I mean another instance of the same abstract sentence -- the same words in the same order.) We have a somewhat more developed version of a related account in Lewis's definition of what it is for a population to use a language.

My notes on (Lycan's chapter on) Grice are here.

6. Verificationism (Reading: Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic; Lycan's discussion; Quine, "Two Dogmas of Empiricism")

Objections to verificationism:

Some notes on Ayer that I've put online: chapter 3, chapter 5. These go beyond what we've discussed in class, and beyond what I will expect you to know, however. I will expect you to be familiar with, and able to discuss, Lycan's treatment of verificationism; my summary of Lycan's discussion is here. You should also be able to discuss Quine's critique of verificationism in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism." My notes on Quine are here.

My general discussion of verificationism, with emphasis on its early modern origins: verificationism.

7. Truth-Conditions Theories (extensional and intensional) (Lycan, chapters 9-10)

My notes on truth-conditions theories, especially the possible-worlds variety, are here.

Last update: October 8, 2012. 
Curtis Brown  |  Philosophy of Language   |  Philosophy Department  |   Trinity University