PHIL 3333: Philosophy of Language (Fall 2012)

PHIL 3333
Philosophy of Language

Fall, 2012
Curtis Brown

Course Description

This course will consider philosophical issues about syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Among these three areas, our primary focus will be on semantics, with significant attention to pragmatics, and only a fairly cursory look at syntax.

Syntax is concerned with the rules that determine whether a sentence is grammatical or not. Syntax is of interest to philosophy for a number of reasons. Noam Chomsky has argued that the basic features of syntax are innate and universal, a claim that is closely connected with the early modern dispute in philosophy over "innate ideas." Another claim of philosophical interest is what Jerry Fodor calls "the modularity of mind," the idea that many of the operations of the mind are carried out by specialized subsystems rather than by a general faculty of reasoning or problem-solving which is simply applied to different areas. Fodor has used syntax as an example to illustrate this modularity.

We will consider in detail issues involving the important semantic concepts of truth, meaning, and reference, including the following: (1) What is it for a word or sentence to be meaningful? Is it true, as the logical positivists asserted, that any sentence that cannot be empirically verified is meaningless? (2) How do words and sentences acquire meanings? Are they just labels for ideas or thoughts which could exist in precisely the same way without language? Or do our thoughts to some extent acquire their meaning from the words we use? And if the latter, how do those words acquire their meanings? (3) What is the relation between meaning and reference? Can the reference of my words be determined in part by things I am unaware of, or only by my own beliefs and intentions about their reference?

Finally, we will consider some issues about pragmatics, or features of language that depend on the contexts in which it is used. In particular we will consider issues about "speech acts," or the kinds of things we can do with words; about the implicit rules that govern conversations; and about the nature of metaphor. Throughout the semester we will attend to connections between the philosophy of language and other areas of philosophy, especially metaphysics and the philosophy of mind.


William G. Lycan, Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction, Second Edition (Routledge, 2008)
Other readings will be photocopied or available online

Office Hours

TR 8:30 - 10:30
MW 4:00 - 5:00, except for the following Mondays: September 10, October 1, November 5, and December 3.

(I am usually in my office during office hours, but sometimes other commitments interfere; if you want to be certain I will be there, make an appointment with me. Other times can also be arranged by appointment.)


Grades will be based on the following work:

1. There will be a mid-term examination, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, October 10. This exam will contain questions on the terminology and basic ideas of the readings, and longer essay questions asking you to evaluate and compare the readings. The mid-term will count 25% of the final grade. 

2. One substantial paper, of 3000-4500 words (approximately 10-15 pages), is due Monday, November 19. The paper must include discussion of some of the readings for the course; more information is available at I will ask you to give an oral presentation to the class on the topic of the paper during the latter part of the semester. The paper will count 35% of the final grade. I will require a proposal for the paper early in the semester. I will accept late papers, but the grade will be dropped one notch (e.g. from a B to a B- or from a B- to a C+) for every day the paper is late.

3. There will be a final exam on Thursday, December 13, at 3:30 PM. The final will count 25% of the final grade.

4. Attendance and participation will count 15% of the final grade. The participation grade will include attendance, oral participation, and weekly contributions to online fora for the course. About the fora contributions: every week before the class period begins on Monday, I will expect you to contribute (at least) one substantive posting to that week's online forum concerning the reading for that week. This posting should specifically discuss some aspect of the reading for that week, by doing one or more of the following: offering an interpretation of the reading, posing a critical challenge to the reading, or comparing the position taken in the reading to other materials we have discussed in class. Postings should not be vague and general, but should respond to specific ideas or arguments in the readings. (Use page numbers when referring to specific ideas or arguments in the text.) In addition, every week, any time before midnight on Friday, I will expect you to contribute a response to at least one other student's posting in the relevant forum. Missing one required posting will not hurt your grade; after that, your participation grade will be reduced by one letter grade for each required posting you miss. (So if you miss two, the highest grade you can get on this portion of the final grade is a B; if you miss three, a C; etc.)  Important note: Although in general participation counts 15% of the grade, excessive absence is grounds for a failing grade in the course, not just on this portion of the final grade.

The Academic Honor Code

You should make certain that you are familiar with the details of the Honor Code, which all Trinity students are covered by. Students are required to pledge all written work that is submitted for a grade by writing, on the submitted work: “On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unauthorized assistance on this work,” followed by their signature. The pledge may be abbreviated “pledged” with a signature. If I suspect that the Honor Code has been violated, I am required to submit an allegation to the Honor Council, a student committee. After that, it is out of my hands: it is up to the Honor Council to determine whether a violation has occurred, and if so, what the penalty should be. The Honor Code prohibits faculty members from making their own determination, or even communicating about the allegation with the student involved. In my experience, the Honor Council has been at least as tough as I would have been on students found to have violated the code. For more details see the Honor Code web site.

You should be aware that I take academic integrity very seriously. Do not use any material verbatim that you did not write yourself unless you enclose it in quotation marks and give a citation to the source. (This goes for individual clauses as well as larger chunks of prose.) Do not use close paraphrases of material you did not write yourself, period. Be aware that plagiarism is easier to detect than you might think. Other actions that violate academic integrity, including turning in the same paper for more than one class, are listed at

Please remember that any use of material you did not write yourself, either word-for-word or in close paraphrase, is plagiarism. This is true even if the passage is only a sentence or two long, and no matter where the material came from, including web sites, discussion groups, or the papers of other students. I have had some students suggest that their plagiarism is “not a big deal.” You should be aware that I do regard it as a big deal. Other students have told me they were not aware that what they were doing was a violation of academic integrity. If you have any uncertainty about the policy, or about whether the specific use of other sources you are considering is acceptable, come and talk with me. I’ll be happy to clarify what is acceptable and what is not. Finally, I have heard from some students that they resorted to plagiarism because they were overwhelmed by an assignment and saw no way of completing it successfully without resorting to cheating. Ironically, in many cases, if these students had worked as hard at writing a paper as they did at plagiarizing, they could certainly have written an acceptable paper. If you are having trouble getting started on a paper, please come and talk with me.


A tentative list of topics and readings follows.  See the detailed schedule for information about specific assignments! The following outline is a rough guide only.


Theories of Reference I

Russell, Philosophy of Logical Atomism
Lycan, chapters 1, 2

Theories of Meaning

Traditional Theories

Lycan, chapter 5
handout from Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding
recommended: Hacking, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy?, chapters 2-5

"Use" Theories

Lycan, chapter 6
Wittgenstein, selection from Philosophical Investigations

Psychological Theories

Lycan, chapter 7


Lycan, chapter 8
selections from A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic

Truth-Condition Theories

Lycan, chapters 9-10
David Lewis, "Languages and Language"

Theories of Reference II

Lycan, chapters 3-4
Kripke, Naming and Necessity

Pragmatics and Speech Acts

Semantic Pragmatics

Lycan, chapter 11

Speech Acts and Illocutionary Force

Lycan, chapter 12
J. L. Austin, "Performatives"

Implicative Relations

Lycan, chapter 13
Grice, "Logic and Conversation" (handout)
Suggested: David Lewis, "Scorekeeping in a Language Game"

Other Topics


Lycan, chapter 14
C. S. Lewis? Davidson? Searle? . . .


Chomsky, selection from On Nature and Language

Last update: Augugst 22, 2012
Curtis Brown | Philosophy of Language | Philosophy Department | Trinity University