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Philosophers have been interested in language for two key reasons. On the one hand, language helps to focus our thoughts on particular features of the world (like Donald J. Trump or collusion). On the other hand, language plays an essential role in coordinating with others (like pointing things out or telling tall tales) and building complex shared social institutions (marriage, democracy). This subject examines these two key roles of language and how they interact.
The first weeks will focus on language as a representational medium. Throughout the 20th century, philosophers took the philosophy of language to be crucial to any systematic understanding of the world. If you want to understand colours, or moral properties, or individual persons, or numbers, or the various properties discovered by science, you should first make sure you understand how we represent these things in language. Otherwise we're likely to end up talking at cross-purposes or to be seduced by incoherent ideas. We’ll look at central figures in the development of this representationalist tradition, including Locke, Mill, Frege, Russell, Strawson, Chomsky and Kripke. Next, we consider how we use language as a practical tool in our messy real-world environment. We use language to make requests, tell jokes, and get married – not just to represent facts. Often our use of language involves rough and ready improvisations, which rely on our knowledge of each other and of what’s going on around us to get the point across. Key figures in this pragmatic tradition include Wittgenstein, Grice, Austin, Searle, Sperber and Wilson, and Lewis.
In the final weeks, we’ll bring these theoretical tools to bear on two contemporary debates in the philosophy of language – metaphors and slurs. A metaphor, like ‘rivers of blood’, can pack an emotional punch and suggest factual claims that are not literally expressed. Theorists disagree about what explains this distinctive evocative power. Unlike metaphors, slurs like ‘bitch’ or ‘wog’ don’t leave room for interpretation: they’re standardly used to single out specific social groups as the target of contempt. But it’s not clear how slurs do this dirty work. Getting clear about metaphors and slurs can help understand how language is intimately tied to both human cognition, social institutions, and social subordination.
Intended learning outcomes
Students that successfully complete this subject should:
- Demonstrate a broad and deep knowledge and understanding of advanced issues in philosophical semantics and pragmatics
- Consistent demonstration of a high level critical engagement with contemporary philosophical research about the nature of linguistic representation
- Learn to apply the philosophical theories of language to the analysis of metaphor, slurs and derogatory speech acts
- Consistent demonstration of a high level of understanding of the role of word meaning in structuring scientific understanding and debate, and the role of speech acts in structuring social institutions and interactions
- Consistent demonstration of high-level of fluency in communication and collaboration skills, including oral and written presentation of arguments and effective work in small and large groups
- Consistent demonstration of capacity to engage in radical critique of critique of their own presuppositions and commitments about the nature or linguistic representation and communication.
Last updated: 1 March 2024