Philosophy of Language

Philosophy 234

Bates College

William Seeley


It has been argued that language is what sets us as human beings apart from our animal cousins. Language enables complex social interactions and facilitates the development of culture. It makes it possible for us to convey our thoughts, moods, and emotions to others. It also, arguably, is the tool that makes the contents of our own thoughts transparent to us. However we rarely reflect on what it is to be a language. What is a language? Do animals have language? If we came across beings from another planet could we tell if they had language? What is it that makes some sounds (or marks) meaningful and others not? What is it for a word or sound to represent, identify, or pick something out? How are referential intentions related to meaning or language development? If animals can express referential intentions do they have a meaningful langauage? Is this enough? How is it that we manage to express ourselves when we bark at each other (as the higher primates we are, after all) in speech? How is it that we can make sense of malapropisms, metaphors, and sentences that make reference to fabrications and fictional characters (or more technically, what is the rleationship between meaning, truth, and reference)? In this course we will address these and a range of related questions about the nature of language through a philosophical lens. The course will be divided into three sections: Referential Intentions and AnimalsCommunication; Reference, Truth, & Meaning; and Thought, Language, & Conventions.


2012 Syllabus

2009 Syllabus