Basic Topics in the Philosophy of Language: Introduction
Harnish (Robert M.)
Source: Harnish (Robert M.) - Basic Topics in the Philosophy of Language
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  1. Preface
    • Although there are numerous textbooks available in the philosophy of language, my personal opinion is that there is no substitute for reading and confronting the original classics in our field. With rare exception, the original work has an excitement, a freshness of perception and depth of argumentation about it that no digest or commentary can match. Furthermore, students do need practice in reading and commenting on original works in the field. After a few courses they are usually on their own.
    • This anthology is the result of teaching philosophy of language for about twenty years. I have noticed that certain works are regularly discussed, criticized and built upon. I have also found many of these works hard to make available to students. Eleven of these selections are collected together for the first time. I hope that this anthology will also fill a gap in the selection of current books for teaching a first course in the philosophy of language. There are good anthologies available which invite the teacher and student to buy a large spectrum of articles from which one reads maybe half. The present anthology is more focused and attempts to give the student just about what he or she needs to get started. And of course, the instructor can supplement the anthology to taste.
    • A course based on this anthology will be an intense survey of some basic topics in the philosophy of language. These articles have all proven their accessibility and most have proven their staying power. Not every practitioner will agree with every choice, but few would disagree that almost all of these selections are central to the field, have definitely posed a central problem, pointed out important distinctions and directions for research, or introduced current terminology. As the secondary literature testifies, almost every selection has generated a comprehensive collection of commentary which all in all constitutes much of the best in recent philosophy of language.
  2. The philosophy of language broadly construed comprises virtually all philosophical theorizing about language. But in the last century it has evolved into a field concerned to solve a set of core philosophical problems arising out of language. Since problems are related, the core ramifies, and it is difficult to draw a principled distinction between some problems in the philosophy of language and problems in linguistics, logic, and the philosophy of logic. Here we will briefly set out some of the core problem areas in the philosophy of language and say a few words about how they relate to linguistics and logic. The introductions to each part will give a more complete survey of the relevant issues.
  3. Meaning, reference and truth; these are core concepts in the philosophy of language. One of the distinguishing features of philosophical reflections on language is concern with how language relates to the world. In one way or another most other problems can be related to these, often as special cases. Three parts of this anthology are concerned with these notions respectively, and the ideas that they are related to.
  4. Meaning:
    • The word 'mean' and its cognates have a variety of uses in English.
      1. Some uses are just irrelevant to meaning theory in the philosophy of language:
        1. That was no mean (insignificant) accomplishment.
        2. Those clouds mean (are a sign of) rain.
        3. This will mean (result in) the end of the regime.
        4. I mean (intend) to help if I can.
      2. Others are close, and may be related:
        1. She didn't mean (believe) what she said.
        2. Keep off the grass; this means (refers to) you!
        3. Lucky Strike means (indicates) fine tobacco.
      3. The core notions for the philosophy of language are speaker meaning and linguistic meaning:
        1. What did he mean by that remark?
        2. What does 'du jour' mean?
    • Notice that there are no obvious ways to paraphrase the word 'mean' in these occurrences. Part I analyses and systematizes the notion of meaning. and its connection with using language to state, question, order, etc. - to perform speech acts. Typically when such acts are successfully performed we also communicate something to someone. We want to trace the connections between meaning, speech acts and communication. Meaning also connects with reference and truth. These topics are taken up in Parts II and IV
  5. Reference:
    • The concept of reference can also be applied to both speakers and to expressions in a language. There is a variety of terminology here: some authors distinguish speaker reference from semantic reference, others distinguish speaker reference from denotation or linguistic reference. Everyone agrees that we must distinguish these two species of reference if only because speakers can use words to refer to things that the words themselves do not refer to. To borrow an example from Donnellan, one might say 'The man drinking a martini is a famous poet,' and actually refer to somebody drinking ginger ale. What words mean and refer to is related to what speakers mean and refer to in uttering those expressions, so we may expect to find connections between Parts I and II. Utterances are also true or false depending on what is referred to, so we may expect to find connections with Part IV, Truth. The main referring devices of English (and related languages) are definite descriptions, proper names, natural kind2 terms, and indexicals (demonstratives). Each of the selections after Frege is devoted to one of these devices, and collectively this 'New Theory of Reference' poses the most serious challenge to date to (what was) Fregean orthodoxy.
  6. Truth
    • We speak of many different kinds of things as true (and false): true statements, true propositions, true beliefs, and true sentences, just for starters. What is it for these to be true (or false)? Are any of these truth bearers basic in the sense that the truth (or falsehood) of the others can be defined in terms of it? And is it possible or desirable to give a theory of truth for a language? If so, what would it look like? Part IV analyses and systematizes the concept of truth, and its connection with meaning and reference. And there are such connections; we do not say that meaningless sounds and marks are true (or false), and the truth of what we say depends, in part, on what is being referred to. Even more interestingly, maybe the conditions under which a sentence is true are related to the meaning of the sentence so that a theory of truth for a language might be or be part of a theory of meaning for that language.
  7. Opacity and attributions of attitude:
    • Opacity and attributions of attitude is included because of its regular recurrence in theorizing since Frege, its obstinacy, and its centrality to recent work in the philosophy of language. Motivating its inclusion will take a little more discussion.
    • Frege noted that it is not immaterial to the truth of the sentence 'Columbus inferred from the roundness of the Earth that he could reach India by traveling towards the west,' whether we replace the phrase 'the Earth' with the co-referential phrase 'The planet which is accompanied by a moon whose diameter is greater than the fourth part of its own'. Although this last ponderous phrase also refers to the Earth, Columbus might not have thought of it this way, hence its inclusion in the sentence does not correctly characterize Columbus' travel plans.
    • Quine coined the phrase 'referential opacity' for the phenomenon of a sentence not preserving its truth value upon all substitution of co-referential constituent terms. How are we to account for such referentially 'opaque' contexts? If the sense and reference of a complex expression is determined by the sense and reference of its constituents, and their grammatical relations, then how can words retain their normal meaning and still occur opaquely?
    • Again, it was Frege who noted connections between these areas; he introduced the notion of sense by appealing to differences in the cognitive significance of statements such as 'Venus is the Morning Star' versus 'Venus is Venus'. Famously, he claimed that statements of the form a=a hold a priori, while statements of the form a=b can contain valuable extensions of knowledge and cannot always be established a priori. Thus, the notion of the sense of an expression is connected to the way the (purported) referent of the expression is presented to the language user who grasps it. Sense is objective cognitive content, and as such is often reported with sentences. According to Frege, reports of what someone thinks are opaque because one must substitute co-sensical expressions, not (just) co-referential expressions in order to preserve truth. This forges a connection between opaque and non-opaque sentences; sense is a constituent of the content of simple non-opaque sentences, and these senses are reported in attributions of attitude. One could, of course, analyse a fragment of a natural language which contained no opaque constructions. But natural languages are shot through with opacity, and it has proven almost impossible to separate the study of sense, reference and truth from it. Part III deals with these and related problems.
    • These sections represent the three and perhaps four core non-technical areas of philosophy of language, and the number of selections represent the relative attention devoted to these areas over the last few decades.
  8. Linguistics and logic:
    • How do these investigations relate to linguistics and logic? Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Its main non-historical branches are phonology (the study of speech sounds), morphology (the study of word structure), syntax (the study of sentence structure), semantics3 (the study of linguistic meaning and reference), and pragmatics (the study of language use in relation to language structure and context of utterance). Clearly the concerns of semantics4 and pragmatics can overlap the philosophy of language and historically they have. Many ideas from the philosophy of language (such as model theory, speech act theory, and implicature) have found their way into semantics5 and pragmatics. There is no clear distinction between a linguistic study of these topics and a philosophical one. Linguistic studies construct hypotheses about language and test them against speaker's intuitions, just as philosophical theories do. Neither discipline makes much use of the numerical methodology (e.g. statistics) of the social and physical sciences. Probably the main difference is one of emphasis. Linguistic studies tend to be more systematic than philosophical studies in two senses.
      1. First, linguistic studies tend to be conducted from within a descriptive framework, theory, or model. Most linguists identify their work with some theoretical tradition such as Chomsky's Government and Binding (GB) Theory, or Montague Grammar. A theoretical framework allows the linguist to make predictions and give explanations for phenomena that are unavailable outside the framework.
      2. Second, linguistic studies tend to be more systematic in the sense that many cases are considered and related to each other via the general theory of language structure embodied in the framework. The emphasis is on patterns of phenomena and their relation to each other via language structure.
    • Philosophical studies, on the other hand, tend to be conducted outside of any detailed theory of language structure, and they also tend to contain analyses of fewer examples. More is made of general features of the phenomena independent of the details of a particular language. Put aphoristically, philosophical studies concentrate on features of language whereas linguistic studies concentrate on features of languages.
    • Logic was originally the study of principles of valid inference, but in the course of formalizing such principles the discipline has evolved into formal logic and informal logic (critical thinking). Formal logic is virtually a branch of mathematics, and there is no principled way of distinguishing advanced logic from foundations of mathematics. Indeed, Frege, who invented the core of current formal logic, did so in the course of working on the foundations of mathematics. The bridge between (formal) logic and the philosophy of language is the philosophy of logic, a sub-area that investigates philosophical issues arising out of logic. Again, logical investigations tend to differ from philosophical ones in their systematicity (and their technicality). Typically syntactic or semantic properties of some system (or class of systems) is under analysis, definitions are offered and theorems proved. And again as with linguistics, the divisions are not hard and fast; popular anthologies in the philosophy of logic share a number of papers with anthologies in the philosophy of language (see below).
    • In sum, it is hard to give a precise characterization of the philosophy of language either in terms of its domain or its method of investigation that clearly distinguish all its samples from linguistics and logic. The best way to get a feel for the subject is to read some of the best of it oneself, and this anthology is a good place to start.
  9. Notes on the Selections:
    • Philosophical substance, importance in and influence on the field, readability; these are the major criteria used in making these selections. Ask twenty philosophers of language for their top twenty, and you'll get twenty lists. However there will be significant overlap, and it is my intention that this anthology reflect that overlap.
    • [Snip]
    • Clearly, in an anthology of twenty items, important works will have to be omitted. For instance, there is nothing by Wittgenstein. Why not? Because first, it is exceptionally hard coherently to excerpt Wittgenstein. Second, and more importantly, much of Wittgenstein's once radical doctrine has been so thoroughly absorbed into philosophy that it has colored almost everything that is written in the philosophy of language subsequently; one gets Wittgenstein automatically. Analogously for Strawson's 'On referring'. Other important works were not included because they were too technical either in substance or in style. Still other historically important pieces were not included because they succeeded so well in making their case that the dispute has quieted down (for the present). Quine on analyticity comes to mind. Still other classical papers concern issues that are not alive right now: the verifiability criterion of meaning, essentialism in modal logic6, meaning and transformational grammar. Now we are concerned with causal historical chains of reference, rigid designation. Twin Earth, direct reference, singular propositions, cognitive significance, character and content. I am sure that in five years we will need new anthologies.
  10. Note to the Teacher
    • A first course in the philosophy of language can be given at two importantly different levels. First, there is the course to sophomores and juniors — often, but not always, philosophy majors. On the whole they have had no formal logical training. The articles chosen for the most part make almost no explicit technical demands and when they do, it is inessential, the point being made non-technically as well. There is often a tension between work accessible to students and work influential in the field. The works collected here have passed both tests. What one can expect in this course is an audience of beginning philosophers and intellectually curious non-philosophers who, since the course is rarely required for anything, are taking it out of curiosity, interest or from word of mouth.
    • For this audience, problems in the philosophy of language are best motivated from problems they can already relate to. Starting with abstract issues in advanced philosophy of language (such as sense and reference or truth) first bewilders students, then intimidates them, then turns them off the subject. We begin with the most intuitive and accessible sub-area in the philosophy of language. Everyone has intuitions and opinions about meaning, speech acts and communication. This engages the student who may well be put off at the beginning by starting historically with, say Frege. Once these concepts are out, issues of sense, reference and truth can be developed naturally. Opacity is a bit different; it is almost a special topic, and other issues also have a claim to attention here.
    • Second, there is a course to seniors and graduate students. The introduction of graduate students into an upper-division philosophy class changes the character of the class considerably. Graduate students profit most from a more state of the art course on basic topics in the philosophy of language. They will also often have had some formal logic. Their formal and philosophical sophistication can often carry the class discussion quickly out of the reach of the audience of the first course.
    • Hence the structure of these readings. For the lower division undergraduate course I suggest concentrating on Parts I and II. For the upper division and graduate course I suggest all four parts, but selecting from the readings according to interest and competence. These works have been used successfully in both undergraduate and graduate courses.

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