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date: 21 October 2019

(p. vii) Preface

(p. vii) Preface

Philosophy of language is usually presented as a deep‐end subject. One is expected to jump in and eventually get the hang of it. And yet it can be a very technically demanding area of philosophy for the beginner. It is surely not special in this regard. However, it seems to us that it has lagged behind other sub‐areas of philosophy in presenting its key concerns in accessible form, with the result that there is a considerable gap between the professional literature and understanding of the novice. Professional philosophers often advise students to read classic papers in the area such as ‘On Sense and Reference’, ‘On Denoting’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Truth and Meaning’, the second chapter of Word and Object, ‘General Semantics’, ‘The Logic of Demonstratives’, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’, any chapter of Naming and Necessity. However, in each of these readings students will encounter aspects of the discussion that are opaque and that presuppose detailed knowledge of other parts of philosophy of language. This is by no means a criticism. These articles were not written for novices. But this is a problem if it deters the interested student from pursuing these topics further. It is all the more unfortunate for there is much about the philosophy of language that is deeply engaging and can be made accessible to every philosophy student. One gains the best understanding by first getting to grips with some of the fundamental debates in philosophy of language. By focusing on a particular debate and acquiring a thorough and detailed mastery of it one is able to extend that understanding to other areas, gradually working one's way into the field as a whole.

In our view, the right way to present these debates is not by trying to produce introductory material but rather by having philosophers involved in these debates set out the issues clearly, show what is at stake and argue for the position they take. In this way we hope the current volume will engage those working at a high level while also enabling others to appreciate what is going on in several areas of contemporary discussion. Here, in one volume, are the leading thinkers expressing their own views, and providing much of the material needed to understand both classic and contemporary debates.

We might begin with an awkward question: what is the philosophy of language? In asking this question we run the dangerous risk of looking for an a priori demarcation of a subject matter. Or, as our friend Jerry Fodor would put it, we should not be trying to bore the reader by trying to say who gets to call his or her research real philosophy of language. The good news is that we're doing neither. In assembling this volume we sought to discover what advances have been made in the philosophy of language both in terms of its history and in its most recent incarnations. But it's (p. viii) easy to see how we could have ended up addressing a less fruitful issue. Philosophy of language has been squeezed from at least two sides during the past twenty years or so. On one side, post‐modernists are sometimes interpreted as saying there is nothing interesting to say in the philosophy of language. Richard Rorty in the third edition of his once influential The Linguistic Turn essentially apologizes for having led a generation of philosophers into thinking about language—into thinking that language had something philosophically interesting to teach us. On the other side, linguists believe that substantial progress on language can only take place in their discipline. Barbara Partee recently told one of us that philosophers can no longer do interesting work in semantics since sophisticated knowledge of syntax is needed to achieve real results. So what is left for philosophy of language?

In its heyday, during the latter half of the twentieth century, philosophy of language was believed to occupy a central position in philosophy because it offered to deliver the ultimate route to metaphysical reality, or a refutation of skepticism, a challenge to Cartesianism, and a solution to the problem of other minds. Much was promised on behalf of philosophy of language but the accounts of language on offer were often shaped by the ambitions of philosophers pursuing one or more of these agendas. The skeptical outlook of post‐modernism provided a useful corrective to some of the more fanciful claims made by epistemologists and metaphysicians on behalf of philosophers of language but shared with them—albeit in pessimistic vein—an unshakeable belief in the importance of language to reality. Meanwhile, on the other side, in logic, linguistics, psychology, and computer science, progress was being made on the nature of the natural language phenomena and the tools needed to investigate them. Another development of the late twentieth century was the rise of the philosophy of mind, which gradually displaced philosophy of language as the fastest growing part of the discipline. Many issues of meaning recurred there or were transformed by their new setting. But recently there has been a rapprochement between philosophy of mind and philosophy of language, with many of the interesting questions targeting the links between mind and language. And through its connections with other branches of philosophy and work in neighboring disciplines, philosophy of language has enjoyed something of a resurgence recently, with a stronger sense of the issues worth pursuing, a sense that progress can be made, a keener focus on the topics of central concern to the study of language, and the need for such work to be informed by empirical results in linguistics and psychology.

Instead of serving other philosophical projects, the philosophy of language now focuses on its primary concern: the nature of natural language and the extraordinary capacity of human beings to use it to express and communicate their thoughts about the world and other subject‐matters. The way language works, how specific linguistic devices function to achieve their effects, how we come to know these properties of expressions, and how we exploit them in our talk: all this is pursued by contemporary philosophers of language. And as well as pursuing detailed accounts of particular expression types, attention is also given to the nature of language and the nature of meaning. Rival accounts of the meaning and reference of certain expressions are now routinely tested against the rich descriptions of the phenomena linguistics provides, (p. ix) while the scope and limits of linguistic meaning are assessed against the background of work in psychology on the acquisition of language and its use in communication.

Philosophy of language continues to take seriously the special place language plays in our lives as an object and source of knowledge, as an interface between minds, and as an anchor between experience and reality. All of these topics were pursued by the late Donald Davidson. We are glad to be able to include an essay by him and would like to dedicate this volume to him. He would have expressed his disagreement with many of the views expressed here, but such disagreement is the stuff of philosophy. As Michael Dummett once put it, when philosophers have disciples it signals the end of doing philosophy.

In what follows we have organized the essays into sections. The volume starts with a historical section dealing with the impact of Frege and Wittgenstein on the subject. This continues with a discussion of Russell and other twentieth‐century philosophers, and their legacy to philosophy of language. Having established the historical background we turn to a consideration of the nature of language as a social, psychological, or platonic object. Contrasting conceptions of language are discussed and this sets the stage for treatments of various linguistic phenomena in the subsequent essays.

The next section contains a collection of essays on the nature of meaning, covering normative and naturalistic accounts of the constitution of meaning, including discussions of rule‐following, teleosemantics, conceptual‐role semantics, truth‐ conditional and intention‐based semantics. Special concerns are raised about the boundaries of linguistic meaning: indeterminacy and external dependence, holism, and the character of propositional content. The limits of semantics and the essential involvement of pragmatic considerations in the fixing of meaning are explored alongside a relevance‐theoretic account of utterance meaning.

The following section moves to the nature of reference, with essays focusing on the semantic properties of proper names, natural kind terms, and predicates. Consideration is given to whether reference itself is a property of expressions or an act of intentional agents.

Next, there is an examination of the formal methods used in semantic theory to provide accounts of particular linguistic phenomena, and an investigation of a central concept employed by many semantic theories, namely truth.

Detailed treatments of the workings of language, including phenomena such as sentence structure, compositionality, opacity, tense, and plural constructions are addressed in the following section, along with an examination of the logical forms of language, natural language quantifiers and the interpretation of other logical constants.

Departures from the literal use of declarative sentences are considered in a section on the varieties of speech act. Here, non‐declarative uses of language are explored along with metaphor and the performative aspects of language.

The final section tackles a number of topics in the epistemology and metaphysics of language, surrounding the relations between language, mind, and world. Topics include the nature and object of our knowledge of language, the basis of the human (p. x) capacity for meaningful speech, the relation of language to reality, and the contents we share in virtue of being linguistic communicators. We end with a late essay by Donald Davidson that offers a culmination of his thinking on the practice of interpreting one another and the limits to any theory of language.

The essays assembled here represent work that has shaped and continues to shape current debates in philosophy of language. Further issues beyond those tackled here continue to emerge: issues concerning the semantics of taste predicates,1 relativist semantics,2 use theories of meaning,3 the nature of testimony,4 the relations between thought and language,5 and more besides. This shows the healthy state of contemporary philosophy of language and strongly suggests that we won't run out of things to do. The Handbook presents those who wish to understand and those who wish to contribute to these debates with a firm grounding in the discussions that have taken place so far. And although we have still not said what philosophy of language is, in bringing together this collection of papers we hope to have shown it.6

Ernest Lepore

Barry C. Smith


(1) Peter Lasersohn, ‘Context‐dependence, Disagreement and Predicates of Personal Taste’, Linguistics and Philosophy (2006).

(2) John McFarlane, ‘Relativist Semantics?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (2004), and Paul Boghossian, Fear of Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2006).

(3) Paul Horwich, Meaning (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Reflections on Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2005).

(4) Elizabeth Fricker, ‘Second‐hand Knowledge’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (2006).

(5) Jerry A. Fodor, ‘Language, Thought and Compositionality’, Mind and Language (2001), and Peter Carruthers, ‘The Cognitive Function of Language’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2002).

(6) Thanks for comments and advice to Jerry Fodor, Barbara Partee, and Ophelia Deroy.