Philosophy of Language: The Sophists to Sociolinguistics

From the beginning of both Eastern and Western philosophy, the nature of language was a major issue. Sanskrit scholars and grammarians (400 BCE) raise many of the questions which travel down through history: How does language convey truth; what is the connection between words and things; does language describe reality; what is languages' connection to thought. In the Ancient Greek city state public speaking was essential to achieving power and influence in politics and law; the Sophists maximised its use and developed a theory of the persuasive nature of rhetoric and good argument. We will then move on to Modern philosophy and John Locke’s introduction of the issue of ‘mental states’ as the meaning of words. As an empiricist Locke is concerned with how sense impressions transform into concepts and concepts into language. In the late 19th and early 20th c interest in language becomes a major concern of philosophy; this period is known as the ‘linguistic turn’. We will study Saussure’s semiotics; Gottlob Frege’s introduction of the difference between sense and meaning; Donald Davidson’s semantic holism; Chomsky vs Wittgenstein; Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author.


COURSE OUTLINE

  • Ancient Indian Language Theory: We will begin with Sanskrit and the tradition of Vedas interpretation. Indian scholars and grammarians argue about the veridical knowledge which language can give about the world. They then speculate about the conditions which would make a statement truthful, and consider how language connects to the mind.
  • Ancient Greek: The Sophists developed a theory of the persuasive nature of rhetoric and the rules of a good argument. Socrates partly fits in with the Sophistic tradition but according to Plato also worried about the rhetorical ‘trickery’ which might accompany the drive to win an argument at any cost.
  • Modern philosophy: Modern philosophers such as John Locke become concerned with how language is formed in the mind. Locke introduces of the theory of ‘mental states’ as the meaning of words. As an empiricist Locke is concerned with how world is transformed into sense impressions and how these become concepts in language.
  • The Linguistic Turn: In the late 19th and early 20th c interest in language becomes a major concern of philosophy. We will study Saussure’s semiotics and Gottlob Frege’s introduction of the difference between sense and meaning.
  • Bertrand Russell: The Cambridge positivists worked to understand language by reducing it to its logical structure. The positivists then construct a logical basis on which meaning components fit together systematically to make truth claims.
  • Wittgenstein: Wittgenstein introduces many of the enduring ideas of linguistics: His famous ‘picture theory’ in which language allows us to ‘picture’ or model reality; his ‘language games’ in which language functions differently depending on the rules of the social ‘game’ one is playing.; that there is no private language and that thought is language.
  • Chomsky Innate Grammar: Chomsky proposes that language is a set of very specific universal principals which are intrinsic properties of the human brain and part of our genetic endowments.
  • Roland Barthes: Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author decentralizes the intentions of the writer/speaker from the meaning of the text; we will discuss this controversial theory and its critics.
  • Sociolinguistics Benjamin Lee Whorf Whorf’s essay ‘An American Indian model of the Universe’ proposed that very different cultural/linguistic systems construct the universe in radically different ways. We will assess this idea and the essay ‘On the very idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ by Donald Davidson, in which he disputes Whorf’s theory.
  • Sociolinguistics: We will look at a number of essays from sociolinguistics which are concerned with the cultural aspects of language. Two will be: Maria Lugone’s Other Minds and Foreign Tongues and Judith Butler’s Queer Travelers.


PLANNED LEARNING OUTCOMES
By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Identify the main theories of language from the ancient to the postmodern world.
  2. Discuss the issues involved in questions concerning how language conveys truth; what is the connection between words and things; does language describe reality; and how language connects to thought.
  3. Identify the different language theories and how they developed in history.
  4. Discuss the implications of the theories for our current world.
$270 Limited / $243

<p>From the beginning of both Eastern and Western philosophy, the nature of language was a major issue. Sanskrit scholars and grammarians (400 BCE) raise many of the questions which travel down

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28 Jan

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