Course syllabus available here.

PHIL415 Philosophy of Language:

Reference and Representation

This course offers an advanced survey on topics in 20th-century Analytic philosophy of language and linguistics. We'll focus on how it's possible for language to be meaningful and how language shapes how we think about the world. We'll begin with the question of what proper names like ‘Montreal’ mean. We begin here because answers to questions about more complex bits of language -- for example, phrases and sentences -- often hinge on questions about the meaning of names. Is ‘Montreal' a device of reference, the linguistic equivalent of pointing at something? Is it a device of representation, like a picture or a description? These questions connect language to the the rich tradition of theorizing about whether human experience directly engages external reality or merely represents it. Assessing historically important answers to these questions will push us to reflect on what makes language meaningful. We'll look at how philosophers have attempted to illuminate the nature of linguistic meaning by appealing, variously, to belief, intention, truth, and causation. As we make progress on these questions, it will become clear that linguistic meaning may not be a monolithic category. In the second half of the class, we'll look at an important distinction in the category of meaning between semantics and pragmatics. We'll end by considering language as a tool of emancipation and oppression.


Assignment 1

Assignment 2

Assignment 3

Assignment 4


Students are required to submit a one-page paper outline on week 11. The paper should include a clear statement of the projected final paper’s thesis, and schematic explanation of the background material necessary for understanding the thesis, and a clear statement of the projected paper’s structure, including the argument for the thesis and consideration of objections. I will then arrange 15-minute meetings in subsequent weeks to discuss these outlines and strategies for successfully completing the paper.

Course Objectives:

At the completion of this course, students will:

1. Identify central questions in the philosophy of language and linguistics and a number of historical approaches to those questions.

2. Develop the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in the philosophy of language.

3. Learn how to succinctly formulate a philosophical position on a question about language, assess the prospects for that position, and anticipate and respond to objections to it.

4. Learn how to constructively discuss others assessments of philosophical arguments.

5. Sharpen one’s written and spoken communication and develop a lucid, succinct, and direct argumentative writing style.


I grade using this excellent rubric, by Micah Lewin. Roughly,

  • Grades in the C range represent performance that meets expectations;

  • Grades in the B range represent performance that is substantially better than the expectations;

  • Grades in the A range represent work that is excellent.


Grades are the sum of four reflections (total 60%), a paper outline (10%), and the final paper (30%).

Attendance and Absences:

Attendance is expected and will be taken each class. You are allowed to miss 2 classes during the semester without penalty. Any further absences will result in point and/or grade deductions from the overall grade.

Absent students are responsible for all missed work, regardless of the reason for absence. It is also the absentee’s responsibility to get all missing notes or materials.

Academic Honesty Policy:

X University values academic integrity. Therefore, all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under The Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see [appropriate website] for more information). The Code provides guidance about how to properly cite, reference, and attribute the intellectual property of others. Any attempt to deceive a faculty member or to help another student to do so will be considered a violation of this standard..

Electronic Devices Policy:

No laptops, cellphones, tablets, etc. are to be used during class. Those with extenuating circumstances should notify me via email (nathanrhoward@gmail.com) to receive a special dispensation.

Late assignments policy:

All students have an automatic seven-day extension on all assignments -- no email requests are necessary to take advantage of this policy. No marks will be deducted during this period. No work will be accepted after this seven-day period without appropriate medical documentation or equally certain evidence of comparably excusing circumstances.