Theories of Reference and Experimental Philosophy
This course is concerned with the substantive issue “What is the nature of reference?” and with the methodological issue “How should we go about answering that question?” The answer to the methodological question has implications for the method of “armchair philosophy” in general.
Substantive. It is usual to think that referential relations hold between language and thoughts on the one hand, and the world on the other. The most striking example of such a relation is the naming relation, the sort that holds between ‘Socrates’ and the famous philosopher Socrates. Many other sorts of words are best seen as having other sorts of referential relations to the world for which various terms are used; for example, ‘denotation’ and ‘application’. Usually, philosophers are interested in reference because they take it to be the core of meaning. Thus, the fact that ‘Socrates’ refers to that philosopher is the core of the name's meaning and hence of its contribution to the meaning of any sentence - for example, ‘Socrates is wise’ - that contains the name.
The central question about reference is: In virtue of what does a term have its reference? Answering this requires a theory that explains the term’s relation to its referent. Until the 70s, answers were nearly always along descriptivist lines: the reference of a term was determined by descriptions competent speakers associated with it. Then came the revolution, led by Kripke, which rejected description theories for names and some other terms in favor of some sort of historical-causal theory.
Methodological. How should we get to the truth of the matter about reference and language in general? The received methodology, in both philosophy and linguistics, appears to be that we should consult our metalinguistic intuitions (which in philosophy are often thought to be a priori). In particular, theories of reference seem to have been supported in this way. And the intuitions consulted in philosophy have been those of philosophers themselves.
This methodology has been challenged by a group of “experimental philosophers”, starting with the now-classic paper, “Semantics Cross-Cultural Style”, by Machery et al (2004). They tested the intuitions of the folk, showing that they differ from those of the philosophers and vary across cultures. Stephen Stich and Edouard Machery, take this to discredit the whole enterprise of theorizing about reference. It will be argued in the course that the experimental philosophers are right to be critical of the received methodology but wrong to respond by testing metalinguistic intuitions of the folk. Rather, theories of language, including theories of reference, should be tested against linguistic usage. I have recently conducted such experiments, with collaborators from the GC. I am looking for more collaborators.
Substance. The course will be concerned primarily with theories of reference for singular terms: for proper names like ‘Socrates’, demonstratives like ‘this cat’, pronouns like ‘she’, definite descriptions like ‘the last great philosopher of antiquity’, and indefinite descriptions like ‘a lion’. Anaphoric reference will not be considered. However, there will be some discussion of “natural kind” terms like ‘gold’ and ‘tiger’ and “artifactual” kind terms like ‘pencil’. Figures to be discussed include Frege, Russell, Kripke, Donnellan, Searle, Evans, Putnam, Burge, Grice, Kaplan, Martí, Neale, Bach, Reimer.
Methodology. Our discussion of definite descriptions will raise a lively issue of general significance for the philosophy of language: How should settle whether a linguistic phenomenon is to be handled “semantically” or “pragmatically”?
This is not an introduction to the philosophy of language. Anyone wishing to take it who has not already taken a course in the philosophy of language should consult with me before enrolling.
- A brief weekly email raising questions about, making criticisms of, or developing points concerning, matters discussed in the class and reading for that week. 50% of grade.
- (ii) A class presentation based on a draft for a paper (topic chosen in consultation with me). The draft to be submitted before Tuesday of the week of presentation. 20% of grade.
- (iii) A 2,500 word paper probably arising from the draft in (ii). 30% of grade.
- Devitt, M., and K. Sterelny. 1999. Language and Reality. 2nd. edn. MIT. 0-631-19689-7.
- Martinich, A. P., ed. The Philosophy of Language (Oxford)
- Ostertag, G. ed. 1998. Definite Descriptions: A Reader(MIT). 0-262-65049-5.
- Reimer, M. and A. Bezuidenhout, eds. 2004. Descriptions and Beyond. Oxford. 0-19-927052-X
- Hawthorne, J., and David Manley. 2012. The Reference Book. Oxford. 978-0-19-969367-2
- Bianchi, A. ed. 2015. In On Reference. Oxford: Oxford. 978–0–19–871408–8
- Haukioja, ed. 2015. Advances in Experimental Philosophy of Language, Bloomsbury. 978-1-4725-7073-4
- King, J. 2001. Complex Demonstratives: A Quantificational Account. MIT. 0-262-11263-9
[Counts towards course satisfaction of Group A]