Philosophy of Language

Thomas Hodgson

27 August 2019

This is an edited version of the syllabus for a course taught by Thomas Hodgson at King’s College London in 2019. The course is copyright King’s College London and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


In the wake of the logical revolution at the end of the 19th century, many philosophers well-versed in formal logic turned their attention to the project of understanding natural language. This course will examine how these philosophers attempted to make sense of natural language using the tools of modern logic, and how this project of understanding natural language on the basis of formal languages developed over the course of the 20th century, particularly in response to recalcitrant data like metaphors, slurs, and sarcasm. This module will acquaint students with many classic texts in philosophy of language as well as with some more recent work. By the end of the module, students will have become familiar with some of the central concepts in philosophy of logic and language. They will also have learned how to relate some of the issues studied in the course to issues in other courses, such as metaphysics and philosophy of mind.

Please note that the course will deal with the topics of racism and misogyny, and will discuss sexual violence and racial slurs.

Module aims

This module aims to acquaint students with the chief ideas of some leading philosophers of logic and language including Frege, Russell, Strawson, Davidson1, Grice and Kripke.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, the students will have become familiar with some of the central concepts in philosophy of logic and language. They will also have learned how to relate some of the issues studied in the course to issues in other courses, such as metaphysics and philosophy of mind.


There is one core reading, a journal article or book chapter, each week, and one or more pieces of additional reading for each week. Lycan (2008) is an introduction to philosophy of language.


Week 1: Gottlob Frege

Gottlob Frege introduced some of the key concepts philosophers use to understand language, and some classic puzzles associated with those concepts.

Core: Frege (1948)


Week 2: Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell’s treatment of definite descriptions, e.g., ‘the king of France’, is a key work of early analytic philosophy of language.

Core: Russell (1905)


Week 3: Paul Grice

Paul Grice introduced a framework for thinking about the relationship between what a speaker means and what the sentence they use to express it means.

Core: Grice (1989a)


Week 4: Saul Kripke

Saul Kripke drew a distinction between what an expression refers to and what a speaker refers to.

Core: Kripke (1977)


Week 5: Lying and misleading

Thinking about the distinction between lying and misleading allows us to sharpen our understanding of the boundary between speaker meaning and sentence meaning.

Core: Saul (2012, chap. 2)


Week 6: Speech Acts

Austin introduced a classic framework for thinking about what we use utterances to do, which treats saying something as a special case.

Read Kissine’s paper, and as much of Austin’s book as you can.

Core: Kissine (2008)


Week 7: Silencing I

Austin’s ideas have been used by philosophers of language interested in debates over the nature of free speech and the regulation of pornography.

Core: Langton (1993)


Week 8: Silencing II

Grice’s ideas can also be used to think through the issues introduced in week 7.

Core: Maitra (2009)


Week 9: Slurs I

Slurs raise puzzles and problems for the concepts first articulated by Frege and Russell and developed by philosophers of language and linguists in the following century.

Core: Hom (2008)


Week 10: Slurs II

Given the difficulty of understanding slurs, should we consider the framework suggested by the work of Frege and Russell to be adequate for understanding language?

Core: Anderson and Lepore (2013)



Anderson, Luvell, and Ernie Lepore. 2013. ‘Slurring Words’. Noûs 47 (1):25–48.

Austin, J. L. 1975. How to Do Things with Words. Edited by J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bird, Alexander. 2002. ‘Illocutionary Silencing’. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 83 (1):1–15.

Blome-Tillmann, Michael. 2013. ‘Conversational Implicatures (and How to Spot Them)’. Philosophy Compass 8 (2):170–85.

Bolinger, Renée Jorgensen. 2017. ‘The Pragmatics of Slurs’. Noûs 51 (3):439–62.

Borg, Emma. 2007. ‘Minimalism Versus Contextualism in Semantics’. In Context-Sensitivity and Semantic Minimalism: New Essays on Semantics and Pragmatics, edited by Gerhard Preyer and Georg Peter, 339–59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Camp, Elisabeth. 2013. ‘Slurring Perspectives’. Analytic Philosophy 54 (3):330–49.

Davidson, Donald. 1967. ‘Truth and Meaning’. Synthese 17 (1):304–23.

Donnellan, Keith S. 1966. ‘Reference and Definite Descriptions’. The Philosophical Review 75 (3):281–304.

Frege, Gottlob. 1948. ‘Sense and Reference’. Translated by Max Black. The Philosophical Review 57 (3):209–30.

———. 1956. ‘The Thought: A Logical Inquiry’. Translated by P. T. Geach. Mind 65 (1):289–311.

Grice, Paul. 1989a. ‘Logic and Conversation’. In Studies in the Way of Words, 22–40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 1989b. ‘Meaning’. In Studies in the Way of Words, 213–23. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hom, Christopher. 2008. ‘The Semantics of Racial Epithets’. The Journal of Philosophy 105 (8):416–40.

———. 2010. ‘Pejoratives’. Philosophy Compass 5 (2):164–85.

Jacobson, Daniel. 1995. ‘Freedom of Speech Acts? A Response to Langton’. Philosophy & Public Affairs 24 (1):64–78.

Kissine, Mikhail. 2008. ‘Locutionary, Illocutionary, Perlocutionary’. Language and Linguistics Compass 2 (6):1189–1202.

Kripke, Saul. 1977. ‘Speaker’s Reference and Semantic Reference’. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 2 (1):255–76.

Langton, Rae. 1993. ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’. Philosophy & Public Affairs 22 (4):293–330.

Langton, Rae, and Jennifer Hornsby. 1998. ‘Free Speech and Illocution’. Legal Theory 4 (1):21–37.

Lycan, William G. 2008. Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Maitra, Ishani. 2009. ‘Silencing Speech’. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 39 (2):309–38.

Makin, Gideon. 2010. ‘Frege’s Distinction Between Sense and Reference’. Philosophy Compass 5 (2):147–63.

McGowan, Mary Kate. 2009. ‘Oppressive Speech’. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (3):389–407.

Neale, Stephen. 1992. ‘Paul Grice and the Philosophy of Language’. Linguistics and Philosophy 15 (5):509–59.

Potts, Christopher. 2007. ‘Into the Conventional-Implicature Dimension’. Philosophy Compass 2 (4):665–79.

Russell, Bertrand. 1905. ‘On Denoting’. Mind 14 (4):479–93.

Saul, Jennifer Mather. 2012. Lying, Misleading, and What Is Said: An Exploration in Philosophy of Language and in Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stokke, Andreas. 2013. ‘Lying, Deceiving, and Misleading’. Philosophy Compass 8 (4):348–59.

Strawson, Peter Frederick. 1950. ‘On Referring’. Mind 59 (235):320–44.

Wikforss, Åsa. 2008. ‘Semantic Externalism and Psychological Externalism’. Philosophy Compass 3 (1):158–81.

  1. Sadly, we won’t have time to discuss Donald Davidson’s work; see Lycan (2008, chap. 9) and Davidson (1967).