Philosophy of Communication

Thomas Hodgson

27 August 2019

This is an edited version of the syllabus for a course taught by Thomas Hodgson at University College Dublin in 2016.

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Communication with language is one of the things that makes us human. Not only does it allow for the complex communities we inhabit, but it plays a major role in our self conception as beings in the world. From a biological point of view this behaviour is unique. Other creatures communicate but nothing else has language in the way that we do.

In the 20th century philosophers working in the analytic tradition and linguists (and other cognitive scientists) have offered several insights into the nature of language and linguistic communication.

This course will introduce you to these insights and present some of the problems that motivate current research.

The course will provide the following learning outcomes:

  1. To understand several important theories about linguistic communication
  2. To be able to use that understanding to critically assess these theories
  3. To be able to apply that understanding to a range of problems in philosophy of language, metaethics, and epistemology


For each of the twelve weeks of the course there is a topic or question and one piece of core reading. There is also a list of one or more pieces of useful optional reading. You may also find the following general introductions to topics we will discuss helpful:

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is also an excellent resource. The following entries are particularly relevant to this course:

Several of the papers assigned are collected in Maite Ezcurdia, and Robert J. Stainton, eds. 2013. The Semantics–Pragmatics Boundary in Philosophy. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press.


Week 1

Bertrand Russell. 1905. ‘On Denoting’. Mind 14 (4): 479–93. doi:10.1093/mind/XIV.4.479.

Bertrand Russell argued that certain philosophical problems could be solved by identifying an underlying logical form which explained the logical properties of sentences while not being immediately obvious from their surface form.

Week 2

Peter Frederick Strawson. 1950. ‘On Referring’. Mind 59 (235): 320–44. doi:10.1093/mind/LIX.235.320.

Peter Strawson’s response to Russell focused on the difference between the meaning of a sentence and what the user of the sentence meant by uttering it. How to understand this distinction is a central question of contemporary theories of communication.

Keith Donnellan uses an example involving murder and an association of mental illness with violence. His point can be made with other examples.

Week 3

H. P. Grice. 1989. ‘Logic and Conversation’. In Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

H. P. Grice’s theory of the relationship between what is said and what is implicated has defined a subfield of linguistics and philosophy of language devoted to addressing the question raised by Russell and Strawson’s work.

Week 4

Jennifer M. Saul. 2002. ‘Speaker Meaning, What Is Said, and What Is Implicated’. Noûs 36 (2): 228–48. doi:10.1111/1468-0068.00369.

In this paper Jennifer Saul provides useful clarification of the scope and success of Grice’s project.

Week 5

Charles Travis. 1997. ‘Pragmatics’. In A Companion to the Philosophy of Language, edited by Bob C. Hale and Crispin Wright. Oxford: Blackwell.

The Gricean approach to meaning and communication neatly divides what is communicated into what is said and what is implicated. Many recent theorists have argued that the connection is much more messy and complicated than Grice acknowledges. Charles Travis’ paper provides a clear statement of the motivations for this idea.

Week 6

Anne Bezuidenhout. 2002. ‘Truth-Conditional Pragmatics’. Philosophical Perspectives 16: 105–34. doi:10.1111/1468-0068.36.s16.5.

Anne Bezuidenhout provides further arguments for thinking that what is said is less tightly constrained by linguistic meaning than Grice acknowledged.

Week 7

Emma Borg. 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. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The contextualist view defended by Travis, Bezuidenhout, and others has been rejected by some philosophers of language who worry that it makes a mystery of linguistic communication. Emma Borg provides a useful way to understand this debate.

Week 8

Robyn Carston. 2008. ‘Linguistic Communication and the Semantics/Pragmatics Distinction’. Synthese 165 (3): 321–45. doi:10.1007/s11229-007-9191-8.

This paper by Robyn Carston brings together several parts of the contextualism–minimalism debate.

Week 9

Jason Stanley. 2002. ‘Making It Articulated’. Mind & Language 17 (1-2): 149–68. doi:10.1111/1468-0017.00193.

Jason Stanley’s work on context sensitivity connects the issues more explicitly to the question of logical form and its usefulness in explaining communication.

Week 10

François Recanati. 2002. ‘Unarticulated Constituents’. Linguistics and Philosophy 25 (3): 299–345. doi:10.1023/A:1015267930510.

Sometimes there appear to be more things in contents than in the sentences that express them. This phenomenon is investigated by François Recanati by examining the relationship between logical form and what is said.

Week 11

Luisa Martí. 2006. ‘Unarticulated Constituents Revisited’. Linguistics and Philosophy 29 (2): 135–66. doi:10.1007/s10988-005-4740-4.

Luisa Martí’s response to François Recanati continues the debate about logical form and what is said.

Week 12

Marc D. Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and W. Tecumseh Fitch. 2002. ‘The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve?’ Science 298 (5598): 1569–79. doi:10.1126/science.298.5598.1569.

Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky, and Tecumseh Fitch present a theory of what the core faculty of human language is. Possession of this faculty is what separates (human) language users from (non-human) communicators.