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Philosophy of Language Seminar

PHIL 642b Philosophy of Language:
Pragmatics and semantics
Keith DeRose
Michael Nelson

Yale University

Note (see schedule below) that there is a brief reading assignment that should be done before the first meeting of the seminar

Course Description

It’s really quite remarkable. I put some marks on a paper or make some acoustic blasts out of my mouth with the intention that they cause certain thoughts in your head, you see or hear them, and those thoughts I intended appear, as it were, in your head. A theory of linguistic communication is a theory of just such phenomena. A theory of linguistic communication will have (at least) two sub-theories: A semantic theory and a pragmatic theory. A semantic theory will say what the sentence that the speaker uttered meant–or, more accurately, what was said by that sentence with respect to the context realized by the speaker’s utterance. A pragmatic theory will say what the speaker meant by saying what she did. This course is, in large part, an investigation into this distinction; it is, that is, an investigation into the infamous semantic-pragmatic distinction.

Here’s a bit easier-to-swallow taste of the sort of thing we’ll be doing. Sometimes a true semantic theory assigns different contents to the same sentence relative to different contexts (corresponding to different occasions of utterance). Suppose, for example, that you and I both utter the sentence ‘I think Grice got most things right’. Then what you say when you utter that sentence is different from what I say when I utter it. This is a matter of the semantics of the word ‘I’ being sensitive to the speaker who uses it. This is an instance of context-sensitivity, and it is a semantic phenomenon in that it affects what is said. Contrast this with the following sort of phenomena. You ask me why the papers that were on your desk are now spread across the room. I reply by saying, “The window is open.” By saying what I did (to wit, that the window is open), I meant that the breeze from the open window blew the papers off the desk and across the room. The information I meant is, intuitively, not part of the meaning or semantics of the sentence I utter; it is not what is said. This is an instance of a pragmatic implicature, and it a purely pragmatic phenomenon. Other utterances of that same sentence seem to convey different pieces of information. (For example, suppose that you ask me whether I locked up the house securely. I utter the above sentence.)

One of the most basic issues we’ll be trying to understand is what the difference is between these two sorts of explanations of phenomena in which different utterances of the same sentence intuitively communicate different pieces of information. The hope is that we can demarcate this distinction in such a way as to make progress in several topics distinct from the pragmatic-semantic distinction itself. One such topic is the interpretation of natural language quantifiers, and in particular the definite article ‘the’; another is indicative conditionals. We shall briefly look at these issues at the end of the semester.

The syllabus is very ambitious. It is almost certain that we will not discuss every paper. In most cases, we will focus on just one of the readings for each week.

Required texts

–Paul Grice, 1991, Studies in the Way of Words, Harvard University Press (SWW)

–Steven Davis, 1991, Pragmatics: A reader, Oxford University Press (P)

–Course readings (CR)


–1 short paper (5 pages). Due 25 Feb.
–1 term paper proposal and bibliography. Due 8 April
–1 term paper (15-20 pages). Due 6 May (end of reading week) Class attendance and participation (which, size permitting, may include a short presentation) is required.

It is expected that all students conform to the code of academic integrity and that any work submitted be one’s own. DO NOT PLAGIARIZE. Any and all suspected cases of plagiarism shall be vigorously investigated and all confirmed cases shall be reported to University officials. Be safe: Always properly cite quotations and acknowledge external sources you have consulted.

Topics and Schedule of Readings and Assignments


Note that there is a reading for the first meeting.  If at all possible, come to class on Jan. 14 having read Malcolm’s paper (using a Yale internet connection, you should be able to access it by using the below link), and having thought about these questions: What verdict does Malcolm reach about Moore’s claim when Moore “says in a philosophical context ‘I know that that’s a tree'”? Does Malcolm think Moore’s claim is true, or false, or what?  What reasons does Malcolm give for reaching the verdict he renders?  Do you agree with Malcolm’s position?  How might Malcolm’s defense of his position be best resisted?

14 Jan: Malcolm, ‘Defending Common Sense’ (JSTOR link)
21 Jan: Grice ‘Logic and conversation’, pp. 3-21 (SWW)
–Grice ‘Further notes on logic and conversation’, pp. (SWW)
OPTIONAL: Grice ‘Prolegomena’, pp. 3-20 (SWW)

28 Jan: Kaplan ‘On the logic of demonstratives’, pp. 137-45 (P)
–Lewis ‘Scorekeeping in a language game’, pp. 416-27 (P)
–Stalnaker ‘Pragmatics’ (CR)

4 Feb: Searle ‘Indirect speech acts’ pp. 265-77 (P)
— Horn and Bayer ‘Short-circuited implicature: A negative contribution’ (CR)
OPTIONAL: Morgan ‘Two types of convention in indirect speech acts’ (P)
OPTIONAL: Clark and Carlson ‘Speech acts and hearers’ beliefs’, pp. 177-98 (P)
OPTIONAL: Clark ‘Responding to indirect speech acts’, pp. 199-230 (P)

11 Feb: Carston ‘Implicature, explicature, and truth-theoretic semantics (CR)
Stanley ‘Making it articulated (CR)
OPTIONAL: Carston ‘Explicature and semantics’ (CR)
OPTIONAL: Wilson and Sperber ‘Inference and implicature’, pp. 377-96 (P)

18 Feb: Stanley ‘Context and logical form’ (CR)
Stanley and King ‘Semantics, pragmatics, and the role of semantic content (CR)

25 Feb: Saul ‘Speaker meaning, what is said, and what is implicated’ (CR)
Nelson ‘When is an expression context-sensitive? (CR)
BACKGROUND: Grice ‘Presupposition and conversational implicature’ (SWW)
BACKGROUND: Grice ‘Retrospective epilogue’, pp. 339-86 (SWW)

4 March: Harnish ‘Logical form and implicature’, pp. 316-64 (P)

25 March: Horn ‘Toward a new taxonomy for pragmatic inference: Q- and R-based implicature’ (CR)
OPTIONAL: Atlas and Levinson ‘It-clefts, informativeness, and logical form: Radical pragmatics’ (CR)
OPTIONAL: Bach ‘Conversational impliciture’ (CR)

1 April: Levinson ‘The three levels of meaning’ (CR)
–Bezuidenhout ‘Generalized conversational implicatures and default pragmatic inference’ (CR)

8 April: Grice ‘Indicative conditionals’, pp. 58-85 SWW
Jackson ‘On assertion and indicative conditionals
–Stalnaker ‘Indicative conditionals’ (CR)
–Optional: DeRose, sections 1.3 and 1.4 of “Assertion, Knowledge and Context” (links: word, pdf)

15 April: Donnellan ‘Reference and definite descriptions (CR)
–Kripke ‘Speaker’s reference and semantic reference’ (CR)

22 April: Neale Descriptions, chpt 3 (CR)
–Recanati Direct Reference, chpt 15 (cr)

Helpful links

A volume of Mind and Language dedicated to pragmatics.
Nicholas Asher has a number of interesting papers on discourse semantics.
Kent Bach has a number of good papers on pragmatics on his webpage.
Robyn Carston’s homepage has a number of very good online papers on Relevance theory. There is also a link to an online journal with a number of very good pragmatics papers, mostly by Relevance theorists.
Mike Harnish has some useful things on pragmatics on his webpage, including a very good bibliography.
Larry Horn‘s webpage has some very nice papers on it.
François Recanati has a wealth of papers on pragmatics and context-sensitivity on his webpage. Dan Sperber, one of the originators of Relevance theory, has a number of papers on his webpage.
Richmond Thomason has a wealth of material on pragmatics on his webpage.

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