History and Philosophy of Linguistics (LING 583)

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Instructor: Dean Pettit. This course meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:30 – 4:45 p.m.

This is a graduate-level course in the philosophy of linguistics (open to advanced undergraduates). The philosophy of linguistics is a branch of philosophy of science concerned with various issues about the foundations of the study of language. Like linguistics itself, the philosophy of linguistics is dominated by the work of Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has argued that linguistics (the study of grammar) should be conceived of as the study of a certain cognitive subsystem of the human mind, what he calls the language faculty. This would make linguistics a branch of psychology. This conception of the study of grammar underlies the explosive development of the theory of grammar over the last five decades. Yet Chomsky’s conception of the enterprise is contentious and has been the subject of much philosophical criticism over the years. The aim of this course is to explore the various threads of this philosophical debate. Here are some of the questions we will be concerned with. What is the nature of language? Is grammar in some important respect a psychological phenomenon? Is the study of grammar properly thought of as a science? What are the data for the study of grammar? Is there an innate universal grammar? What is the relationship between innateness and modularity? What is logical form? Is competence in a language properly thought of as some kind of knowledge? Does our competence in the grammar of a language represent anything?

Since the course concerns the philosophy of linguistics, it would be good to have some background in either philosophy or linguistics. The expectation is that there will be students from both backgrounds in the class. My aim will be to bridge the gap by teaching the linguistics students some philosophical methodology and the philosophy students some basic linguistics. This should put everyone in the best position to get something out of the course.

Note: This is not a course in the philosophy of language. The philosophy of language is concerned with a range of first-order issues about language, predominantly issues about truth, meaning and reference. The philosophy of linguistics is concerned with philosophical (meta-level) issues about the study of grammar (principally the study of syntax). Again, think of it as a branch of the philosophy of science concerned with the science of linguistics (with one of the issues being whether linguistics could be a science).

Dean Pettit’s webpage