PHIL 745/LING 712.001 – Advanced Studies in Philosophy of Language
Instructor: Alex Worsnip. This course meets R 1:00 – 3:30 p.m. in CW 213.
Context-sensitivity, in the sense we’ll be focused on in this class, is the phenomenon whereby the “semantic value” or “semantic content” (or, speaking more colloquially but somewhat inaccurately, meaning) of an expression (word, phrase, sentence, etc.) depends upon the conversational context in which it is uttered. Terms that are very widely held to be context-sensitive include indexicals (like ‘I’, ‘here’, and ‘now’) and gradable adjectives (such as ‘tall’). More controversially, over the last few decades, numerous philosophers have advanced contextualist accounts of terms at the heart of epistemological and ethical theorizing, such as ‘knows’ and ‘ought’, and have held that such accounts resolve or dissolve various substantive epistemological and (meta)ethical puzzles. Thus, context-sensitivity is an extremely important topic for philosophers working in a wide variety of subfields. Unfortunately, however, it is poorly understood by many (though not all!) philosophers working outside of philosophy of language, with even some of the published literature on contextualism in epistemology and (meta)ethics being marked by elementary confusions and misunderstandings. This course aims, among other things, to help you avoid this fate.
The course is divided into two parts. The first part gives you a grounding in some of the key theoretical work on context-sensitivity in philosophy of language and semantics. We’ll examine key theories of context-sensitivity from David Kaplan, David Lewis, Angelika Kratzer, Robert Stalnaker, and others, and also consider some challenges to the (largely orthodox) view that linguistic context-sensitivity is widespread, such as Cappelen & Lepore’s “semantic minimalism” and John MacFarlane’s “assessment-relativism”. In the second part of the course, we’ll turn to ways in which contextualist theories have been deployed (and criticized) in epistemology and (meta)ethics. The hope is that, armed with the theoretical understanding of context-sensitivity that you’ve developed in the first part of the course, you’ll be in a much better position to understand and evaluate the substantive uses to which contextualism has been put.