Philosophy of Language

You have read: Ferdinand de Saussure (1916), excerpts; Plato’s Cratylus. Ferdinand de Saussure tries to define linguistics as a science, and in doing so, he defines linguistic signs and characterises them as being arbitrary, a claim that is under discussion in Plato’s Cratylus. 

You have read: Glymour (2015) part I, ch. 1; Moravcsik (2006), ch. 1; Fasold and Connor-Linton (2006), ch. 4. Ferdinand de Saussure claims that language is a system. With Moravcsik (2006), ch. 1 and Fasold and Connor-Linton (2006), ch. 4 (and also with your previous reading of Fasold and Connor-Linton, 2006, ch. 1, 2, 12) you get a broad overview of the sort of rules that govern signs in natural languages. You see that these rules constrain chains of sounds, chains of morphemes, chains of words, all of which is necessary to arrive at a meaningful sentence. 

You have read: Aristotle’s De interpretatione 1-9(35), Glymour (2015), part I, ch. 2; and you have had a quick overview of propositional and first-order logic (relying a.o. on Gamut, 1991, part I, ch. 2; Glymour, 2015, part I, ch. 5; Gamut, 1991, part I, ch. 3, excerpts; and Sara Uckelman’s videos from the “What is logic?” series). In Aristotle’s DI, 1-9(35), we get very explicit claims concerning linguistic signs, language and meaning, a foundational view of how declarative sentences can be categorised and grouped according to various sorts relations, most notably, (in)compatibility and deduction. There is also the stage-setting for his theory of demonstration and proof introduced in Glymour (2015), part I, ch. 2. Aristotle’s syllogistics is a term logic that studies such relations for specific sorts of sentences, very important in classification and in the construc- tion of theories: universal and particular sentences. Propositional logic (a.k.a. Boolean logic) and first-order logic (which captures Aristotle’s syllostistics and much more) are formal languages permitting the study of (in)compatibility and deduction relations in a systematic way, for atomic and compound propositions constructed obtained using a small number of logical connectives, and for quan- tified propositions, respectively. 

Below you will find study questions and prompts. Answers of max. 500 words each should be given to each question. Each answer should be given in a few (at least one, maybe not more than four) well-constructed paragraphs. Use footnotes only if strictly needed. Add bibliographic references if you add quotations of the original texts, very close paraphrases, or if you somewhere rely on an interpretation or idea found in secondary literature. The word limit per answer excludes footnotes, quotations from primary sources and bibliographic references. 

While these questions and prompts seem to concern only a few of the readings indicated above, the whole sequence of mandatory readings provides you with a conceptual scaffolding allowing you to produce sound and solid arguments. 

A word on style: each of your answers should stand as a comprehensible piece of writing. Do not assume the reader reads the question or prompt before she reads your answer. 



  1. In 383a-427d Plato argues against Hermogenes’s extreme conventionalism. In 387c5 he gives what we might call “the truth and falsity argument”.
    Socrates: Tell me this. Is there something you call speaking the truth and something you call speaking a falsehood?
    The crucial step is taken in 387c6d.
    Socrates: And if speaking or saying is a sort of action, one that is about things, isn’t using names also a sort of action? Hermogenes: Yes.
    Socrates: And didn’t we see that actions aren’t in relation to us but have a special nature of their own?
    With the tools in Glymour, part I, ch. 1, reconstruct the argument and discuss whether, in your view, it is a valid or an invalid proof. (Consider as well whether it might be an enthymeme or a fallacy.)
  2. In 434b-435d Socrates cuts extreme naturalism short, and instead rein- troduces an element of convention to how names relate to the things they designate, he recognises a role to usage and to the community. Reconstruct the argument.
    At first sight, one may think that Saussure’s position is an outright rejec- tion of the view Socrates leads us to admit. What do you think? Is it an outright rejection?
  3. In Part one, ch. 1, Saussure (1916) defines the sign, a theoretical entity which does not unite a name and a thing, a double-entity associating arbitrarily a sound-image and a concept. Reconstruct the Saussurean definition of a linguistic sign, taking into account its defining properties. Discuss how these properties coincide or differ from how Socrates in the Cratylus thought of names.
  4. Consider this claim by Aristotle:
    “Now spoken sounds are symbols of affections in the soul, and written marks symbols of spoken sounds. And just as written marks are not the same for all men, neither are spoken sounds. But what these are in the first place signs of—affections of the soul—are the same for all; and what these affections are likenesses of—actual things—are also the same.” (Aristotle, DI, 1)
    Give an argument for why, from this and other passages in DI, one can conclude that Aristotle’s idea of the linguistic sign is, in various respects, different from Saussure’s idea of the linguistic sign.
  5. Consider this claim by Aristotle:
    “A name is a spoken sound significant by convention, without time, none of whose parts is significant in separation. [...]
    I say ‘by convention’ because no name is a name naturally but only when it has become a symbol.” (Aristotle, DI, 2)
    Does Aristotle agree with Saussure’s idea that linguistic signs are arbi- trary?

6. Consider this claim by Aristotle: 

“Every sentence is significant [...], but not every sentence is a statement- making sentence, but only those in which there is truth or falsity.” (Aris- totle, DI, 4) 

So, among all significant sentences, only some of them might be true or false. So what’s the criterion of significance for sentences which in which there is not truth or falsity? 

Here are some notes to bear in mind: 

  • Read questions and prompts attentively. Task achievement is a must.
  • Think of each answer as an argument, think of each paragraph as dealing, one step at a time, of the claims in the argument.
    (For each paragraph, the topic sentence is the conclusion you want to arrive at; the rest of the paragraph lays down the premises and chains them up in a neat piece of reasoning.)
    Glymour (2015), part I, ch. 1, is essential as background reading for you to be able to construct paragraphs, and sets thereof, as arguments.
    Provisos and qualms should be included if they are crucial to the argument.
  • The target audience of your essay is an undergraduate student who is not taking the course. Thus you cannot assume your audience has read what you have read. Therefore, you have to reconstruct positions and claims so that a reader unfamiliar with the texts can understand your thesis, follow your argument, and be persuaded by your essay.
  • Think for yourself. Reading secondary literature is useful, but you shouldn’t appeal to it as a shortcut.
  • Add bibliographic references when you add quotations of the original texts, very close paraphrases (using “cf.”), or if you somewhere rely on an interpretation or idea found in secondary literature you may find. Failing to do so amounts to plagiarism.
  • Use footnotes if needed. Remember that the average reader skips foot- notes, so make sure you don’t put in footnotes anything required for the reader to be convinced by your argument.
  • Edit and proofread each answer.

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