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Language and Metaphysics (Level 6)


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Dr Florian Steinberger
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (40%) and 2000-word essay (60%)

Module description

A motivating idea behind many theories of linguistic meaning is that understanding a (declarative) sentence is knowing its ‘truth conditions’: that is, what the world would have to be like for the sentence to be true. This idea suggests a close connection between language and reality that has motivated work in both the philosophy of language and metaphysics since the end of the nineteenth century.

In this module we explore the connection by examining the mechanisms by which words designate objects in the world and what those objects must be like for us to make true claims about them, addressing a selection of questions such as:

  • In virtue of what does the use of a proper name, such as ‘Sarah’, pick out a single individual bearing that name?
  • Do names have a meaning apart from their function of designating specific individuals?
  • If ‘Hamlet is a Dane’ is true, does that mean that Hamlet exists?
  • How do we determine whether something exists?
  • Are there different existence and identity conditions corresponding to different kinds of objects, such as material, social or fictional objects?

In addressing these and other questions, we will introduce you to classic arguments by such philosophers as Frege, Russell and Kripke, as well as to contemporary approaches.

Indicative syllabus

  • Reference and truth conditions
  • Semantic content
  • Theories of proper names
  • Definite descriptions
  • Causal theories of reference
  • Existence and nonexistence
  • Identity conditions
  • Material objects
  • Social objects
  • Fictional objects

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand different accounts of reference and intentionality in philosophy of language and metaphysics
  • understand different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by contributors to debates over the meanings and functions of proper names, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • undertake thorough critical analyses of different philosophical theories of reference and truth conditions, and evaluate the outcomes
  • critically challenge philosophical accounts of intentionality, identity, objecthood and existence.