Philosophy of language

Author: Billy Clark


Some thoughts on teaching Philosophy of Language within a Linguistics programme.

Table of contents


Philosophy of Language covers a wide range of types of philosophical investigation into the nature of language. In undergraduate programmes, it is usually taught as an optional course, allowing students to develop new skills and acquire new kinds of knowledge which also underpin and strengthen their understanding of linguistics in general.

The subject presents specific challenges for students and teachers. The range of topics is vast and connections between the approaches of different scholars are not always clear. Primary sources often make difficult reading and there are relatively few genuinely introductory textbooks to choose from. Linguistics students are not used to the methods of philosophy, and often feel unsure about what counts as 'doing' philosophy of language. This applies to all aspects of a course, from just thinking about the subject, through reading and researching, participating in class, and preparing work for assessment.

The subject is often confused with Philosophy of Linguistics, which considers the philosophical status of linguistic theories, and with Linguistic Philosophy, which explores the role of language in understanding philosophical concepts. A good starting point for a course is to sketch these three areas and to make clear what range of topics the course will concentrate on.

Some courses select a wide range of topics. Others focus on a small number of questions, or even just one. These might include relatively general questions, such as what it means to 'know' a language or to acquire a concept, or what a language or a concept is. Some courses will be explicitly related to subdisciplines of linguistics, considering for example what is meant by a syntactic 'rule' or what role the notion of truth plays in accounting for linguistic meaning. Some courses will focus on the work of one or more thinkers or one or more approaches to the philosophy of language.

It is important to address explicitly some of the difficulties the subject poses for linguistics students. This will involve considering what makes an approach 'philosophical' and how this differs from work in other areas of linguistics.

The course will need to discuss explicitly the range of methods to be used and may well focus closely on a number of these, such as the use of thought experiments, or conceptual analysis. One method familiar to linguistics students is the use of linguistic examples to illustrate points and to provide evidence. Lecture-like teaching, where the lecturer addresses a large number of students, is useful for elucidating difficult concepts, but there should also be a wide range of seminar and tutorial activities, including individual and group discussion, work on specific problem-solving tasks, and presentations of reading or specific arguments. Using a range of activities is particularly helpful to students who find the reading and the new methodology difficult.

Assessment tends to be based on essay writing. It should also include problem-solving tasks and exercises, allowing students to demonstrate their ability with new methods, and may also include brief definitional questions to test coverage of the subject and levels of understanding.

The choice of textbook or textbooks is partly determined by the choice of topics. Often, a course will use a number of selected readings rather than one or more general textbooks. As a starting point, three general introductory books are listed in the bibliography.


Blackburn, S. (1984). Spreading The Word. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lycan, W. (1999). Philosophy of Language. London: Routledge.

Miller, A. (1998). Philosophy of Language. London: UCL Press.

Related links

dmoz Open Directory Project: links to resources on Philosophy of Language, available at

Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: survey article by Mark Crimmins, available at

Ryckman, Thomas C.: links to resources on Philosophy of Language, available at

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