Module Details

PY950-7-SP-CO: Topics In Philosophy

Year: 2017/18
Department: Philosophy
Essex credit: 20
ECTS credit: 10
Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students: Yes
Full Year Module Available to Study Abroad / Exchange Students for a Single Term: No
Outside Option: No
Comments: This is an MA level module. MA students from other courses may take this module as an option, provided they have the prior approval from their department and the Module Supervisor. This module is compulsory for students on the Continental Philosophy pathway of the MA Philosophy.

Supervisor: Dr Marie Guillot
Teaching Staff: Dr Marie Guillot
Contact details: Initial contact is Wendy Williams, Graduate Administrator (School of Philosophy & Art History), email, tel 01206 872705.

Module is taught during the following terms
Autumn Spring Summer

Module Description

Module Outline (updated March 2017)

This year, we will focus on contemporary philosophy of language. Our overarching theme will be "Meaning in Context". We will discuss some fundamental issues in the field, including the nature of meaning, understanding, and communication, the relation between language and the mind, the dynamics of conversation, and most particularly the impact of the context in which language is used.

Central questions include: What is it for a word or a sentence - which in themselves are simply noises or marks on a page - to mean something? What is it for a word to refer to something in the world? What is it for a sentence to express someone's thought?
More specific questions which might be considered include the following: What is the meaning of a name? How do descriptions work? What is the meaning of an 'indexical' expression, like "I", "now" and "this"? Is speaking a form of action, carried out in the form of different 'speech-acts' - bets, promises, orders, questions, etc.? What are the respective roles of what we explicitly say and what we merely suggest or 'implicate' (Grice) in a conversation? Can the context in which communication takes place affect the content of a particular utterance of a sentence? Conversely, can the language we use have an impact on the wider context in which it is used, particularly in the case of propaganda, oppressive speech and hate speech?

Addressing these questions will require reading both foundational works from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and present-day research in philosophy of language and semantics, informed by empirical research in cognitive science. We will dwell particularly on Frege, Russell, Kripke, Austin, Searle, Perry, Grice and Sperber.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this seminar, students are expected to be able to:
display in-depth knowledge of the relevant topic;
display detailed knowledge of the conteporary philosophy texts studied in the module;
develop a critical assessment of at least some of the views examined in class and articulate their own views on the same topic;
write a well-researched paper on a subject selected within the field of contemporary philosophy and in relation to the module's main topic.

Learning and Teaching Methods

1 x one-hour lecture, followed by 1 x one-hour seminar each week, except Week 8 which is Reading Week.


100 per cent Coursework Mark


1 x 4,000 word essay (80%); Preparation mark: 5 x weekly reading questions (15%); Participation mark (5%).

Other information

Weighting = 100% coursework


  • Bibliography (updated March 2017)
  • Textbook and collection of key texts:
  • Many of the key texts we will discuss in class (and much more) can be found in the following edited collection:
  • • Martinich. A. P. (ed.) Philosophy of Language. Oxford University Press, 5th ed. (2008) or 6th ed. (2012).
  • The following textbook provides a useful survey of some of the key issues:
  • • Morris, Michael, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • For further reading, you are encouraged to look at the following pieces, available in the Martinich collection except when full references are given. (Not all of these texts will be discussed in class, but they provide some useful background.)
  • • Austin, J. L. (1961). “Performative Utterances”.
  • • Frege, G. (1892). “On Sinn and Bedeutung”.
  • • Grice, P. (1957). “Meaning”.
  • • Grice, P. (1975) “Logic and conversation”.
  • • Kripke, S. (1972, 1980) Naming and Necessity, lectures I and II.
  • • Langton, R and West, C. (1999). "Scorekeeping in a pornographic language game". Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol 77.
  • • Lewis, D. (1979) “Scorekeeping in a Language-Game.” Journal of Philosophical Logic 8, pp. 339-59.
  • • Nunberg, G. (forthcoming). "The Social Life of Slurs". In D. Fogal, D. Harris & M. Moss (eds.), New Work on Speech Acts. Oxford University Press.
  • • Perry, J. (1979). “The Problem of the Essential Indexical.”
  • • Russell, B. (1919). “Descriptions”.
  • • Stanley, Jason (2015). How Propaganda Works. Princeton.
  • • Waldron, J. (2014). The Harm in Hate Speech. Harvard University Press. (Chapter 1)
  • An updated bibliography will be available in the module description on Moodle at the start of term.

Further information