1st Edition

Philosophy of Language 50 Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Thought Experiments

By Michael P. Wolf Copyright 2023
    392 Pages
    by Routledge

    392 Pages
    by Routledge

    This book offers readers a collection of 50 short chapter entries on topics in the philosophy of language. Each entry addresses a paradox, a longstanding puzzle, or a major theme that has emerged in the field from the last 150 years, tracing overlap with issues in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, ethics, political philosophy, and literature. Each of the 50 entries is written as a piece that can stand on its own, though useful connections to other entries are mentioned throughout the text. Readers can open the book and start with almost any of the entries, following themes of greatest interest to them. Each entry includes recommendations for further reading on the topic. 

    Philosophy of Language: 50 Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Thought Experiments is useful as a standalone textbook, or can be supplemented by additional readings that instructors choose. The accessible style makes it suitable for introductory level through intermediate undergraduate courses, as well as for independent learners, or even as a reference for more advanced students and researchers. 

    Key Features:

    • Uses a problem-centered approach to philosophy of language (rather than author- or theory-centered) making the text more inviting to first-time students of the subject.
    • Offers stand-alone chapters, allowing students to quickly understand an issue and giving instructors flexibility in assigning readings to match the themes of the course.
    • Provides up-to-date recommended readings at the end of each chapter, or about 500 sources in total, amounting to an extensive review of the literature on each topic.


    General Introduction

    Part I: Big picture questions


    1. ‘I am no tree! I am an Ent!’
    (What is a language? Does it require speakers like us?)

    2. Ideal language or ordinary languages?
    (When considering language, should we strive to construct an ideal version of language, or strive to understand languages as we already find them?)

    3. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
    (If natural languages deeply influence the forms that our thinking takes, could they be so different that we "live" in substantially "different worlds"?)

    4. Conventions
    (How do the social conventions of a language emerge, and how fundamental are they to language?)

    Part II: Early Analytic Philosophy and Pragmatism


    5. Frege on sense and reference
    (How can two expressions refer to the same things, yet have different meanings?)

    6. Russell on ‘the present King of France’
    (How can an expression that refers to nothing be meaningful?)

    7. Peirce on making ideas clear
    (How does the meaning of an expression or sentence relate to our practical concerns about coping with the world we experience?)

    8. ‘Pittsburgh is west of Philadelphia’ is true
    (Does language have a special sort of correspondence with the world, or is it fundamentally about our interests?)

    9. ‘All bachelors are unmarried males’
    (Are there sentences that are true entirely in virtue of the meanings of their words?)

    10. ‘Gavagai!’
    (How could you translate another community’s language from scratch?)

    Part III: Wittgenstein on Rule-Following and Private Language


    11. Wittgenstein on following a rule
    (How is it possible for us to follow rules governing the meanings of words in the languages we speak?)

    12. The private language argument
    (Would it be possible for someone to speak a language that only they could ever understand?)

    13. Ayer on Robinson Crusoe
    (Could someone isolated from all other speakers continue to use and develop a language on their own?)

    14. ‘That is green’
    (Do the sentences of the language we speak have meanings unto themselves, or do they become meaningful only with the whole of a language?)

    15. ‘Kripkenstein’
    (Do Wittgenstein’s rule-following arguments imply that there are no facts about meaning at all?)

    Part IV: Semantic Paradoxes


    16. When what is isn’t, and what isn’t is (The Liar Paradox)
    (Can there be sentences or sets of sentences to which it is impossible to assign truth-values consistently?)

    17. Russell’s paradox
    (Can there be contradictions that emerge from the very notion of a set?)

    18. Berry’s paradox
    (Can there be paradoxes of reference, as well as truth?)

    19. Yablo’s paradox
    (Can there be paradoxes that don’t involve self-reference?)

    20. ‘True, false, and whatever else you’ve got!’
    (Can there be true contradictions?)

    Part V: Context-Sensitivity


    21. ‘I can’t get there from here’
    (Can noun phrases designate different things in different contexts?)

    22. ‘Micah is getting so big!’
    (How much of the language we use is context-sensitive? Could everything we say be context-sensitive?)

    23. Epistemic contextualism
    (Does the meaning of the word ‘know’ change with context?)

    24. ‘Every man who owns a donkey beats it’
    (How do indefinite descriptions work with pronouns?)

    25. ‘I’
    (Do certain indexicals such as the word ‘I’ have special significance, beyond their designation?)

    26. ‘You’
    (Are second-person expressions like ‘you’ essential to natural languages?)

    27. ‘We’
    (How do collective assertions like "We the people…" work when they are not necessarily true reports of everyone’s attitudes?)

    Part VI: Speech Acts and Pragmatics


    28. ‘Truly, you have a dizzying intellect’
    (How can we discern the meaning a speaker conveys when it is not said explicitly?)

    29. ‘The present King of France...’ (yet again)
    (What do we presuppose in making an assertion?)

    30. ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’
    (Can we perform a speech act by apparently performing a different speech act?)

    31. Silencing
    (Are there speech acts that systematically undermine the possibility of other speech acts?)

    32. Jokes
    (What do jokes say, if we’re not reporting facts?)

    33. Slurs
    (What do they do, concretely speaking?)

    34. If you have been scanning the titles, looking for the entry with all the dirty words, it’s this one
    (What makes profanity offensive? Is it always offensive?)

    35. Propaganda
    (When should we think of texts and speech acts as manipulating us for political ends?)

    Part VII: Lingering Issues About Meaning


    36. Metaphor
    (How does what is said in a metaphor depend on the literal meanings of its component expressions?)

    37. The Frege-Geach problem
    (How should we understand the meanings of words and sentences that are overtly action-guiding?)

    38. Something on vagueness
    (Is the apparent vagueness of some terms a real feature of their meaning, and if so, how can we account for it?)

    39. Meanings of fictional names
    (Can there be referents and true claims for things that only exist in fiction?)

    40. ‘Londres est jolie...’
    (Can two beliefs about the same referent differ in their truth because they differ in the names they use?)

    Part VIII: Naturalism and Externalism


    41. The poverty of the stimulus
    (How do children acquire a language so quickly, and with so little input?)

    42. ‘If I could talk to the animals…’
    (When can we ascribe thoughts and meanings to non-human animals?)

    43. Broca’s Area
    (To what degree can linguistic competence be assigned to a specific part of the brain?)

    44. ‘Hello world!’
    (Could digital computers count as speakers of natural languages?)

    45. Natural language and evolution
    (Why did humans evolve to have the ability to speak languages at all?)

    46. What if Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet?
    (Do names and natural kind terms have complex meanings, or do they simply designate?)

    47. Reference and chains of communication
    (What makes a name uniquely refer to someone, assuming it does so?)

    48. Adventures on Twin Earth
    (How do we fix the reference of natural kind terms, and how does this affect their meanings?)

    49. Empty kind terms
    (What do the names of things that don’t exist mean?)

    50. Could there ever be ‘unicorns’?
    (Could fictional kinds of things become real kinds of things?)


    Michael P. Wolf is Professor of Philosophy at Washington and Jefferson College. He writes on topics in philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaethics. His published works include The Normative and the Natural (2016) with Jeremy Koons, and numerous articles in journals such as Philosophical Studies, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and Philosophical Investigations.