Language is a phenomenally important and powerful device that lies at the heart of human life. (Try to imagine what life would be like without it.) Yet it is utterly perplexing. Most of the meaningful sentences you encounter (e.g. this one) you have never encountered before, yet you understand them effortlessly. (Well, most of them). How does this work? What are linguistic expressions’ ‘meanings’, and what is it to understand them? These questions lie right at the heart of 20th century philosophy. Much of the century’s most important philosophy is concerned with linguistic meaning, and a great deal of recent work in other areas of philosophy is influenced deeply by theses in the philosophy of language.
Although we’ll begin with a quick look at accounts of meaning associated with Locke and Mill, and then look in more detail at those of Frege and Russell, our approach will be problem-based rather than historical. As well as Fregean and Russellian theories, we’ll also cover some of the work of Wittgenstein, Quine, Grice, Kripke, Evans, Chomsky, Davidson and others.