suggested paper topics

Here are some suggestions for topics for your research paper (3500-4000 words, due as an e-mail attachment by November 28th (30%)). You are encouraged to develop your own topic. You might want to do a variation on one of the ones listed here.

A  2-page outline of what you propose to write your term paper on, due as an e-mail attachment by October 17th. You should sketch how your argument is going to go, and what sources you have lined up. (5%)

1. What beliefs about language are implicit in the doctrines of the Kabbalists? Compare and contrast with modern ideas of language and its relation to reality.

2. Describe and discuss the rise and fall of the idea that there was an original “mother tongue”, the ancestor of all the world’s languages. What lessons can be learned from this about the nature of language?

3. Discuss the role of nationalism in the search for an original mother tongue. Does the fact that, for instance, the Nazis appealed to the existence of an original Indo-European language to validate their ideal of an Aryan race invalidate the idea of Indo-European?

4. Discuss the idea of a universal language as a means to peace, by reference to the example of one or more of (i) Nicholas of Cusa’s work, (ii) Raymond Lull’s combinatorial art,  or (iii) Postel’s ideal language. What difficulties are there in constructing a language to be comprehensible to anyone, no matter what their tongue?

5. Can symbols directly convey their meanings? Discuss with reference to attempts to interpret the Egyptian hieroglyphic script, or by reference to Sebeok’s attempt to make signs that even aliens could interpret as alerting them to the danger of nuclear waste buried under the ground. What do these attempts tell us about the nature of language?

6. What can we learn from the attempts in the seventeenth century to construct an a priori philosophical language? Research further the attempt of one of either Wilkins, Dalgarno or Lodwick, and use it as a case-study to illustrate the aims, successes and failures of such an approach to language.

7. What was Leibniz trying to achieve with his universal characteristic? Discuss the connection between his idea of a lexicon of real characters that would enable blind thought, and modern developments, such as the invention of computers.

8. Discuss and evaluate Frege’s theory of sense and reference (nominatum, Bedeutung).

9. Discuss the impact of Russell’s theory of definite descriptions on the philosophy of language, and evaluate it in relation to the criticisms of Strawson and Martinich.

10. What was the point of the verifiability criterion of meaning? Describe and evaluate the successes and failures of logical positivism/empiricism as a philosophy of language.

11. Describe and evaluate Quine’s claim that empiricism had hitherto been based on two dogmas, that of the analytic/synthetic distinction, and that of reductionism.

12. Is a computer language a language, or only a weak analogue of one? Discuss with reference to proposed criteria for what is to count as a language.

13. What is the relation of language to thought? Are our thoughts determined by the language we have at our disposal, as Orwell assumed in his novel 1984? Discuss with reference to the criticisms of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis.

14. Is there such a thing as mentalese, a language of thought (proposed by Steven Pinker) that is prior to written and spoken language? Discuss the views of Pinker and criticisms of his views.

15. What is the relation of language to logic? Discuss with reference to Searle’s views and/or Grice’s notion of conversational implicature.

16. Discuss the prospects for a causal theory of reference. What problems is such a theory designed to resolve, and how well does it manage to achieve this?

17. Describe Wittgenstein's "Private Language Argument". Is it a defensible view? DIscuss with reference to modern commentaries on the subject.

© Richard T. W. Arthur 2011