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Review of  Reading Philosophy of Language

Reviewer: Magda Dumitru
Book Title: Reading Philosophy of Language
Book Author: Jennifer Hornsby Guy Longworth
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
Issue Number: 17.928

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EDITORS: Hornsby, Jennifer; Longworth, Guy
TITLE: Reading Philosophy of Language
SUBTITLE: Selected Texts with Interactive Commentary
SERIES: Reading Philosophy
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2005

Magda Dumitru, independent scholar

''Reading Philosophy of Language'' belongs to a successful series of
introductory books to philosophy, offering a refreshing, hands-on
approach to texts written by reputed scholars in the field. As editors
Jennifer Hornsby and Guy Longworth mention in their ''Introduction'',
the volume is intended for the use of students wishing to know what it
means to do philosophy of language: ''Our aim has been to help you
[...] pinpoint your agreements and disagreements with the texts, and
to articulate your reason for agreeing or disagreeing.'' (p. 2). The texts
alluded to belong to a different author each of them, and are
distributed over six chapters. Every chapter includes three texts, each
accompanied by an introduction (bio-bibliographic) and editors'
commentary. The chapters are preceded by a ''Sources and
Acknowledgments'' section and by an ''Introduction'', and are followed
by ''Further Reading'' and an ''Index''.

The topics illustrated by the texts include the relationship between
mind and reference, mind and action, and understanding and
knowledge, as well as the mechanisms of non-literal meaning. The
purpose of this review is not to offer a commentary on the original
texts, but to discuss the job done by the editors in choosing and
analyzing them. In the following, summaries will be given for the
contents of each chapter, as well as a brief critical evaluation.
The ''References'' section includes all the texts discussed in the book.


Chapter 1 ''Reference and Meaning''
The excerpt from Book III of ''An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding'' by John Locke introduces and discusses the
implications of the thesis according to which words signify ideas that
speaker and hearer share about real objects: ''Words being voluntary
signs, they cannot be voluntary signs imposed by him [the speaker] on
things he knows not.'' (p. 11). In his text ''Of Names'', John Stuart Mill
employs 'names' to refer to both nouns and sentences. Mill proposes
a threefold distinction of names: general vs. individual, concrete vs.
abstract, and connotative vs. non-connotative. General names stand
for ''an indefinite number of things'', while individual names
are ''capable of being truly affirmed [...] of one thing'' (p. 19). A
concrete name ''stands for a thing'', while an abstract name ''stands for
an attribute of a thing'' (p. 20).The third distinction is the most
important one, according to Mill: ''Whenever they [names] have
properly any meaning, the meaning resides not in what they denote,
but in what they connote. The only names of objects which connote
nothing are proper names'' (p. 25). A connotative name ''denotes a
subject, and implies a state'', while a non-connotative name ''signifies
a subject only, or an attribute only'' (p. 22). The text from Gottlob
Frege, ''On Sense and Reference'', discusses the famous 'identity
puzzle'. According to Frege, identity may be either a relation between
objects (e.g. 'Hesperus is Phosphorus'), or a relation between names
(or signs) of objects (e.g. 'Hesperus is Hesperus'). The two example
sentences have the same, unique reference, and yet only the first
sentence is informative (has cognitive value), since to one reference
are associated two different senses. The relation between sense and
reference is the following: ''To the sign there corresponds a definite
sense and to that in turn a definite reference, while to a given
reference (an object) there does not belong only a single sign'' (p. 33).

Chapter 2 ''Speech and Action''
The central issue in this chapter is whether and how accounts of
meaning may fit accounts of language use. The first author discussed
is John Langshaw Austin, with a text on performativity. Although there
are sometimes grammatical criteria that establish whether a verb is
performative (e.g. 1st person singular present indicative active), the
author considers that there may be other ways for evaluating
utterances: felicity conditions. The second author discussed is William
P. Alston, with a text on the relationship between 'meaning'
and 'force': ''the meaning of a linguistic expression is to be elucidated
in terms of the use of that expression'' (p. 64). Considerable
discussion is also targeting the nature of language use and the
distinction illocutionary/perlocutionary. The third text belongs to John
R. Searle who acknowledges, with Austin and against Alston, that
meaning and action ought to be separated. Searle discusses the
notion of ''illocutionary effect'' on the hearer - reminiscent of Grice's
notion of ''speaker meaning''.

Chapter 3 ''Meaning and Truth''
The chapter opens with a text from Donald Davidson where he
introduces the notion of ''radical interpretation'' - which is to be
discussed ''without essential use of such linguistic concepts as
meaning, interpretation, synonymy, and the like'' (p. 96). A well-known
adage of Davidson's is that ''meaning is truth-conditions'': ''[...]
assuming translation, Tarski was able to define truth; the present idea
is to take truth as basic and to extract an account of translation or
interpretation'' (p. 101). The following text belongs to Scott Soames,
who argues against a relation between meaning-facts and speakers'
semantic competence: ''knowledge of truth conditions [...] is neither
necessary nor sufficient for understanding a language'' (p. 118). The
last text belongs to Crispin Wright, who maintains that there should be
a closer connection between linguistic competence and Semantic
theory: semantic properties of words and sentences ''must be
grounded in speakers' intentions''. The chapter closes with an
appendix offering an account of Tarski's theory of truth.

Chapter 4 ''Knowledge of Language''
The main issue discussed in this chapter is whether competence is a
kind of knowledge or a practical ability. The excerpt from Noam
Chomsky tackles this issue by establishing an innate, universal status
of language knowledge: tacit knowledge, as part of the ''universal
grammar''. Therefore language knowledge cannot be a practical
ability; the use of knowledge belongs to ''performance'', while innate
knowledge belongs to ''competence''. From Michael Dummett a text
was chosen which qualifies knowledge of language as ''implicit'',
intermediate between knowledge of facts and practical ability: ''There
is no gap between knowing what it is to speak Spanish and knowing
how to do so'' (p. 174). Welcome is also a discussion of two major
views in philosophy of language: language viewed as a code (before
Frege) and language as belonging to specific theories of meaning (in
the analytical tradition). The last text is due to John Campbell, who
embraces a ''robust view'' (which he calls ''cognitivism'') on language
knowledge, considered to be ordinary knowledge. Understanding is
not to be dissociated from structure perception: ''the knowledge
constitutive of understanding relates primarily to words and their
composition into sentences'' (p. 197).

Chapter 5 ''Meaning and Compositionality''
The main question put in this chapter is whether a compositional view
on meaning is necessary for speakers' understanding of novel
sentences. The first author discussed is Paul Horwich, who embraces
a deflationary view on compositionality: ''Just as being water consists
in being made of H2O, and just as redness consists in reflecting
certain wavelengths of light, so the meaning property of 'dogs bark'
consists in its construction property'' (p. 219). Semantic properties of
words are not given in terms of truth-conditions, but by stating their
meanings; again, compositionality is related to understanding. James
Higginbotham's views in the text chosen are close to those expressed
in the texts chosen from Chomsky and Davidson: semantic knowledge
resides in tacit knowledge of a truth-theory by competent speakers.
The text from Paul Pietroski argues against Horwich's account of
meaning: ''[...] it doesn't follow that if you can associate each sentence
of English with its meaning, you thereby understand English'' (p. 235).
Pietroski maintains that a theory of meaning should be able to explain
crosslinguistic generalizations, as well as the semantics of
determiners, quantifiers and semantic relations.

Chapter 6 ''Non-literal Meaning''
Merrie Bergmann's text offers ''a theoretical account of the assertive
use of metaphor'' (p. 252). She takes salience to be the landmark of
metaphorical use: content is a ''direct function of salient characteristics
[...] of the expression'' (p. 254). The metaphorical meaning of words
and sentences is contained in their literal meaning, hence metaphor is
context dependent. In his text, Martin Davies compares approaches to
metaphor by Black and Davidson; he agrees with Black that ''we lack
an adequate account of metaphorical thought'' (Black 1979, p. 192),
but also with Davidson's view that ''what the metaphor prompts or
inspires is not entirely, or even at all, recognition of some truth or fact''
(Davidson p. 253). The last author discussed, Kent Bach, supports a
similar view of non-literality, namely that it must be a question of use.
He further introduces the notion of ''impliciture'', present in sentences
like ''Rich and Ann are engaged'' (impliciture: 'presumably to each
other'). Bach thinks that sentence non-literality is a pervasive
phenomenon, and defines implicitures as involving ''an unexpressed
qualification on what is said'' (p. 291).


''Reading Philosophy of Language'' is an excellent guide for students
of Philosophy of Language of all levels, although some familiarity is
assumed with certain concepts - 'truth', for instance, is used in the first
chapter (the section on Frege), but discussed later, in the third. The
texts are well-chosen, from a variety of sources (including radio
performances), and are arranged both thematically and
chronologically. The ''Reading Philosophy'' series has no pretense to
exhaustivity, which may explain why landmark names such as Russel,
Wittgenstein, and Quine are only briefly mentioned. Nevertheless, the
goal of the book is served well by having a wide array of authors
discussed, from 'sacred monsters' of Linguistic Semantics (Frege,
Austin, Searle, Davidson, Chomsky) to famous philosophers (Locke,
Mill, Dummett) and contemporary scholars (Alston, Soames, Wright,
Higginbotham, Campbell, Horwich, Pietroski, Bergmann, Davies,
Bach). Several authors make reference to other authors' texts, also
included in the anthology (e.g. Davies refers to
Bergmann); 'intertextuality' is also encouraged by some of the editors'
comments, like those in the first chapter, for instance, where theses by
Mill are compared to those by Frege and Locke. Interactivity is
enhanced when editors give specific assignments in their commentary
sections to the readers of the volume, asking them to form an opinion
and argue for it. Commentary sections are well structured and
detailed, although, at times, somewhat uneven - the commentary to
Davidson, for example, is particularly clear, while the commentary to
Chomsky is rather cursory, and the one to Dummett is essentially a

Although people interested in either Philosophy or Linguistics may use
the book, the main vocabulary used by editors is the one current in
Philosophy of Language; only the averted reader will know, for
instance, that 'meaning' and 'use' are studied by Semantics and
Pragmatics, respectively. While a unification of the vocabularies
proper to the two disciplines may not feasible, or even desirable, brief
commentaries by editors on their interplay would have been a
welcome addition.

Care was taken by editors to distinguish their notes from those
provided by authors; for the sake of clarity, explanations are
sometimes given in the very body of the commentary sections (e.g. the
meaning of 'idiolect', p. 223). However, at other times, footnotes would
be required, but are not offered (e.g. one may not know that 'ce'
and 'être' are French words for 'this' and 'to be' respectively).

There are occasional style oversights, as in ''[...] it includes definite
descriptions along with proper names proper.'' (p. 30), although typos
seem to be a greater problem - ''his work in political and moral and
philosophy'' instead of ''his work in political and moral philosophy'' (p.
17); ''becalled'' instead of ''be called'' (p. 68); ''1'' instead of ''I'' (p.
47); ''do do'' instead of ''do'' (p. 57); ''is distinct from he says'' instead
of ''is distinct from what he says'' (p. 198); ''near x a t'' instead of ''near
x at t'' (p. 304). Other typos are due exclusively to technical editing -
misalignments like those on pp. 150, 206, 231, 270. All the
shortcomings mentioned are however very small indeed; the great
merit of the volume remains - that of inciting readers to make
connections between the texts included, far beyond those offered in
the commentaries, that may lead them to original and surprising


Alston, W. P. (1963) Meaning and Use. Philosophical Quarterly 13,
pp. 107-124.

Austin, J. L. (1979) Performative Utterances. Philosophical Papers,
3rd edn., pp. 234-252, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Bach, K. (2001) Speaking Loosely: Sentence Non-literality. Figurative
Language, ed. by P. French and H. K. Wettstein, Midwest Studies in
Philosophy XXV, pp. 249-263, Oxford, Blackwell.

Bergmann, M. (1982) Metaphorical Assertions. Philosophical Review
91, pp. 229-245.

Campbell, J. (1982) Knowledge and Understanding. Philosophical
Quarterly 32, pp. 17-29.

Chomsky, N. (1986) Knowledge of Language as a Focus of Inquiry.
Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use, pp. 1-14,
Westport, CT, Praeger.

Davidson, D. (1973) Radical Interpretation. Dialectica 27, pp. 313-328,

Davies, M. (1983) Idiom and Metaphor. Proceedings of the Aristotelian
Society 83, pp. 67-86.

Dummett, M. (1993) What Do I Know When I Know a Language? The
Seas of Language, pp. 94-105, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Frege, G. (1980) On Sense and Reference Translations from the
Philosophical Writings of Gottlob Frege, 3rd edn., ed. by P. Geach
and M. Black, pp. 56-78, Oxford, Blackwell.

Higginbotham, J. (1999) A Perspective on Truth and Meaning. The
Philosophy of Donald Davidson, XXVII, pp. 671-686, Illinois, IL, Open

Horwich, P. (1998) The Composition of Meanings. Meaning, pp. 154-
183, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Locke, J. (1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book
III, Ch.1, secs. 1-4 and Ch.2, secs. 2 and 4-8.

Mill, J. S. (1865) System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Vol. I,
Book 1, Ch. 2, Of Names.

Pietroski, P. (2000) The Undeflated Domain of Semantics. Sats: The
Nordic Journal of Philosophy 1, pp. 161-176.

Searle, J. R. (1969) Meaning. Speech Acts (Section 2.6), pp. 42-50,
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Soames, S. (1989) Semantics and Semantic Competence.
Philosophical Perspectives 3, pp. 575-596.

Wright, C. (1987) Theories of Meaning and Speakers. Realism,
Meaning, and Truth, pp. 204-238, Oxford, Blackwell.

Magda Dumitru is interested in topics of Cognitive Science and the
Philosophy of Language, such as definiteness, genericity, plurality,
tense, and aspect.

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