My first class on philosophy of language was a breath of fresh air. Most of my undergraduate philosophy classes had been about Big Things – “The Whole,” even (that was the name of one of my classes). In my philosophy of language class, there were suddenly little things to think about: sentences and even words. There was Frege’s puzzle about “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus” – the words refer to the same planet, but do they mean the same thing? And the puzzle about sentences like “Carlos believes that Hesperus is in the sky”: why aren’t the two planet names interchangeable? And I’ll never forget “The present king of France is dead,” which was scrutinized by Bertrand Russell in “On Denoting” and by many subsequent authors. Is it true, false, or lacking a truth value?
I loved these puzzles but as a person introduced to philosophy through Big Questions, I did intermittently wonder why these words and sentences and puzzles were important. As more and more of my classes in graduate school focused on language, It helped to read Ian Hacking’s book Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? which says: because words are like the Ideas of modern philosophy. They are the interface between the mind and the world. Jerry Fodor’s book The Language of Thought argued that language is the very stuff of thought. To understand how language works is to understand the intentionality, or “aboutness,” of our mental states. Philosophy of language was about ultimate things after all.
Peeking in on the field today, many years later, it’s obvious things have changed. Today’s philosophers of language are more interested in the hurly burly of daily life. They’re interested in slurs, pejoratives, code words, gender pronouns, online speech, the nature of propaganda – in how we use words not only to think about the world, but to do things to each other. In short, philosophy of language has become impure – it’s still about the original questions, but it’s also about the politics of language.
The first time TPM’s forum focused on language, in 2001, the topics were pure ones – meaning and reference were central. This time around, 20 years later, we focus on the practical and political. What are the new philosophers of language working on? And why did the field change? I hope you’ll agree that our authors offer fascinating answers to these questions.