Philosophy of Language


One of the most distinctive features of humanity is its use of forms of language as a means of communication, and linguistic phenomena raise many fundamental philosophical questions. How do systems of sounds and visible marks manage to represent the world, for example? How does language relate to thought, and how should we best understand the multiplicity of uses to which we put language? Some issues in the Philosophy of Language overlap with logical questions and ones studied within linguistics, while some interact with the Philosophies of Mind and Psychology; and others relate to, say, the ways in which uses of language can reflect political commitments and affect social realities.

Staff in Sheffield have done influential work on many topics within the Philosophy of Language and they continue to explore new and important questions. Recent successful PhD students have written theses with titles like “You don’t say! Lying, asserting and insincerity”, “The experimental approach to vagueness”, “The Pragmatics of Linguistic Injustice” and “The Many Relations Between Language and Thought: Three Case Studies”.

Our staff have worked on surprising puzzles raised by locutions within languages. Both Komarine Romdenh-Romluc and Niall Connolly have published work on indexicals, for example - that is, on words such as ‘I’, ‘here’, and ‘now’, whose uses are bound to contexts in special ways. Eric Olson has written about the peculiar meaning of the word ‘body’: e.g. why we can say that Ben reads the Guardian but not that his body does. Niall Connolly also works on the meaning of names that fail to refer to real, concrete things, like those commonly found in works of fiction (e.g. ‘Hermione Granger’ and ‘Batman’), while James Lenman has a long-standing interest in moral language

Rosanna Keefe has worked extensively on the vagueness of natural language, and also on related linguistic phenomena such as ambiguity and context-dependence. Paul Faulkner and Jennifer Saul have both worked on issues concerning lying, such as the nature of lies, the wrong that is involved in lying and to what extent lying is worse than misleading someone without actually lying. The topic of conversational implicature is central to the notion of misleading, and it is a topic on which both Jennifer Saul and Rosanna Keefe have researched.

Stephen Laurence is interested in the innate basis for the acquisition of language as part of the larger nativism-empiricism debate about the origins mental faculties, and in questions about the relation between language and thought, such as questions about the extent to which thought is possible in the absence of language and questions about the ways in which language might influence thought.

Sheffield researchers also work on applied philosophy of language, and Jennifer Saul is currently working on issues relating to political speech, deceptive and manipulative language, and racist and sexist utterances.