Centre for Continuing Education

Philosophy Course: The Philosophy of Language

Philosophy. Study the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality and existence.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses both online and in-person. Please check the delivery format for each class before you enrol.

Please note that course materials for all classes (excluding prescribed textbooks) are shared electronically within 48 hours of a course starting. Printing is not available.

Join us for an in-depth exploration of the philosophy of language, from Sophists to sociolinguistics.

From the beginning of both Eastern and Western philosophy, the nature of language has been a significant topic of interest. Sanskrit scholars and grammarians (400 BCE) first raised many questions that have travelled down through history: How does language convey truth? What is the connection between words and things? Does language describe reality? What is the connection between language and thought?

We will consider the origins and arguments of many language theorists, beginning with Indian scholars from 400BC through to early modern philosophers, including John Locke and Roland Barthes.


This course aims to provide you with an overview of the origins and complexities of the many theories of language.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • identify the main theories of language from the ancient to the postmodern world
  • discuss the important role played by language in our understanding of human nature
  • discuss the issues involved in questions concerning how language conveys truth
    • what is the connection between words and things?
    • does language describe reality?
    • how does language connect to thought?
  • identify different language theories and how they developed in history
  • discuss the implications of these theories for our current world.


Ancient Indian Language Theory

Indian scholars and grammarians like to argue about the ‘truth’ language can reveal about the world. There is a long tradition of examining the language of the Vedas, written in Sanskrit, and about the veridical knowledge within. These scholars also like to consider how language connects to the mind.

Ancient Greece

The Sophists developed a theory of the persuasive nature of rhetoric and rules of a good argument. Socrates partly fits in with the Sophistic tradition but, according to Plato, also worried about the rhetorical ‘trickery’ that might accompany the drive to win an argument at any cost.

Modern philosophy

Modern philosophers such as John Locke are concerned with how language is formed in the mind. Locke introduced the theory of ‘mental states’ as the meaning of words. As an empiricist, Locke was concerned with how the world is transformed into sense impressions and how these become concepts in language.

The linguistic turn

In the late 19th and early 20th century, interest in language became a major concern of philosophy. We will study Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics and Gottlob Frege’s introduction to the difference between sense and meaning.

Bertrand Russell

The Cambridge positivists worked to understand language by reducing it to its logical structure. Positivists use language by constructing a logical basis on which meaning components fit together systematically to make truth claims.


Wittgenstein introduces many of the enduring ideas of linguistics, including:

  • his famous ‘picture theory’ in which language allows us to ‘picture’ or model reality
  • his ‘language games’ in which language functions differently depending on the rules of the social ‘game’ one is playing
  • that there is no private language and that thought is language.

Chomsky innate grammar

Chomsky proposes that language is a set of very specific universal principles that are intrinsic properties of the human brain and part of our genetic endowments.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author (1967) decentralises the intentions of the writer/speaker from the meaning of the text; we will discuss this controversial theory and its critics.

Sociolinguistics Benjamin Lee Whorf

Whorf’s essay 'An American Indian model of the Universe' proposed that very different cultural/linguistic systems construct the universe in radically different ways. We will assess this idea and the essay 'On the very idea of a Conceptual Scheme' by Donald Davidson, in which he disputes Whorf’s theory.


We will look at a number of essays from sociolinguistics which are concerned with the cultural aspects of language. This will include Maria Lugone’s Other Minds and Foreign Tongues (1988) and Judith Butler’s Queer Travelers.

Intended audience

Anyone with a general interest in philosophy and linguistics.

Delivery style



Handouts are provided in class.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

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