Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP)

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Philosophy of Language

Our research in philosophy of language concerns the amazing capacity of language to share ideas, information, and feelings, and to coordinate action in sophisticated ways. This involves addressing questions such as the following ones:

  • Meaning and Communication: We can use sentences to communicate because sentences mean something. But what kind of thing is the meaning of a sentence? What role does it play in the communication process – i.e., how can sentences be used by speakers to express their mental state and to affect the mental state of their interlocutors? Can this process be modeled mathematically?
  • Meaning Composition: We can produce and interpret sentences that we have never encountered before. This is because language is a discrete combinatorial system: a finite repertoire of basic blocks can be combined in infinitely many ways, giving rise to infinitely many sentences with infinitely many different meanings. How does that work? By what rules is the meaning of a sentence assembled from the meanings of its parts?
  • Context Dependence: The same sentence can express different things depending on the context in which it is used (e.g. “I’m hungry”). How does context contribute to determine what is expressed by uttering a sentence?
  • Pragmatic Enrichment: When we speak, we convey much more than we literally say, such as in the case of inferences, called implicatures, that account for a large share of human communication. What are the tacit assumptions that underlie their drawing? Can implicatures be understood purely in terms of rational language use, or are they partly conventional? Can they be predicted on the basis of game-theoretic assumptions?
  • Truth and its Boundaries: In most theories, an important role in characterizing the content of a sentence is played by truth conditions. However, for some classes of statements it is hard to see what facts could possibly make them true or false (e.g. modal statements, statements about taste, counterfactuals). Do these sentences have true values? If so, what facts determine it? If not, how should they be analyzed? What do speakers convey when they utter them? How do they interact with other items in the language, such as quantifiers, which are normally analyzed in terms of truth?
  • Supposition and Conditionals: A key aspect of human cognition is hypothetical thinking – the ability to temporarily treat an assumption as true, and simulate how things are like, or would be like, on that basis. We normally report the outcomes of such simulations by using conditional sentences. How exactly are conditional sentences related to hypothetical thinking? Do different kinds of conditionals correspond to different kinds of suppositional processes?
  • Non-declarative Language: Human languages contain not only declarative sentences, but also interrogatives and imperatives, to which the notion of truth does not seem to apply. How should these sentence types be analyzed? What about logical compounds involving such sentences (e.g., “If Alice asks, what will you say?”)?
  • Reference: Many linguistic expressions refer to things in the world, either to individual entities (Madrid, Charles Darwin) or to types of entities (city, zoologist). By what process does a word come to be associated with its reference within a linguistic community?
  • Self-reference: How should we deal with phenomena involving self-reference in language, such as sentences talking about their own truth?

Members of faculty working in philosophy of language

Doctoral fellows working in philosophy of language: