SOAS University of London

Department of Religions and Philosophies

Philosophies of Language

Module Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
Taught in:
Term 1

The philosophy of language is the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with questions related to the nature, use and limits of language as a medium between language-users and between them and the world. Do words merely describe the world, or do they define perception? Can there be thought outside language? Does meaning come from universal truths or is it invoked by linguistic rules? How is language related to actions? Is it possible to escape the confines of language when doing philosophy?
These and similar questions have been discussed by philosophers since antiquity, but it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that philosophy of language began to emerge as a philosophical field. It is certainly no coincidence that this was in the heyday of colonialism and modernism, when Europe's global expansion of power and knowledge as well as its modernistic optimism prompted scholars to rethink categories of languages, cultures, religions, and philosophies. While topics such as the nature of meaning, the distinction between sense and reference, the role of descriptions and of naming, and the performative uses of language, have been the object of some of the most important and well-developed debates of twentieth-century analytic philosophy, the continental tradition has also been deeply concerned with language from the point of view of structuralist analysis, the limits and the shifting nature of its expressive power. Yet other themes, like the problems posed by translations, the cognitive role of metaphors and the links between language-use and power structures, can be approached from both traditions. Western analytic and continental reflections on all these themes will be read alongside comparable discussions as have taken place within particularly the Indian and the Chinese philosophical traditions, highlighting universal concerns (like the problem of the relation between word and world) as well as language-specific problems (as for example those arising from the employment of ideographic alphabets). Students will be invited to appreciate how the same themes have been approached differently in the various traditions, how the analysis of language has been linked to and conditioned by metaphysical commitments as well as buttressing different self-understandings of the aim of philosophical discussion and its possible aims. The course will follow a loose history of the philosophy of language, introducing students to essential philosophers, theories and topics, while placing emphasis on how language is related to power and representation in colonial and post-colonial configurations

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this course a student will be able to:

  • Understand the historical development of the philosophy of language
  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the central arguments of contemporary philosophy of language across major philosophical traditions
  • Evaluate and compare these arguments by reference to their capacity to account for key elements in the understanding of meaning, language, and communication
  • Analyse and evaluate validity and soundness of these arguments
  • Evaluate postcolonial and postructural challenges to the traditional philosophy of language
  • Understand the relationship of language to power formations from a variety of postcolonial perspectives
  • Formulate arguments concisely and accessibly in written and verbal form


Two hours lecture and one hour tutorial per week over 22 weeks.

Method of assessment

One 3 000 words essay (30%), one weekly journal (4 500 words in total) (30%); one two-hours examination in May/June (40%).

Suggested reading

  • Lycan, William G. (2000) Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction. New York: Routledge.
  • Miller, Alexander (2007) Philosophy of Language, London: Routledge, Ch.2.
  • Davidson, Donald (1984) Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Journal of Philosophy East and West
  • Journal of Indian Philosophy
  • The Journal of Asian Studies
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( - Open Access)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules