René Magritte, Les Compagnons de la Peur (1942)

Below are brief descriptions of some of the courses taught at York University:

  • Wittgenstein and Davidson (graduate) (fall 2013 and 2015)

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Donald Davidson are two of the most formidable figures of twentieth century philosophy, equally influential, equally controversial. Yet they are typically taken to be engaged in two radically different ways of doing philosophy. On the one hand, Wittgenstein is widely understood to be a deflationary philosopher, who recommends that philosophical problems be dissolved rather than solved, and thus that no constructive philosophical thesis be advanced. Davidson, on the other hand, is widely acknowledged to be a theory builder, a systematic philosopher par excellence, whose views about the nature of language and thought are intended to have consequences for all areas of philosophy. Despite these differences, however, there is a lot that they share and much philosophical insight to be gained by considering them side by side. The course focuses on these commonalities, in particular, on issues that are at the heart of their philosophical endeavours, viz., the nature of language and communication, and their relation to propositional thought and to reality.

  • Wittgenstein (3rd year undergraduate) (winter 2013)

Ludwig Wittgenstein is, without question, one of the most controversial and influential philosophers of this century. His claims have from the beginning been the object of much discussion in philosophy, and have in recent years increasingly been invoked within other disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, literary criticism, sociology and feminist theory. There is, however, little consensus as to what his views were. He has indeed been labelled everything from realist to idealist, from verificationist to ordinary language philosopher, from individualist to social externalist. Yet he is also famous for declaring that he had no philosophical thesis and that the sole purpose of philosophy is to dissolve problems rather than to solve them.

Our goal in this course will be to sort out some of the controversy surrounding Wittgenstein's philosophy. Focusing on his later writings, in particular, Philosophical Investigations, we shall try to ascertain what views Wittgenstein actually held on the nature of language and thought and their relation to reality. We'll do so by taking a close look at Wittgenstein's well-known, and well-worn, notions of language-games, family resemblances and forms of life, and by trying to determine the significance of claims such as "the meaning of a word is its use", "interpretations do not determine meaning", "obeying a rule is a practice" and "the phenomenon of language rests on agreement".

  • Perception, Knowledge, and Causality (2nd year undergraduate) (fall 2012, winter and summer 2013)

This course is an introduction to metaphysics, which addresses questions about what there is in the world and about the real nature of things, and to epistemology, which addresses questions about what we can know and how we can know it. On the metaphysical side, the focus will be on the questions whether there is such a thing as causation, i.e., whether events really have causes and, if so, what is its nature; whether the possibility of conceiving of the world in ways radically different from each other, i.e., conceptual relativism, is intelligible; and, more generally, to what extent metaphysical questions are answerable. On the epistemological side, the focus will be on the questions whether we can know anything based on our senses; whether we can have knowledge of the world around us as well as knowledge of the future and, more generally, of the unobserved; and whether we can have a priori knowledge, i.e., knowledge that is independent of experience.

Special attention will also be paid to the question whether these metaphysical and epistemological questions are interrelated and, if so, how.

Readings will be drawn from both historical and contemporary texts.

  • Meaning, Rule-Following, and Normativity (4th year undergraduate and graduate) (fall 2012)

In his seminal book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Kripke argues that traditional theories of meaning are subject to a sceptical paradox and thus, in fact, fail in their attempt to give an account of the nature of meaning and rule-following. In particular, he argues, they fail to account for the ineluctably normative aspect of meaning. The course focuses on this latter claim by addressing the following questions. First, what exactly is the source of the paradox and how should the sceptical problem it embodies be treated? Second, in what sense exactly is meaning normative? Is it simply in the trivial sense that the applications of meaningful expressions are subject to standards of correctness? Or is it in the more robust sense that the meaning of linguistic expressions is determined by norms or conventions, or that to mean something by an expression entails prescriptions about how to use it? Or is it in yet some other sense? Third, does the normativity of meaning prevent it from being explained in reductively naturalistic, i.e., non-semantic, terms?

  • Philosophy of Language (3rd year undergraduate) (winter 2012 and 2017)

Of all human affairs, Dewey wrote, linguistic communication is the most wonderful. It is wonderful because it enables people to get things done, by expressing their wishes, fears, hopes, beliefs, requests, etc., and because it enables them to get informed about the world around them and about each other. Now people can achieve all of this by means of language because the sounds and marks they use are endowed with meaning. Meaning is thus the central concept to be studied in this course, which will address issues that fall into two broad categories, one having to do with the nature of linguistic meaning and its relation to language users, the other having to do with the relation between meaning and reference, i.e., the ability of words to hook on to extra-linguistic reality.

  • Davidson's Theory of Meaning (graduate) (fall 2011)

This course focuses on Donald Davidson’s theory of meaning, from radical interpretation to triangulation. Topics to be examined will include the relations between meaning and truth, between meaning and use, between language and thought, between language and the physical and social environment in which it is acquired and used, and between the normativity and the objectivity of meaning. Special attention will also be paid to the question whether radical interpretation warrants a different kind of semantic externalism and, more generally, different semantic views, than does triangulation.

  • Davidson and his Critics (graduate) (fall 2009)

This course focuses on recent critiques of Donald Davidson’s views about the nature of language and thought and of what he takes to be their consequences for the nature of mind, truth, knowledge and reality. Among the claims to be examined are the impossibility of having a language and thoughts without “triangulating”, the impossibility of having a language and thoughts without having the concept of objective truth, the impossibility of being massively mistaken about the external world, and the impossibility of radically different conceptually schemes.

The critics to be read are Jason Bridges, Tyler Burge, William Child, Michael Forster, Ernie Lepore, Kirk Ludwig, John McDowell, Thomas Nagel, Stephen Neale, and Barry Stroud, among others.

  • Core Theoretical Philosophy (graduate) (fall 2008, winter 2010, 2012, 2017)

The course offers an advanced survey of some central themes in contemporary philosophy. Topics are drawn from recent work in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and philosophy of science. The focus throughout is on the interrelations among these topics.

  • Topics in Philosophy of Language: Davidson’s Philosophy of Language (4th year undergraduate and graduate) (winter 2009)

Davidson thinks that answering the question, what is it for words to mean what they do, is the best way for philosophers to approach questions not only about meaning, but also about truth, knowledge and reality. Understanding Davidson’s philosophy of language is thus crucial to understanding his views in other areas of philosophy. The first half of this course focuses on Davidson’s views about meaning, paying special attention to the question what kind of continuity there is between his early views about radical interpretation and his later views about triangulation. The second part of the course considers the consequences of Davidson’s views about meaning for his views about the nature of mind, knowledge, truth and reality.

  • Topics in Semantics: Semantic Normativity (4th year undergraduate) (winter 2008)

In his seminal book, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Saul Kripke wrote that the relation between meaning and action is normative, not descriptive. Philosophy of language hasn’t been the same ever since and, to this day, philosophers have been debating the questions in what sense, if any, meaning is normative and what constraints the answer to this question may impose on a proper account of meaning. The focus of this course is on Kripke’s book as well as on a recent provocative interpretation of this book by Martin Kusch, according to whom Kripke’s Wittgenstein does not endorse semantic normativity but rather “firmly rejects it”.

  • Topics in Contemporary Philosophy: Davidson (4th year undergraduate and graduate) (fall 2007)

Davidson’s primary interest was in the understanding of intentional and rational behaviour. But he also thought that this was the best way for philosophers to approach questions about mind, meaning, truth, knowledge and reality. This course emphasizes the systematic character of Davidson’s philosophy, examining the connections among his claims in various areas and scrutinizing specific arguments in light of his overall project. Special attention is paid to the questions what justifies Davidson’s initial approach and what kind of “theories” his rampant anti-foundationalism and anti-reductionism leave room for, as well as to the implications of his views for philosophical “dualisms” such as the subjective/objective distinction and the debates between realism and anti-realism and between internalism and externalism, both semantic and epistemic.

  • The rule-following considerations (graduate) (winter 2007)

The focus of this course is on the later Wittgenstein’s views about language and thought -- specifically, on his remarks about rule-following and meaning and the paradox into which they led him. The central issues to be addressed are the following. What exactly leads to the paradox? How should the sceptical problem it embodies be treated? Does this treatment call for an individual or social view, and, if social, of what kind? What are the consequences of this view for the objectivity of meaning and for the debate between semantic internalism and externalism?

  • Topics in Philosophy of Language: Wittgenstein’s and Davidson’s philosophy of language (4th year undergraduate and graduate) (fall 2006)

Wittgenstein and Davidson are two of the most influential analytic philosophers of the 20th century. They are also among the hardest to understand and, partly for that reason, among the most controversial. But this is not all they have in common. Though Davidson’s truth-conditional theory of meaning has sometimes been compared to that of the early Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, it is with the later Wittgenstein that Davidson, as he himself acknowledges, shares much of his thinking about the nature of linguistic meaning. This course focuses on these similarities. The hope in doing so is to reach a better understanding of their views by having aspects of the one’s illuminate aspects of the other’s. Topics to be discussed include: the nature and possibility of philosophical theorizing about meaning, the relation between meaning and use, the objectivity of meaning, the relation between language and the physical and social environment in which it is acquired and used.

  • Introduction to Philosophy (2006-2007)

This full year course is a general introduction to some of the central problems in philosophy, both to problems in moral and political philosophy and to problems in epistemology and metaphysics. We will pay special attention to the relations between these problems; in particular, to the ways in which different epistemological and metaphysical views make room for, and indeed invite, different views about morality and politics. The readings will be from both classical and contemporary sources. The goal of this course is not only for students to get acquainted with the views and arguments of the philosophers but also, and more importantly, for them to acquire the skills needed critically to assess these arguments and to develop their own views.