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Philip Brooks

What philosophy of language content does Principia Mathematica have? I've only ever really glanced at the books.


Philip, I guess I have a certain inability to fully distinguish logical developments and developments in the philosophy of language; and developments in either of these from developments in "formal ontology". The introduction to the second edition of PM is, in my opinion, a pretty spectacular essay in the philosophy of language/formal ontology. But the discussion of the vicious circle principle, the Ramified theory of types, and contextual definition (to name just a few prominent topics) are all pretty important. And ultimately, the mere development of the formal tools was crucial to the development of anything remotely resembling the technical side of contemporary philosophy of language.

In my opinion, the philosophical importance of Russell's technical work is too often overlooked these days.

Chris Ragg

I think you've got a pretty good list there. I'm glad to see Quine at the top, wish that both the later and earlier Wittgenstein were a bit higher, and thought the Kripke was too high (not sure how innovative he was; that is, if you believe Quentin Smith on the matter).

But, being a young philosopher with an interest in the philosophy of language, this gives me quite a bit of material to check out. Thanks.

marc moffett

Chris, I didn't really intend any ordering, but the list does more less reflect cases that immediately came to mind v. ones that required a bit more mulling over.

On Kripke. I guess my considered view is that while Marcus (and others) anticipated many of his ideas, there is a lot of innovation in there and Kripke seems to me to have put the whole package together in a way that nobody else had. But I certainly haven't paid much attention to the debate.

Kirk Ludwig

Leaving off _Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation_ is by my lights a major omission, both in terms of innovation and influence. Russell, Quine, Tarski, Carnap, Wittgenstein, and Grice are all of the first importance. Montague has frankly been more influential in linguistics, as has Chomsky. Vendler is important but not as important as Davidson, or, in my opinion, Putnam.


Hi Kirk. A quick defense of Montague and Chomsky. It seems to me that more than anyone else these two were responsible, each in his own way, for initiating the formal treatment of natural language. And that development was, I think, philosophically central. So I would argue that while Montague's technical work had its primary impact on formal semantics and Chomsky's in formal syntax, the philosophical impact of plausible formal analyses of natural language was huge.

Varol Akman

Either I missed J.L. Austin (How to do Things...) in the lists produced so far or it was an inadvertent omission.

Varol Akman

Yes, I agree with Kirk Ludwig: Davidson must be in the list. And I would surely add John Perry to the list which included Kaplan.


A few more thoughts:

Regarding Putnam. It seems to me that most of Putnam's important ideas were anticipated and fairly well-developed by one or the other of Quine, Kripke and Dummett. Quine and Kripke are, in my opinion, uncontroversial choices for the top 10 (probably even the top 5). That leaves Dummett, who I would probably elevate to the top 15 over Putnam. That isn't intended as a slam on Putnam, whose work I admire greatly--but there is pretty stiff competition here!

Regarding Davidson: I stick by my judgment that Davidson doesn't go in the top 10. My reason is basically that I don't think Davidson has given us as much insight into the nature of language as other folks appear to believe. But I acknowledge that this is because I think that Davidson made far too many wrong turns philosophically without providing any corresponding technical advances (with the partial exception of his event semantics). So if you disagree that the Davidsonian program is basically misguided, then you will disagree with my assessment of him.

Regarding Kaplan. Extraordinarily talented fellow, but his major innovations in my opinion are best regarded as (very) creative amplifications of the ideas of others (in particular, the ideas of Montague).

Regarding Perry. Lot's of good, interesting work but I don't think he is in the same category as the major players--though one could make a case for including him in, say, the top 30. [Caveat: as with all the living philosophers not included in the top 15, Perry's position is obviously not a foregone conclusion.]

Finally, I want to make a revision to my list. On reflection, I think I put Geach too high up and I also snuck Frege in despite explictly excluding him. So that gives me two slots to fill. I suggest that they go to Dummett (Elements of Intuitionism plus "What is a theory of meaning (I & II)") and Putnam ("The meaning of 'meaning'", "Models and reality", and Chapter 2 of Reason, Truth and History--thereby covering the early and middle Putnam).

Kirk Ludwig

On Davidson again, I wonder, Marc, if you could say what you think is misguided about Davidson's program? I suspect some misunderstanding.

In any case, being misguided is not in my view a disqualification. Quine should be on the list, but in my opinion many of his most fundamental tenets are fundamentally misguided.

There is no one on your top ten list that represents the fundamental advances in one of the most important developments in 20th century philosophy of language, namely, speech act theory.

Steven Gross

Marc writes: "Putnam ("The meaning of 'meaning'", "Models and reality", and Chapter 2 of Reason, Truth and History--thereby covering the early and middle Putnam)."

Putnam had been publishing extremely important work (albeit only some of it in philosophy of language) for over 20 years by then. Perhaps we need the category "pre-early Putnam" for his stuff on Hilbert's 10th problem, recursion in the limit, "The Analytic and the Synthetic", "It Ain't Necessarily So," functionalism, modal structuralism in phil of math, etc., etc.

By the way, I don't think it's accurate to say that Putnam's work was anticipated by Kripke. They carried out the relevant work independently (as they both make a point of noting) and their various publications were nearly contemporaneous in the broad scheme of things.


Steven, yeah. When I originally wrote the post I said "--thereby covering the EARLIER and middle Putnam." So I sacrificed accuracy for a less awkward statement. Although, pre-early Putnam is in many ways his best work,as you note it is less heavily philosophy of language and was less influential (to my knowledge).

I agree that Putnam's and Kripke's work was independent and nearly contemporaneous. But I guess my sense is that Kripke's work was a bit more fully developed (both in the semantic picture and the effect on the surrounding philosophical terrain), whereas Putnam was still working toward his view. So maybe "anticipated" wasn't quite the right word.

Kirk, I don't want to get in a knock-down drag out over Davidson! You are right that I have possibly unfairly demoted him in part because I am not sympathetic to the program. [After all, I agree with very little of Quine's work, but consider him a gimme. Do you really think that believing that Davidson made a number of missteps is prima facie evidence of misunderstanding?] But also because I think that the quality and overall importance of Vendler's work (the only one in the top 10 who I would consider switching with Davidson) is underappreciated; whereas Davidson comes more readily to mind. So maybe just take the listing as a plug for Vendler. READ VENDLER! READ VENDLER!

Steven Gross

Fair enough, Marc. Except maybe for the "less influential" comment. There is that little -ism in philosophgy of mind called 'functionalism,' after all. And some of his work was very influential among smaller groups of specialists and/or outside of philosophy -- for example, his work on "trial and error" predicates was perhaps second in importance only to Gold's paper in laying the foundations of formal learning theory. (How many philosophers can lay claim to having helped found a field of study?)

Also, I'd suggest that "Meaning of 'Meaning'' is *much* more developed than N&N along some directions, though N&N is obviously much more developed than MoM along others. I have in mind, off the top of my head and from memory: the discussion of natural kind terms generally, the discussion of terms for artifacts, the various anticipations of mixed views with constraining descriptive elements, the discussion of 'other senses' (e.g., the functional sense of 'water'), the empirical proposal concerning stereotypes, etc.

-Sorry if I've taken this thread off topic! Cheers!

Kirk Ludwig

Marc, no I don't think thinking someone has made some missteps is a reason to allege misunderstand in itself. However, I think there are some quite widespread misunderstandings of Davidson's program in truth-theoretic semantics--the primary one being the assumption that it is an attempt to reduce meaning to "truth conditions"--which, if I shared, would incline me to think the program misguided. I was suspecting that you shared this too prevalent view. I disagree myself with some of Davidson's most fundamental assumptions about language, which lie in the background of the way he conceives the project of radical interpretation--but 'misguided' would not be an appropriate word for someone with whom one disagrees with on one of the most fundamental points in the philosphy of language.

Minor note: it really should be Tarski's 'Wahrheitsbegriff' rather than (or at least in addition to) the pop version for philosophers.


Steven, the pre-early Putnam surely goes in the top 10/15 of philosophy of mind, but not so clearly philosophy of language. My preference for Kripke may also derive from an order of introduction effect (which is probably pretty widely shared). I first read N&N when I was a sophmore; MoM much later.

Your comments are most appreciated. Not only do I learn something, but my students (and whoever else happens to be looking) may learn a bit, too.

Kirk, On Tarski, I think including both would have been appropriate (along with, maybe, the work on cylindric algebras--but that is probably my own bias in favor of algebraic semantics).

Maybe I am confused about Davidson! I don't believe that he wanted to *reduce* meaning to truth conditions, though I am not sure I know how to characterize what I do think he was after. Not eliminativism. I take him to be making at least the claim that the specification of a Tarski-style truth theory for a language is enough to yield a complete semantic theory for the purposes of idiolect-to-idiolect translation. (The truth theory is not enough for translation, but enough semantics for translation.) Perhaps, in rough analogy to Frege's early point about the multiplicity of potential senses for names like "Aristotle" (it doesn't matter, he says, so long as reference is preserved), we could say that Davidson regards truth conditions as the pivot on canonical interpretation generally.

Well, I do know enough about Davidson to know that trying to interpret him on the fly isn't the best thing ("A Nice Derangement ..." notwithstanding!). It'd be great if you could post a synopsis of what you do think his views on a truth-theory come to. Incidentally, apart from large tract of Meaning and Interpretation, do you think that any of the later stuff should be included?


What about Strawson?

Kirk Ludwig

Marc, well, an adequate synopsis would require a fair amount of space. But for anyone interested (here is the chance for a shameless plug for some things I've written) I have some papers that do some of that work at least, and a book with Ernie Lepore which the publisher says should be out in March or April (there will be a symposium on it at the CD APA).

Ludwig, K. (2002). "What is the Role of a Truth Theory in a Meaning Theory?" in *Meaning and Truth: Investigations in Philosophical Semantics*. D. Shier, J. K. Campbell and M. O'Rourke. New York, Seven Bridges Press: 142-163.

Lepore, E. and K. Ludwig (2003). "Truth and Meaning," in *Donald Davidson*. ed. K. Ludwig. New York, Cambridge University Press.

And then the nearly available:

Lepore, E. and K. Ludwig (2005). *Donald Davidson: Truth, Meaning, Language and Reality*. New York, Oxford University Press.


Chad, Strawson is a tough one, in my opinion, to figure out where to place. His critique of Russell's theory of descriptions is, of course, a major contribution. In fact, I think that the fundamental ideas of that piece are crucial for thinking about language (even if, as a criticism of Russell, it isn't quite right). But that piece in itself isn't enough. And although the rest of Strawson's work is very good (for instance, Subject and Predicate in Logic), I am not sure it is sufficiently agenda-setting.

I would definitely be interested in what others think about Strawson's legacy. (Similar points go for Donnellan.)

Also, in response to Kirk's point about speech-act theory. Austin gets included in the top 15. I probably wouldn't include Searle in the top 10 just on the basis of his work on speech-acts. So should Austin be promoted? Searle included in the top 10? Or am I missing someone? One thing--another judgment call--in my opinion the most important discussion of language use was Grice's work on implicature.

And thanks for the pointers to your (and Ernie's) works. (The book is definitely on the "must purchase" list.)


I am shocked that no one has mentioned Carnap yet. Montague is on the list? What did Montague do apart from applying ideas from Carnap to ordinary English -- with a toy syntax? No doubt both are giants, but I'm not sure which was the greater innovator.


Oops, there he is in the top 10 -- Carnap. I take back my comment. Time to put down the crackpipe.

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