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PI8003 Philosophy of Language

Self–Refutation Arguments:  What are they, and what, if anything, do they show?

Module Outline

Throughout the history of philosophy, the charge has often been made that a given position is “self–refuting” or that it cannot be coherently thought or stated. Such a criticism is often made, for example, against certain forms of relativism; but it is also made by Berkeley against the “realism” he opposes, as well as by critics of Kant, who claim it is “self–refuting” for him to hold that we can know nothing about things “as they are in themselves”. The purpose of this seminar is to examine such “self–refutation” arguments—in particular, to consider if they have a common structure and to examine what, if anything, they establish. To do so, we will look at a number of sources, including recent writings of such philosophers as Donald Davidson (“On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme”), Thomas Nagel (The View from Nowhere. The Last Word), Paul Boghossian (Fear of Knowledge), Barry Stroud (Engagement and Metaphysical Dissatisfaction) and Graham Priest (Beyond the Limits of Thought) as well as earlier writings from Parmenides, Plato, Berkeley, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, A. N. Prior, J. L. Mackie, and John Anderson, the influential Australian philosopher. Some of the readings we will look at will attempt to articulate the structure of self–refutation arguments; others either use such arguments against others or defend themselves against the charge that their own position is self–refuting.

Learning Outcomes

At the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Identify similarities and differences in different uses of self–refutation arguments.
  • Critically assess whether metaphysical conclusions can be drawn from self–refutation arguments.
  • Describe and assess the role of self–refutation arguments in this history of philosophy

Recommended Reading List

There will be a mix of readings, which will be available online, both contemporary and from various periods in the history of philosophy.


PhD students will be required to write one substantial essay (3,000-4,000 words). Students should confirm the essay title with their lecturer.

The word count includes footnotes but it does not include the bibliography.

Essays that go over the limit will be liable for a 5 mark deduction.

There will be a 5 mark deduction for each week an essay is late. Students may request an extension by contacting the lecturer of their module.

Students must attach a cover sheet to all Philosophy essays.