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PI8008 Early Modern Philosophy of Language

  • ECTS Weighting: 10
  • Lecturer: Dr Kenneth Pearce
  • Contact Hours: 22 hours of lectures
  • Semester: 1

Module Outline

This module explores philosophical thinking about language and its relationship to thought in pre-Kantian modern European philosophy. Special attention will be paid to the consequences theories of mind and language were thought to have for other areas of philosophy, especially epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of religion. We will focus on three philosophers: Antoine Arnauld, John Locke, and George Berkeley.

Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) was a polemical Jansenist theologian and Augustinian-Cartesian philosopher. Together with his collaborators, Claude Lancelot and Pierre Nicole, at Port-Royal Abbey in France, Arnauld developed an influential theory of mind and language. This theory is mainly presented in two works, the Port-Royal Grammar (1660) and the Port-Royal Logic (1662). According to this theory, there are innate universal structures in the human mind prior to language and these structures are reflected in the grammars of human languages. (Noam Chomsky has argued that the Port-Royal Grammar can be seen as a predecessor to his own work in linguistics which also attempts to derive grammatical structure from universal innate mental structures.) We will focus on the relationship between language and ideas, beliefs, and reasoning in the Logic.

The Port-Royal theory was built on a Cartesian theory of ideas as non-imagistic conceptions innate to the pure intellect (independent of the senses). In Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), John Locke attempted to sever the Port-Royal theory from these Cartesian roots in order to develop an empiricist theory of language. He took this theory to have important consequences for the theory of classification (natural kinds) in science, and for the nature and limits of religious belief.

Following the publication of Locke's Essay, the Irish philosopher John Toland published a notorious and immediately controversial book, Christianity Not Mysterious(1696), in which he argued that it followed from Locke's theory that certain religious sentences, such as those used in Trinitarian theology, were meaningless and so could not actually express beliefs. In Ireland and elsewhere a variety of responses to Toland were published. By far the most famous of these was due to George Berkeley. Only recently, in the work of David Berman and others, has it been recognized that the Introduction to Berkeley's Treatise concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) is intended in part as a response to Toland. In a later work, Alciphron, Berkeley responds to Toland more explicitly.

Berkeley's general strategy is to argue that words can be meaningful, and express genuine beliefs, without corresponding to ideas. Some commentators have argued that Berkeley provides a 'use theory' of language, similar to the later Wittgenstein. We will discuss how Berkeley addresses these issues in the manuscript and published versions of the Introduction to the Principles and in the seventh dialogue of Alciphron. (The original of the manuscript version of the Introduction is held by TCD's Old Library.)

Learning Aims

  • To enable students to participate in scholarship in the history of philosophy, including understanding the aims and methods of such scholarship, by engaging with questions in the history of philosophy of language.

Learning Outcomes

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

  • Describe debates in the philosophy of mind and language in 17th and 18th century Europe.
  • Critically evaluate arguments and positions in the philosophy of mind and language in 17th and 18th century Europe.
  • Critically evaluate interpretive arguments in the secondary literature on early modern philosophy.
  • Defend their own positions on disputed interpretive questions regarding the early modern figures discussed.

Recommended Reading List

Suggested Preliminary Reading

Ian Hacking, Why Does Language Matter to Philosophy? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975): Part A.

Primary Texts

Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole. Logic or the Art of Thinking: Containing besides common rules, several new observations appropriate for forming judgments. Edited and translated by Jill Vance Buroker. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. (1662; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

John Locke. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch (1690; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975)

George Berkeley, George Berkeley’s Manuscript Introduction: An Editio Diplomatica. Edited by Bertil Belfrage (Oxford: Doxa, 1987)

George Berkeley, Philosophical Writings. Edited by Desmond M. Clarke. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Secondary Literature

As advised by lecturer during lecture series.


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.