Philosophy of Language

Essay Topics on Traditional Continental Philosophy of Language

Under Parts I - III, respond to A or B.  Under Parts IV and V, respond to A or B under either IV or V.  Write in your own words (with few direct quotes and little paraphrasing) and aim for accuracy, relevancy, clarity, and incisiveness.   Each response is to be between 350 and 400 words.  (After each response, please provide a word count.)  Your exam of about 1,500 total words is due on the third class following the distribution of the essay topics.  Grades on late exams will be lowered one letter grade for each class day that they are late.  Exams are to be printed on white paper with a staple or paper clip in the upper left corner and are not to be placed in folders.

I.  Saussure on Linguistic Meaning and Linguistic Determinism

A. Saussure develops a diacritial theory of meaning.  In distinguishing the signifier and the signified, address how he focuses on the relations among the signifiers, rather than any  referential or ideational basis, for determining meaning, and how does his view make meaning a function of opposition and difference if signs within the synchrony.

B. Saussure presents signs as both arbitrary and immutable within a synchronic linguistic context and orients the scientific, objective study of language to a linguistics of language (la langue).  How does the position of Saussure's linguistics of language challenge the concept of linguistic voluntarism, and what are some of the methodological limits to his position on change in language (langage)?

II. Merleau-Ponty on Structuralism and Intersubjectivity

A. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of language is in part a response to Saussure.  Explain how Merleau-Ponty’s statements on the meaning of signs and the acquisition of language relate to Saussure and indicate how Merleau-Ponty sees phenomenology as able to develop the study of speaking.

B. Merleau-Ponty sees intersubjectivity as basic and much communication as successful apart from gesture and word.  Explain how these views are reflected in his comments on silence and indicate how he views language as indirect and the clarification of meaning as always incomplete.

III. Ricoeur on Structuralism and Metaphor

A. In contradistinction to the five characteristics of la langue stressed in structuralism (pages 109 and 110), Ricoeur presents five characteristics of la parole stressed in phenomenology (pages 114 and 115).  Explain how Ricoeur uses these distinctions to accept, yet augment, structuralism and indicate how the distinction between structure and event allows Ricoeur to use phenomenology to develop the study of speaking.

B. Ricoeur’s approach to creativity is geared to how a finite system has infinite possibilities.  Making reference to his views on the necessity of polysemy and the status of dictionaries explain how Ricoeur views metaphor and indicate how this model of creativity affects “reality.”

IV. Gay on Merleau-Ponty and Ricoeur

A. Gay traces how Merleau-Ponty appropriates elements of both structuralism and phenomenology in his philosophy of language.  State how Gay uses Merleau-Ponty’s distinctions on a science of language and a phenomenology of speaking to affirm the possibility of linguistic creativity.

B. Gay discusses Ricoeur’s philosophy of language in relation to both metaphor and ideology.  State why Gay thinks an exclusive focus on either is reductive and how he connects metaphors with positive creations and ideologies with negative distortions.

V. Gay on Language and Peace

A. Gay discusses differences in the language of war and the language of peace.  State how Gay presents the political dominance of the language of war and how he notes that even with a language of peace can be negative.

B. Gay uses the distinction between positive and negative peace to assess nonsexist public discourse.  State how Gay argues that nonsexist discourse can convey gender equity and yet mask the continuing reality of sexism in society.