Phil 445: First Paper Suggestions

Your first paper is due by the end of the day (midnight) on Sunday Oct 10. Papers should be 1500-2800 words (typically this will be 5-7 pages).

Here are some guidelines about philosophical writing.

Here is the grading rubric I’ll use.

Information about extensions and missed deadlines is on the course’s front webpage.

You can write on any topic reasonably engaging with the readings and/or issues we’ve discussed so far in class. If you have doubts about whether some topic is appropriate, or whether it’s of moderate enough ambition to be attempted in a paper this size, talk to me about it. If you need ideas for a paper topic, here are some suggestions:

  1. Strawson has an example “The table is covered with books.” In class, I mentioned Soames’ example “I parked the car behind some other cars.” Prima facie, such examples pose a problem for Russell’s account of descriptions, because speakers presumably don’t believe there’s exactly one table or one car in the world. What might some promising strategies be for Russell to handle this problem? What are their advantages and shortcomings?

  2. Say that a content is singular if it has a subject-predicate-like structure (as opposed to having no internal structure, or a structure involving quantifiers like “Exactly one…”). Say that a singular content is Russellian if what occupies the subject position is a bare object, rather than something finer-grained like a Fregean sense. (These notions could apply to subject-verb-direct-object and other structures too.) Russell thought that if we were to have attitudes towards contents like these, it would have to be impossible to mistake oneself for having such an attitude when one really wasn’t in a position to do so (for example, because the needed object didn’t exist). This is part of what motivated his very restrictive view of acquaintance. How should one approach these issues if one wants to be less restrictive? Should we say that present kings of France and hallucinated daggers exist after all, in some sense, in order to be inside the contents of our thoughts? Or should we say that one can seem to be thinking a singular or Russellian thought content, but be wrong?

  3. An idea that has come up in our discussions, and implicitly in some of the readings, is that if two expressions e1 and e2 are synonymous (have the same meaning) then anyone who understands e1 and understands e2 should be able to tell, just by a priori reflection on what they understand, that the expressions are synonymous. Construct some challenge(s) to this principle. How compelling are they?

  4. One of the advantages Russell claimed for his theory of descriptions was its handling of sentences like “The present king of France doesn’t exist” and “Hamlet doesn’t exist.” Explain why such sentences would be problematic for competing theories of descriptions or names. Why does Russell’s solution require understanding “Hamlet” as a “disguised description”? State and evaluate at least one objection to the view that ordinary names in natural language should be analyzed that way.

  5. Sort out in what ways Donnella thought his theory of referential uses of descriptions matched Strawson’s view, and in what ways he thought it differed. Critically assess Donnellan’s claims about how the views were related. To the extent that they differed, do you think Donnellan’s views are always the more plausible ones?

  6. Assess Russell’s views about names and communication. Suppose Alice and Charly associate different descriptions with the name “Bismarck,” and that Bismarck doesn’t himself associate any description with it (he uses it as a logically proper name of himself). If Bismarck knows he has a headache, and tries to communicate that knowledge to Alice, to what extent on Russell’s view can he succeed? If Alice acquires some knowledge from Bismarck and tries to pass it on to Charly, to what extent can she succeed? Articulate what you think are the best things for Russell to say here, consistent with his other views. How plausible/defensible would those positions be?

I may post more suggestions here later.