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Meaning and Context


Admission requirements

Admission to the following programme is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Knowledge


Meaning is traditionally viewed as a context-independent property of expressions, classically conceived in terms of reference and truth-conditions. Simple words have references, and the meaning of a sentence is determined by composing the meanings of its parts. This view became dominant at the beginning of the 20th century when the foundations of modern logical languages were first laid and has prevailed ever since.

In this course we will closely examine some complications for this simple picture of meaning that spring from the discrepancy between artificial and natural languages, focusing especially on the idea that what a word means for us is often context sensitive. We will follow the philosophical tale of context-sensitivity from perceiving it as ‘impurity’ that a logically perfect language ought to eschew (Frege, early Wittgenstein), through acknowledging and domesticating it by means of indices (Kaplan, Lewis, MacFarlane) or some ‘pragmatic wastebasket’ (Grice, Fodor, semantic minimalism), to endorsing it as pervasive and ineliminable (later Wittgenstein, Austin, Travis, Carston, Chomsky), or even an evolutionary advantageous trait that enables effective communication (Santana, O’Connor).

Some issues that we will study in this course concern the compatibility of compositionality and context-sensitivity, the idea of meaning as use and various semantic frameworks inspired by it, some common strategies for incorporating context-sensitivity within classical truth-conditional semantics, Travis cases as evidence for pervasive context-sensitivity, arguments against truth-conditional semantics for natural languages and the supposed rift between common-sense and technical, artificially constructed concepts.

Course objectives

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • key philosophical concepts, debates and arguments concerning context and context-sensitivity;

  • formal semantic theories besides truth-conditional semantics such as inferential semantics, distributional semantics, proof-theoretic semantics, semantics of aboutness, question semantics;

  • core issues on the intersection between philosophy of language and lexical semantics / pragmatics.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • discuss and evaluate standpoints on the relation between meaning and context;

  • provide and discuss examples of context-sensitivity in natural language;

  • formulate a viewpoint on these issues and illustrate and support it in oral presentations and in academic writing;

  • compose a research proposal and embark on writing an MA thesis in philosophy of language.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method


  • Oral class presentation;

  • Written research proposal and class presentation of it;

  • Final written paper.


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of the subtests:

  • Oral class presentation (20%)

  • Written research proposal and class presentation of it (20%)

  • Final written paper (60%)


A student admitted to the resit will write a final paper (100% of the grade).
Students who have obtained a satisfactory overall grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Prescribed literature available online. A reading list will be made available at the beginning of the course.


Enrolment through MyStudymap is mandatory.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the information bar at the right hand side of the page.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc., contact the Education Administration Office Huizinga


Not applicable.