Philosophy of Mind and Language

Philosophy of Mind and Language August 26, 2014


I’m starting up new online classes for this coming fall semester and when I do so I’m adding several classes I’ve never offered online before. So far the one filling up the fastest (with 7 students) is Philosophy of Mind and Language. No less than six of my previous online students of mine are coming back for this class alone; which is very exciting. You can join them either  Thursdays 9pm-11:30pm Eastern Time (starting September 4), and one on Sundays 12pm-2:30pm Eastern Time (starting September 7).

In total of nine previous online students are returning across three different classes–the other two being Nietzsche on Mondays 3pm-5:30pm Eastern Time and Philosophy of Religion on Saturdays 2pm-4:30pm Eastern Time–which is very gratifying. People seem really satisfied with the classes.

So I wanted to write a post explaining the idea behind this new class. What will it be about? What’s the point of it? Why is it a topic of interest?

When I took 20th Century Philosophy as a college junior, my professor asked the class for input on what the final exam essay should be about. He wound up going with the question I suggested. What I suggested was that he ask us about the various views on the philosophy of language that we had learned that semester, because whether the philosophers we learned about wrote in English or French or German, the questions of how our language related to the world were core questions. In many ways one can look at the 20th Century as one in which all across major philosophical divides, the traditional major questions of philosophy–metaphysics, logic, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, philosophy of literature, philosophy of science–were all significantly recast as philosophy of language problems. What was the connection between the grammar we used to describe the relations between the things in the world and the actual relations between the things in the world themselves? How and to what extent did our language shape our reality for us? Could our language adequately encapsulate reality itself? What kind of linguistic activity are we engaging in when we make a knowledge claim, utter a moral judgment, or engage in religion? Could it be possible to create a perfectly logical language–one as formally pure as math and empirically rigorous as physics?

The pioneering work of the early 20th Century analytic philosophers had far reaching effects on developments in logic, mathematics, and the creation of the autonomous field of linguistics. Meanwhile in Europe the traditions of structuralism, post-structuralism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and more had huge effects not only on contemporary thinking but on our contemporary politics. The effect is so large that it’s nearly impossible to adequately understand mainstream Anglo-American philosophy’s methods and motivations and assumptions without investigating the early 20th Century analytics. And knowledge of the 20th Century postmodernists is integral to grasping left wing politics of the last 50 years.

As a Nietzsche scholar myself, I’m very happy with this general development. For reasons I’ll explain in the class, I think in the 19th Century Nietzsche was influentially pointing the way towards many of these developments–in both the Anglo-American and Continental traditions.

And in many cases, tightly wed to all this transformative work in philosophy of language, was work in philosophy of mind. On the Continent this meant Edmund Husserl’s pioneering work in Phenomenology from which the philosophical existentialisms of cultural icons like Heidegger and Sartre emerged.

And, finally, where most of our Philosophy of Mind focus will be, there is the rise of contemporary anglo-american/analytic philosophy of mind. An argument can be made that philosophy’s most salient contemporary relevance is in philosophy of mind, with philosophers of mind working together with cognitive scientists and other psychologists to help conceptualize the meaning of different models of the brain for crucial concepts like “consciousness”, “thinking”, “mental representation”, “sense perception”, “freedom”, “identity”, and much more. How can we give a meaningful account of “consciousness”? What does it mean to “think”? Can computers already “think”? Will they ever be able to have “consciousness”? Can we give rigorously scientific accounts of concepts like “belief” and “desire” and “free will” or are some or all of these concepts destined to be replaced with drastically different scientific accounts of mind activity from those of our “common sense intuitions” about ourselves.

For more than 100 years now, philosophers have looked at the question of how we can both know and transform both the world and ourselves through a distinctively linguistic prism. And a great deal of attention has been placed on the problem of how we understand what it means for a mind to represent a world, whether it can have any raw, unimpeachable data it can call a “given” from the world and upon which it can do rigorously logical and phenomenological investigation to get at its truth. Starting this September, I’m going to run classes that introduce students to all these questions and the numerous paradigms from the last century that have brought insights into them. In a nutshell, consider this my 20th Century and contemporary philosophy class.

As per usual for my classes, these classes will be live and interactive. They will be driven by student interests. These are open-ended discussions where we think for ourselves and where I tailor the “course content” so that it addresses students’ own challenges, questions, and thought processes rather than fitting a “one-size-fits-all” model. This individualized approach utilizing small group classes (typically between 2-6 students per class, with a maximum of 9 and a minimum of 1) makes this experience the polar opposite of the canned MOOCs you can get elsewhere.

I’m offering two sections, one on Thursdays 9pm-11:30pm Eastern Time (starting September 4), and one on Sundays 12pm-2:30pm Eastern Time (starting September 7). Click on either time to sign up directly.

Since these classes are not on any university schedule (and offer no college credit), they are designed to be flexible and accommodating to meet the needs of busy students with full lives. There’s no required homework (just reading suggestions for those who ask), so the class only takes a once weekly 2.5 hour commitment worth of time. There are no penalties for absences–you can fulfill the time you pay for at your own pace. You can even hop to a different running section any time (whether just for the week or indefinitely if it suits your schedule better.) Classes continue running with fresh material so long as there are students and interest. When you join up for my classes, you buy the time and you can use it to get a full class from when you started to when you finish. That’s so you can start the class after the beginning and as originating students become satisfied with the general topic and phase out, I will loop back to cover topics that they covered but you didn’t. (Or I’ll fill you in on weeks where they’re absent and you’re present.) I keep most week’s discussions to self-contained topics so you don’t have to worry about what was covered before you joined.

For information on more of the class topics, times, and prices that I am offering, click on any of the banners below! If you can’t sign up right away but want to be apprised of information on my classes going forward, subscribe your e-mail to my mailing list using the form in the lefthand margin of any page you click to:


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