The London Lectures 2022/3

Words and Worlds

New Directions in the Philosophy of Language


Early in the twentieth century, philosophy in the English-speaking world took what Richard Rorty later called “The Linguistic Turn” in which language became the central focus of philosophy. In the twenty-first century, the philosophy of language remains strong but has changed considerably. This series examines these new directions, including new questions and methods as well as interest in what other disciplines and world philosophies have to teach us. The topics include hate speech, prejudicial speech, misunderstanding, responsibility for speech, Chinese philosophy of language, how speech represents, the nature of narratives. The speakers are all leading or up-and-coming thinkers representing the full diversity of philosophy in the English-speaking world today. Their talks are aimed as much at the interested generalist as philosophical specialists. All are welcome.


Tickets are free but required, and available here.


Autumn 2022

7 October 

A Modern Look at Ancient Chinese Theory of Language

Chad Hansen (Hong Kong)


Classical (especially pre-Buddhist) philosophy of language gives us one of the most detailed and developed alternative conceptual frameworks for understanding how words, the world, human history and society fit together. In comparison with Western rationalism, that ancient Chinese picture is surprisingly naturalistic. Using a path (dào) rather than a law metaphor to talk about morality and causation explains a lot about how this Chinese naturalism unfolds. Chinese philosophers viewed humans as a part of a natural world, not as spiritually privileged likenesses of a supernatural creator and moral commander. Our ideas are social, historical constructions like the graphs of written Chinese. Dào gives Chinese pragmatism a natural cosmology. Instead of minds populated with ideas, it focuses on social-historical practices, learned behaviours (including naming and cooperating), skills, or know-how, and gives special attention to nature vs. nurture. We are natural inhabitants of a natural world strewn with a network of natural paths to choose from in guiding our shared behaviour as we adapt to and harmonise with nature. We follow natural dào.


14 October 

Slurring words, slurring articulations

Ernie Lepore (Rutgers) (Paper co-authored with Una Stojnic)


Slurs are epithets that denigrate a group simply on the basis of membership, for example, on the basis of race, ethnicity, origin, religion, gender or ideology. They provide powerful linguistic weapons, carrying a characteristic offensive sting, prone to cause offence, outrage, and even injury. So much so, that they can be subject to media censorship, and sometimes even legislation. As to the nature and source of their characteristic offence, the predominant position is to invoke some aspect of meaning. The few who reject this assumption locate the source of offence in the taboo status of pejorative language. In other words, slurs themselves and/or their associations are the source of their offensive sting, not their meanings. We will challenge both sorts of approaches and defend a novel alternative according to which the source of an offensive effect is negative associations triggered not by slurs but rather by certain articulations of these expressions—phonological or orthographic. We need to distinguish slurs from their articulations because, surprisingly, the latter can trigger an offensive effect even when the former is absent, and even when articulated, a slur can lose its offensive potency if its articulation is non-canonical. 


21 October 

Racial Realities 

Luvell Anderson (Syracuse) 


Controversies over gender, race, and immigration take place in legislatures and social media. For example, there has been a sustained campaign in the United States by media figures like Chris Rufo to rile people up over “Critical Race Theory” by stoking fears about radical indoctrination in public schools. The controversies reveal a clash of worlds—different value systems, sets of interests, social orders for which language is a significant battlefront; we are engrossed in a war of words. According to James Baldwin, language is a means and tool of power, each describing a different reality. What is the nature of these realities? Do they create worlds so distinct that genuine communication becomes impossible? And what does this mean for things like achieving racial justice? 


28 October 

How to Get About

David Sosa (Texas, Austin)


Wittgenstein once asked what makes my image of him into an image of him? The being of someone, of an image, is an example of representation. Philosophy has long aimed, unsuccessfully, to understand the phenomenon of representation. The issue has been with us since Plato’s Cratylus and most of its history is unified by a presupposition: whatever makes it that a bit of language (like a name or a sentence or any linguistic symbol) is about something is, fundamentally, also what makes it that a thought (or idea or image) is about a thing. The story of aboutness will be uniform—simplex—or so the presupposition has it. But we still don’t adequately understand the nature of representation. I will propose and develop a perspective that rejects the presupposition and explains our continuing confusion: there is more than one way for a thing to be about something. Representation comes, ultimately, in varieties.


11 November 

Prejudicial Speech: What’s A Liberal To Do?

Mari Mikkola (Amsterdam)


This talk discusses potential responses to harmful prejudicial speech. More specifically, I consider how different types of prejudicial speech merit divergent responses. I distinguish hate speech, discriminatory speech, and toxic speech as different types of speech that are prejudicial or oppressive – they are not all of the same kind differing only in their severity and explicitness. As these sorts of problematic speech are categorically distinct, I hold they also demand differential remedies. The task of this talk is to consider such remedies, their potential effectiveness, and compatibility with the liberal value of free speech.  


18 November 

Against Amelioration: Why Conceptual Engineering is Impossible, Undesirable and Unnecessary

Louise Antony (University of Massachusetts) 


Many philosophers are calling for the “re-engineering” of certain important concepts, arguing that current concepts do not and cannot serve important political and ethical purposes. For example, some philosophers have argued that our ordinary concept woman is inadequate for feminist politics because it does not incorporate the idea that gender is essentially hierarchical, and thus that the concept should be somehow altered -- "re-engineered" -- so that it does. 


I argue that this movement is misguided in several ways: 1) there is no account of what a concept is that makes such re-engineering possible; 2) re-engineering, even if it were possible, would be undesirable; and 3) there is no political or ethical goal that requires re-engineering.  Along the way, I'll distinguish the matter of concept acquisition from the matter of concept re-engineering; these are, I suspect, frequently confused.




Past Lecture Series

Although lectures in London have been arranged since the Institute was founded, it was in 1967 that the first series was published. In the forward to first volume, The Human Agent, the editor, Godfrey Vesey, writes, "On Friday evenings in the winter months London members of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and their friends meet in a small hall in Bloomsbury -- 14 Gordon Square, London W.C. 1 -- to listen to, and discuss, lectures by foremost British, and visiting, philosophers .... In response to requests by members of the Institute living too far form London to attend the lectures (the Institute has a world-wide membership) arrangements have been made for ... them to be published in a yearly volume."


Here's is a list of all the published London Lectures Series.


2020 A Philosophers' Manifesto

2019 How Do We Know? The Social Dimension of Knowledge

2018 A Centenary Celebration: Anscombe, Foot, Midgley and Murdoch

2017 Passions and the Emotions

2016 Metaphysics

2015 Philosophy of Action

2014 History of Philosophy

2013 Mind, Self, and Persons

2012 Philosophical Traditions

2011 Philosophy and Sport

2010 The Arts

2009 The Environment

2008 Religion

2007 Conceptions of Philosophy

2006 Epistemology

2005 Philosophy of Science

2004 Philosophy, Biology and Life

2003 Agency and Action

2002 Modern Moral Philosophy

2001 Minds and Persons

2000 Logic, Thought and Language

1999 Philosophy at the New Millennium

1998 Philosophy, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful

1997 German Philosophy Since Kant

1996 Current Issues in Philosophy of Mind

1995 Verstehen and Humane Understanding

1994 Karl Popper: Philosophy and Problems

1993 Philosophy, Psychology and Psychiatry

1992 Ethics

1991 The Impulse to Philosophise

1990 The A. J. Ayer Memorial Lectures

1989 Wittgenstein Centenary Lectures

1988 The Philosophy in Christianity

1987 Recurrent Philosophical Themes

1986 Contemporary French Philosophy

1985 Philosophers Ancient and Modern

1984 American Philosophy

1983 Philosophy and Practice

1982 Objectivity and Cultural Divergence

1981 Philosophy and Literature

1980 Of Liberty

1979 Marx and Marxisms

1978 Idealism -- Past and Present

1977 Philosophers of the Enlightenment

1976 Human Values

1975 Communication and Understanding

1974 Impressions of Empiricism

1973 Nature and Conduct

1972 Understanding Wittgenstein

1971 Philosophy and the Arts 

1970 Reason and Reality

1969 The Proper Study

1968 Knowledge and Necessity

1967 Talk of God

1966 The Human Agent