Philosophy 135: Theory of Meaning
Professor John MacFarlane
UC Berkeley, Spring, 2015

An examination of some philosophical problems about the intentionality of language and thought. By virtue of what are some things in the world (for example, sentences and thoughts) about others? Is meaning always a matter of interpretation, or do some things have meaning independently of interpretation? Is conceptual thought prior to language? What would it take for a computer to have thoughts? Are the meanings of our words and the contents of our mental states determined by what’s going on inside our brains, or do they depend also on features of our physical and social environments? Could there be facts about meaning we could only discover by looking in someone’s brain? Are there objective facts about meaning at all? In exploring these and related questions, we will read the work of Quine, Davidson, Grice, Putnam, Dennett, Searle, Burge, Chomsky, Block, Fodor, Dretske, Millikan, and others.


The standard prerequisite for upper-division philosophy courses is two prior courses in philosophy. If you do not meet this prerequisite but have significant background in cognitive science or an allied field, you may take the class. Be warned, though, that we will presuppose that you know how to write a critical analysis of a philosophical argument, a skill taught in introductory philosophy courses. We will not presuppose that you have taken courses in logic or the philosophy of language or mind.


All readings can be found in a course Reader, available at Copy Central on Bancroft.


Current course information (including class handouts, paper topics, announcements, study questions, interesting links, and an up-to-date schedule) can be found on the course web site, at The course also has a bCourses site, which will be used for announcements, submission of assignments, section assignments, and perhaps other things.


Students are expected to attend lecture and section regularly and keep up with the reading. Grades will be based on the following:

  • Study questions (20% of total). For each reading, we will assign a few study questions which you are to answer in writing. The assignments will be announced in class and posted on the course website. You will turn in your answers on bCourses at the end of each unit (see the schedule for due dates). Note: it is okay to work with others on the study questions, but if you do so, you should be sure to write up your answers yourself, in your own words.

  • Two 5-6 page papers (25% each). See the schedule for due dates. Late papers will be accepted (up to one week late, but not after the final exam). Late papers will be penalized up to a full grade, depending on how late they are.

  • Peer review of first paper (5%). You will be asked to provide feedback on two randomly assigned papers by other students.

  • In-class final exam (25%). Monday, May 11, 11:30-2:30 PM.

Section participation will not be formally graded, but will be taken into account in borderline cases.

Graduate students who are taking the course for credit should talk with me about requirements.


Lectures will take place Tu 2–3:30 in 213 Wheeler. Attendance is expected. You will get the most out of lectures if you do the assigned reading before lecture, then again after lecture. Use the Study Questions to help guide you to most the important parts of the text.

My policy is not to allow use of laptops or mobile devices during lecture. It is just too distracting, both for you and for the people around you.

Discussion sections

Discussion sections will give you the opportunity to discuss course material in a small-group setting. All students who are taking the course for credit must be in a section. Section preferences will be solicited on Thursday, January 22. Section assignments will be posted on bCourses by Sunday, January 25. Section meetings will begin the week of January 26.

Academic Integrity

Plagiarism and cheating will not be tolerated in this course. Students caught plagiarizing will receive an F in the course. Please read the handout entitled “Plagiarism and Academic Integrity” (to be distributed with the first paper topics; also available on the web site), and review university policy at

As a tool to promote academic integrity in this course, written work submitted via bCourses may be checked for originality using Turnitin. For more information about Turnitin at UC Berkeley, visit

Contact Information

Professor MacFarlane’s office hours are W 2–4 and by appointment. His office is 231 Moses Hall. The best way to reach him is by email at .

Our GSIs are Umrao Sethi () and Ethan Jerzak (). Their offices are in 301 Moses Hall.


The course is divided into six units. We will begin by investigating the relation between language and thought. It is natural to think that the intentionality of language is completely derivative from the intentionality of thought. In Unit 1, we will look at some philosophers who start from this assumption. These philosophers explain what it is for an utterance to have a certain meaning in terms of the intentions with which it is produced. This approach assumes that the intentionality of thought can be understood prior to and independently of the intentionality of language. It therefore raises the question: what is it for a thought (say, a belief or intention) to have a certain meaning or content?

In Unit 2, we begin to consider the problem of fitting the intentionality of thought into our scientific story about the world. What is it for a natural object to have intentionality? Is it enough if the object behaves in a way that would naturally be interpreted as meaningful? Could a computer come to have intentionality simply by running the right kind of program? We will look at three radically different approaches (those of Dennett, Block, and Searle).

It is natural to think that the semantic properties of our thoughts depend only on how things are in our brains. In Unit 3, we will consider some thought experiments (due to Putnam and Burge) that put pressure on that assumption. These thought experiments, if cogent, show that what my mental states are about depends not just on facts about my brain, but on facts about my physical and social environment. (As Putnam puts it, “meanings just ain’t in the head.”) We will also consider some responses to the thought experiments by Searle and Chomsky.

So far, we have assumed that there are semantic facts. This, too, has been questioned. Quine has famously argued that it is an illusion to think that our words have definite meanings or our mental states definite contents. More precisely, he has argued that there is no fact of the matter about how another’s speech should be translated; translation manuals that differ wildly in their translation of particular expressions may be equally adequate to the facts. In Unit 4, we will consider Quine’s arguments for this surprising conclusion and some responses to them.

Davidson accepts some of Quine’s indeterminacy arguments but thinks that there is still a place for talk of meaning. In Unit 5, we will study his sophisticated view. Davidson rejects the idea that mental intentionality is more fundamental than linguistic meaning; on his view, the meanings of a speaker’s words and the contents of her mental states can only be understood in relation to each other, as parts of a single package. He also gives reasons for thinking that there can be no account of intentionality in natural-scientific terms.

Finally, in Unit 6, we will consider recent attempts by Dretske, Millikan, Fodor, and others to give reductive accounts of intentionality in scientifically acceptable terms, along with some criticisms of their proposals.