Regular seminars are the one radical interpretation and hermeneutics, a seminar on Wittgenstein’s later work, and one on issues in the philosophy of semantics.

Radical Interpretation, Hermeneutics and Forms of Life (course description)

The central topic of this course is the concept of interpretation and its relation to the concepts of understanding and linguistic competence.

It starts with a detailed study of the analytical approach of Quine and Davidson, focussing mainly on the latter’s work on radical interpretation and the Charity principle, on conceptual schemes and the causal theory of knowledge, and on metaphor and malapropisms.

Then it turns to the continental tradition of philosophical hermeneutics, in particular to the analyses that Heidegger and Gadamer have given of hermeneutic understanding and its threefold structure, of the role of language in hermeneutic understanding, and of the specific ontological presuppositions of their views.

Wittgenstein’s work on language games and ‘forms of life’, rule following and certainties is next. His views bring out the social dimensions of understanding and, concomittantly, also those of the understanding subject itself. This is given a more systematic formulation in Schatzki’s theory of social practices, which builds on insights from both the analytical and the continental traditions and which emphasizes not only the social but also the embodied aspects of interpretation and understanding.

The last part of the course is devoted to a comparison of the various approaches, and their consequences for the relation between philosophy, science and humanities.

Ethics, Ontology, Life: Wittgenstein’s Later work (course description)

The central topic of the course is the ontological and epistemological status of ethical values and religious beliefs in Wittgenstein’s later work.

This has a double meaning. First of all, there is the question of the contents of these values and beliefs. In his early work (Tractatus Notebooks) Wittgenstein proposed a concise, but relatively accessible picture of what ethical values are. In the main works of the later period, the Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, the topic of ethical values and religious beliefs does not occur, at least not explicitly. There are, however, a number of minor texts which do treat of these subjects, and they allow us to investigate to what extent Wittgenstein changed his views on the contents of ethics and religion over the years.

Secondly, there is the question of the place occupied by religious beliefs and ethical convictions in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Again, in the Tractatus period Wittgenstein gave a clear picture of how ordinary beliefs about the world relate to religious beliefs. As Wittgenstein’s views on epistemology and ontology and on the role of logic and philosophical analysis changed over the years, the question is whether and if so how this also affects the place attributed to religious beliefs and ethical convictions.

Since Wittgenstein’s thought of the Tractatus period in many ways serves as as a reference point for understanding his later views (cf., his own statement in the preface of the Philosophical Investigations that the ideas expressed there ‘could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking’), the course starts with an overview of Wittgenstein’s early views on ethics, drawing on the Tractatus, various passages in the Notebooks and the ‘Lecture on Ethics’.

After that it turns to Wittgenstein’s last work, On Certainty, in which he discusses extensively various epistemological issues, concerning knowledge and belief, doubt and scepticism, proof and certainty, form of life and ‘Weltanschauung’, and their relation with action, our biological nature and the external world. From this work, together with various passages from the Philosophical Investigations, we will derive, pace Wittgenstein’s own reluctance to formulate or defend systematic positions, something which we will call the ‘three tiers hypothesis’, which will provide us with a framework in which we can then position Wittgenstein’s views on religious beliefs and ethical values.

The contents of Wittgenstein’s views on religious beliefs and ethical values form the topic of the third part of the course. Here there will be an study in detail the ‘Lectures on Religious Belief’ (reconstructed from notes taken by his students), the ‘Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough‘, and some of the notes collected in Culture and Value. Another topic are Wittgenstein’s views on the work of Freud, which are relevant for the present topic, since according to Wittgenstein the freudian approach to the human psyche is much more akin to ethics and religion than it is to science. In keeping with the adage that ‘Ethics and aesthetics are one’ (Tractatus 6.421) we will study the ‘Lectures on Aesthetics’ as well.

The last part of the course is devoted to the complex problematic of the relation between biography and philosophy,i.e., ‘life and work’. Can biographical data have any relevance for our understanding of a philosophical work? And in wich cases and to what extent does a philosophers’s way of writing and thinking (the `style’ of the author) have any significance for understanding the work?

Philosophy of Semantics (course description)

Although formal semantics is a thriving and successful discipline, with a rich and varied literature that deals with numerous descriptive and theoretical issues, its methodology is a subject that has received relatively little attention so far. Yet, also in view of the increasing importance of new methodological paradigms (e.g., corpus-based and stochastic approaches, computer modelling techniques and new theoretical and descriptive challenges (such as the use of brain-imaging technologies) it seems opportune to inquire into the assumptions behind the methodology of formal semantics.

The starting point of this course is that formal semantics (in its various incarnations such as intensional semantics, dynamic semantics, game theoretic semantics) embodies a number of philosophical assumptions and conceptions that help shape both its object and its methodology. These assumptions often work in complicated ways that makes it difficult to recognise them and even harder to assess their actual effects. But they are there, and they need to be recognised for what they are.

Identification of these philosophical elements and recognition of the way in which they are assimilated minimally contributes to a better understanding of what formal semantics is and does. It also might help to gauge the possible relevance of philosophical debates concerning issues that involve the same assumptions and conceptions, and to get a better grip on the strengths and weaknesses of formal semantics vis à vis current methodological developments and challenges.