My main areas of research are in the philosophy of language and metaethics, specifically on the topics of racial slurs, structured propositions, and normative language, generally. I have additional interests in philosophy of mind, philosophy of race, and philosophical logic.
"The Semantics of Racial Epithets", Journal of Philosophy, 2008 Abstract | Online
Racial epithets are derogatory expressions, understood to convey contempt toward their targets. But what do they actually mean, if anything? While the prevailing view is that epithets are to be explained pragmatically, I argue that a careful consideration of the data strongly supports a particular semantic theory. I call this view Combinatorial Externalism (CE). CE holds that epithets express complex properties that are determined by the discriminatory practices and stereotypes of their corresponding racist institutions. Depending on the character of the institution, the complex semantic value can be composed of a variety of components. The account has significant implications on theoretical, as well as, practical dimensions, providing new arguments against radical contextualism, and for the exclusion of certain epithets from First Amendment speech protection.
The norms surrounding pejorative language, such as racial slurs and swear words, are deeply prohibitive. Pejoratives are typically a means for speakers to express their derogatory attitudes. Because these attitudes vary along many dimensions and magnitudes, they initially appear to be resistant to a truth-conditional, semantic analysis. The goal of the paper is to clarify the essential linguistic phenomena surrounding pejoratives, survey the logical space of explanatory theories, evaluate each with respect to the phenomena, and provide a preliminary assessment of the initial resistance to a truth-conditional analysis
"A Puzzle About Pejoratives", Philosophical Studies, 2012 Abstract | Online
Pejoratives are the class of expressions that are meant to insult or disparage. They include swear words and slurs. These words allow speakers to convey emotional states beyond the truth-conditional contents that they are normally taken to encode. The puzzle arises because, although pejoratives seem to be a semantically unified class, some of their occurrences are best accounted for truth-conditionally, while others are best accounted for non-truth-conditionally. Where current, non-truth-conditional, views in the literature fail to provide a unified solution for the puzzle, this paper motivates a novel, semantic, analysis of pejorative language. The significance of the proposed solution is not only linguistic in nature, but also philosophical, as it both provides a new argument for, and sheds further light on, the nature of semantic externalism.
"Unity and the Frege-Geach Problem" (w/J. Schwartz), Philosophical Studies, 2013 Abstract | Online
The problem of the unity of the proposition asks what binds together the constituents of a proposition into a fully formed proposition that provides truth conditions for the assertoric sentence that expresses it, rather than merely a set of objects. Hanks’ solution is to reject the traditional distinction between content and force. If his theory is successful, then there is a plausible extension that readily solves the Frege-Geach problem for normative propositions. Unfortunately Hanks’ theory isn’t successful, but it does point to significant connections between expressivism, unity and embedding.
The following facts are straightforwardly unproblematic from a moral point of view: that no Chinese are chinks, that there are no chinks, but that there are Chinese people. The goal of the paper is to provide a general, explanatory, account of the logical form of sentences expressing such facts. We contend that pejorative terms like ‘chink’ have empty extensions, and that this follows from a deeper analysis of pejorative terms as the phonological realization of a more complex syntactic construction. The semantic result is what we call the null-extension hypothesis for pejorative terms. In contrast, the prevailing view is that the referents of pejorative terms are identical to those of their corresponding correlates (e.g. that ‘chink’ and ‘Chinese’ each refer to the same class of individuals). Call this the identity thesis. We argue that there is no coherent defense of the identity thesis that remains morally innocent.
"The Inconsistency of the Identity Thesis" (w/R. May), ProtoSociology Volume 31: Language and Value, 2014. Abstract | Online
In theorizing about racial pejoratives, an initially attractive view is that pejoratives have the same reference as their “neutral counterparts”. Call this the identity thesis. According to this thesis, the terms “kike” and “Jew”, for instance, pick out the same set of people. To be a Jew just is to be a kike, and so to make claims about Jews just is to make claims about kikes. In this way, the two words are synonymous, and so make the same contribution to the truth-conditions of sentences containing them. While the fundamental claim for the identity thesis that Jews are kikes sounds anti-semitic, it need not be actually anti-semitic. The identity thesis is usually bolstered with the further claim that the pejorative aspect of “kike” and other such terms is located elsewhere than in truth-conditional content, so what makes “kike” a bad word is a non-truth-conditional association with anti-semitism that is not shared with the word “Jew”. The exact nature and location of the negative moral content of pejoratives is a matter of some dispute among identity theorists. But whatever the intuitive appeal of the identity theory for those persuaded by such views, it is nevertheless inconsistent.
"Why the Negation Problem Is Not a Problem for Expressivism" (w/J. Schwartz), Noûs, 2015 Abstract | Online
The Negation Problem states that expressivism has insufficient structure to account for the various ways in which a moral sentence can be negated. We argue that the Negation Problem does not arise for expressivist accounts of all normative language but arises only for the specific examples on which expressivists usually focus. In support of this claim, we argue for the following three theses: 1) A problem that is structurally identical to the Negation Problem arises in non-normative cases, and this problem is solved once the hidden quantificational structure involved in such cases is uncovered; 2) the terms ‘required’, ‘permissible’, and ‘forbidden’ can also be analyzed in terms of hidden quantificational structure, and the Negation Problem disappears once this hidden structure is uncovered; 3) the Negation Problem does not arise for normative language that has no hidden quantificational structure. We conclude that the Negation Problem is not really a problem about expressivism at all but is rather a feature of the quantificational structure of the required, permitted, and forbidden.
"Pejoratives as Fiction" (w/R. May), in D. Sosa, ed., Bad Words: Philosophical Perspectives on Slurs, Oxford University Press, 2018 Abstract | Draft
Fictional terms are terms that have null extensions, and in this regard pejorative terms are a species of fictional terms: although there are Jews, there are no kikes. That pejoratives are fictions is the central consequence of the Moral and Semantic Innocence (MSI) view of Hom et al. (2013). There it is shown that for pejoratives, null extensionality is the semantic realization of the moral fact that no one ought to be the target of negative moral evaluation solely in virtue of their group membership. In having null extensions, pejorative terms are much like mythological terms like ‘unicorn horn’ that express concepts with empty extensions, even though it was thought otherwise: people who falsely believed the mythology were mislead into thinking that ordinary objects (i.e. whale tusks) were magical objects, and pejoratives terms work likewise. For example, the term ‘kike’ is supported by the ideology of anti-Semitism, and speakers who fall prey to its influence (perniciously or not) are mislead into thinking that ordinary people (i.e. Jews) are inherently worthy of contempt. In this paper, we explore the consequences of this parallelism, with an eye to criticisms of MSI. In particular, we will re-visit identity expressivist views - those that hold that there are kikes and that they are Jews, and hence deny null extensionality - arguing that this embeds a mistake of fiction for fact. Among the issues to be discussed are the role of fictional truth in understanding pejorative sentences and the relation of the semantics of pejoratives to offensive use of language. We conclude with meta-semantic reflections on the origins of word meanings.
"Slurs, Assertion and Predication", in S. Goldberg, ed., Oxford Handbook on Assertion, Oxford University Press, 2020 Abstract | Draft
A multidimensional account of the meanings of slurs holds that a slur has both literal, truth-conditional content (which is neutral) and conventional implicature (which is derogatory). This paper offers a careful examination of the motivations and commitments for a multidimensional account and argues that the theoretic costs for such a view are prohibitive. One of the primary motivations for a multidimensional account over a purely truth-conditional account is the apparent wide-scoping phenomenon of slurs (e.g. that derogatory content does not seem cancellable under negation). The paper argues that carefully distinguishing between predication and assertion not only dispels the misconception that the phenomena in question is centrally about scope but also vindicates the purely truth-conditional account as a more general and unified explanation.
Hanks (Propositional content, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2015) develops a theory of propositions as speech-act types. Because speech acts play a role in the contents themselves, the view overturns Frege’s force/content distinction, and as such, faces the challenge of explaining how propositions embed under logical operators like negation. The attempt to solve this problem has lead Hanks and his recent commentators to adopt theoretically exotic resources, none of which, we argue, is ultimately successful. The problem is that although there are three different ways of negating the sentence “Mary’s card is an ace”, current speech-act theories of propositions can only accommodate two of them. We distinguish between (1) “It is false that Mary’s card is an ace” (sentence negation), (2) “Mary’s card is a non-ace” (predicate negation), and (3) “Mary’s card is not an ace” (content negation) and show that Hanks and his commentators cannot explain content negation. We call this Hanks’ Negation Problem. The problem is significant because content negation is the negation required for logic. Fortunately, we think there is a natural way for Hanks to accommodate content negation (and all the other logical operators) as successive acts of predication. The view solves Hanks’ Negation Problem with only resources internal to Hanks’ own view.
"Preliminaries for a Speech-Act Theory of Imperative Content"(w/J. Schwartz), to appear in G. Mras & M. Schmitz, eds., Force, Content and the Unity of the Proposition, Routledge Abstract
Speech-act theories of meaning have enjoyed a rise in prominence with Hanks (2015) and Soames (2015). Both focus the vast majority of their attention on providing an analysis of the semantic contents of assertions, and more or less assume the extension of their accounts to
questions and commands. This paper examines two foundational issues that arise when attempting to extend the speech-act analysis to imperatives. The first issue is that because imperatives successfully embed under logical operators like disjunction, a version of the Frege-Geach problem arises. The second issue is that embedding under negation forces any such theory to make transparent how contradictory commands are to be represented. We argue that both issues can be adequately addressed by an extension of the account in Hanks (2015), and therefore Hanks’ view should be considered a viable overall theory for the semantics of imperatives.
Start early, and expect to spend a lot of time, energy, and money.
Request a copy of the recommended application calendar from the DGS.
In consultation with faculty, pick an ‘A’ seminar paper at the end of your first year to work on as a writing sample.
Spend the summer taking this paper to the next level (i.e. it would make for a strong conference presentation).
Consider taking a GRE prep course in the summer, however GRE scores are becoming less important.
Have a polished draft of your writing sample to show your letter writers as early as possible in your second year.
Consult with your letter writers about your list of applications. My advice is to apply to 20 or more, and distribute them on the latest PGR ranking according to your interests and your risk preference. I would advise against attending any PhD program that is unranked.