The Four Best Books on the Philosophy of Language

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This page contains a list of the four best books on the philosophy of language. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on language” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works on language. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on language. Here are the best books on language in no particular order:

Philosophy of Language – Scott Soames

Category: Short Introduction | Length: 200 pages | Published: 2012

Publisher description: In this book one of the world’s foremost philosophers of language presents his unifying vision of the field–its principal achievements, its most pressing current questions, and its most promising future directions. In addition to explaining the progress philosophers have made toward creating a theoretical framework for the study of language, Scott Soames investigates foundational concepts–such as truth, reference, and meaning–that are central to the philosophy of language and important to philosophy as a whole. The first part of the book describes how philosophers from Frege, Russell, Tarski, and Carnap to Kripke, Kaplan, and Montague developed precise techniques for understanding the languages of logic and mathematics, and how these techniques have been refined and extended to the study of natural human languages. The book then builds on this account, exploring new thinking about propositions, possibility, and the relationship between meaning, assertion, and other aspects of language use.

An invaluable overview of the philosophy of language by one of its most important practitioners, this book will be essential reading for all serious students of philosophy.

Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary IntroductionWilliam G Lycan

Category: Introduction | Length: 240 pages | Published: 2008

Publisher description: Philosophy of Language: A Contemporary Introduction introduces the student to the main issues and theories in twentieth century philosophy of language, focusing specifically on linguistic phenomena.

Topics are structured in four parts in the book. Part I, Reference and Referring Expressions, includes topics such as Russell’s Theory of Desciptions, Donnellan’s distinction, problems of anaphora, the description theory of proper names, Searle’s cluster theory, and the causal-historical theory. Part II, Theories of Meaning, surveys the competing theories of linguistic meaning and compares their various advantages and liabilities. Part III, Pragmatics and Speech Acts, introduces the basic concepts of linguistic pragmatics, includes a detailed discussion of the problem of indirect force and surveys approaches to metaphor. Part IV, new to this edition, examines the four theories of metaphor.

The Philosophy of Language – Martinich & Sosa

Category: Anthology | Length: 752 pages | Published: 2012

Publisher description: What is meaning? How is linguistic communication possible? What is the nature of language? What is the relationship between language and the world? How do metaphors work? The Philosophy of Language, Sixth Edition, is an excellent introduction to such fundamental questions.

Incorporating insights from new coeditor David Sosa, the sixth edition collects forty-eight of the most important articles in the field, making it the most up-to-date and comprehensive volume on the subject. Revised to address changing trends and contemporary developments, the sixth edition features eighteen new articles, including influential work by Kent Bach, Paul Boghossian, M. A. E. Dummett, Delia Graff Fara, Hartry Field, H. P. Grice and P.F. Strawson, Carl G. Hempel, Saul Kripke, Benson Mates, Hilary Putnam, Diana Raffman, Nathan Salmon, Stephen Schiffer, John R. Searle, Roy Sorenson, David Sosa, Dennis Stampe, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. A general introduction and introductions to each section give students background to the issues and explain the connections between them. A bibliography of suggested further reading follows each section.

The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language – Lepore & Smith

Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 1083 pages | Published: 2008

Publisher description: Ernie Lepore and Barry Smith present the definitive reference work for this diverse and fertile field of philosophy. A superb international team contribute more than forty brand-new essays covering topics from the nature of language to meaning, truth, and reference, and the interfaces of philosophy of language with linguistics, psychology, logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. It will be an essential resource for anyone working in the central areas of philosophy, for linguists interested in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, and for psychologists and cognitive scientists working on language.


This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

Bibliographies:

Other Recommendations:

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