‘If the tram is late, she’ll get a cab’; ‘if I don’t see you tomorrow, we can meet next week’; ‘if we don’t fix our taxation system, our government will go bankrupt’. These are conditionals, specifically indicative conditionals. We use these sentences all the time, in every context, and they are a vital part of our mental and linguistic activities. We couldn’t get by without them. Everyone knows how to use them. And yet, they have proved incredibly resistant to philosophical explanation. There is absolutely no agreed upon theory of them, though there are many theories out there. As philosophy of language has developed, and sheared off into linguistics – particularly linguistic semantics – more sophisticated tools have been developed to explain conditionals, and yet still there’s no agreement. Philosophers don’t even agree on what would make a good theory of conditionals! So conditionals present the perfect philosophical topic: they are really important to our lives, everyone knows how to use them in ordinary life, and yet…we have no theory of them. However, there has been significant philosophical progress in recent decades; perhaps we’re not far off a solution.
Students who complete this course will gain an understanding of the most popular theories of conditionals in analytic philosophy of language, the data those theories are trying to explain, the arguments for and against these theories, and disagreements between philosophers about the status of these things.
Assessment for this course will be by:
- Three short homework assignments due in week 4, week 7, week 11. These are worth 10% of the final grade each. These will test your understanding of the material in the weeks between each deadline.
- An in-class exam in week 12. This is worth 70% of the final grade. This will involve further tests of understanding and tests of your ability to evaluate the theories we’ve discussed.
No formal prerequisites. However, this course does involve some technical elements, so students who take it must be familiar with first-order logic. It would also be really helpful to be familiar with the basic concepts of set theory and probability. If you have any questions about the suitability of your background for this course, please do get in touch and we can talk about it. I am also happy to give suggestions for preparatory reading. However please also note that I will spend the first session laying out the groundwork for these debates, including the formal/technical apparatus that we’ll often be using, and I will spend time rehearsing and carefully explaining these elements as we go through the course. So please don’t be put off if you’re interested in these topics but aren’t familiar with formal semantics or logic beyond standard first-order logic!