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Paul NicholsPaul Nichols

McClung Tower
Knoxville, TN 37996-0480

Phone: 86- 974-
Fax: 865-974-3509
Curriculum Vitae

I received my PhD in Philosophy from UCLA in 2014, an MA in Philosophy from UCLA in 2008, and a BA in Philosophy from Reed College in 2001.

My research in Philosophy of Language and related areas of Philosophy of Mind is guided by the insight that language must be understood in terms of its communicative function. In contrast to the logical languages which philosophers typically use as models for natural languages, English sentences have the structures and constituents that they have so that people will be able to understand what other people say. Therefore, if you want to know why an utterance contains a given expression, the fundamental question to ask is: how does that expression contribute to the audience’s ability to interpret the speaker’s message?

When we are specifically interested in the truth-conditional semantic content of an utterance, this fundamental question takes a specific form: how do the constituents of a sentence contribute to the audience’s ability to grasp its truth-conditional semantic content? My dissertation, “The Meaning and Semantics of Singular Noun Phrases,” gives an answer to part of this question in the form of a purely referential account of the semantics of singular definite noun phrases.

When we look systematically at the factors that influence the choice of words to refer to a given object we see that names, pronouns and definite descriptions are in complementary distribution with respect to the communicative requirements of the occasion of use. For example, consider the co-referential expressions ‘Barbara Herman’, ‘the Chair’, ‘the person who loaned me this book’, and ‘she’, to refer to the current Chair of the UCLA philosophy department. In a given context, a speaker’s choice amongst these co-referential expressions is mainly determined by her beliefs about how she can best help her audience to identify the thing she is talking about. She will therefore use expressions with different meanings to convey the same semantic content in different situations, depending on what it will take in that situation for the content to be understood.

Once we understand the difference between (i) the contribution of an expression to the audience’s ability to understand an utterance and (ii) its contribution to the semantic content of that utterance, we are in a position to solve some of the major problems of semantics. For example, the idea that meaning determines reference (or denotation) is the source of the problem of incomplete definite descriptions. This issue does not arise once the different roles of the meaning and the semantic content of noun phrases are properly distinguished.

The first chapter of the dissertation presents the core of the account as just described. The enclosed writing sample, “Referential Generality,” is based on this chapter and is currently under review at Linguistics and Philosophy. The second chapter applies the account developed in the first chapter to non-specific uses of definite descriptions. And the third chapter applies the results of the first two to the analysis of noun phrases in indirect discourse reports. Indirect discourse has been seen as an especially difficult topic for direct-reference theories. However, using the referential account of definite noun phrases developed in the first two chapters, I show that indirect discourse poses no special problems for the semantics of definite noun phrases.

My current work continues to be guided by the idea that language is structured to serve social ends. Thus far, I have argued for this thesis by showing the explanatory power of assuming its truth in semantic analysis. And, continuing in this vein, I am generalizing the account of singular definite noun phrases from my dissertation, with the aim of developing a unified, purely referential semantics of noun phrases. At the same time I am turning to a more direct defense and articulation of the fundamental guiding principle of my work: language is structured to serve social ends. I have chosen to approach this task by studying, ethnographically, the creation and consumption of logically structured discourses such as philosophical arguments. My hypothesis is that, in order for there to be logically structured discourses, it need not be the case that logic underlies all language. Rather, to understand the source of the logical structure in a given discourse, the thing to do is to look at how that logical structure is put into that discourse by those who actually engage in it.  Thus the study of our own discipline may yield better insights into the structure of natural languages such as English.

  • For a copy of my dissertation, “The Meaning and Semantics of Singular Noun Phrases,” click here.
  •  “A Unified Treatment of (Pro-)Nominals in Ordinary English” (with Joseph Almog and Jessica Pepp, in On Reference, Oxford University Press, January 2015)

“Reference and Communication”

  • Devices of Reference, Center for the Study of Mind in Nature, University of Oslo, June 2015

“The Meaning and Semantics of Singular Noun Phrases”

  • KaplanFest: in honor of Professor David Kaplan’s 80th birthday, UCLA Philosophy Department, April 2014

“A Unified Account of Definite Description Ambiguities without Logical Forms”

  • SynSem, UCLA Linguistics Department, November 2013    

“Definite Descriptions are Directly Referential”

  • Parma Workshop on Semantics and Pragmatics, September 2013

“Irony and Semantics”

  • Language Workshop at UCLA, November 2012

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