Speech, Free Speech and Power




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This module combines some philosophy of language with some questions from the feminist literature and from political/social philosophy more generally. We shall think about the workings of language; and about sorts of words and practices that count as speech whose use may be thought to be to the detriment of members of particular social groups. The 1980s saw much writing on

sexist language

. The 1990s saw much writing on the idea that


may be treated as a sort of speech act (serving, it was claimed, to silence and subordinate women). The 2000s saw much writing on

“slur words”


“hate speech”

(principally racist hate speech). And now, in the 2010s, there is a growing literature on the understanding of


, and of how the use of generics may contribute to the phenomenon of stereotyping. The aim of the module is to discuss some of this literature, and its philosophical background.

The lectures and seminars will intersperse some elementary philosophy of language with treatments of speech phenomena that have been subjected to criticism. In philosophy of language, we’ll consider (a)

speech act theory

and its place in an overall account of language, (b) the idea of speech as


, and (c) how certain bits of language work where these have particular relevance to questions about language and power—specifically (i) sexist language, (ii) slur words and (iii) generics. Discussion of these will be undertaken in light of the questions “What justifies a right to free speech and expression?” and “What should be meant by ‘speech’ in the context ‘free speech’?”

We shall consider what sense can be made of the idea that some speakers, by virtue of their membership of relatively powerless groups, are “silenced”, thus making connections with what some have claimed—that “unfettered free speech” sustains relations of power.

Preliminary Reading:

Deborah Cameron,

More Heat Than Light: Sex Difference Science and the Study of


Ronsdale Press, Vancouver (2013). 32pp.

[There is a reference copy (as well as a copy for loan) in Birkbeck Library.]

Jennifer Saul, “Feminism in Philosophy of Language”. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-language/

Rae Langton: an interview. http://politicalphilosopher.net/2014/03/02/featured-philosop-her-rae-langton/

Lectures: The lectures for this module will be held in **, on Wednesdays from 2

3pm in the Autumn Term. The lecturer is Prof. Jennifer Hornsby

( [email protected]


Seminars: The seminars for this module will be held in **, on Wednesdays from 3

4pm in the Autumn Term. They will be led by the lecturer and by **.

Readings: Every week there is one key seminar reading. It is important that you attempt this set reading each week in order to participate in the seminar discussion. The lecture one week ahead of each seminar will introduce some questions (which may relate to lecture material as well as the set reading) for seminar discussion.

Further readings are set for essay topics (see below).


Essay (MA): This module is assessed by two essays to a combined total of around 3,500 words. It must be written in response to one of the set questions contained in the list on moodle,

except with permission from the module convenor

. For details concerning submission of the essay, including deadlines, see the MA Handbook.

Essays (BA): This module is assessed by one


two essays totaling around 3,000 words. It/they must be written in response to one/two of the set questions listed on module,

except with permission from the module convenor

. For details concerning submission of the essay, including deadlines, see the BA Handbook.

You may write up to two essays during the course—either taken from the titles on moodle or deriving directly from a lecture or a set reading—and receive feedback on these from your seminar leader. Essays written during the course can be useful practice for your eventual assessed essay. They can be submitted to your seminar leader at any time, except that the very latest for a first such essay to reach your seminar leader is noon on 6 th

Nov, and for a second such essay noon on 17 th

Dec. [Note: the seminar leader should not be expected to comment on the same essay more than once.]

Moodle: Electronic copies of course materials are available through Moodle, at http://moodle.bbk.ac.uk

. You will need your ITS login name and password to enter.

On moodle, there will also be a list of essay questions for assessed essays, and readings for each.

What follows are: (a) for each week, an indication of the


’s content,

and the

set reading

for the seminar that week.

Note: In some cases, it has only been possible to put onto moodle short extracts from a text set for a particular seminar. The last 5 minutes of each lecture will introduce the reading for the subsequent week filling in the gaps where necessary; and it will suggest some questions to think about in preparation for the seminar.

(b) Two

essay topics with reading lists

relating to material in the

first four weeks of the course.

Note: A further four topics with readings will be posted on moodle before Reading Week.

Week 1 (1 st


In the lecture, we’ll consider what questions philosophers of language ask, and the sorts of answers they give. The seminar reading introduces a sociolinguistic perspective on the use of language.

Seminar Reading:

Sally McConnell-Ginet “Gender, Sexuality, and meaning: an overview”. Extracts from Ch1 of

Gender, Sexuality, and Meaning: Linguistic Practice and Politics

(Oxford University Press 2011.

Week 2 (8 th


The lecture will be on speech act theory, which treats what speakers may do using words. It will consider the idea of speech acts as distinctively


acts, and introduce some applications of speech act theory.

Seminar Reading:

Jennifer Hornsby

“Disempowered Speech”.

Philosophical Topics

, 23 (2): 127–147.


Feminist Perspectives on Language, Knowledge and Reality

, ed. Sally Haslanger.]


Week 3: (15 th


The lecture will consider what has been meant by, and might still be meant by “sexist language”. It will also introduce some questions about speech and harm.

Seminar Reading:

Mercier, A., 1995, “A Perverse Case of the Contingent A Priori: On the Logic of

Emasculating Language”.

Philosophical Topics 23 (2)


Week 4 (22 nd


The lecture will discuss two ideas of injustice—“testimonial” and “hermeneutic”— which are the themes of Miranda Fricker’s book

Epistemic Injustice

. It will link these ideas to questions about speech, “silencing” and power. The set reading concerns hermeneutic injustice.

Seminar Reading:

Miranda Fricker, “Powerlessness and Social Interpretation”,

Episteme: A Journal of

Social Epistemology

2006, 96-108.

Available at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/episteme/v003/3.1fricker.html

Week 5 (29 th


The lecture will be on the right to free speech, and its justification. We’ll look at how the right is understood in the U.N. and various other constitutions, and how it has come popularly to be understood.

Seminar Reading:

Abigail Levin, Extract from Ch2,

Equality, Liberty and Hard Cases”,

The Cost of

Free Speech: Pornography, Hate Speech, and their Challenge to Liberalism


Palgrave Macmillan 2010.

Monday 3rd– Friday 7 th

November is READING WEEK

Week 6 (12 th


The lecture will consider the idea of hate speech, and the extent to which it might be correct to think that mere speech never did anyone any harm.

Seminar Reading:

Draft of Ishani Maitra, “Subordinating Speech”. Now printed in

Speech & Harm:

Controversies Over Free Speech

(Oxford University Press 2012).

Week 7 (19 th


In the U.S.A the publication and consumption of pornographic material has been taken to be protected by the right to free speech. The seminar reading is a defense of freedom to consume pornographic material without subsuming it under the head of “speech”. The lecture will be concerned with the question whether pornography should be treated as speech.

Seminar Reading:

Andrew Altman, “The Right to Get Turned on: Pornography, Autonomy, Equality”,

Essay 20 in

Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics

, eds. Andrew I. Cohen and

Christopher Heath Wellman. Blackwell Publishing, 2014.


Week 8 (26 th


The lecture will be concerned with so-called implicit bias, and stereotyping. We shall look at generic sentences, and consider whether these and other uses of language might perpetuate bias or stereotyping.

Seminar Reading:

Lawrence Blum “Stereotypes and Stereotyping: A Moral Analysis” in W. Jones & T.

Martin eds.

Immoral Believing

, Special Issue of

Philosophical Papers

, 33 no. 3

(Nov. 2004), 251-89. http://philpapers.org/archive/LAWSAS-2.pdf

Week 9 (3 rd


The lecture will be concerned with how racial epithets should be treated by a philosopher of language. We’ll think about these treatments in the context of a discussion of how the behavior of these words might bear on questions about free speech and hate speech. The set reading is concerned with “slurs”, arguably a sub-category of such epithets.

Seminar Reading:

Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore “Slurring Words”, Noûs 2013



Week 10 (10 th


The lecture will review the term, make connections between different themes, and think about some questions of free speech as they may arise in the U.K.at present.

Seminar Reading:

Rae Langton, Sally Haslanger and Luvell Anderson (co-authors) “Language and

Race”, in

Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Language

,, eds. Gillian Russell and Delia Graff Fara (Routledge 2012). https://www.academia.edu/3386978/2012_Language_and_Race

Essay topics, with readings (more to follow on moodle)


“Sexist Language”. Some people criticize some language as “sexist language”.

What examples are there of such language? Explain the critics’ arguments.

Is the use of language that they would criticize always/sometimes/never defensible?


Mercier (set for week 3)

Saul, J. 2010, ‘Feminism in Philosophy of Language’: Stanford Encylopaedia article online at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-language/

Bodine, A. 1998. “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar”, in

Language in Society 4


Reprinted in Cameron D. (ed.)

The Feminist Critique of Language

, 2nd edition

(Routledge, 1998)

Erlich, S. & King, R. 1998. “Gender-based language reform and the social construction of meaning”, in

Discourse and Society 3:

1515–66. Reprinted in Cameron, D.

(ed. — as above), and also in Jackson, Stevi et al. eds. 1993,

Women’s Studies: A Reader.



“Speech Acts”. What is meant by a speech act? Why might one think that it assisted the study of language to introduce the idea of a speech act? Why might one think that it assisted an understanding of the social world to introduce the idea of a speech act?


Hornsby (set for week 2), and Fricker (set for week 4).

Kent Bach, ‘Speech Acts’.

Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

entry. Online at: http://online.sfsu.edu/kbach/spchacts.html

Langton, Rae, 1993, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, Philosophy and Public

Affairs 22 (4):293-330 (1993 (and reprinted in her

Sexual Solipsism

(O.U.P 2011 and available at Oxford Scholarship Online), and also online at http://web.mit.edu/langton/www/pubs/SpeechActs.pdf

[Note: this article looks forward to material we’ll be covering later in the course, but provides an illustration of how speech act theory may be applied.]