Philosophy of Language and Computation II, Spring 2023

ETH Zürich: Course catalog (with Case Study), Course catalog

Course Description

This graduate class, taught like a seminar, is designed to help you understand the philosophical underpinnings of modern work in natural language processing (NLP), most of which is centered around deep learning applied to natural language data. The course will alternate between presentations, most of which are given by students enrolled in the course, about the assigned text, structured comments by the professors, and discussion-based teaching on the topics of each class (i.e., all involved will be seated in a circle of desks to facilitate discussion). The course is a year-long journey, but the second half (Spring 2023) does not depend on the first (Fall 2022) and thus either half may be taken independently. In each semester, we divide the class time into three modules. Each module focuses on a philosophical topic. In the first semester we will discuss logic and language, structuralism, and recursive structure. And, in the second semester we will focus on language games, information theory, and pragmatics. The modules will be four weeks long. During the first two weeks of a module, we will read and discuss original texts and supplementary criticism. During the second two weeks, we will read recent NLP papers and discuss how the authors of those works are building on philosophical insights into our conception of language—perhaps implicitly or unwittingly.

The course will require a weekly reading of around 20 pages (with relatively high variance at times) and a weekly free-form responses to the reading, which is to be completed online. The mandatory readings for every week are bolded in the syllabus below. The weekly tasks are short and not graded, but, in order to pass the class, at least 70% of the tasks must be completed. See this document for the guidelines on the free-form responses. There are two modalities to pass this course, corresponding to the catalog courses 263-5353-10L “Philosophy of Language and Computation II (with Case Study)” and 263-5353-20L “Philosophy of Language and Computation II”. Students should be registered in the right catalog course from the beginning of the semester (changing the modality after the registration period is closed will not be allowed). The first modality (263-5353-10L) offers 5 ECTS. The final grade will be based, in equal parts, on three class presentations and/or term papers (each around 5-10 pages). The students must write at least one term paper and are allowed to do any combination of the class presentation and term papers they like for the the other two. The second modality (263-5353-20L) offers 3 ECTS. The final grade will be based, in equal parts, on one class presentation and one term paper (around 5-10 pages). Term papers are to be turned at the latest one week before the start of the exam period. Students must write term papers on modules other than the one for which they have made a presentation. They will be expected to explore the relation of the topics discussed in class to work not presented in the class, focusing on the connection between the philosophy of language and NLP. For example, discussing how three recent NLP papers implicitly assumed a Wittgensteinian perspective on language would be a good topic.


Marks for the course will be determined by the following formula:

263-5353-10L (5 ECTS):

  • 1 / 3 Term paper 1
  • 1 / 3 Class presentation or Term paper 2
  • 1 / 3 Class presentation or Term paper 3

263-5353-20L (3 ECTS):

  • 1 / 2 Class presentation
  • 1 / 2 Term paper

More detailed instructions about the paper and presentation requirements can be found here:


Tue 10-12, CHN D 29. The lectures will be given in person. This recurring Zoom meeting will be used throughout the semester for people who want to tune in remotely. The password can be found on the course Moodle page. The Zoom recordings will be made available on the course Moodle page.

Discussion Sections: Tue 12-13 CHN D 29.

Course Live Chat: To provide an easier way to communicate with the teaching team and your colleagues, we have set up a course chat server. We use RocketChat and the server is hosted on ETH servers. We encourage you to sign up and participate in the discussions there.

Important: There are three important points you should keep in mind about the course live chat:

  1. RocketChat will be the main communications hub for the course. You are responsible for receiving all messages broadcast in the RocketChat.
  2. Your username should be firstname.lastname. This is required as we will only allow enrolled students to participate in the chat and we will remove users which we cannot validate.
  3. We highly recommend you download the desktop app here.

Class Materials


12.2   Class website is online!

Syllabus and Schedule

Week Date Module Material Reading
1 21.2.23 Introduction Slides
2 28.2.23 Language Games:
Meaning from Usage
Slides Wittgenstein (1922)
3 7.3.23 Slides Wittgenstein (1953)
4 14.3.23 Slides Andreas (2018), Khani et al. (2018)
5 21.3.23 Slides Wang et al. (2016), Lazaridou et al. (2017)
Secondary Literature: Wittgenstein (1956), Lyotard (1988)
6 28.3.23 Information:
Language as a Communicative Tool
Slides Shannon and Weaver (1968)
7 4.4.23 Slides Wiener (1950) [Ch. IV],
8 18.4.23 Slides Gibson et al. (2019), Cotterell et al. (2019)
9 25.4.23 Slides Piantadosi et al. (2011), Pimentel et al. (2020), Pimentel et al. (2021)
Secondary Literature: Shannon (1951), Shannon (1993), Cover and Thomas (2006) [Ch. 2, 5, 7], Zipf (1942), Mandelbrot (1953), Leinster (2020), Jonas (1953), Information-Theoretic Approaches to Linguistics
10 2.5.23 Pragmatics:
the Meaning Beyond Semantics
Austin (1962)
11 9.5.23 Grice (1957), Grice (1975), Searle (1980)
12 16.5.23 Monroe and Potts (2015), Andreas and Klein (2016), Degen (2023), Zaslavsky et al. (2021), Vogel et al. (2013), Vogel et al. (2013)
13 23.5.23 Bender and Koller (2020), Merrill and Goldberg (2021), Piantadosi (2022), Andreas (2022)
Secondary Literature: Wolf (2018), Deleuze (1980), Derrida (1988)
14 30.5.23 Conclusions


You can ask questions on the course chat server. Please post questions there, so others can see them and join the discussion. If you have questions which are not of general interest, please don’t hesitate to contact us directly, i.e., email the lecturers with the TAs cc-ed.

Philosophy of Language and Computation Lecturers


Ryan Cotterell

Assistant Professor of Computer Science

ETH Zürich

Philosophy of Language and Computation Teaching Assistants