Philosophy of Language and Computation I, Spring 2024

ETH Zürich: Course catalog

Course Description

This graduate class, partly taught like a seminar, is designed to help you understand the philosophical underpinnings of modern work in natural language processing (NLP), most of which centered around statistical machine learning applied to natural language data. The course will alternate between presentations given by the professors and by students enrolled in the course, followed by discussion-based teaching on the topics of each class. The course is a year-long journey, but the second half (Autumn 2024) does not depend on the first (Spring 2024) and thus either half may be taken independently. In each semester, we divide the class time into three modules. Each module is centered around a philosophical topic. In the first semester we will discuss logicism, structuralism, and generative linguistics, and in the second semester we will focus on language games, information and pragmatics. The modules will be four weeks long, where we will read and discuss original texts and supplementary criticism together with 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) and a weekly task (free-form response) related to the reading, which is to be completed online. 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. The final grade will be based on one class presentation and one term paper (around 5-10 pages) which is to be turned in at the end of the semester. The term paper ideally corresponds to one of the three modules and the students will be expected to explore the relation of the topics discussed in class to work not presented in the class. For example, discussing how three recent NLP papers implicitly assumed a structuralist perspective on language would be a good topic.


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

  • 40% Class presentation
  • 60% Term paper

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


Lectures: Tue 18-19, ML F 38. The lectures will be given in person. This recurring Zoom meeting (ID: 662 5551 6731) will be used throughout the semester for people who want to tune in remotely. However, given the discussion based character of this course, in person participation is strongly encouraged. 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 19-20 ML F 38.

Communication Moodle will be the main communication hub for the course. You are responsible for receiving all messages broadcast in Moodle

Class Materials


17.2   Class website is online!

Syllabus and Schedule

Week Date Module Topic Material Reading
1 20.02.24 Introduction Images of Language Introduction Slides Borges (1940a), Borges (1940a) in Spanish, Borges (1940b), Borges (1940b) in Spanish, Borges (1942) Borges (1942) in Spanish
2 27.02.24 Language and Logic:
Formal Representations of Meaning
Meaning: Between Sense and Denotation Intro to Module 1 Slides Frege (1892), Frege (1892) in German, Russell (1905)
3 05.03.24 Formal and Natural Language Carnap Slides, Montague Slides Carnap (1955), Montague (1970)
4 12.03.24 Semantic Compositionality in Distributional Settings Baroni et al. Slides 1, Baroni et al. Slides 2 Baroni et al. (2014)
5 19.03.24 Logic, Compositionality, and Neural Nets Zettlemoyer and Collins (2005), Andreas (2019)
6 26.03.24 Structuralism:
The Search for the Right Units
Structural Dualities Saussure (1916), Saussure (1916) in French,
7 09.04.24 Structure and Meaning Harris (1954), Greimas (1966), Greimas (1966) in French
8 16.04.24 The Right Linguistic Units Goldsmith (2001), Kim et al. (2015), Sennrich et al. (2016), Vania et al. (2018), Nawrot et al. (2023)
9 23.04.24 Arbitrariness of the Sign Gutiérrez et al. (2016), Pimentel et al. (2019), Pimentel et al. (2021)
10 30.04.24 Recursive Structure:
The Escherian Nature of Language
Syntax vs. Distribution, Logic, and Behavior Chomsky (1953), Chomsky (1955), Chomsky (1959)
11 07.05.24 Syntactic Structures Chomsky (1957), Chomsky (1956),
12 14.05.24 Syntactic Parsing—NLP’s Original Leaderboard Charniak (2000), Hall et al. (2014), Vinyals et al. (2014), Dyer et al. (2016),
13 21.05.24 Computational Approaches to Human Syntactic Processing Hale (2016), Hale (2001), Levy and Jaeger (2007), Delétang et al. (2022)
14 28.05.24 Conclusion

Secondary Literature

Module Topic Reading
Language and Logic:
Formal Representations of Meaning
Philosophy Ajdukiewicz (1936), Carnap (1947), Lambek (1958), Davidson (1967), Lewis (1970)
NLP Steedman (1996), Wang and Eisner (2016), Lake and Baroni (2018), Ravfogel et al. (2019), White and Cotterell (2021)
The Search for the Right Units
Philosophy Hjelmslev (1943), Harris (1951), Firth (1957), Hocket (1960), Gastaldi (2021)
NLP Mielke and Eisner (2019), Nikkarinen et al. (2021), Mielke et al. (2021)
Recursive Structure:
The Escherian Nature of Language
Philosophy Piantadosi (2023), Chomsky et al. (2023)
NLP Klein and Manning (2003), Meister et al. (2021), Kitaev et al. (2022)


You can ask questions on the Moodle forum. 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