• Kai von Fintel, professor of linguistics and associate dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

    Kai von Fintel, professor of linguistics and associate dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

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  • Agustín Rayo, associate professor of philosophy, MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

    Agustín Rayo, associate professor of philosophy, MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences

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Philosopher’s Annual 'ten best' selection for von Fintel and Rayo

Kai von Fintel, professor of linguistics and associate dean of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences


Articles by two members of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences faculty have been published in The Philosopher's Annual "ten best" philosophy articles of 2008. 

  • "CIA Leaks," authored by Kai von Fintel, professor of linguistics and associate dean of the school, and Anthony S. Gillies, associate professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, appeared in Philosophical Review, a journal that has published many papers now considered classics.
  • "Vague Representation," authored by Agustín Rayo, associate professor of philosophy, appeared in Mind, a leading journal that presents new thought in epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, and philosophy of mind.

What the "ten best" tell us

The goal of The Philosopher's Annual, now in its 20th volume, is "to attempt" — as the editors say, invoking the considerable challenge of their project — to select the 10 best articles published in philosophy each year.

"The Philosopher's Annual is very well respected," says Richard Holton, head of the school's philosophy section. Holton's own work has appeared on the "ten best" list, and in fact, he says, "It's becoming a habit here. Last year we had two pieces in as well, one from Professor Sally Haslanger, and one from Seth Yalcin, which was written when he was a graduate student here."

Holton explains that The Philsopher's Annual plays "a very good role in selecting articles that are, obviously, excellent, but which also give a sense each year of where philosophy is going. The editors publish some papers by those who are already renowned, but also many by younger scholars, who are bringing new ideas to the field. Everyone cites it, and would be the first to congratulate someone for being included."

Bridges and intersections

The articles by Rayo and von Fintel shine a light on the nature of explorations in the school's renowned linguistics and philosophy department, widely considered one of the finest in the world.

Professor von Fintel's research bridges linguistics and philosophy. The playful title of his article, "CIA Leaks," invokes spies and intelligence leaks, but refers, of course, to a problem involving the mysteries of mind and language: specifically the role of "contexts," "indices," and "(points of) assessment" in the interpretation of claims about knowledge and ignorance.

Describing their article in brief, von Fintel and Gillies write, "Epistemic modals are standardly taken to be context-dependent quantifiers over possibilities. Thus sentences containing them get truth-values with respect to both a context and an index. But some insist that this relativization is not relative enough: 'might'-claims, they say, only get truth-values with respect to contexts, indices, and-the new wrinkle-points of assessment (hence, "CIA"). Here we argue against such "relativist" semantics. We begin with a sketch of the motivation for such theories and a generic formulation of them. Then we catalogue central problems that any such theory faces. We end by outlining an alternative story."

Working at the intersection of the philosophies of logic, mind, and language, Agustín Rayo wants to understand what makes it possible for our minds to represent the world. Of "Vague Representation," Rayo writes: "The goal of this paper is to develop a theory of content for vague language. My proposal is based on the following three theses: (1) language-mastery is not rule based- it involves a certain kind of decision-making; (2) a theory of content is to be thought of instrumentally-it is a tool for making sense of our linguistic practice; and (3) linguistic contents are only locally defined-they are only defined relative to suitably constrained sets of possibilities."

Rayo is also known for his indelible victory in the Large Number Duel, a philosophical mathematics match in which Rayo prevailed by writing the largest finite number ever written on a chalkboard. The winning number was: "The smallest number bigger than any number that can be named by an expression in the language of first order set-theory with less than a googol (10100) symbols."


Topics: Linguistics, Literature, languages and writing, Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty

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