The variable is perhaps the most distinctively mathematical of all notions; it is certainly also one of the most difficult to understand. (Russell 1903, §86)

Mathematical languages and mathematical notation is essential to many areas of intellectual pursuit such as physics, engineering, computer science, economics, linguistics, and to say that the invention of variables constitutes a turning point in the history of such disciplines would be no exaggeration. In philosophy of language, logic, and formal semantics, the use of variables is pervasive. Indeed, in analyzing natural language phenomena such as quantification, anaphora, and context-sensitivity, variables serve as a core component of every standard analysis. These standard analyses now serve as a fixed point for broader philosophical debates in e.g. metaphysics, epistemology, and value theory. Despite this, these core natural language phenomena far from exhaust the uses to which variables can be, and are, put. 

The use of variables is, however, not without problems nor critics. Some researchers argue that there are foundational problems with the very notion of a variable as it is normally understood, which re-expose long sublimated anxieties about the variable from the infancy of analytic philosophy—the so-called antinomy of the variable originally discussed by Bertrand Russell. Moreover, other researchers argue that the aforementioned natural language phenomena can be adequately analyzed without essential use of variables or concomitant variable assignments. 

The goal of this project is to (a) investigate the nature of variables and to carefully consider whether the problems related to the use of variables in fields such as philosophy of language, logic, and formal semantics can be fruitfully addressed, and (b) to critically assess various analyses of linguistic phenomena that make essential use of variables, e.g. analyses of quantification, pronouns, and proper names.


Project team: 
  • Project Leaders: Dr Bryan Pickel, Dr Brian Rabern, Dr Anders Schoubye
  • Collaborators: John Collins (University of East Anglia, Philosophy); Josh Dever (UT Austin, Philosophy); Delia Graff Fara (Princeton University, Philosophy); Pauline Jacobson (Brown University, Linguistics); Irene Heim (MIT, Linguistics); Dilip Ninan (Tufts University, Philosophy)l Mark Steedman (University of Edinburgh, Informatics) (More names TBC)
Project duration: 
3 years
Funded by Eidyn/PPLS