Malte Willer

Malte Willer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the College. He received his graduate training at the University of Texas at Austin, where he wrote his dissertation Modality in Flux under the direction of Nicholas Asher and Josh Dever. Before that, he studied philosophy, logic and theory of science at LMU Munich and at Oxford University.

His main area of interest is philosophy of language and philosophical logic, and specifically the dynamic perspective on discourse and reasoning. His current research focuses on philosophical problems that are intimately tied to theoretical questions about the semantics of modality. He has written and published on epistemic modals and conditionals, and is currently working on issues in deontic logic and the semantics of moral discourse. To avoid a too steady diet of formal semantics, Malte also spends some considerable time thinking about issues in philosophy of mind and trying to better understand his teen idols (Heidegger and Wittgenstein).

CV (PDF)


Contact

office: Stuart Hall 231-D
office hours: Spring Quarter, Thursdays: 10:30 am – 12:30 pm
office phone: 773/702-8598
email: willer @uchicago.edu
website: http://www.maltewiller.net/

 

Recent News

  • Malte Willer is among the recipients of the 2016 Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. An interview can be found here.
  • Malte Willer and Chris Kennedy will present their joint project "Subjective Attitudes and Counterstance Contingency" at SALT 26.
  • Malte Willer presented his recent work on the free choice effect in counterfactuals at the 20th Amsterdam Colloquium (12/15) and the 2nd UC Berkeley Meaning Sciences Workshop (03/16).
  • Together with Chris Kennedy, Malte Willer will be the principal investigator of a three-year interdisciplinary working group on the nature of subjectivity in language and thought, starting in the Autumn quarter of 2014 and funded by the generous support of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society.  Link
  • During the academic year 2013-14, Malte Willer gave talks at the 19th Amsterdam Colloquium and at the 111th Annual Meeting of the APA Central Division.
  • During the academic year 2013-14, Malte Willer is a research fellow at the Franke Institute for the Humanities.
  • Malte Willer gave the keynote address at the 6th University of Chicago Undergraduate Philosophy Conference
  • Malte Willer gave talks at the 86th Annual Meeting of the APA Pacific Division in Seattle, at Reasoning and Interaction at NASSLLI in Austin, at the University of Texas at Austin Philosophy Colloquium, at the University of Michigan Workshop in Philosophy and Linguistics, at a workshop on deontic modals at Northwestern University, and at the USC Deontic Modality Conference.
  • Malte Willer co-organized SALT 22: Semantics and Linguistic Theory in May 2012 - Link
  • "In the Engine Room of Reality: Philosophy’s junior faculty members discuss their work, inspiration, and teaching" by Courtney C. W. Guerra, AB’05 Tableau, Spring 2012 - Link

 

Selected Writings in English

  • "Subjective Attitudes and Counterstance Contingency" (with Chris Kennedy), forthcoming in Proceedings of SALT XXVI (draft available upon request)
  • "Dynamic Foundations for Deontic Logic," forthcoming in Deontic Modality, ed. M. Chrisman and N. Charlow. Oxford: Oxford University Press (PDF)
  • "Advice for Noncognitivists," forthcoming in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly (PDF)
  • "An Update on Epistemic Modals," Journal of Philosophical Logic 44(6): 835-849. 2015 (PDF)
  • "Simplifying Counterfactuals," Proceedings of the the 20th Amsterdam Colloquium: 428-437, 2015 (PDF)
  • “Dynamic Thoughts on Ifs and Oughts,” Philosophers’ Imprint 14(28): 1–30, 2014 - Link
  • "Indicative Scorekeeping," Proceedings of the 19th Amsterdam Colloquium: 249-256, 2013 (PDF)
  • "Dynamics of Epistemic Modality," Philosophical Review 122(1): 45-92, 2013 (PDF)
  • "A Remark on Iffy Oughts," Journal of Philosophy 109(7): 449-461, 2012 (PDF)
  • "Realizing What Might Be," Philosophical Studies 153(3): 365-375, 2011 (PDF)
  • "New Surprises for the Ramsey Test," Synthese 176(2): 291-309, 2010 (PDF)

Selected Writings in German

  • "Der Wahrheitsbegriff in Martin Heideggers Sein und Zeit," Philosophisches Jahrbuch 113(1): 78-98, 2006 (PDF)

Reviews

  • Review of Epistemic Modality, edited by Andy Egan and Brian Weatherson, Philosophical Review 122(4): 641-647, 2013 (PDF)

Edited Proceedings

  • Proceedings of DEON 2016 (with Olivier Roy and Allard Tamminga), London: College Publications (Link)

Responses to Willer's Work

  • Justin Bledin, "Modus Ponens Defended," Journal of Philosophy 112(2): 57-83 (2015) - Link
  • Moritz Schulz, "Modalised Conditionals: A Response to Willer," Philosophical Studies 163(3): 673-682, 2013 - Link

Recent Courses

PHIL 29425/39425. Logic for Philosophy. Key contemporary debates in the philosophical literature often rely on formal tools and techniques that go beyond the material taught in an introductory logic class. A robust understanding of these debates---and, accordingly, the ability to meaningfully engage with a good deal of contemporary philosophy---requires a basic grasp of extensions of standard logic such as modal logic, multi-valued logic, and supervaluations, as well as an appreciation of the key philosophical virtues and vices of these extensions. The goal of this course is to provide students with the required logic literacy. While some basic metalogical results will come into view as the quarter proceeds, the course will primarily focus on the scope (and, perhaps, the limits) of logic as an important tool for philosophical theorizing. Elementary Logic or equivalent. No field. (B) Spring 2017.

PHIL 53307. Language and Games. Game theory is a rich area of formal tools developed over the last 70 years or so for the modeling of certain kinds of rational interaction. The concept of a game plays a prominent role in the writings of several distinguished philosophers of language such Ludwig Wittgenstein and David K. Lewis. It is thus natural to ask to what extent game theory can play an important role in explaining distinct linguistic phenomena. The goal of this class is to explore this question from a philosophical and linguistic perspective, focusing on issues in natural language semantics and pragmatics. (II) Autumn 2016.

PHIL 20724. Counterfactuals An introduction to philosophy of language via a discussion of the meaning of counterfactuals. Autumn 2016.

PHIL 24015/34015. Modality. (=LING 24015/34015) PQ: Knowledge of first-order logic with identity strongly recommended. Students will benefit most if they have taken classes in semantics or philosophy of language before. Modal information—information conveyed by sentences such as ‘Mary might be at home’ or ‘Charles ought to give to the poor’—play an outstanding role in everyday discourse and reasoning. The goal of this class is to explain and evaluate contemporary semantic theories of modality by discussing a wide range of linguistic phenomena from the perspective of these theories. After introducing possible worlds semantics for modality developed in modal logic, we will consider current theories of modal semantics within linguistics as well as the most important empirical areas of research. Throughout, we will keep an eye on the relation between modality and other topics that are prominent in linguists and philosophy, including tense, conditionals, and discourse meaning. (B) Spring 2016. Syllabus

PHIL 52015. Indexicals. (=LING 52015) Indexical expressions—those whose reference and content can shift from context to context, such as ‘I’, ‘now’, ‘here’, ‘she’, and ‘today’—and indexical attitudes have played a prominent role in theoretical reflections on language and the mind. In this class, we will consider the philosophical and linguistic implications of indexicality, starting with Kaplan’s theory of indexicals and then taking a close look at Perry’s and Lewis’s seminal arguments that indexicals and indexical thoughts pose exciting problems for traditional views about propositions and attitudes. We will then ask to what extent their observations have important consequences for epistemology, ethics, and other areas of philosophy outside of philosophy of language and mind, but also consider critical perspectives on the Perry-Lewis tradition. Throughout the quarter we will keep an eye on the relation between perspectival thought and talk and the more general phenomenon of subjectivity. (II) Spring 2016. Syllabus

PHIL 24010/34010. Meaning and Reference. Elem. Logic or equivalent recommended, but not required. Prior courses in philosophy are beneficial. In this course we address one of the central and most fascinating philosophical questions about linguistic meaning: what is the relationship between meaning and reference? We will study a range of classical and contemporary theories about the semantics of referring expressions such as proper names, definite descriptions, and indexicals. Readings will include Frege, Russell, Strawson, Kripke, Donnellan, and Kaplan, among others. Throughout, we will try to reach of a better understanding of how questions about meaning and reference connect with a range of topics that are central to philosophical theorizing, including the connection between propositional attitudes and the explanation of action, the role of the principle of compositionality in formal semantics, the question of whether there is a level of mental experience that is epistemically transparent, the relation between thought and language, the nature of fictional and non-existent objects, and the interaction between semantics and pragmatics. (B) Winter 2016. Syllabus

PHIL 29425/39425. Logic for Philosophy. Key contemporary debates in the philosophical literature often rely on formal tools and techniques that go beyond the material taught in an introductory logic class.  A robust understanding of these debates---and, accordingly, the ability to meaningfully engage with a good deal of contemporary philosophy---requires a basic grasp of extensions of standard logic such as modal logic, multi-valued logic, and supervaluations, as well as an appreciation of the key philosophical virtues and vices of these extensions. The goal of this course is to provide students with the required logic literacy. While some basic metalogical results will come into view as the quarter proceeds, the course will primarily focus on the scope (and, perhaps, the limits) of logic as an important tool for philosophical theorizing. (B) Winter 2015. Syllabus

PHIL 24025/34025. Reference and Description. The question how thought and speech refers, and in particular what role descriptions play in a comprehensive philosophical analysis of referring expressions, has played an outstanding role in 20th century philosophy and remains influential until today. In this class we will trace the discussion about the relation between reference and description from Fregean beginnings to the most recent two-dimensionalist attempts to overcome Kripke’s seminal arguments against descriptive analyses of referring expressions. Throughout, we will try to reach a better understanding of why questions about reference and description are of foundational importance for a range of topics that are central to philosophical theorizing, including the analysis of propositional attitudes such as belief and knowledge, the nature of possibility and necessity, the question of whether there is a level of mental experience that is epistemically transparent, the relation between thought and language, the role of the principle of compositionality in semantics, and the intersection between semantics and pragmatics. (B) Autumn 2014. Syllabus

PHIL 54605. Subjectivity. (=LING 54605) Linguists and philosophers have traditionally examined the role of language and thought as a medium for (mis)representing objective facts about the world we are living in. However, language is also an important tool for sharing subjective perspectives with others, and clearly not all thoughts are objective. Taking subjectivity as a sui generis phenomenon that does not reduce to another instance of descriptive talk and thought has repercussions that go beyond the traditional distinction between linguistics and philosophy: it impacts philosophical attempts to understand the nature of normative thoughts no less than the way linguists tend to think to about the nature of linguistic meaning. This is the first in a two-course sequence that addresses the exciting resulting challenges in a systematic manner, to be offered jointly by Professors Chris Kennedy and Malte Willer. The first course will be taught by Malte Willer and focus on foundational philosophical issues surrounding subjectivity in language and thought, including issues pertaining to normativity and general considerations about the shape a theory of natural language meaning must have to take the phenomenon of subjectivity seriously. The second course will be taught by Chris Kennedy in the Winter Quarter, 2015 and focus on linguistic issues surrounding subjectivity, including a rich variety of empirical questions and the impact that treating subjectivity as a sui generis phenomenon has for theoretical linguistics.
Despite their slight differences in focus, both courses are interdisciplinary by design and will appeal to linguists and philosophers alike. Students may take either one of these courses for credit without taking the other for credit. The two-course seminar is also the launching event for a three-year interdisciplinary working group on the nature of subjectivity in language and thought, led by Chris Kennedy and Malte Willer and funded by the generous support of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Anyone who is interested in participating in this working group is strongly encouraged to attend the seminar. With C. Kennedy. Autumn 2014. Syllabus

53341. Expressivism. Expressivism---the contemporary incarnation of the noncognitivist reaearch program of philosophers such as Ayer, Stevenson, and Hare---and its comprehensive view about the nature of both normative language and normative thought have recently been applied to many topics elsewhere in philosophy, including logic, probability, knowledge, belief, and modality. After reviewing the key motivations behind expressivism and its scope beyond the realm of the metaethical, the class will focus on the semantic commitments of expressivism. Of special interests will be the prospects of expressivism to resolve the Frege-Geach problem and, more generally, to arrive at a satisfying model of everyday discourse and reasoning. In addressing these questions, we will consider a number of non-classical semantic frameworks that have recently been proposed in philosophy of language, compare their vices and virtues, and see to what extent they are compatible with the key intuitions behind the expressivist agenda. (II) Winter 2013. Syllabus.

20721/30721. Dynamic Semantics. (=LING 20721/ 30721) PQ: Knowledge of first-order logic with identity strongly recommended. Students will benefit most if they have taken classes in semantics or philosophy of language before. An introduction to the foundations and applications of dynamic approaches to natural language semantics. We will study the formal details and empirical motivations of various major dynamic semantic frameworks such as File Change Semantics, Discourse Representation Theory, Dynamic Predicate Logic, and Update Semantics, and see how they address a number of puzzling natural language phenomena such as donkey anaphora and presupposition projection. In parallel to the formal component, the empirical and theoretical advantages and drawbacks of dynamic semantics will come under scrutiny, and we will also pay close attention to the philosophical repercussions of a dynamic approach to discourse and reasoning. (B) (II). Autumn 2012.Syllabus.

20100/30000. Elementary Logic. (=CHSS 33500, HIPS 20700) Course not for field credit. An introduction to the concepts and principles of symbolic logic. We learn the syntax and semantics of truth-functional and first-order quantificational logic, and apply the resultant conceptual framework to the analysis of valid and invalid arguments, the structure of formal languages, and logical relations among sentences of ordinary discourse. Occasionally we will venture into topics in philosophy of language and philosophical logic, but our primary focus is on acquiring a facility with symbolic logic as such. Autumn 2011. Syllabus

24010/34010. Meaning and Reference. In this course we address one of the central and most fascinating philosophical questions about linguistic meaning: what is the relationship between meaning and reference? We will study a range of classical and contemporary theories about the semantics of referring expressions such as proper names, definite descriptions, and indexicals. Readings will include Frege, Russell, Strawson, Kripke, Donnellan, and Kaplan, among others. Throughout, we will try to reach of a better understanding of how questions about meaning and reference connect with a range of topics that are central to philosophical theorizing, including the connection between propositional attitudes and the explanation of action, the role of the principle of compositionality in formal semantics, the question of whether there is a level of mental experience that is epistemically transparent, the relation between thought and language, the nature of fictional and non-existent objects, and the interaction between semantics and pragmatics. (B) (II) Winter 2012. Syllabus

53340. Conditionals. Conditionals play a prominent role in everyday reasoning as well as in many proposed analyses of key philosophical concepts such as knowledge, causation, freedom, and dispositional features. The best logic and semantic treatment of the English language conditional, or of a philosophically regimented conditional well-suited to these analytic tasks, is a subject of ongoing dispute. We will begin by studying the possible-world semantics for subjunctive conditionals developed by Stalnaker and Lewis, and from there consider more recent innovations and alternatives to the Stalnaker-Lewis semantics, such as probabilistic conditionals, dynamic conditionals, and restrictor-clause conditionals. Throughout, we will try to arrive at a better understanding of the formal criteria that any successful theory of conditionals must fulfill, and relate these criteria to the prominent role of conditionals in a number of notorious paradoxes about everyday reasoning, including those arising from deliberations about conditional obligations. (II) Winter 2012. Syllabus

28010/38010. Introduction to Philosophy of Language. Open to college and grad students. PQ: Elementary Logic or equivalent. Students will benefit most if they have already taken classes in philosophy. This course will serve as an introduction to the key concepts and topics in the philosophy of language. The goal is to provide students with the necessary background for work on contemporary topics in philosophy of language and, more generally, analytic philosophy. The course examines a variety of classical views on the nature of meaning, reference, and truth, with a special focus on the problem of understanding how linguistic communication works. Readings will include Frege, Davidson, Grice, Kripke, Quine, Russell, Strawson, among others.  Autumn 2010. (B) Syllabus

29420/39420. Intermediate Logic---Non-classical Logic. Open to college and grad students. PQ: Elementary Logic or equivalent. We will study various non-classical logics, including (non)-normal and first-order modal logic, intuitionistic logic, and multi-valued logic. Throughout, we will focus on trying to understand the philosophical motivations behind non-classical logics, and on gaining insights into the analytic virtues (and vices) that come with them. The course also offers a friendly introduction to soundness and completeness proofs, which will be of relevance for many advanced classes in logic. Spring 2011 (B) Syllabus

52020. Meaning Without Truth. Open to grad students. We will focus on philosophical and linguistic challenges to the dogma, going back at least to Frege, that a successful theory of meaning must be based on the notion of truth. We will start with a detailed introduction to modern truth-conditional semantics, which will include a study of foundational work in formal semantics. We will continue with a study of the most pressing philosophical and linguistic problems for truth-conditional semantics, and also try to understand the challenges that arise for any semantic theory that departs from the truth-conditional perspective on meaning and communication. Once all of this is in place, we will focus on recent attempts at developing non-truth-conditional semantics, including recent work on expressivism and dynamic semantics. The class addresses advanced topics in philosophy of language, but is at the same time concerned with foundational semantic questions in epistemology, metaphysics and ethics, and it will be of interest to anyone working in these areas. Winter 2011 (II) Syllabus