Course outline

The course is divided into four parts. The first part gives a philosophical introduction to the theory of symbols (Peirce, Goodman). In the second part we see an overview of the writing systems of the world, with particular attention this year given to Chinese characters. The third part gives an overview (from a computational and cognitive science perspective) of numeration systems of the world, with particular attention given to natural language numerals on the one hand and to Roman numerals on the other. Finally, the fourth part of the course will look at a case study of the use of symbols in science, namely the inception of chemical notation.


Introduction to Deductive Logic (Phil 210, or equivalent) or permission of the instructors. Students are expected to have some maturity with symbolic notation systems. Courses which help students acquire such maturity are those in linguistics, philosophy of language, logic, and mathematics.

Requirements and grading

Students are expected to attend and participate in class, do the assigned readings, complete homework assignments, write two short papers, and a final paper or project. Assignments and papers are due at the beginning of class on the date mentioned on the assignment, and have to be turned in on paper. Grading will be based on correctness and clarity. The final grade depends on small homework assignments (20%), a short paper (20%), and a project that includes a presentation in class (20%) and a term paper (40%). Every student can take up to two "late days" for handing in the homework assignments during the semester. Otherwise, late homework will not be accepted (except in cases of documented emergencies).

McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see for more information).

In accord with McGill University's Charter of Students' Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded.

In the event of extraordinary circumstances beyond the University’s control, the content and/or evaluation scheme in this course is subject to change.

Brendan Gillon
Department of Linguistics
1085 Dr. Penfield, R. 119
Dirk Schlimm
Department of Philosophy
Leacock 916