Assistant Professor of Linguistics
Altshuler was the Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Hampshire College from 2010-2011 and a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College from 2011-2012. For three years thereafter, he was an assistant professor of semantics at Heinrich-Heine-University in Düsseldorf, Germany before coming back to Hampshire College in 2015.
Altshuler's primary research interests are in the areas of semantics and pragmatics of natural language. His research investigates how compositional semantics interacts with discourse structure and discourse coherence. He recently finished his first monograph (published Open Access with De Gruyter) on the interpretation of narrative discourse and has a forthcoming book on the syntax/discourse interface with Oxford University Press. Altshuler is also interested in developing pedagogical texts that promote student centered learning. He is currently working on "A course in semantics," an undergraduate semantics textbook (under contract with MIT Press). He is also organizing the Institute for Linguistics, Image and Text, to be held during the summer at Hampshire College.
The goal of this new course is two-fold: (a) considering competing theories of what names ("Venus") and definite descriptions ("the morning star") mean (looking at classic work by Frege, Russell, Donnellan and Kripke); (b) considering the way that truth and context relate to performativity (Austin), convention (Strawson, Lewis), and indexicality (Kaplan). No prior courses in philosophy required. Taking this course will enable the student to learn philosophical methodology, philosophical writing and reading, and prepare one to take further courses in philosophy, logic, linguistic semantics and other courses related to language in the cognitive sciences and across the humanities.
This course is an introduction to a scientific approach to meaning called semantics. We will focus on composition: the idea that the meaning of a whole is composite of the meanings of its parts. In addition, we will focus on truth: the idea that we understand the meaning of a sentence by understanding what the world would have to be like for the sentence in question to be true. Finally, we will focus on context and ambiguity: the idea that in order to evaluate a sentence for truth, we must assess the surrounding discourse in which that sentence occurs; depending on that discourse, a given sentence may mean different things. To make these phenomena precise, the semantic theory that we develop employs tools from syntactic theory, set theory and logic. It allows us to analyze the meanings of words and sentences. This course develops quantitative and research skills necessary for doing more advanced work in linguistics, philosophy and logic.
This course will explore how language and space can lead to an intensely private experience that can overflow our efforts to compass it in rational systems of thought. This is sometimes called "absurdism". We will explore this notion by first considering the literary dark magician, Daniil Kharms, whose work was censored due to it being absurd. We will analyze his work through Discourse Coherence Theory, which provides a framework for analyzing the commonsense reasoning that humans engage in when attempting to interpret language. We will then extend this framework to space. We will explore: (a) the Kern Center, (b) Johannesburg's 54-story monument, Ponte City and (c) William Kentridge's examination of the absurd as "one of the ways we generate knowledge," in relation to Gogol's The Nose. We will use these spaces to argue that absurdism varies across social situations by correlating both complex linguistic and architectural patterns with social structures. (This course is sponsored by the MacArthur and Kern Center grants.)
This course explores how writers and readers create fictional worlds. Drawing from philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and other cognitive sciences, we will investigate individually and collaboratively questions such as: What is creativity? What is a narrative and how do we determine the genre of creative work? What makes an artwork complete? How do audiences use imagination to (re)create fictional worlds? We will also investigate why and how we fear and suffer with fictional characters, and whether there are limits to our capacities to imagine empathetically. We will be reading and discussing primary research articles, fiction, and other narrative forms. Students will be expected to do both creative and analytic writing towards developing independent projects. Students who are interested in philosophy or cognitive science or creative writing/film/dance/clownery are especially welcome to enroll; an interest in working at the intersections is required.
This course will begin with an introduction to Discourse Coherence Theory, which appeals to David Hume's psychological principles to explain why a given text is interpreted as being (in)coherent. This theory will allow us to establish an evaluation metric for translation: one translation is better than another translation if it better preserves the psychological principles used to interpret the original text. We will explore this hypothesis via case studies of several texts which are written in languages other than English and are ambiguous. We will analyze the ambiguity in the original text and in its English translations, compare the analyses, and thereby test our hypothesis about translation. Although students do not need prior knowledge of languages other than English, they should be enthusiastic to study and analyze languages other than English. A prior course in linguistics, literary analysis or philosophy is suggested, but not necessary.
This course will explore how narratives live and die; how society can endanger them and bring them to fruition; how various environments, social and natural, influence production of language and narrative. Among these environments, we will look at writing in and about prison, concentration camps and environmental disaster, with special attention dedicated to the topics of censorship and language death, which we will treat as political and social environments of their own kind. We will ask questions like: (1) Why are narratives censored and why are so many languages dying? Who has a say in the matter and what can be done? (2) How does a censored narrative/dead language become uncensored/revitalized? Why is it often labeled "classic"/"exotic" by virtue of being found/revitalized? (3) Can and should we find extinct narratives/languages? (4) How and why does a human create narratives while knowing it will likely be censored and extinct?