David Wiggins: Language First!

I am writing a lecture on David Wiggins’ wonderful “Languages as Social Objects”. (You can find it here: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3752007?uid=3739448&uid=2&uid=3737720&uid=4&sid=21103023024417). There is some Oxbridge myopia, including a very naive take on language acquisition as “social training” and knowledge of language as “skills”. But there are lots of admirable insights too. Here’s a first quote, on the Lewisian idea that linguistic facts — e.g., the proper usage of ‘red’ — emerge from regularities in usage within an individual, these triggering similar usage by other individuals:

“The regularity that consists of using the word ‘table’ and not calling non-tables ‘tables’ needs no help from anybody. It’s there already, safe and secure ‘in the language’… In which case, would it not be simpler and better to say that [speakers’] reason to call some things ‘red’ and not to call non-red things ‘red’ should be given (or given correctly) like this? They’re speaking English and the English predicate ‘red’ is true of x if and only if x is red” (p. 513)

That is, the reason for the regularity is the existence of the linguistic fact, not vice versa. To paraphrase Tim Williamson, “Language first!”

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Is A Question Just a Set of Answers? (A Plea for Force!)

It’s an important fact — a fact central to their very nature — that interrogative sentences are typically used to ask. (This is not, I take it, an epiphenomenon of language use. Compare the unsurprising fact that oft-used verbs — e.g. ‘To be’ — tend to have irregular conjugations.) Instead, this fact derives somehow from the meaning of interrogatives. Now consider the standard view of interrogatives, according to which they correspond to a set of propositions — specifically, the ones which intuitively provide the answer to the question. How does the set-of-answers proposal explain the use of interrogatives? Here’s a first guess: The kind of object which interrogatives are said to denote, namely, sets of answers, somehow correlates with the act of asking. The idea would be that, in virtue of denoting this kind of (rather complex) object, utterances of interrogative sentences are able to exhibit a different standard use than, say, utterances of declarative sentences.

This first guess is initially plausible, but ultimately unsatisfying — because there are phrases which share this denotation type, but lack the standard use. Consider, to develop three of the best known variations on the theme in Hamblin, Karttunen and Higginbotham:

1. That unique set whose sole member is IT IS NOT RAINING

2. That unique set whose members are IT IS RAINING and IT IS NOT RAINING

3. That unique set whose members are the unit sets {IT IS RAINING} and {IT IS NOT RAINING}

The noun phrases in (1), (2) and (3) each denote a set. (Notice: I specifically do not use a definite description, to make it clear that these are referential and not quantificational expressions.) Indeed, each denotes the very same set as ‘Is it raining?’ — according to the first, second and third variants of the set-of-answers story, respectively. And yet, whereas ‘Is it raining’ is typically used to ask, (1), (2) and (3) are not.

Why is this? Not because phrases can never be used on their own. As I spend far too much of my time arguing, words and phrases can be, and often are, used outside any sentence: E.g., I can begin a conversation with ‘Hungry?’, or ‘A friend of yours?’ Nor, it seems to me, is it because the content too difficult to understand, when couched in these substantival terms: It’s not as if these noun phrases are so much more difficult to parse than the corresponding interrogative sentence. Rather, ‘Is it raining?’ is understood as having a typical use which (1), (2) and (3) lack because the sentence has interrogatival force as part of its content, whereas none of the phrases do.

What’s more, there’s an overarching reason for thinking that the nature of the object denoted could not determine that, for example, the expression is used to ask: If there were such inherently interrogatival objects, we could not speak of them without attempting to ask a question! Any reference to such an object would, by definition, be interrogatival. Hence saying something about such objects would not be possible. Indeed, if the alleged object which gives ‘Is it raining?’ its use exists, then the phrase ‘that alleged object which gives ‘Is it raining’ its use’ refers to this object. In which case, this latter phrase should also be used to ask… and my last full sentence, in using this phrase, should have been interrogatival in force. This is clearly absurd. I conclude that there is no way in which the kind of object denoted could, in and of itself, determine the use of the denoting expression.

We need (illocutionary) force!

A Puzzle about Quasi-Factives

I have puzzled over things I have labeled ‘quasi-factives’. (Maybe ‘pragmatic factives’ would be more accurate.) I wonder whether anyone has written about them. Here are a bunch of examples:

– I didn’t realize that Putin was born in Iowa

– It’s hard to believe that Bill and Hilary are getting divorced

– No one told Liz that Erniefest is funded by the CIA

– Did you hear that Jeff King is moving to Boise State?

The pattern seems to be (i) a reporting or propositional attitude verb with (ii) a surprising proposition as complement, such that (iii) the usual force is of an unequivocal speaker-commitment to the truth of that complement, (iv) the complement is false and yet (iv) the “literal” meaning of the whole is not false. (Either because it’s true, as in the first three, or because the matrix sentence isn’t truth-evaluable, as in the fourth.)

One reason these are interesting is that “what is at issue” is the embedded stuff. Also, that embedded stuff is emphatically not deniable – it is thus unlike a hint, or a particularized conversational implicature. What’s more, as with full-on assertion, ‘How do you know?’ is entirely appropriate, and the duty to defend-or-retract obtains. But why should any of this be, given what the whole means?

Davidson’s Deranged Argument Against Linguistic Conventions

Donald Davidson, back in the mid-80’s, provided an argument that there are no languages, and no such thing as specifically linguistic competence. Drawing attention to successful communicative interaction despite malaprops and new coinages, he writes: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language… There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. …I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions” (p. 265)

I’ve long thought the argument a bit of a mess. A first point is that the picture he attacks is by no means standard. It definitely isn’t that of, say,  Chomsky or Fodor. The more usual picture was best explained and popularized by Sperber and Wilson: yes, speaker and hearer know codes/conventions of language which more or less overlap, but knowing the code is (almost?) never sufficient even for arriving at the literal content of the speech act. In Chomsky’s terms, linguistic competence, the I-language, never suffices for comprehension even of perfectly ordinary, literal talk – the latter being a performance phenomenon. Malaprops et al. provide no evidence against this more modest role for shared, learned languages: they merely reinforce a main tenet of the view, namely that semantics should not be in the business of trying to provide interpretations of speakers. (Lots of pragmatics is required for that.)

The second point relates to this. Davidson’s inference seems to be…

P1: If so-called linguistic competence is to play a role in talk exchanges then: a) it is systematic/compositional; b) it is shared; c) it is learned in advance; d) it suffices for understanding literal utterance meaning.

P2: Nothing meets all of (a)-(d).

C: So-called “linguistic competence” does not play a role in talk exchanges.

In “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, Davidson spends all his time on P2. But P2 is not that controversial, at least within standard linguistics. Indeed, as I say, P2 is a consequence of the Chomsky’s own competence/performance distinction! (It’s like: “Knowledge of grammar alone won’t get you the facts about which sentences sound good”. Fair enough. But we don’t conclude that knowledge of grammar therefore does not exist.)

What’s really dubious, I think, is P1. In particular, (d): why should the fact that the “code” is not sufficient entail that it isn’t necessary? (Compare: Why should we infer from the insufficiency of one cause that it doesn’t play a role in achieving the effect?) But without P1 there’s no support for C.

Armies, Navies, Dialects… and the Confusion of Reduction with Elimination

Folks like to quote the joke, attributed to Max Weinreich, that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. They typically do so when trying to cast aspersions on the very notion of languages and dialects. As my pal Peter Ludlow has it, human languages are myths.

But look: if Weinreich’s dictum were true, with its existential presupposition satisfied, it would follow on those grounds alone that there are dialects. And, since there are places with armies, navies and dialects, it would follow from his dictum that there are languages.

The larger issue here is that reduction, far from leading to elimination, is inconsistent with it. If lightening reduces to rapid electrostatic discharges then, because there are rapid electrostatic discharges, there is lightening. So if, implausibly, languages reduced as per the joke, that would establish the reality of languages.

Reading List on “Linguistic Philosophy”?

I am putting together a reading list for a grad seminar next year on “Linguistic Philosophy“, also known as “Ordinary Language Philosophy“.

I am seeking suggestions for what to add/delete. I’d especially appreciate suggestions about what to include by Anscombe, who I know wrote some things in this vein — I don’t want an exclusively male list of authors if I can avoid it.

Anyway, here’s the first pass at the list. The themes are methodology, mind/knowledge and language. (Hence no selection by Hare.) Also, I’d really like the seminar to be useful to Linguistics grad students, not just to philosophers.

J.L. Austin (1946), “Other Minds”

—- (1950), “Truth”

—- (1956), “A Plea for Excuses”

—- (1956), “Ifs and Cans”

—- (1961), “Peformative Utterances”

Stanley Cavell (1958), “Must We Mean What We Say?”

G.E. Moore (1925), “A Defense of Common Sense”

— (1939), “Proof of An External World”

H. Paul Grice (1956), “In Defense of a Dogma” [With P.F. Strawson]

—- (1957), “Meaning”

—- (1961), “The Causal Theory of Perception”

—- (1975), “Prolegomena” and “Logic and Conversation”

Norman Malcolm  (1942). “Moore and Ordinary Language”

Gilbert Ryle (1932), “Systematically Misleading Expressions”

—- (1946), The Concept of Mind, Chs 1-2.

—- (1953), “Ordinary Language”

P.F. Strawson (1950) “On Referring”

—- (1950), “Truth”

—- (1953), “Particular and General”

—- (1964), “Intention and Convention in Speech Acts”

—- (1969), “Meaning and Truth”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958), Blue and Brown Books

—- (1969), On Certainty

Paul Ziff (1960), Semantic Analysis, Chs 1-2.

Briefest (and Funniest?) Journal Article in Philosophy

Here’s a great candidate. And the argument is utterly compelling to boot:

“The nerve of Mr. Bennett’s argument is that if A results from your not doing B, then A results from whatever you do instead of doing B. While there may be much to be said for this view, still it does not seem right on the face of it”.

 G.Elizabeth Anscombe (1966). “A Note on Mr. Bennett”. Analysis 26(6):  p. 208.