Pluralism C’est What?

Jerry Katz, who may well merit the label ‘founder of philosophy of linguistics’, bequeathed us a taxonomy of views about the subject matter of linguistics:

  1. Physicalism: Linguistics is about physical things and happenings. Languages belong in the same ontological family as rocks, hail storms, and sets of such like.
  2. Mentalism: Linguistics is about mental things and happenings. Languages belong in the same ontological family as hallucinations and tickles.
  3. Platonism: Linguistics is about abstract objects. Languages belong in the same ontological family as numbers and systems of logic.

Katz thought these were mutually exclusive. He might have thought them exhaustive. But I would have added a fourth option:

4. The Social-Norms View: Linguistics is about social practices. Languages belong in the same ontological category as games, religions, dances, etc.

PLURALISM about the metaphysics of linguistics is the view that all four of these are, to some extent, correct. They emphatically are not mutually exclusive. (I don’t think they’re exhaustive either.) To use my long-standing slogan, a language is by equal measures an abstract system of symbols which we humans know and use.

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3 responses

  1. This is very cool, Rob. I haven’t ever tried to think of a language as a physical thing like a rock and I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded yet. The other three classifications make perfect sense to me but I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that languages exist in the same way that rocks do. Any tips or examples that might get my brain on the right track?

  2. Simplifying so badly it hurts, Physicalists come in at least two flavours. There are (well, there were) behaviorists like Bloomfield and Quine. Their “physical” things were external stimuli on the one hand, and behaviors that they prompted on the other. [This looks terrifically impoverished: how can the rich array of linguistic phenomenon be fit into stimulus-response arcs? It can’t! And so much the worse for it. Eliminate the lot of it! (Or maybe just give up hope for any science of language outside this narrowest of ranges.)] Then there are folks like Devitt who take languages to be symbol systems, yes, but physical ones… made up of sets of tokens. Linguistics is about the physical laws that govern those tokens. (Devitt’s favourite analogy is the dance of the bees.)

  3. Some scholarly sources for Physicalism about linguistics:
    – Quine (1953). “The Problem of Meaning in Linguistics”. In From a Logical Point of View. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, pp. 47-64. Reprinted in J.J. Katz (ed.)(1985). The Philosophy of Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 48-61.
    – Devitt, Michael (2003). “Linguistics Is Not Psychology”. In A. Barber (ed.) Epistemology of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 107-139.

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