The “No Science” Objection to Pluralism (and to Languages)

Here’s another worry about Pluralism. Let it be granted that there are metaphysical hybrids. Public languages like Urdu and Salish and their parts (e.g., words and sentences) are examples. Many generative grammarians, following Chomsky (2000, 2012), are prone to claim that, even granting this, we cannot have a science of them. (The argument is explained and elaborated upon, but not endorsed, in my “Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskyan Themes”.) Hence that cannot be what Linguistics is about. In response, we need to contrast again senses of a key term, this time ‘science’.

One can use ‘science’ such that it applies only to disciplines like Physics and Chemistry. So used, it is not just true but entirely obvious that there can be no “science of public languages”.

Another usage is far less austere. ‘Science’ in this broader sense encompasses disciplines such as Anthropology, Criminology, Economics, Epidemiology, Ecology, Human Archeology and Geography, Social Psychology, etc. Could there be a “science” of public language in this second sense? The foregoing certainly quantify over ontological mixtures: e.g., assassinations, exchange rates, ecosystems, parasites, sexually transmitted and air-borne illnesses, etc. To pick examples that will be familiar from the headlines, economists not only identify unemployment rates, but use sophisticated statistical tools like multivariate analysis to isolate the role of, say, minimum wage and free trade laws in determining them (see Card and Krueger 1995 for a survey). Criminologists not only uncover the incidence of homicides, but isolate the role of gender, gun control laws, income disparity, etc., as predictors (e.g., Hemenway, Shinoda-Tagawa and Miller 2002). Especially pertinent for us, economists, criminologists, etc., regularly take, as variables in their analyses, things like native language, parents’ first language, trilingual, etc. Another existence proof is ready to hand, namely most of Linguistics. The literature in Philosophy of Linguistics tends to focus almost exclusively on Theoretical Linguistics. Indeed, it tends to focus almost exclusively on Syntax in the generative tradition – even Phonetics is given short shrift. Dropping these blinders, a whole range of scientific pursuits that unquestionably treat of metaphysical hybrids come to mind: Clinical Linguistics, Computational Linguistics, Dialectology, Discourse Analysis, Educational Linguistics, Forensic Linguistics, Historical Linguistics, Lexicography, Pragmatics, etc.

The foregoing strongly suggests that, though there is one sense of ‘science’ in which one cannot have a science of “abstractish” things in general, and languages in particular, there is another in which one can.

An impertinent objector might, of course, deny that Anthropology or Dialectology are sciences at all, thereby sticking to the sweeping claim that there simply cannot be any science of public languages et al. I want to address a less dismissive move. One might reasonably urge that Linguistics should aim to be something higher than a Social Science – falling, instead, in the middle ground between Physics and Sociology, occupied by things like Biology and Cognitive Neuroscience. This line of thought introduces our third sense of ‘science’, namely exact special sciences, and a novel twist on the original objection, viz., that no such discipline can treat of metaphysical hybrids. (So, one shouldn’t take the latter to be the subject matter of Linguistics.) My response will be avowedly polemical.

Generative grammarians insist, plausibly enough, that their discipline belongs to just this middle-ground. It is less developed than Biology or Plate Tectonics, but it is in the same family. If so, however, it itself affords an example of an exact special science which discovers facts not just about hybrids in general, but about languages, their parts, and the relations among these.

Everyone grants that generativist practice includes what look to be claim about, and data from, extra-mental public languages and their expressions. Here are some examples, selected pretty much at random:

• “It is a well-established fact that mismatches in the voice of an elided verb phrase and that of its antecedent are tolerated, provided that certain discourse relations hold” (Merchant 2013: 78).

• “The wh-questions of Tlingit do not at first appear very different from those of more familiar wh-fronting languages. Nevertheless, when examined carefully, Tlingit wh-questions challenge certain common notions regarding wh-fronting and pied-piping” (Cable 2010: 564).

• “Attract F adjoins a set of formal features (FF) to an attracting head. A second operation, Move Cat(egory), raises the category to a specifier position where it is in a local relation with its formal features adjoined to the attracting head” (Fitzgerald 2000: 707).

• “Unlike English verbs which can only mark agreement with the subject, Yup’ik verbs are somewhat like Hungarian in that they can mark both subject and object agreement” (Isac & Reiss 2008: 200)

• “Each element is a symbolic system, consisting of atomic elements (primes) and objects constructed out from them by concatenation and other operations” (Chomsky and Lasnik 1995: 34, cited in Postal forthcoming).

What should one make of this? Three options come to mind. Following Postal (forthcoming: 6), one might simply say, as these quotations illustrate, generative grammar really is about “abstractish” things like ellipsis, verb phrases, morphological features, null complements, and languages like English, Hungarian, Tlingit and Yup’ik. To make the point stick, one would need to distinguish practitioners’ meta-theorizing, in polemical introductions to articles and books, and actual day-to-day research: in the former, generative grammarians are adamant that they are not describing shared public languages; instead, they insist that they are describing species-specific mental representations within individuals; but sometimes scientists exhibit false consciousness. Another way to understand the appearances is this. The ultimate aim of Chomsky and his followers is to discover something about human neurobiology. However, along the way, they are accumulating countless fascinating discoveries about words, public languages, etc., such as those above. A final gloss: the practice is all sloppy, loose talk – which is strictly speaking false, and will eventually have to be reconstructed as corresponding truths about mental states and processes. Consider now the implications of each. Importantly, the first two have generative grammar – granted, I stress, to be an exact special science in good standing – discovering truths about the Pluralist’s hybrids. At best, then, only the third explanation would rescue the revised objection. But it is a hard pill to swallow. It would mean that, far from being a hugely successful enterprise, strictu dictu Chomsky and his colleagues have provided (hardly?) any concrete discoveries over the last sixty years. Instead, they have compiled tens of thousands of pages of loose talk, plus some massive promissory notes. Besides, the only reason for not taking the seeming discoveries at face value are suspicions – in this context, question begging suspicions – about the remit of the genuine sciences.

To summarize the last few posts, it stretches credulity too far that there is simply no such thing as Noam Chomsky, Oxford University Press, online publication, the discipline of Linguistics, the English language and its many dialects, and this very sentence. Paradox is easily avoided, however, by recasting the ontological claims as something more methodological, namely that there can be no sciences of such things. That, rather than any sort of ontological eliminativism, is why one should not construe Linguistics as characterizing “abstractish” entities. Now, if by ‘science’ is meant basic physical sciences like Physics and Chemistry, this is unquestionably true. However, if ‘science’ is allowed to include the social sciences, there are existence proofs galore of things which are studied scientifically and which cross-cut the physical, mental, abstract and the social. Of particular relevance here, there are sciences (in the requisite sense) of shared, public language: Forensic Linguistics, Dialectology, etc. Finally, if by ‘science’ is meant “something broad enough to include special sciences like Biology and Plate Tectonics, but narrow enough to exclude Sociology”, even so we seem to have a parade example, namely generative grammar itself – in its quotidian practice.

Those thousand flowers? They are a-bloomin’!


5 responses

  1. On the issue of ontology, though, let me put in a good word for Chalmer’s “Ontological Anti-Realism”[1] and Kriegel’s “The Epistemological Challenge of Revisionary Metaphysics.”[2] Neither are concerned with the ontological status of languages (or, more generally, of the entities appearing in science) but put in appropriate cautionary notes when dealing with such issues.

    In particular whether the mereological sum of designated I-language configurations (a “language”) ‘exists’ could be radically underdetermined by empirical data (per Kriegel) so that there is no empirical means to ascertain whether or not there are languages or “linguistic arrangements” (in Kriegel’s example, whether there are flowers or “floral arrangements” of particles). Thus, Kriegel claims, appeal to science offers no solace to mereological univeralists, nihilists, or restrictivists. I don’t buy it, but it’s a move one could make.

    When Quining some entity, though, the argument typically is not “x does not exist” but rather “the x (required for y) does not exist” (in Dennett’s classic case, the problem was that qualia, to undermine physicalism, needed impossible properties). This scheme doesn’t really work here. Probably something could be worked out that would be more narrow (languages, to establish Platonism, need impossible properties, etc.) but that is not the same as showing ‘there are no languages’ unless, again, we are being ontological anti-realists or mereological nihilists more generally.

    There’s a weaker claim, too, but it borders on the truism: “there is no stable, well-defined set of sounds, words, meanings, rules, etc. that exhaust what we consider English (or French or Basque),” but so what? The same could be said of any species of animal, but we don’t worry about the ontological status of tigers.

    Well, except when philosophers do worry, of course. I’d quine away Kripkean tigers: there are no such things as ‘tiger essences’, but that is not the same as being a ‘tiger anti-realist.’ I don’t know if anything serious hinges on whether or not we adopt a framework that has ‘languages’ in its ontology, but I’d quine ‘languages’ away too if it led to mystification and metaphysical tar-pits.

    [1] Online here:

    [2] And here:;idno=3521354.0013.012

  2. I detect in the background to this discussion a Platonic “divided line”. There’s the unreal, the merely real, the really real, and the hyper real. Plato thought the unchanging forms were the hyper real, and the physical the merely real. Scientism takes the physical to the the hyper real. To me, the whole thing smacks of confusion. There is what is, and there’s an end to it. No gradations. English is. (More on this shortly. Mostly I’m just testing the Comment feature!)

    • “There is what is, and there’s an end to it. No gradations.”

      But what is there?

      Suppose I introduce some congerie defined as follows: ‘glurk,’ n.: when, in one’s pocket, there is at least one penny minted prior to 1972, pale blue lint, and sand from a recent trip to the beach (in unseasonable weather). Does glurk ‘exist’? Note that “There is glurk in my pocket” is true iff there is glurk in my pocket, etc…. (and there are no gradations!)

      On the one hand, why deny glurk? If someone said (truly) “look at the amount of glurk in my pockets!” pulling out old pennies, lint, and sand from Port Stanley, it would be weird to respond that there’s no such thing as glurk. (Especially if we imagine this is a word in relatively common currency. Or even as an inside joke.)

      On the other hand, though, if an arbitrary congerie like ‘glurk’ exists, then we have either (i) a rather maximalist kind of ontology, such that every possible set of things ‘exists’* or (ii) a weird kind of idealism whereby glurks start to exist after we conceptualize ‘glurk’ (which is a pretty cool kind of superpower).

      Perhaps we can draw a line somewhere and say “English” exists because it is not just some nonsense collection, but a ‘thing’ proper. Here we introduce the usual metaphysical complications, of course: what isn’t an aggregate *apart* from fundamental particles? How do we avoid anti-realism about everything but these? And there will be no satisfying criteria to sort out the ‘nonsense’ or ‘arbitrary’ from the not so: ‘scientism’ is already rejected, as is Platonism, and so on. An appeal to common sense, I think, is just idealism (“what exists is what we take to exist at some time t, for some value of [we]”).

      I’m perfectly comfortable adopting a perspective whereby English disappears momentarily only to return when I adopt another. (Unfortunately, I missed Friday’s talk on perspectival realism; I imagine I would have found it congenial). I think of these as ‘lenticular ontologies.’ The analogy is to the lenticular image, which changes depending on the angle it is viewed from ( Important to the analogy is the idea that underneath the lens is an ‘objective’ image, but is noisy and incomprehensible: the lens allows for interpretation. I guess this is just Carnap with a fancy metaphor. But the upside is I don’t worry too much about ‘ontology’ from an idealized ‘external’ point of view. (Also anyway I’m with Wittgenstein about the meanings of words, including ‘exists.’)

      Sorry for going on so long. This has all been on my mind.

      *Think of the library of Babel ( as applied to ontology, essentially, minus what has no actual instantiations (e.g.., unicorns).

      • It seems to me that being run together here are three questions:
        a) Are there different kinds of things which are real, existent, actual?
        b) Is the “metaphysical grounding” of the reality, existence, actuality of things variable? (That is, do they merit different “In virtue of what do they exist?” stories?)
        c) Are there degrees of reality, existence, actuality?
        The answer to the first is “Obviously, yes”. Rocks and tickles and movies belong to different categories. I am perfectly happy with a positive answer to the second question too. E.g., some things exist only because of how they relate to human minds, some are dependent upon social practices, etc. Some can even be made up on the spot. But a positive answer to (a) or (b) does not yield a positive answer to (c). Responding directly now to Nic’s insightful comment, I think he provides excellent examples of (a) and (b). But I am not at all tempted to treat them as examples of (c).

  3. I’ll grant you ontological distinctions in ‘kind’ and ‘grounding,’ though I fear if we take these seriously it is difficult to avoid something like ‘degree,’ depending on what, precisely, we mean by this. In particular relatively weak assumptions about possible worlds combined with a kind of common-sense realism about ‘grounding’ certainly suggests ‘degree-ism,’ just in virtue of the counterfactual relations between e.g. natural kinds and social kinds. I could delineate ‘degrees’ as (fairly principled) partitions of possible-worlds: ‘water’ is ‘more real’ because any world with H20 is a world with ‘water’, but not every world with the components of glurks is a world with ‘glurk’ in it; but then I’ve explicitly defined ‘degree-reality’ as a function on sets of possible worlds, which may or may not be compatible with our pre-theoretic conception of what ‘degree’ means.

    Anyway I’ve taken up enough of your time on this. (I should just go read the literature you link.)

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