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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