More from Wiggins

I said there was much in Wiggin’s “Languages as Social Objects” that merits attention.

Let’s start off with how Wiggins conceives of languages. His is, for the most part, a common sense view. Languages such as Polish and English are public things out there in the human world. They are situated in time, and often enough at places; they have an origin, a past, a present and (one hopes) a future. They change over time, which gives rise to dialects and, over the long haul, language families. Many of them have associated literatures and other cultural products.

Why believe is such things? Here are five points one can extract from this rich paper, and from Richard Heck’s rich critical discussion of it and its themes — some more ultimately telling than others.

1. When it comes to explaining successful communication, what matters is not so much whether interlocutors share the same internal psychological workings, but whether they non-accidentally share a public language construed extensionally. A native speaker of Tagalog who learned English at 55 can communicate with me – can gain not just beliefs but knowledge from my words – as soon as she has mastered some way, any old way, to assign the same meanings to English words, phrases and sentences as I do. (Won’t converging I-languages do as well? Yes, if it were just she and I, but to explain why millions of us succeed, and with complete strangers, it’s the shared public “devices” that we want recourse to.)

2. Obviously speakers aim to exchange information. But they aim at something else besides, often enough, namely officially going on record as holding such-and-such. That is, they often want to state rather than merely induce beliefs. For this, “one’s performance has to qualify by a certain public standard as a saying thus or so, the standard being the standard that is determined by the language in question” (522). In brief, the very difference between merely getting something across and full-on asserting/stating it requires public languages.

3. What a person goes on record as stating does not depend solely upon the beliefs she wants to induce, but also on what the words she uses actually mean. Anita and I, for instance, got married in Sanskrit. As a result, we undertook ever so many commitments to one another – the ones which those words in fact encode. To take another example, if I bet ‘There are two elms in my backyard’, and there are only two beeches, I lose the bet – my idiolectical understand of ‘elm’ notwithstanding. That’s because I was speaking English, as was my interlocutor, and ‘elm’ in English doesn’t mean elm-or-beech.

4. Above and beyond coordination with others, speakers are looking for prescription. Nor do they merely wish their talk to fit the correct description of others like them. Instead, they want the sort of normative prescription that can be found in good, careful dictionaries and grammar handbooks. This holds double for second language learners. Coming at it another way, speakers no more merely seek utilitarian success in the linguistic domain than the moral person seeks merely to “get away with it” as far as practical concerns go. To abandon public languages in favour merely of idiolects seems to require that we theorists be skeptics/nihilists about all of this. (Linguists may scoff at the artificiality of some of the prescriptive rules, but often enough it’s the cynical scoffer who has missed the boat.)

5. It is pressures from culture, mores, social institutions, etc., which help shape languages, so we shouldn’t exclude the former from our purview. (Related to this, cultural identity has to do with dialects and whole languages, not idiolects.) And we can study this history scientifically – so, scotch the idea that there are public, social languages, but that they can’t be the object of “serious science”.

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Wiggins Meets Davidson

There’s a nice connection between Wigginspaper and Davidson’s “Derangement”. Wiggins notes that Davidson, drawing on a suggestion from John Foster, convinces himself that what semanticists are trying to do is specify knowledge of a certain sort: knowledge that, given a few objective contextual parameters, would suffice for interpretation. What Davidson progressively comes to see is that no pre-existing and widely shared knowledge base will turn the trick… So he abandons the original project. Derangement, in short.

But there are two natural alternatives to the instrumentalist turn that Foster provoked. (Wiggins thinks the first of them is what Foster really had in mind all along.): 1) Describe the language as it is, rather than describing knowledge of language. 2) Describe the mental mechanisms underlying speech and comprehension as they actually function, without laying down as a condition that they will suffice for decoding literal meaning. Either way, one eschews instrumentalism and preserves the study of languages.