Van Fraassen and Natural Language as “the Language of Science”

Bas van Fraassen has been at Western this week. He said a couple of things I found extremely surprising, and I wanted to get help from the Blogosphere about how to understand one of them.

As far as I could make out, one of his main plaints yesterday was that Putnam-style model theoretic arguments cannot work because the language of science already comes interpreted. So, the whole idea that one can “re-interpret” the language of science in a bizarre way, yet preserve truth, is a non-starter. I am happy with the conclusion. But the bit that really surprised me was his grounds for this claim, namely that the language of science is ordinary natural language and it requires no interpretation. He granted that texts in English, German, etc., may not be understood immediately (he mentioned conflicting interpretations of novels), and that we frequently lack an analysis of natural language terms — but he insisted that, nonetheless, the very of idea of “assigning an interpretation” was inappropriate.

I felt sure I had misunderstood, and in the question period I brought up two very familiar points, raised by thinkers as different as Frege, Tarski, Austin/Strawson, Wittgenstein and Chomsky: 1) That sentences of natural language are not typically true or false, even relative to a narrow list of objective parameters. (Think of ‘It’s three o’clock’ or ‘Washington is annoyed at Putin’). 2) That sentences of natural language have use-theoretic properties that fit ill with the needs of the scientist, such as illocutionary force, level of formality/politeness, tone, etc. (Think of the difference between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, ‘barf’ and ‘vomit’, etc.) In short, natural language lacks some of the crucial “semantic properties” that sentences of a scientific theory would seem to require, and they exhibit “pragmatic properties” that would not be desirable.

Van Fraassen’s own reply seemed to amount to denying out of hand that natural languages are like this. But it’s hard for me to believe that he could be so naive and out of touch, given his own interest in pragmatics. (I do not mean that he made sophisticated moves to set aside the raft of cases, familiar to linguists and philosophers, of lacking-truth and exhibiting-more-than-truth . Folks who do that are, I think, mistaken; but they definitely are not naive. I mean that he just dismissed the idea.)

I came away thinking that there must have been serious cross-talk at work. Thus my question to y’all: As a proponent of the “semantic approach” to scientific theories, what can he have in mind by the idea that, by appealing to ordinary natural language sentences, we solve the problem of providing a proper interpretation for scientific theories?

Draft Course Outline for the New Course. Comments welcome!

Undergraduate Course Outline 2014-15

Philosophy 1260 B: Talking Philosophy

Winter Term 2015
Class Days and Hours: MWF 1:30-2:20
Classroom: TBA
Instructor: Robert J. Stainton
Office: StH 3126
Office Hours: TBA
Phone: 519-661-2111 ext. 82757
Web Site:

A very first introduction to philosophical issues about language and communication, centred around questions of broad interest. Likely topics include: widespread myths about language; language learning; animal speech and communication; the relationship between language and thought/perception; language, sex and gender; hate speech; correct speech; language promotion and preservation; free speech; metaphor and other figures of speech.

Sample questions: Can “lower animals” such as dolphins and chimps speak? Do they already have languages of their own? Can they learn human tongues? Is knowledge of language innate in humans? How do words shape perceptions of the world? (E.g., is one’s perception of snow altered by the number of snow-related words in a person’s language?) More generally, how are language and culture connected? Is “proper English” in decline nowadays? For instance, is proper English grammar threatened by technologies like Twitter, or is the way we read being deformed by web-site hopping? When is it permissible to limit free speech: when it is hateful and offensive, e.g., or only when it presents an immediate danger? What, if anything, should be done to preserve endangered languages, or to promote the use of minority languages?

None. The course will draw heavily on web-based media.

– Introduction to philosophical ideas and argumentation.
– Development of core transferable skills, including: close reading of texts; oral argument; and careful, clear writing.
– Familiarity with crucial views, concepts and arguments about language.