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’!