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”.

Davidson’s Deranged Argument Against Linguistic Conventions

Donald Davidson, back in the mid-80’s, provided an argument that there are no languages, and no such thing as specifically linguistic competence. Drawing attention to successful communicative interaction despite malaprops and new coinages, he writes: “I conclude that there is no such thing as a language… There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. …I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions” (p. 265)

I’ve long thought the argument a bit of a mess. A first point is that the picture he attacks is by no means standard. It definitely isn’t that of, say,  Chomsky or Fodor. The more usual picture was best explained and popularized by Sperber and Wilson: yes, speaker and hearer know codes/conventions of language which more or less overlap, but knowing the code is (almost?) never sufficient even for arriving at the literal content of the speech act. In Chomsky’s terms, linguistic competence, the I-language, never suffices for comprehension even of perfectly ordinary, literal talk – the latter being a performance phenomenon. Malaprops et al. provide no evidence against this more modest role for shared, learned languages: they merely reinforce a main tenet of the view, namely that semantics should not be in the business of trying to provide interpretations of speakers. (Lots of pragmatics is required for that.)

The second point relates to this. Davidson’s inference seems to be…

P1: If so-called linguistic competence is to play a role in talk exchanges then: a) it is systematic/compositional; b) it is shared; c) it is learned in advance; d) it suffices for understanding literal utterance meaning.

P2: Nothing meets all of (a)-(d).

C: So-called “linguistic competence” does not play a role in talk exchanges.

In “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”, Davidson spends all his time on P2. But P2 is not that controversial, at least within standard linguistics. Indeed, as I say, P2 is a consequence of the Chomsky’s own competence/performance distinction! (It’s like: “Knowledge of grammar alone won’t get you the facts about which sentences sound good”. Fair enough. But we don’t conclude that knowledge of grammar therefore does not exist.)

What’s really dubious, I think, is P1. In particular, (d): why should the fact that the “code” is not sufficient entail that it isn’t necessary? (Compare: Why should we infer from the insufficiency of one cause that it doesn’t play a role in achieving the effect?) But without P1 there’s no support for C.

Armies, Navies, Dialects… and the Confusion of Reduction with Elimination

Folks like to quote the joke, attributed to Max Weinreich, that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. They typically do so when trying to cast aspersions on the very notion of languages and dialects. As my pal Peter Ludlow has it, human languages are myths.

But look: if Weinreich’s dictum were true, with its existential presupposition satisfied, it would follow on those grounds alone that there are dialects. And, since there are places with armies, navies and dialects, it would follow from his dictum that there are languages.

The larger issue here is that reduction, far from leading to elimination, is inconsistent with it. If lightening reduces to rapid electrostatic discharges then, because there are rapid electrostatic discharges, there is lightening. So if, implausibly, languages reduced as per the joke, that would establish the reality of languages.

More References on Eliminativism…

Bromberger, Sylvain (2011). “What Are Words?” Journal of Philosophy 108(9): 486-503.

—- (1989). “Type and Tokens in Linguistics”. In A. George (ed.) Reflections on Chomsky. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 58-89.

Heck, Richard G. Jr (2006). “Idiolects”. In Judith Jarvis Thomson & Alex Byrne (eds.), Content and Modality: Themes From the Philosophy of Robert Stalnaker. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 61-92.

Isac, Daniela and Charles Reiss (2008). I-Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ludlow, Peter (2011). The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—- (2006). “The Myth of Human Language”. Croatian Journal of Philosophy 6(3): 385-400.

Postal, Paul M. (forthcoming). “Chomsky’s Foundational Assumption”. Ms.

—- (2009). “The Incoherence of Chomsky’s ‘Biolinguistic’ Ontology”. Biolinguistics 3(1): 104-123.

Rey, Georges (2006). “The Intentional Inexistence of Language – But Not Cars”. In R.J. Stainton (ed.) Contemporary Debates in Cognitive Science. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 237-255.

Stainton, Robert (2006). “Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskyan Themes”. In E. Lepore and B. Smith (eds.) Handbook of the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 913-940.

Wiggins, David (1997). “Languages as Social Objects”. Philosophy 72: 499-524.

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’!

How can a single thing be all of physical, mental and abstract?

How can a single thing be all of physical, mental and abstract? In particular, how can languages and linguistic items be like this? The answer hinges on a bunch of disambiguations.

There are two relevant senses of ‘physical’. One amounts to something like: an object quantified over by sciences like Physics and Chemistry. Put epistemically, something is physical only if such a science can “see” it. Crucially, many objects of immediate everyday experience are not “physical” in this sense. Neither weeds nor clouds would count. The other relevant sense of ‘physical’ is something more like: an object with extension, shape, location in space and time, and (possibly) secondary properties like colour, odour, and taste. In this sense, weeds and clouds are physical things. (Interestingly, not only are there “physical” things in the second sense that aren’t “physical” in the first, but the reverse also appears true: the wave function and loop quantum gravity, for instance, don’t look to be “physical” in the broad, everyday sense.)

In a similar vein, there are two relevant senses of ‘mental’. One is: an item inside the individual mind – in the way that a pain, hallucination or tickle is. The other sense at issue is the neo-Kantian one of being individuated in terms of mental states. Something “mentally conditioned”, to deploy a purposely vague term. An example. It is a familiar philosophical confusion to say that green or bitterness are in the human mind. Though an image or memory of a bitter green apple may be inside my mind, no bitter green apple is to be found therein. Bitter green apples are not themselves inner mental items, as pains are: they are concrete material things. And yet, to use the philosophical jargon, bitterness and green are both widely regarded as response-dependent secondary qualities: that is, what makes an object bitter or green is the kind of mental episodes it can give rise to. In this highly specialized sense alone are they “mental things”.

Lastly, in one philosophical usage, ‘abstract’ is synonymous with ‘Platonic object’, and the only instances are numbers and other logico-mathematical things. What is most characteristic of Platonic objects is that their properties are wholly independent of the physical world in general, and human activities in particular; and their nature is not discovered empirically. There is another sense of ‘abstract’, however, namely things which are not inside the mind, yet are not concrete particulars either. Neither fish nor fowl. Let me coin the term ‘abstractish’ for these. Examples include the American Constitution, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and the 2009 Ford Focus (the model, that is). These do depend on us, and must be discovered empirically; yet they aren’t like tickles, and they aren’t like rocks either.

Can an object be inside the mind, a posit of a physical science, and a human-independent Platonic object? Of course not. What’s more, if those were the only ontological options, Pluralism would not be a viable option. But…

With these terminological clarifications at hand, it is clear that something can indeed intertwine the physical (in the broad, everyday sense), the mental (in the neo-Kantian sense), and the abstract (as in “abstractish”). Indeed, our world is replete with such hybrid objects: psycho-cultural kinds (e.g., dining room tables, footwear, bon fires, people, sport fishing, Caribbean cruises, lasagna, the gel pen, eye make-up, ginger ale, champagne, civic unrest, colour television, punk rock, pornography, incest); intellectual artifacts (college diplomas, drivers’ licences, the Canadian dollar, the heliocentric theory of our solar system, abstract expressionism, Angry Birds, Microsoft Office); and institutions (MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Disneyworld, ethnomusicology, the IBM corporation, Hinduism and Christianity, the NBA, NAFTA).  What my Pluralism holds, with respect to the metaphysics of linguistics, is that natural languages and their elements are metaphysical hybrids in the same sense in which the very many items above are.  The word ‘dog’, e.g., is an abstractish thing, constituted by physical, mental and social relations; so is ‘the dog ran’, each of its linguistic features, and the rules that build it from the latter; similarly for English, the language to which ‘dog’ and ‘the dog ran’ belong.

Well, but can there be a science of such ordinary, hybrid objects? That’s a topic for another post.

The Sloppiest-Ever Argument for Eliminativism about Language?

“Certain dialects of Dutch are mutually intelligible with certain dialects of German. Therefore, there is no such thing as Dutch or German, and no such thing as dialects thereof.” Or again: “The English word ‘theatre’ is pronounced differently in various dialects of English. Therefore, there is no such thing as English, dialects of English, or the word ‘theatre’.”

Homework: In what sense is this sloppy? Can it be made non-paradoxical?


Can a language be physical, mental, social and abstract at once?

My own view on the metaphysics of linguistics is that natural languages have, by equal measures, concrete physical, mental, abstract and social facets. The same holds for words and sentences: they are metaphysical hybrids. There seems, however, to be an insurmountable obstacle to this Pluralist answer, namely that we are faced with four mutually exclusive ontological categories. Nothing can be inside the mind, yet outside it. Nothing can be abstract, hence lacking spatio-temporal location, yet be physical. No physical thing is inherently normed. And so on. Hence Linguistics simply cannot be about such “things”. Much of this section will be devoted to addressing this quandary.

            There is an obvious rebuttal on behalf of my Pluralism, namely that “the linguistic” is a complex phenomenon with parts that belong to distinct ontological categories. This shouldn’t surprise, since even “the mathematical” is like this: two wholly physical dogs, plus two others, yields four wholly physical dogs; and there certainly is the mental operation of multiplying 26 by 84, the mental state of thinking about the square root of seven, etc. Similarly, goes the idea, there are the physical parts of “the linguistic” (e.g., the tokens and the vocal tract), the mental parts (e.g., the mental representation of the rules), the abstract parts (e.g., the types and sets of worlds), etc.

            This quick and dirty rebuttal, however, misses something very important: the interdependence of the aspects in the case of natural languages. To introduce a slogan I have used elsewhere, a language is a system of symbols which we know and use (Stainton 1996). This doesn’t merely mean: there is the abstract system; I mentally represent it; many others represent roughly the same one; this shared knowledge provides a bridge between the abstract side and the physical (e.g., we use this knowledge of types to create plenty of tokens.) This cannot be the whole story because the nature of the abstract system is profoundly shaped by the minds and concrete circumstances of the users: a natural language has the properties it does, causally and constitutively, because of human mental states and activities, the spatiotemporal properties of our bodies, and our physical/social environment. (E.g., it is hard to even make sense of the idea of a phonetic feature, or an allophone, in complete abstraction from minds and bodies of human speakers. But without such things, there are no natural language expressions.) Put epistemologically, the point is that one cannot understand either the essence of natural languages or their nomic relations without studying how they are learned, stored, processed, deployed in speech, reading, etc. In sharp contrast with “the mathematical”, one cannot first catalogue the properties of an abstract linguistic system and its elements, and then (if one is so disposed) consider our knowledge and use thereof.

            A better rebuttal, and the one I will pursue in a later post, is that the worry rests on an equivocation on three key terms – i.e., ‘physical’, ‘mental’ and ‘abstract’. If one focuses on the wrong senses of these words, the Pluralist view looks inconsistent.

No languages? Seriously?

I said that there are five stances one can take on the metaphysics of languages. You can hold that they are:
1) physical, 2) mental, 3) abstract, 4) social or 5) all of the above.

I lied.

To begin with, there are likely other exclusionary options along the lines of (1)-(4). But there’s also ELIMININATIVISM. That’s the view that… there are no languages! The whole notion of languages like English, French and Spanish is a myth.

I think that borders on nutty. But one reason for it is quite sophisticated. If languages did have to belong to exactly one ontological category, there’d be trouble. Happily, say I, the world is replete with entities that don’t belong exclusively to the physical, mental, social or abstract: my blog, the Canadian Government, Rob Ford’s “crack video”, Easter, Hinduism, zombie movies, etc. Indeed, if I have to choose between a) every entity belongs to exactly one ontological category and b) there are no zombie movies, no religions and no languages, I would give up (a) any day of the week.

Methodological Pluralism, C’est What?

METAPHYSICAL PLURALISM about linguistics says that its object of study is a metaphysical hybrid. In contrast to its exclusionary siblings, Pluralism regarding ontology holds that languages have physical, psychical, abstract and social/normative facets. In that regard, languages are like many objects of ordinary experience: hijabs, craft brews, the song ‘Single Ladies’. METHODOLOGICAL PLURALISM is also to be contrasted with its exclusionary brethren. Roughly, the Physicalist about methodology restricts the linguist to observations that can be made by a “field linguist”. (See Bloomfield and Quine.) One could see a Social-Norms theorist making the same move, but taking the data to be norm-laden speech acts rather than bodily motions. The Platonist allows only intuitions of native speakers about “linguistic properties and relations”: e.g., grammaticality, ambiguity, analyticity. (See Katz and Scott Soames.) Interestingly, these folks are methodologically exclusionary precisely because they are ontologically exclusionary: they suppose that the kind of thing natural languages are somehow fixes how one should find out about them. I, along with folks like Louise Antony and Jerry Fodor, say that it doesn’t matter what ontology one endorses: regardless, when it comes to investigative tools, let those proverbial thousand flowers bloom.