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Philosophy of Linguistics

Philosophy of Linguistics

by Dov M. Gabbay, Paul Thagard (Contribution by), John Woods (Contribution by)

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Philosophy of Linguistics investigates the foundational concepts and methods of linguistics, the scientific study of human language. This groundbreaking collection, the most thorough treatment of the philosophy of linguistics ever published, brings together philosophers, scientists and historians to map out both the foundational assumptions set during the


Philosophy of Linguistics investigates the foundational concepts and methods of linguistics, the scientific study of human language. This groundbreaking collection, the most thorough treatment of the philosophy of linguistics ever published, brings together philosophers, scientists and historians to map out both the foundational assumptions set during the second half of the last century and the unfolding shifts in perspective in which more functionalist perspectives are explored. The opening chapter lays out the philosophical background in preparation for the papers that follow, which demonstrate the shift in the perspective of linguistics study through discussions of syntax, semantics, phonology and cognitive science more generally. The volume serves as a detailed introduction for those new to the field as well as a rich source of new insights and potential research agendas for those already engaged with the philosophy of linguistics.

Part of the Handbook of the Philosophy of Science series edited by:

Dov M. Gabbay, King's College, London, UK; Paul Thagard, University of Waterloo, Canada; and John Woods, University of British Columbia, Canada.

  • Provides a bridge between philosophy and current scientific findings
  • Encourages multi-disciplinary dialogue
  • Covers theory and applications

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Elsevier Science
Publication date:
Handbook of the Philosophy of Science Series
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7.20(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.40(d)

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Handbook of Philosophy of Science Volume 14 Philosophy of Linguistics

By Ruth Kempson, Tim Fernando, Nicholas Asher

Elsevier Science

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-08-093087-9




Jaroslav Peregrin


Like so many sciences, linguistics originated from philosophy's rib. It reached maturity and attained full independence only in the twentieth century (for example, it is a well-known fact that the first linguistics department in the UK was founded in 1944); though research which we would now classify as linguistic (especially leading to generalizations from comparing different languages) was certainly carried out much earlier. The relationship between philosophy and linguistics is perhaps reminiscent of that between an old-fashioned mother and her emancipated daughter, and is certainly asymmetric. And though from philosophy's rib, empirical investigation methods have ensured that linguistics has evolved (just as in the case of the more famous rib) into something far from resembling the original piece of bone.

Another side of the same asymmetry is that while linguistics focuses exclusively on language (or languages), for philosophy language seems less pervasive — philosophy of language being merely one branch among many. However, during the twentieth century this asymmetry was substantially diminished by the so called linguistic turn, undergone by numerous philosophers — this turn was due to the realization that as language is the universal medium for our grasping and coping with the world, its study may provide the very key for all other philosophical disciplines.

As for the working methods, we could perhaps picture the difference between a philosopher of language and a linguist by means of the following simile. Imagine two researchers both asked to investigate an unknown landscape. One hires a helicopter, acquires a birds-eye view of the whole landscape and draws a rough, but comprehensive map. The other takes a camera, a writing pad and various instruments, and walks around, taking pictures and making notes of the kinds of rocks, plants and animals which he finds. Whose way is the more reasonable? Well, one wants to say, neither, for they seem to be complementary. And likewise, contemporary research within philosophy of language and linguistics are similarly complementary: whereas the philosopher resembles the airman (trying to figure out language's most general principles of functioning, not paying much attention to details), the linguist resembles the walker (paying predominant attention to details and working a slow and painstaking path towards generalizations). And just as the efforts of the two researchers may eventually converge (if the flyer refines his maps enough and the walker elevates his inquiries to a certain level of generalization), so the linguist and the philosopher may find their respective studies meeting within the realm of empirical, but very general principles of the functioning of language.

Unfortunately though, such meetings are often fraught with mutual misunderstandings. The philosopher is convinced that what is important are principles, not contingent idiosyncrasies of individual languages, and ridicules the linguist for trying to answer such questions as what is a language? with empirical generalizations. The linguist, on the other hand, ridicules the philosopher for sitting in an ivory tower and trying to tell us something about languages, the empirical phenomena, without paying due attention to their real natures.


In the nineteenth century, the young science of linguistics was initially preoccupied with comparative studies of various languages. But concurrently it started to seek a subject which it could see as its own: is linguistics really to study the multiplicity of languages, or is it to be after something that is invariant across them? And if so, what is it? Similar unclarities arose w.r.t. a single language. What, in fact, is a language? Some chunk of mental stuff inside its speakers? Some repertoire of physiological dispositions of the speakers? Some social institution? These questions have subsequently led to fully-fledged conceptions of the nature of language; the most influential of which were tabled by Ferdinand de Saussure (in the end of the nineteenth century) and much later, in the second half of the twentieth century, by Noam Chomsky.

2.1 De Saussure

The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, in his posthumously edited lectures published as the Course of general linguistics [1916], was the first to provide for linguistics' standing on its own feet in that he offered an answer to all the above mentioned questions: it is, he argued, a peculiar kind of structure that is the essence of each and every language, and the peculiar and exclusive subject matter of linguistics is this very structure. Therefore linguistics basically differs from natural sciences: it does not study the overt order of the tangible world, but a much more abstract and much less overt structure of the most peculiar of human products — language. Studying the psychology, the physiology or the sociology of speakers may be instrumental to linguistics, it is, however, not yet linguistics.

In fact, the conclusion that language is a matter of structure comes quite naturally — in view of the wildness with which the lexical material of different languages often differs. Far more uniformity is displayed by the ways in which the respective materials are sewn together and the traces left by these ways on their products — complex expressions. But de Saussure claimed not only that grammatical rules and the consequent grammatical structures of complex expressions are more important than the stuff they are applied to; his claim ran much deeper. His claim was that everything which we perceive as "linguistic reality" is a structural matter which is a product of certain binary oppositions. According to him, language is a "system of pure values" which are the result of arrangements of linguistic terms; and hence that language is, through and through, a matter of relations and of the structure these relations add up to.

What exactly is this supposed to mean? What does de Saussure's term "value" amount to? How is the value of an expression produced by relations among expressions? De Saussure claims that all relevant linguistic relations are induced by what he calls "identities" and what would be, given modern terminology, more adequately called equivalences, which can also be seen as a matter of oppositions (which are, in the prototypical cases, complementary to equivalences). Moreover, he claims, in effect, that values are mere 'materializations' of these equivalences resp. oppositions: saying that two elements are equivalent is saying that they have the same value. To use de Saussure's own example, today's train going from Geneva to Paris at 8:25 is probably a physical object which is quite different from yesterday's train from Geneva to Paris at 8:25 — however, the two objects are equivalent in that both are the same 8:25 Geneva-to-Paris train. The abstract object the 8:25 Geneva-to-Paris train is, in this sense, constituted purely by the (functional) equivalence between certain tangible objects; and in the same sense the values of expressions are constituted purely by (functional) equivalences between the expressions.

Moroever, De Saussure saw the equivalences constitutive of 'linguistic reality' as resting upon some very simple, binary ones (i.e. such which instigate division into merely two equivalence classes). And these are more instructively seen in terms of the corresponding oppositions — elementary distinctions capable of founding all the distinctions relevant for any system of language whatsoever. (Just as we now know complicated structures can be implemented in terms of bits of information and hence in terms of a single 0-1 opposition.) Hence de Saussure saw the complicated structure of language as entirely emerging from an interaction of various kinds of simple oppositions, like the opposition between a voiced and an unvoiced sound.

De Saussure's structuralism thus consists first and foremost in seeing language as a system of values induced by elementary oppositions. Moreover, there is no 'substance' predating and upholding the oppositions — all items of language, including the most basic ones ("units"), are produced by them. According to de Saussure, language does not come as a set of predelimited signs; it is primarily an amorphous mass, the "units" and other "elements" of which acquire a firm shape only via our creative reflections. It is very misleading, claims de Saussure, to see an expression as the union of a certain sound with a certain concept. Such a view would isolate the expression from the system of its language; it would lead to an unacceptably atomist view that we can start from individual terms and construct language by putting them together. The contrary is the case: we start from the system and obtain its elements only through analysis.

Hence Saussurean structuralism does not consist merely in the reduction of 'abstract' entities to some 'concrete' ones ("units") and their oppositions — it proceeds to reduce also those entities which appear to us, from the viewpoint of the more abstract ones, as 'concrete units' or 'basic building blocks', to oppositions. "[T]he characteristics of the unit blend with the unit itself," (ibid., p. 168) as de Saussure himself puts it. This means that language is a matter of oppositions alone — "language is a form and not a substance" (ibid., p. 169).

Language, according to de Saussure, has the "striking characteristic" that none of its elements are given to us at the outset; and yet we do not doubt that they exist and that they underlie the functioning of language. This means that although language is primarily an incomprehensible mess or multiplicity, we must take it as a 'part-whole system' in order to grasp and understand it. Language thus does not originate from naming ready-made objects — associating potential 'signifiers' with potential 'signifieds' — for both the signifiers and the signifieds are, in an important sense, constituted only together with the constitution of language as a whole.

All in all, de Saussure's claim is that besides the 'natural order' of things, as studied by natural sciences, there is a different kind of order which is displayed by the products of human activities, especially language, and which is irreducible to the former one. Thus linguistics has its peculiar subject matter — the structure of language.

De Saussure's insistence that the subject matter of linguistics is essentially 'unnaturalizable' — that the structures in question constitute, as it were, an independent stratum of reality, soon became influential not only within linguistics, but across all the humanities. Many partisans of philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies etc. saw this view as a basic weapon for emancipating the humanities from natural science. The resulting movement is now known as structuralism (see [Kurzweil, 1980; Caws, 1988]).

2.2 Chomsky

The other towering figure of linguistics, who has produced a fully-fledged conception of the nature of language which gained a broad influence, is the American linguist Noam Chomsky. His 1957 book Syntactic Structures was unprecedented particularly by the extent to which the author proposed supporting linguistics by mathematics. This was unusual: for although the Saussurean picture may — from today's perspective — have already seemed to invite mathematical means (especially the means of universal algebra, which has come to be understood as the general theory of abstract structures), the invitation was actively suppressed by many of his followers. (Thus Roman Jakobson, an extremely influential post-Saussurean linguistic structuralist, found precisely this aspect of de Saussure's teaching untenable.) Chomsky based his account of language on the apparatus of generative and transformational grammars: of precisely delimited systems of rules capable of producing all and only well-formed sentences of the language in question. These grammars may be, and have been, studied purely mathematically, but their raison d'être was that they were intended to be used for the purpose of reconstructing real languages, thus bringing to light their 'essential structure'. In later years Chomsky upgraded this picture in a number of ways (see [Hinzen, this volume]).

Excerpted from Handbook of Philosophy of Science Volume 14 Philosophy of Linguistics by Ruth Kempson. Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier B.V.. Excerpted by permission of Elsevier Science.
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Meet the Author

Dov M. Gabbay is Augustus De Morgan Professor Emeritus of Logic at the Group of Logic, Language and Computation, Department of Computer Science, King's College London. He has authored over four hundred and fifty research papers and over thirty research monographs. He is editor of several international Journals, and many reference works and Handbooks of Logic.

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