Speculative Grammar, Universal Grammar, Philosophical Analysis: Papers in the Philosophy of Language

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As I mentioned in my first lecture, I think that one major indirect contribution of modern structural linguistics results from its success in making explicit the assumptions of an anti-mentalistic, thoroughly operational and behaviourist approach to the phenomena of language. By extending this approach to its natural limits, it laid the groundwork for a fairly conclusive demonstration of the inadequacy of any such approach to the problems of mind.

More generally, I think that the long-range significance of the study of language lies in the fact that in this study it is possible to give a relatively sharp and clear formulation of some of the central questions of psychology and to bring a mass of evidence to bear on them.

What is more, the study of language is, for the moment, unique in the combination it affords of richness of data and susceptibility to sharp formulation of basic issues. It would, of course, be silly to try to predict the future of research, and it will be understood that I do not intend the subtitle of this lecture to be taken very seriously. Nevertheless, it is fair to suppose that the major contribution of the study of language will lie in the understanding it can provide as to the character of mental processes and the structures they form and manipulate.

Therefore, instead of speculating on the likely course of research into the problems that are coming into focus today, I will concentrate here on some of the issues that arise when we try to develop the study of linguistic structure as a chapter of human psychology.

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It is quite natural to expect that a concern for language will remain central to the study of human nature, as it has been in the past. Anyone concerned with the study of human nature and human capacities must somehow come to grips with the fact that all normal humans acquire language, whereas acquisition of even its barest rudiments is quite beyond the capacities of an otherwise intelligent ape a fact that was emphasised, quite correctly, in Cartesian philosophy. However, a careful look at recent studies of animal communication seems to me to provide little support for these assumptions.

Rather, these studies simply bring out even more clearly the extent to which human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. If this is so, it is quite senseless to raise the problem of explaining the evolution of human language from more primitive systems of communication that appear at lower levels of intellectual capacity. The issue is important, and I would like to dwell on it for a moment. The assumption that human language evolved from more primitive systems is developed in an interesting way by Karl Popper in his recently published Arthur Compton Lecture, "Clouds and Clocks.

Speculative Grammar, Universal Grammar, Philosophical Analysis

His discussion of stages of evolution of language suggests a kind of continuity, but in fact he establishes no relation between the lower and higher stages and does not suggest a mechanism whereby transition can take place from one stage to the next. In short, he gives no argument to show that the stages belong to a single evolutionary process.

In fact, it is difficult to see what links these stages at all except for the metaphorical use of the term "language". There is no reason to suppose that the "gaps" are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of "higher" from "lower" stages, in this case, than there is for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking; the stages have no significant analogy, it appears, and seem to involve entirely different processes and principles.

A more explicit discussion of the relation between human language and animal communication systems appears in a recent discussion by the comparative ethologist W. He points out that mammals other than man appear to lack the human ability to imitate sounds, and that one might therefore have expected birds many of which have this ability to a remarkable extent to be "the group which ought to have been able to evolve language in the true sense, and not the mammals.

It is "propositional" in that it transmits information. In this sense, then, both human language and animal communication are purposive, syntactic, and propositional. All this may be true, but it establishes very little, since when we move to the level of abstraction at which human language and animal communication fall together, almost all other behaviour is included as well. Consider walking: Clearly, walking is purposive behaviour, in the most general sense of "purposive. Furthermore, it can certainly be informative; for example, I can signal my interest in reaching a certain goal by the speed or intensity with which I walk.

It is, incidentally, precisely in this manner that the examples of animal communication that Thorpe presents are "propositional. The example is interesting, but it seems to me to show very clearly the hopelessness of the attempt to relate human language to animal communication.

Every animal communication system that is known if we disregard some science fiction about dolphins uses one of two basic principles: Either it consists of a fixed, finite number of signals, each associated with a specific range of behaviour or emotional state, as is illustrated in the extensive primate studies that have been carried out by Japanese scientists for the past several years; or it makes use of a fixed, finite number of linguistic dimensions, each of which is associated with a particular nonlinguistic dimension in such a way that selection of a point along the linguistic dimension determines and signals a certain point along the associated nonlinguistic dimension.

Rate of alternation of high and low pitch is a linguistic dimension correlated with the nonlinguistic dimension of intention to defend a territory. The bird signals its intention to defend a territory by selecting a correlated point along the linguistic dimension of pitch alternation — I use the word "select" loosely, of course.

The linguistic dimension is abstract, but the principle is clear. A communication system of the second type has an indefinitely large range of potential signals, as does human language. The mechanism and principle, however, are entirely different from those employed by human language to express indefinitely many new thoughts, intentions, feelings, and so on. It is not correct to speak of a "deficiency" of the animal system, in terms of range of potential signals; rather the opposite, since the animal system admits in principle of continuous variation along the linguistic dimension insofar as it makes sense to speak of "continuity" in such a case , whereas human language is discrete.

Hence, the issue is not one of "more" or "less," but rather of an entirely different principle of organisation. When I make some arbitrary statement in a human language — say, that "the rise of supranational corporations poses new dangers for human freedom" — I am not selecting a point along some linguistic dimension that signals a corresponding point along an associated nonlinguistic dimension, nor am I selecting a signal from a finite behavioural repertoire, innate or learned.

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Furthermore, it is wrong to think of human use of language as characteristically informative, in fact or in intention. If I speak with no concern for modifying your behaviour or thoughts, I am not using language any less than if I say exactly the same things with such intention. If we hope to understand human language and the psychological capacities on which it rests, we must first ask what it is, not how or for what purposes it is used. When we ask what human language is, we find no striking similarity to animal communication systems.

There is nothing useful to be said about behaviour or thought at the level of abstraction at which animal and human communication fall together. The examples of animal communication that have been examined to date do share many of the properties of human gestural systems, and it might be reasonable to explore the possibility of direct connection in this case. But human language, it appears, is based on entirely different principles. This, I think, is an important point, often overlooked by those who approach human language as a natural, biological phenomenon; in particular, it seems rather pointless, for these reasons, to speculate about the evolution of human language from simpler systems — perhaps as absurd as it would be to speculate about the "evolution" of atoms from clouds of elementary particles.


As far as we know, possession of human language is associated with a specific type of mental organisation, not simply a higher degree of intelligence. There seems to be no substance to the view that human language is simply a more complex instance of something to be found elsewhere in the animal world. This poses a problem for the biologist, since, if true, it is an example of true "emergence" — the appearance of a qualitatively different phenomenon at a specific stage of complexity of organisation.

Recognition of this fact, though formulated in entirely different terms, is what motivated much of the classical study of language by those whose primary concern was the nature of mind.

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And it seems to me that today there is no better or more promising way to explore the essential and distinctive properties of human intelligence than through the detailed investigation of the structure of this unique human possession. A reasonable guess, then, is that if empirically adequate generative grammars can be constructed and the universal principles that govern their structure and organisation determined, then this will be an important contribution to human psychology, in ways to which I will turn directly, in detail.

In the course of these lectures I have mentioned some of the classical ideas regarding language structure and contemporary efforts to deepen and extend them. It seems clear that we must regard linguistic competence — knowledge of a language — as an abstract system underlying behaviour, a system constituted by rules that interact to determine the form and intrinsic meaning of a potentially infinite number of sentences. Notice, incidentally, that the existence of definite principles of universal grammar makes possible the rise of the new field of mathematical linguistics, a field that submits to abstract study the class of generative systems meeting the conditions set forth in universal grammar.

This inquiry aims to elaborate the formal properties of any possible human language. The field is in its infancy; it is only in the last decade that the possibility of such an enterprise has been envisioned. It has some promising initial results, and it suggests one possible direction for future research that might prove to be of great importance.

Thus, mathematical linguistics seems for the moment to be in a uniquely favourable position, among mathematical approaches in the social and psychological sciences, to develop not simply as a theory of data, but as the study of highly abstract principles and structures that determine the character of human mental processes.


In this case, the mental processes in question are those involved in the organisation of one specific domain of human knowledge, namely knowledge of language. The theory of generative grammar, both particular and universal, points to a conceptual lacuna in psychological theory that I believe is worth mentioning. Psychology conceived as "behavioural science" has been concerned with behaviour and acquisition or control of behaviour.

It has no concept corresponding to "competence," in the sense in which competence is characterised by a generative grammar. The theory of learning has limited itself to a narrow and surely inadequate concept of what is learned — namely a system of stimulus-response connections, a network of associations, a repertoire of behavioural items, a habit hierarchy, or a system of dispositions to respond in a particular way under specifiable stimulus conditions.

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What is necessary, in addition to the concept of behaviour and learning, is a concept of what is learned — a notion of competence — that lies beyond the conceptual limits of behaviourist psychological theory. Like much of modern linguistics and modern philosophy of language, behaviourist psychology has quite consciously accepted methodological restrictions that do not permit the study of systems of the necessary complexity and abstractness.

There is an obvious sense in which any aspect of psychology is based ultimately on the observation of behaviour.

But it is not at all obvious that the study of learning should proceed directly to the investigation of factors that control behaviour or of conditions under which a "behavioural repertoire" is established. It is first necessary to determine the significant characteristics of this behavioural repertoire, the principles on which it is organised.

A meaningful study of learning can proceed only after this preliminary task has been carried out and has led to a reasonably well-confirmed theory of underlying competence — in the case of language, to the formulation of the generative grammar that underlies the observed use of language.

Such a study will concern itself with the relation between the data available to the organism and the competence that it acquires; only to the extent that the abstraction to competence has been successful — in the case of language, to the extent that the postulated grammar is "descriptively adequate" in the sense described in Lecture 2 — can the investigation of learning hope to achieve meaningful results.

If, in some domain, the organisation of the behavioural repertoire is quite trivial and elementary, then there will be little harm in avoiding the intermediate stage of theory construction, in which we attempt to characterise accurately the competence that is acquired.

But one cannot count on this being the case, and in the study of language it surely is not the case. With a richer and more adequate characterisation of "what is learned" — of the underlying competence that constitutes the "final state" of the organism being studied — it may be possible to approach the task of constructing a theory of learning that will be much less restricted in scope than modern behavioural psychology has proved to be. Surely it is pointless to accept methodological strictures that preclude such an approach to problems of learning.

Are there other areas of human competence where one might hope to develop a fruitful theory, analogous to generative grammar? Although this is a very important question, there is very little that can be said about it today. One might, for example, consider the problem of how a person comes to acquire a certain concept of three-dimensional space, or an implicit "theory of human action," in similar terms. Such a study would begin with the attempt to characterise the implicit theory that underlies actual performance and would then turn to the question of how this theory develops under the given conditions of time and access to data that is, in what way the resulting system of beliefs is determined by the interplay of available data, "heuristic procedures," and the innate schematism that restricts and conditions the form of the acquired system.

At the moment, this is nothing more than a sketch of a program of research. There have been some attempts to study the structure of other, language-like systems — the study of kinship systems and folk taxonomies comes to mind, for example. But so far, at least, nothing has been discovered that is even roughly comparable to language in these domains.