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May 29, 2005

#124 (The limits of philosophy.)

"124. Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.

For it cannot give anything a foundation either.

It leaves everything as it is.

It also leaves mathematics as it is, and no mathematical discovery can advance it. A 'leading problem of mathematical logic' is for us a problem of mathematics like any other."

-from Philosophical Investigations

I post this partly as a response to questions that have recently been raised about the relationship between Wittgenstein's philosophy of language and contemporary naturalistic explanations in the field of linguistics. I should also note that, in spite of my interest in Wittgenstein's work, I have not studied much philosophy of language; philosophy of science and mathematics is where I find myself most at home, so I may slip into that mode in discussing this question.

The first statement, that philosophy may not "interfere" with the use of language, but only describe it, is in line with investigations into questions such as "How are we able to construct such a range of meaningful sentences when we have not been explicitly taught to do so?" (And other questions of this sort.) It does not seem to me that Wittgenstein would object to the question. The question makes sense to ask.

Shane referred me to a paper considering the compatibility--or lack thereof--between Wittgenstein's and Chomsky's views. (That paper can be found here.) The general conclusion of the author was that the two views are not incompatible, but that they have wildly divergent aims and methods, a conclusion with which I agree wholeheartedly. Chomsky pursues the question from a scientific standpoint, which immediately places his thesis outside of the bounds of what Wittgenstein would consider philosophical. (We can easily read his above statement about mathematics as applying to science as well; and this is a point that will arouse contention, I think, because many people do believe that various scientific and mathematical advances have also advanced philosophy.)

Of course, the question that Wittgenstein's work so often leaves us with is still hanging in the air: just what is philosophy of language supposed to do, if not what Chomsky is doing? My feeling is that Wittgenstein would have philosophy of language act as a foil to linguistics, gently reminding people like Chomsky of the realities of language-use, the importance of the social character of language. But this is just an initial reading of the situation, and I could easily be convinced of a different one.

Posted by tiet0024 at May 29, 2005 1:06 PM | Investigations


The problem though is that Chomsky seems to flatly dismiss the notion that the social aspects of language (socially agreed upon uses of words, its use as a communicative tool) are important to the theory of what language, and language aquisition actually is. To see that to which I refer, try to find the essay "Explaining Language Use" from his book "New Horizons in the Study of Language and the Mind." There he gives this argument, using the notion of an I-language, an internal, individual language aquired due to the universal grammar each person has inside themselves (the initial state of language):

"Successful communication between Peter and Mary does not entail the existence of shared meanings or shared pronunciations in a public language (or a common treasure of thoughts or articulations of them), any more than physical resemblance between Peter and Mary entails the existence of a public form that they share...It may be that when he listens to Mary speak, Peter proceeds by assuming that she is identical to him, modulo M, some array of modifications that he must work out. Sometimes the task is easy, sometimes hard, sometimes hopeless. To work out M, Peter will use any artifice available to him, though much of the process is doubtless automatic and unreflective. Having settled on M, Peter will, similarly use any artifice to construct a "passing theory" - even if M is null. Insofar as Peter succeeds in these tasks, he understands what Mary says as being what he means by his comparable expression. The only (virtually) "shared structure" among humans generally is the initial state of the language faculty. Beyond that we expect to find no more then approximations, as in the case of other natural objects that grow and develop."

I want to agree with him about grammar being something innately generated and not in need of public rules. But the actual use of words for me is a sticking point. There I do not agree and I think that is where we must look to Witt.
I am going to be posting my reactions to the Chomsky book sometime next week in my livejournal. So go there if it piques your interest.

Posted by: Shane at May 29, 2005 6:17 PM