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Philosophy and Linguistics

  • Jon Wheatley (a1)


My task in this article is to discuss some of the recent research in linguistics and its relation, if any, to the traditional problems of philosophy. I do this in the light of two recently published books, more the first than the second. My problem is that there is so much to say, both about linguistics and about the books, that much must be left unsaid. For- instance, Chomsky has an extended discussion of the notion of innate ideas (pp. 47–59) and Katz provides a review of philosophical work in language in the last half century (pp. 15–96). I have found space for neither. I do not offer any discussion of matters internal to linguistics; that is, I do not criticize the quality of the linguistics in Chomsky's book—that belongs elsewhere and by another writer—but concern myself exclusively with the philosophical relevance of the linguistic matters.



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1 Aspects of the Theory of Syntax by Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, Mass: M. I. T. Press, 1965 (pp. xiii + 251, $7.50) and The Philosophy of Language by J. Katz. New York, Harper and Row, 1966 (pp. xiii + 326).

2 I shall not, in what follows, closely specify each time the type of linguist or the type of philosopher to whom I am referring. In general, unless other-wise noted, ‘linguist’ encompasses only descriptive linguists working on generative grammars and ‘philosopher’ encompasses only analytic philosophers concerned with language. The same thing applies,mutatis imdandis, to ‘linguistics’ and ‘philosophy'. This shorthand avoids a good deal of < circumlocution.

3 The linguists who work with generative grammars use many of the old grammatical classifications which they have so far done little to refine. However, work on classification continues, most notably by the followers of C. C.Fries.

4 Originally published as Leave Tour Language Alone!, Linguistica Press, 1950. Now in Anchor books as Linguistics and Your Language, 1960.

5 There is one non-theoretical discovery which could be made: we could find a tribe the structure of whose language was totally different from the structure of any existing language. I am not sure whether, in the terms used by modern linguists, it is logically possible that such a discovery could be made, though they certainly think it is. Such a discovery, supposing linguists would be prepared to admit anything constituted one, would alter what we said about current theories of ‘universal grammar’ (i.e., we would have to stop calling it ‘universal') and perhaps Chomsky's theory of innate ideas, but little else.

6 This example is adapted from an earlier paper of Chomsky's: ‘A Transformational Approach to Syntax’ from the Proceedings of the Third Texas Conference on Problems of Linguistic Analysis in English, 1962.

7 The constituents of a possible definition are given, but not a definition. This portion of Chomsky's book is really very obscure.

8 The notion of the function (or the possible function) of a sentence plays no part in Chomsky's exposition. This is especially odd because he gives a quotation from Cook-Wilson (p. 163) which points the problem up. He remarks, in this connection, that the problem lies beyond the scope of any existing theory of language use. I suppose he would not count the philosophical writing on the subject as involving what could properly be called a theory.

9 This lack of present importation possibilities may be a blessing in disguise. All modern work in linguistics is of a truly monumental obscurity and, in spite of the show of rigour, often fuzzy as a consequence. Chomsky's work, though better lhan most, is not free from this fault. For instance, when, in the quotation given in the previous paragraph, he speaks of the ‘elementary parts’ of sentences, what precisely does he mean? Words? Morphemes? Or something different from both?

Philosophy and Linguistics

  • Jon Wheatley (a1)


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