faults of functionalism

Esa eitkonen at UTU.FI
Wed Apr 30 21:27:27 UTC 1997

Dialogue is useful, in the following sense. When I argue, I never
try to convince my opponent. I know that (s)he is just too stupid to
understand. (This is a joke, I guess.) Who I try to convince, is the
one who listens to us, having not yet committed him/herself. (This
is not a joke.)
        Yet it is clear enough that there should be more
self-criticism of functionalism. Here is something to start with.
The emphasis on biology (e.g. in recent messages) is misplaced. If
e.g. in the study of grammaticalization one uses such terms as
'problem-solving' or 'abductive inference', and if one means what
one says (which may not always be the case, as we have learned),
then it is clear that these terms/concepts have been developed in
disciplines other than biology, and it is these disciplines, not
biology, that should be consulted. (That is, biology is OK in the
right place, but not in the wrong place.)
        It is customary to ridicule the idea that there might be a
clear distinction between study of human nature and study of
inanimate nature. But this customary way of thinking should itself
be ridiculed. There are absolutely no inferences made by inanimate
things qua research objects but there are inferences made by human
beings qua research objects (again, provided one is using the terms
in their literal sense). Of course at a higher level of abstraction
similarities between physics and linguistics get more pronounced,
but this is a different matter. Functionalism does not carry the
blame of biological overemphasis alone. It inherited it from a
once-dominant school of linguistics whose name right now oddly
escapes me.
        There is overemphasis not just on biology but also on
cognition (understood as psychology of individuals). Language cannot
be adequately understood without the notion of normativity (=
correct vs. incorrect or grammatical vs ungrammatical), and this
is a necessarily social notion; but normativity is nearly ignored.
This means in fact that functionalists (and cognitivists) are only
too eager to commit the psychologistic fallacy (= reducing 'ought'
to 'is', or ignoring 'ought' entirely), which has - nevertheless -
been known to be a fallacy at least for 900 years (i.e. since Pierre
Abaelard). Again, the cognitive overemphasis too has been inherited
from the same nameless source that was hinted at above.
        There is more, but it may be good to save it for another occasion.

Esa Itkonen

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