philosophy of linguistics

Esa Itkonen eitkonen at UTU.FI
Tue Mar 27 12:58:22 UTC 2001

Philosophy of science at its best investigates existing scientific
practices; it may suggest improvements, but these must start from what
exists already. Otherwise it is vacuous (or utopistic). Philosophy of
linguistics at its best investigates the notion of functional explanation
as it is employed in typological linguistics as a matter of fact. It cannot
investigate e.g. deductive-nomological explanations of language change,
because these do not exist; for the same reason, it cannot investigate such
explanations of (limits on) variation in argument-marking as are based on
neurophysiological computations or on the motion of subatomic particles.

Functional/rational explanations presuppose the existence of unconscious
goals and beliefs. On Funknet the name of John Searle has been mentioned in
this context. Searle is an uneven thinker. Sometimes what he says is wrong,
and sometimes it is right. Both sides are illustrated by his book The
Rediscovery (read 'Re'discovery) of the Mind.

First, Searle claims that mental states are states which either are
conscious or can become conscious. The latter states are identical with one
subclass of neurophysiological states; the other subclass is constituted by
those neurophysiological states that cannot become conscious. (Thus, there
are no permanently unconscious goals/beliefs.) Notice that the second type
of mental states, identical with the first type of neurophysiological
states, entails that '(some) neurophysiological states are mental states',
which is gibberish, although, or because, it is the thesis of strong
reductionism. More importantly, Searle is committed to the view that until
the age of 10 months  or so, children have no mental life. Fathers and
mothers are likely to disagree. (Animals too are deprived of mentality.)
Searle's position beautifully illustrates the oddities which one is driven
to as long as one does not reject the discrete ('black-or-white')
metaphysics in favor of a CONTINUUM metaphysics. (Here we would just have
to accept the continuum between totally unconscious and totally
(self-)conscious). Some versions of a priori linguistics, now largely
discarded, have suffered from the same metaphysical illness. - What if
Searle's die-hard acolytes refuse to be swayed by reason (i.e. by the
preceding argument)? Then we will make a concession which may not please
them: the one who proposes (adequate) rational explanations HAS become
conscious of until-then-uncoscious goals-cum-beliefs in his or her own
case, and others CAN follow, or COULD have followed, his or her example
(thus fulfilling the Searlean requirement of dispositionality). From there,
arriving at functional-typological explanations is simply a matter of
analogical generalization. Both ways, the rational explanation is
vindicated. (Other examples of Searle not at his best will be mentioned on

Second, it is impossible to deny the cogency of Searle's arguments against
the ontological reality of Chomskyan 'computations' (pp. 220-221, 244-246).

The preceding argument may discourage devotees of the black-or-white
metaphysics, especially those who have restricted their readings to
introductory textbooks of philosophy. But one should not give up trying. In
a far-off distance, philosophy is beckoning seductively: 'come to me.' The
Bible teaches us that in the Heaven of Christianity it is always a special
occasion when an ex-sinner has redeemed him- or herself. Analogously, there
is a general sense of satisfaction in the esoteric realm of philosophy when
someone who has acted like a moron finally rejects the idea that (s)he is
innately endowed to remain a moron forever, and decides to become a
rational person.

Esa Itkonen, Dozent der Philosophie (inter alia)

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