Salinas17 at Salinas17 at
Tue May 31 14:40:42 UTC 2005

In a message dated 5/30/05 2:18:49 PM, daniel.everett at writes:
<< The importance of Aristotle to linguistics is not so much his specific
proposals but, in contradistinction to Plato, can be interpreted as arguing that
language, as convention, emerges from culture/society.  This is quite
different from believing that language is a form of math about which our knowledge is
underdetermined by our experience.>>

The difficulty here is created not when we consider language as a form of
math, but math as a form of language.

Plato's notion that things have "true names" seems a curious one until we
understand it from the point of view of math and geometry.  Aristotle's
nominalism basically asserted that the world existed independent of language.  This is
modern naturalism and every modern scientist is an heir of Aristotle.

But for neither Greek was language biological or arbitrary.  The main
constraint in Plato was not an Aristotelian conforming to an accurate description of
the world, it was instead an accurate picture of the abstract and formal logic
that seems to rule the world.  This is a parallel tradition -- it's Kepler
and Newton "reading the mind of God" and Chomsky's language mechanism.  The old
classic nominalism versus idealism debate repeated over and over again.

The problem comes from the fact that the mathematics of language (not merely
the language of math) does have predictive power -- i.e., it does go beyond
our literal past experience.  I know that Alex doesn't mean that language is
completely chaotic.  There is an amazing accuracy in language despite all the
everyday missteps.

The resolution I think is to understand that there is quite a bit of
naturalistic logic and orderliness and predictableness in the objective world.  And
that our language and our culture and our evolved biology -- are all intentional
or accidental attempts to accurately conform to the imperatives of the
physical world.  We can be fooled into thinking that the orderliness and logic of
language somehow originated in us.  It did not.  It originated out there, in a
somewhat clockwork world that goes on ticking whether we are around to talk to
each other about it or not.

Starting from the assumption that it's the world around and in us that
dictates the structure of language, the structural distinction between language as
biology (accident-driven) and culture (intentionality-driven) becomes a blur.
We expect the same language structure from both.

When we look at function however, that blur disappears.  What so-called
"evolutionary psychology" does not understand is the compelling power of culture
and intentionality.  Whatever accident allowed human language, the history of
language since than has hardly been been accidental, in the precise sense that
biological evolution is driven by the accidental.

Steve Long

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