A Theory of Language


A Theory of Language


In A Theory of Justice Rawls suggests a thought experiment designed to rid us of biases in our thinking about justice, labeled the Original Position. We find ourselves occupying a certain position in society, perhaps an unfairly privileged one, and we need a way to prescind from this contingency, so we imagine ourselves not to have knowledge of the facts of our actual position. In this way we can gain an impartial perspective on what constitutes a just distribution of resources. I want to suggest something similar in the philosophy of language: we are familiar with certain concepts and perspectives on our language that arise from the contingencies of our linguistic history, but these may give us a biased view of the real nature of language, so we need a way to prescind from such contingencies. We need to imagine ourselves not possessing our customary knowledge, stripped down to the basics of linguistic life; then we can start from scratch in producing a theory of language. That theory might be quite revisionary of our ordinary conceptions, as Rawls’s theory is quite revisionary of common assumptions about justice. He was trying to get to the very heart of justice; we are trying to get to the very heart of language—by suspending common assumptions (the method is also similar to Husserl’s epoche). So: what does our commonsense theory of language look like and where might it go wrong?[1]

Our commonsense understanding of language invokes a range of concepts familiar to philosophers of language: meaning, reference, sense, ambiguity, communication, intention, convention, speech act, assertion, command, question, grammar, logical form, use, word, sentence, speaker, hearer, implication and implicature, truth conditions, translation, and others. These make up the tacit theory we bring to bear on language, which are then converted into theoretical terms of an overall theory. They belong to a semantic meta-language. Maybe we acquire this meta-language in the course of our linguistic upbringing, maybe it has an innate component: in either case it comes to us naturally and spontaneously, without any self-consciously explicit theory construction. So let’s imagine that we do not acquire this set of concepts in the way we do but rather reach linguistic maturity without developing any such self-understanding: we speak an object language (say, English) but we don’t speak a meta-language about it—we have no thoughts at all about the nature of the language we speak. We don’t even have the concept of meaning. Perhaps animals that use symbolic systems—whales and dolphins, say—are in this cognitive situation: they speak and listen but they don’t theorize at all. They just act and react. Then the question is what account of language might we develop starting from this position of complete ignorance. Would it resemble the theories we currently espouse? Would it employ the concepts we employ now? We have no folk semantics to rely on, so what would a properly scientific semantics look like? If we could wipe the slate clean, what would we write on it starting from scratch? Would everything from our folk semantics survive, or just some, or none? In particular, are there any biases built into our existing theories, arising from the contingencies of our history?

Certainly there have been philosophers (and linguists and psychologists) who have detected such biases and recommended rejecting them. Quine, say, recommends rejecting most of folk semantics as irredeemably unscientific: meaning, reference, intention, synonymy, etc. He proposes replacing this obsolete theory with a behaviorist theory: the central concepts of scientific semantics are stimulus and response, stimulus meaning, holism, indeterminacy, and radical translation. Wittgenstein attacked the idea, supposedly part of common sense, that every word functions as a name, which he attributed to a natural human failure not to make distinctions; and he proposed replacing concepts like denotation with the concept of use. Others have rejected sense or meaning as anything over and above reference. Still others have expanded folk semantic concepts to include revisionary theories of language, as with Frege’s semantic theory (e.g. sentences denote truth-values construed as objects). The idea of criticizing our habitual thinking about language has not been off the table, but it has not been as radical as the sort of criticism we see in physics or biology (except perhaps in the case of Quine). And it has not been suggested that we are prone to systematic error because of a historical contingency regarding language, making us miss the essence of language. The contingency I have in mind is that we happen to use language for communication, but this is not the primary or original manifestation of language. We might never have used language to communicate, but we have shaped our understanding of language through consideration of this contingent expression of linguistic mastery. To put it directly: the use of language as a tool of thought is the primary manifestation of language, and it is not subsumable under the kinds of concepts we bring to language used as a vehicle of communication. If we had started by considering this kind of internal language, we would have arrived at a very different understanding of the essence of language; as it is we have been biased by the contingent circumstance that we use language to communicate. For various reasons communicative uses of language are salient to us, and certainly they require their own treatment, but they are not the only or the central uses to which language may be put. They are, in fact, derivative and parasitic, reflecting more about the human sensory-motor system than the inner workings of language as such.

I am not going to defend the cognitive view of language here—the idea that language is primarily a tool for thinking.[2] I will merely observe that a huge amount of language use goes on outside of any communicative context, being “in the head”. We talk to ourselves constantly and use language to help us solve problems (as well as being a resource for contemplation). A person can lack the ability to speak and hear and yet still employ language internally. A reasonable hypothesis is that language evolved initially as a cognitive aid and only later become adapted for communicative use (about 200,000 years ago by most estimates). It became integrated with our sensory-motor systems, thus inheriting their architectural features. Prior to that it functioned very much like our imagination—another human faculty that evolved as an aid to thought and which exists primarily as an internal system. We may suppose that language and imagination coexisted in the human mind for a considerable time quite cut off from any direct behavioral expression; they were not initially designed as communicative systems. Today imagination is still in this condition, but language was partially repurposed as a means of communication while preserving its cognitive function. Both imagination and language are essentially combinatorial systems with infinite potential, and this confers great utility on them in solving problems; but whether this structural feature becomes expressed in vocal speech is entirely contingent. We can imagine imagination achieving public expression in somewhat the way language has by coopting a sensory-motor system that reveals imaginative acts as they occur—say, by displaying visible images on the body of the organism—but as things stand this adaptation has not occurred. Likewise language could have remained internal and performed its cognitive function without the evolution of a sensory-motor system that embeds it in acts of communication. It seems to me entirely possible that many animals employ an internal symbolic system in their cognitive lives—a language of thought essentially—without ever transitioning to spoken language.[3] That is just an entirely different biological system with a different function and morphology (sounds, gestures, larynx, ears). The human species has been using internal language for its entire history, reaping the cognitive benefits, and only lately began incorporating it into their communicative repertoire. Presumably a mutation (or combination of them) led to this ability long before any thought of communication entered the picture: language has been aiding thought, solving problems, enabling contemplation, for lo these many years, well before overt speech took off. If speech were to cease tomorrow by some catastrophe, language would carry on performing its vital cognitive function. Of course, internal language use is inaudible and invisible, while external language use is noisy and visible (consider sign language), which may give salience to the latter compared to the former; but in point of biological priority, functional utility, and sheer pervasiveness internal language surely has the edge. We talk to ourselves all day but only occasionally do we open our mouths (and what an effort it is!). Internal language is woven into our entire conscious life (even when sleeping). Without it our minds would be much diminished.

The point of urging this perspective on language is to expose the parochial character of our current theorizing about language—the bias built into it, the skewed perception. Suppose we had never developed the ability to speak externally, confining ourselves to inner speech: what would the theory of language look like then? The entire apparatus of folk semantics for outer language (better, outer expression of language) would be redundant in so far as that apparatus is directed to communication. Two epistemic features of communicative speech may be noted: uncertainty about what the speaker has in mind and uncertainty about his or her truthfulness. We often don’t know who or what the speaker is referring to (has in mind) and we don’t know how reliable she is. Thus we must bring to bear the concept of reference and the concept of truthfulness. There is an epistemic gap between speaker and hearer—the hearer can’t read the speaker’s mind—and that gap must be negotiated in acts of communication. But no such gap obtains between the user of internal language and the recipient of such use. So there need be no concerns about what the speaker has in mind or whether he is being truthful. These reasons for bringing in the concepts of reference and truth do not exist for the internal use of language—so what purpose do they serve in the theory of internal language? The first thing we would light upon in theorizing about this use of language is its combinatorial structure, because that is what powers its central function—creative thought, problem solving. If we did come up with the concepts of reference and truth it would be an afterthought not a central concern, as it is for public language. Problem-solving potential would be the central concept, and this would lead us to focus on the constitutive structure of language—on syntax, basically. Grammar, recursion, infinite scope, embedding, transformations—these would be the properties to engage us. These are what drive the cognitive engine, making language apt for its function.

What about meaning? Would we make a point of assigning meaning to internal language? The word “mean” has two uses: applied to speakers and applied to words. The OED gives this for “mean”: “intend” and “intend to convey or refer to”. The primary meaning of the word is in application to agents who mean things, linguistically as well as otherwise. Words mean things in so far as people mean things by them (this connection is articulated in Grice’s account of meaning).[4] But this use of “mean” does not apply to internal language: a user of an internal sentence does not intend to convey information to anyone, still less to harbor Gricean intentions. We don’t mean things by the words we use when we engage in inner speech (that word itself is dubious—is this any kind of speaking?). But if internal language is not meant, does it mean? Is our inclination to say that it is meaningful a kind of projection from outer communicative speech? Would someone in the original linguistic position, with no spoken language to deal with, reach for the concept of meaning—our concept of meaning—in describing internal language? Maybe some notion of linguistic significance would be invoked, possibly the notion we apply to non-human languages, but would we say that our internal sentences have meaning? Who to and for what purpose? Who cares about what the sentences mean so long as they do their job—aid in problem-solving thought? I need to know what you mean in order to get information from you, but do I need to know what I mean when I am trying to solve a problem? My purpose is not to mean things by my inner sentences but to employ them in a cognitive task. So the concept of meaning seems irrelevant to internal sentences; maybe they have meaning, but who cares? What we are concerned about is their ability to facilitate cognitive functioning, which is a matter of their inner architecture and functional properties: syntax not semantics, roughly.

And so on down the line: speech act, intention, language game, convention, use, communication, assertion, command, and question—none of this is relevant to internal language. It is relevant to only one expression of language in acts of overt speech, which involves a sensory-motor apparatus extrinsic to language itself as a cognitive structure.[5] Just as vocal speech is not integral to communicative language as such (consider sign language), so overt speech in general is not integral to language as such—not part of its core. It is a relatively recent evolutionary step, not prefigured in the origins of the language faculty. Making outer speech the focus of language studies is like making those external signs of the imagination I mentioned earlier into the focus of imagination studies. What is called philosophy of language, as practiced by analytical philosophy heretofore, is really philosophy of one-expression-of-language, and not even the most central expression. It’s like focusing on writing while ignoring speech and calling that linguistics. Internal language has a far stronger claim to be basic and original. The mind consists of various faculties—mathematical, scientific, moral, imaginative, and linguistic (among others)—and the last item is no different from a locational point of view. True, we can manifest these internal faculties in external form by engaging our senses and motor capacities, but none of them is rightly seen as constituted by such exterior manifestations—including language. The theory of language must accordingly recognize that fact and shape its concepts appropriately. That will involve at least a shift of emphasis, possibly large-scale revision, in which some familiar concepts recede and others seize center stage. To put it bluntly, syntax will take over from semantics, at least as semantics is currently conceived. We have been bedazzled and distracted by the noises we make when accessing our internal language faculty and by our feeble attempts at interpersonal communication, when all along language was purring along inside us doing its vital work.[6]

[1] In physics and astronomy the analogue of position in society is position in the universe. We live on the surface of a small planet and our view of the universe is shaped by this contingency (e.g. the sun looks to rise); to do physics and astronomy correctly we need to prescind away from this and form a conception of the universe that excludes such factors. We need to replace the science we naturally assume given our contingent position with a science that gets to the heart of objective facts. We need to do this in physics and astronomy but also in theories of justice and in theories of language.

[2] Chomsky defends it in Why Only Us (2016) and What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016).

[3] These symbolic systems might be as species-specific as human language is, so that internal discourse varies dramatically from species to species.

[4] Here is an interesting fact: we say “John means ‘unmarried male’ by ‘bachelor’” but not “John means ‘bachelor’ by ‘unmarried male’”, where we could paraphrase “means” by “intends”—despite the synonymy of the two terms. Likewise it is right to say “’bachelor’ means ‘unmarried male’” but it sounds wrong to say “’unmarried male’ means ‘bachelor’”—again despite the synonymy. This shows the affinity between “means” and “intends” and also the close connection between speaker meaning and word meaning.

[5] Ambiguity and the arbitrariness of sound-meaning pairings are properties of external speech, creating genuine problems for speakers and hearers, but they don’t trouble internal language users: we are not in doubt about which meaning we had in mind, and whatever arbitrariness there is in internal symbols poses no problem of inward interpretation. Internal language is peculiarly transparent.

[6] The conception of language I am working with will no doubt sound completely alien to the typical contemporary philosopher of language, but close students of Chomsky’s work will find it comfortably familiar. Time to get some reading done.


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