Biological Philosophy of Language



Biological Philosophy of Language



Linguistics has grown accustomed to viewing human language as a biological phenomenon. This view stands opposed to two other views: supernaturalism and cultural determination. Ancient thought conceived of language as a gift from God, closely adjoined to the immaterial soul: this accounted for its origin, its seemingly miraculous nature, and its uniqueness to the human species (we are God’s chosen ones). Recent thought instead insisted that language is a cultural product, a human invention, an artifact: this too accounts for its origin, nature, and uniqueness to humans (only humans have this kind of creative power). Both views deny that language is a species-specific adaptation driven by natural selection and arising in the individual by a process of organic maturation—rather like other natural organs. The “biological turn” in linguistics maintains that language is not supernatural or cultural but genetically based, largely innate, founded in physiology, modular, a product of blind evolution, organically structured, developmentally involuntary, invariant across the human species, and part of our natural history. Biological naturalism is the right way to think about language.[1]No one would doubt this in the case of the “languages” (systems of communication) of other species like bees, birds, whales, and dolphins; human language is also part of our biological heritage and our phenotype (as well as our genotype). But this perspective, though now standard in linguistics, is not shared by contemporary philosophy of language: we don’t see thesequestions framed as questions of biology. Not that existing philosophy of language overtly adopts a supernatural or cultural conception of the nature of language in preference to a biological conception; rather, it is studiously neutral on the issue.  The question I want to address is whether the received debates in philosophy of language can be recast as questions of biology, in line with the prevailing biological perspective in linguistics. And I shall suggest that they can, illuminatingly so. I thus propose that philosophy of language take a biological turn and recognize that it is dealing with questions of natural biology (if the pleonasm may be excused). This will require no excision of questions but merely a reformulation of them. Philosophy of language is alreadysteeped in biology.

Let’s start with something relatively innocuous: the productivity of language. Instead of seeing this as a reflection of God’s infinite nature or the creative power of human invention, we see it as a natural fact about the structure of a certain biological trait, analogous to the structure of the eye or the musculature. Finitely many lexical units combine to generate a potential infinity of possible sentences—that is just a genetically encoded fact about the human brain. It arose by some sort of mutation and it develops during the course of individual maturation according to a predetermined schedule. It is humanly universal and invariant just like human anatomy and physiology. It should not be viewed as a purely formal or mathematical structure but as an organic part of the human animal. So when the philosopher of language remarks on the ability of speakers to construct infinitely many sentences from a finite set of words by recursive procedures he or she is recording a biological fact about the human species—just like bipedal posture or locomotion or copulation or digestion. Nothing prevents us from saying that the human phenotype includes an organ capable of unbounded productivity—the language faculty. It isn’t supernatural and it isn’t cultural (whatever exactly this means). It is, we might say, animal.

But what about theories of meaning—are they also biological theories in disguise? The biological naturalist says yes: truth conditions, for example, are a biological trait of certain biological entities. The entities are sentences (strings of mental representations—“words”) and their having truth conditions is a biological fact about them. Truth conditions evolved in the not too distant past, they mature in the individual’s brain, and they perform a biological function. Truth conditions constitute meaning (according to theory), and having meaning is a trait of certain external actions and internal symbols. Meanings are as organic as eyeballs. So a theoryof meaning is a theory of a certain biological phenomenon—a biological theory. It says that the trait of meaning is the trait of having truth conditions. Suppose we base the theory on Tarski’s theory of truth: then Tarski’s definition of truth for formalized languages is really a recursive theory of an organic structure. It is mathematical biology. Sentences are part of biology and their having truth-conditions is too; so a theory of truth is tacitly an exercise in biological description. No one would doubt this for a theory of bee language or whale language, because there is no resistance to the idea that these are biological traits—a theory of truth conditions herewould naturally be interpreted a theory of a biological phenomenon. Bee dances don’t have their truth conditions in virtue of the bee god or bee culture, but in virtue of genetically based hardwired facts of bee physiology. It isn’t that bees collectively decideto award their dances with meanings—and neither do human infants decide such things either. Sentences have truth conditions in virtue of biological facts about their users, whether bee or human. Semantics is biology.

Consider Davidson’s project of translating sentences of natural language into sentences of predicate calculus and then applying Tarski’s theory to them. Suppose that, contrary to fact, there existed a species that spoke only a language with the structure of predicate calculus; and suppose too that we evolved from this species. It would then be plausible to suppose that our language faculty descended from theirs with certain enrichments and ornamentations. Then Davidson could claim that their language gives the logical form of our language and that it can in principle translate the entirety of our language. This would be a straightforward biological theory, claiming that one evolved trait is equivalent (more or less) to another evolved trait. The “deep structure” of one trait is manifest in another trait. Likewise, if we view a formalized language as really a fragment of our natural language, then a claim like Davidson’s is just the claim that one trait of ours is semantically equivalent to another trait—that is, its semantic character is exhausted by the formalized fragment, the rest being merely stylistic flourish. For example, the biological adaptation of adverbs is nothing more than the surface appearance of the underlying trait of predicates combining with quantification over events. Thus we convert the Davidsonian program into a biological enterprise—to describe one trait in terms of other traits. This is the analogue of claiming that the anatomy of the hand is really the anatomy of the foot, because hands evolved from feet—just as our language evolved from the more “primitive” language of our predicate-calculus-speaking ancestors in my imaginary example. Our language organ is both meaningful and combinatorial, and Davidson has a theory about what these traits consist in: he is a kind of anatomist of the language faculty.

Then what is Dummett up to? He is contending that the trait of meaning is not actually the trait of having truth conditions but rather the trait of having verification conditions.[2]We don’t have the former trait because it has no functional utility so far as communication is concerned (it can’t be “manifested”). So Dummett is claiming that a better biological theory is provided by verification conditions. This is a bit like claiming that the function of the eye is not to register distal conditions but to respond to more proximate facts about the perceiver, these being of greater concern to the organism (cf. sense-datum theory and phenomenalism); or that the function of feathers is not flight but thermal regulation (as apparently it was for dinosaurs). Dummett is a kind of skeptic about orthodox descriptions of biological traits. He might be compared to someone who claims that there are no traits for aiding species or group survival but only traits for aiding individual or gene survival (“the selfish meaning”). Quine is in much the same camp: he claims that no traits have determinate meaning, whether truth conditions or verification conditions. The alleged trait of meaning is like the ill-starred entelechy—a piece of outdated mythology. A proper science of organisms will dispense with such airy-fairy nonsense and stick to physical inputs and outputs. For Quine, meaning is bad biology. Nor would Quine be very sanguine about the notion of biological function: for what is to stop us from saying that the function of the wolves’ jaws is to catch undetached rabbit parts? Our usual assignments of function are far too specific to be justified by the physical facts, so we should dispense with them altogether. We need desert landscape biology: no vital spirits, no meanings, and no functions, just bodies being stimulated and responding to stimulation—Pavlovian (Skinnerian) biology. Quine is really a biological eliminativist.

Where does Wittgenstein fit in? He emerges as a biological pluralist and expansionist. He denies that morphology is everything; he prefers to emphasize the biological deed. He forthrightly asserts that language is part of our “natural history” (not much discussion of genetics though).[3]The Tractatusemployed an austere biology of pictures and propositions, while the Investigationsplumps for a great variety of sentences and words as making up human linguistic life. Wittgenstein is like a zoologist who once thought there were only mammals in the world and now discovers that there are many types of species very different from each other. He also decides it is better to describe them accurately than try to force them into predetermined forms. His landscape is profuse and open-ended, like a Brazilian jungle. He is resolutely naturalistic in the sense of rejecting all supernatural (“sublime”) conceptions of language. What he would have made of Chomsky I don’t know, but he would surely have applauded Chomsky’s focus on the natural facts and phases of a child’s use of language. His anti-intellectualism about meaning (and the mind generally) is certainly congenial to the biological point of view.

What about Frege? Frege is the D’Arcy Thompson of philosophical linguistics, seeking the mathematical laws of the anatomy of thought. He discerns very general structures of a binary nature (sense and reference, object and concept, function and argument) and finds them repeated everywhere, like the recurrent body-plans of the anatomical biologist. The human skeleton resembles the skeletons of other mammals and indeed of fish (from which all are derived), and Frege finds the same abstract structure in the most diverse of sentences (function and argument is everywhere, like the spinal column or cells). But these abstract structures are not antithetical to biology, just its most general features. When a laryngeal event occurs it carries with it a cargo of semantic apparatus that confers meaning on it, intricate and layered. The speech organs are impregnated with sense and reference as a matter of their very biology, not bestowed by God or human stipulation (the underlying thoughts are certainly not imbued with sense and reference as a matter of culture). Thus it is easy to transpose Frege’s logical system into a biological key—whether Frege himself would approve or not. Again, we should think of the developing infant acquiring a spoken language: his words have sense and reference as a matter of course not as a matter of cultural instigation—this is why language precedes culture for the child. Acquiring language is no more cultural than puberty is cultural (and I have never heard of an ancient theory to the effect that pubertyis a gift from God). Meaning comes with the territory, and the territory is thoroughly biological.

Ordinary language philosophy? Why, it’s just ecologically realistic biological theorizing, instead of rigid attachment to over-simple paradigms. It’s rich linguistic ethology instead of desiccated linguistic anatomy.  It’s looking at how the human animal actually behaves in the wild instead of clinically dissecting it on the laboratory table. Austin, Grice, Strawson—all theorists of in situlinguistic behavior. Nothing in their work negates the idea of an innate language faculty expressed in acts of speech and subject to biological constraints. When Austin analyzes a speech act into its locutionary meaning and its illocutionary force he is dissecting an act with a biological substructure, because the language faculty that permit the act is structured in that way. Words are strung together according to biologically determined rules, and the same is true of different types of illocutionary force. Zoology took an ethological turn when scientists stopped examining rats and pigeons in the laboratory and turned their attention to animal behavior in its natural setting; ordinary language philosophy did much the same thing (at much the same time). This led to considerable theoretical enrichment in both cases as the biological perspective widened. One can imagine aliens visiting earth and making an ethological study of human linguistic behavior, combining it with organic studies of speech physiology. They would add this to their other investigations of bee and whale linguistic behavior. All of it would come under the heading of earth biology.

Of course, biologically based language activity interactswith cultural formations, as with speech acts performed within socially constructed institutions (e.g. the marriage ceremony). But the same thing is true of other biological organs—say, the hands: that doesn’t undermine the thesis that basic biological adaptations are in play. It is not being claimed that everythingabout language and its use is biologically based. But the traits of language of interest to philosophers of language tend to be of such generality that they are bound to be biological in nature. For example, the role of intention in creating speaker meaning, as described by Grice, introduces a clearly biological trait of the organism—purposive goal-directed action. We don’t have intentions as a result of divine intervention or cultural invention; intention is in the genes. Intention grows in the infant along with motor skills and doesn’t depend upon active teaching from adults. Intentions will play a role in cultural activities, but they are not themselves products of culture. The same is true of consciousness, perception, memory, and so on—all biological phenomena.

According to Chomsky, a grammar for a natural language simply is a description of the human biologically given language faculty. Following that model philosophical theories of meaning have the same status: they are attempted descriptions of a specific biological trait. Semantic properties are as much biological properties as respiration and reproduction. Philosophy of language is thus a branch of biology. The standard theories are easily construed this way. Semantics follows syntax and phonetics in making the biological turn. Fortunately, existing philosophy of language can incorporate this insight.[4]



[1]For an authoritative study see Eric Lenneberg, Biological Foundations of Language(1967) and the many works of Noam Chomsky. If we ask who is the Darwin of language studies, the consensus seems to be Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835).

[2]The positivists may be construed as claiming that no sentence can have the trait of meaning without having the trait of verifiability. One trait is necessary for the other. This is like claiming that no organ can circulate the blood without being a pump or that no organ can be the organ of speech without expelling air. Thus a metaphysical sentence can’t be meaningful because it lacks the necessary trait of verifiability. No evolutionary process could produce a language faculty that included sentences that mean without being verifiable. Put that way, it looks like a pretty implausible doctrine—why couldn’t there be a mutation that produced meaningful sentences that exceed our powers of verification? Meaning is one thing, our powers of verification another.

[3]“Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.” Philosophical Investigations, section 25.

[4]It would be different if existing philosophy of language tacitly presupposed some sort of divine dispensation theory, or a brand of extreme cultural determination; but as things stand we can preserve it by recasting its questions as biological in nature. There is nothing reductionist about this, simply taxonomically correct.


6 responses to “Biological Philosophy of Language”

  1. says:

    The measure and importance of evolved plasticity in the exercise of modern human intelligence is ofcourse much greater than it is in the exercise of modern linguistic competence, except, perhaps, as you indicate, in the formulation of communicative intent. Pragmatics, after all, is not a part of linguistic competence proper. The current number and variety of speech-acts is more a result of cumulative cultural inheritance than it is of biological inheritance. Not that the space of possible speech-acts or communicative intents (as a sub-set of generic human intents) is infinitely plastic—only indefinitely so. Discrete combinatorial systems allowing of recursion and iteration are capable of generating an infinite number of well-formed formulas, but this is a point merely of principle. With respect to language, as you know, limitations on the usefulness of recursion and iteration in the production and understanding of sentences are pretty severe, given the limitations on the scope of working memory. Frege, Dummett, Davidson, Quine, Wittgenstein, Austin—crypto- philosophers of the biology of language? Why not? Or at least, “why not?”, given a proper understanding of the relation of one level of explanation to another (see, Jaegwon Kim, on “supervenience). The distinctions made in a “descriptively adequate” grammar, in Chomsky’s sense, will need to be mirrored, in a biologically, “explanatorially adequate” account of competence in that grammar.

  2. says:

    For all his talk about “cognitive closure”, Chomsky is still relentless on the matter of “creativity”, not merely, “productivity” in the exercise of linguistic competence. He believes language evolved in the service of thought, or as an expression of thought. But whatever creativity we exhibit in the expression of language or thought, it’s still circumscribed by cognitive closure. So why the continued harping on our alleged creativity? We are indefinitely “flexible” in the exercise of our intelligence and language. Our flexibility is in an asymptotic relation to creativity.

    • There’s no conflict between creativity and cognitive limitation: kids are creative but certainly not omniscient. Even Mozart doesn’t know what it’s like to be a bat. Freedom doesn’t entail complete knowledge of the universe.

  3. says:

    I suspect Mozart knew something about bats—being a bit batty himself. I’ve been trying to unpack your assertion that, “Freedom doesn’t entail complete knowledge of the universe”, but still can’t quite make it out. It sounds rather peremptorially Hegelian. Anyway, what freedom does entail, at least for America—and I suppose in some sense for the world—is a wholesale repudiation of Trumpism in 2020. Now there is a Hegelian issue.

    • Chomsky sometimes equates freedom and creativity, so I was pointing out that freedom in that sense isn’t incompatible with limitation. All acts are limited by the physiology of the organism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.