Is Language a Practical Capacity?

Is Language a Practical Capacity

It is sometimes said, with an air of obvious truth, that mastery of one’s native language is a practical capacity.[1] The suggestion sounds reasonable enough, even somewhat illuminating: we do useful things with words, perform tasks, achieve stuff; we don’t speak just to broadcast propositions into the atmosphere. This is obviously correct for Wittgenstein’s builders, memorialized in section 2 of the Investigations, because they are engaged on a practical task. We also learn in section 11 that words are like tools, also things that are involved in practical tasks. But is it true that all uses of language are thus practical? Is all speaking and listening practically oriented? Some speech clearly serves a practical purpose, but does all of it? That depends on what is meant by “practical”. It can’t just mean “action involving” because many actions are not practical in the usual sense, e.g., writing philosophy or reciting poetry or kicking a ball around. It must mean a specific type of action. The OED gives us “the actual application or use of a plan or method, as opposed to the theories relating to it” for “practice”; hence “practical” means “not merely theoretical”. In speech we apply the rules of grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to theorizing about those rules (the job of the linguist). But to do what? You might say to communicate, or to aid thought: these are the practical purposes to which language is put. But communicate about what, or aid thinking about what? Suppose someone is discussing the puzzles of quantum physics: is that a practical task? If you are discussing theories, are you engaged in a practical activity? What about reciting poetry—is that a practical activity? If so, the slogan “language is a practical capacity” is reduced to a truism. No, we must mean something more limited than merely performing an action or else nothing we do will ever count as impractical. And, of course, that is not how the word “practical” is commonly understood: it is associated with such words and phrases as “useful”, “work-related”, “functional”, “businesslike”, “down-to-earth”, “pragmatic”, “effective”, “helpful”, “utilitarian”—not theoretical, intellectual, aesthetic, impractical, amusing, fun, enjoyable, devoid of all practical value. Plumbing and carpentry are practical, ballet and theoretical physics are not. Are your feet on the ground or your head in the clouds? Language used in practical contexts (“Hand me a slab!”) is practical, but not language used in theoretical or intellectual or aesthetic contexts (“Shakespeare is superior to Marlowe”). It is simply not true that all language use is practical in the proper sense.

Is seeing a practical capacity, or remembering, or thinking? Some types of seeing, remembering, and thinking are indeed practical, if they are employed about practical tasks; but not all types of seeing are thus practical. Seeing a picture in an art gallery is not practical, nor is remembering a concert, nor is thinking about the mind-body problem. Not every activity of mind is geared towards solving practical problems (abstract theorizing is not). That is the whole point of the concept—its contrast with the unpractical. It is the same with language: some language use is devoted to pursuing impractical ends—artistic, scientific, philosophical, playful. This is obvious and is only occluded by the platitudinous idea that language use is a type of action, as if that fact alone entails that language mastery is a “practical capacity”. You may as well say that all thinking is a practical capacity. Could it be maintained that impractical activity is necessarily derivative from practical activity? That doesn’t seem like a conceptual truth, and anyway it wouldn’t undermine the case against the doctrine at issue. That doctrine is just plain false. It is true that it is wrong to picture language mastery as consisting solely in the contemplation of abstract propositions or platonic essences (in the style of the Tractatus), but it is equally wrong to assimilate it to issuing orders on a building site. We can overintellectualize language use, but we can also underintellectualize it. If part of the intent of the doctrine at issue is to “naturalize” language use by comparing it to reflexes and habits, then that is a misguided project; language mastery is a complex cognitive achievement, even in the case of Wittgenstein’s builders. In fact, even this kind of “primitive” linguistic behavior embeds sophisticated cognitive processes (see psycholinguistics), and grammar itself is a mighty cognitive structure. We might better say that a deeply “intellectual” accomplishment is sometimes employed for mundane practical purposes: language is really “slumming it” when it descends to supplement a practical chore. Its real nature shows itself best in Shakespeare, the great philosophers, the poets. This is the essence of human language, with its infinite scope and power, not the monosyllabic “slab” and “block” (Wittgenstein himself describes such a language as “primitive”). We would do better to describe human language use as unpractical in its essential constitution; it raises us above nature, above brute practicality. We should not be language philistines.

What philosophy of language might the doctrine of practicality be ranged against? To whom and what does it react? And is this reaction justified? Frege provides a good example (the Tractatus descends partly from him). Frege depicts the language user as engaged in some pretty fancy mental gymnastics (the same is true of his philosophy of mathematics): the whole apparatus of sense and reference, function and object, is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that the mind must somehow solve. Just to understand a simple sentence, you have to be able to negotiate an elaborate construction of moving pieces slotted precariously together. You are said to “grasp a thought”, itself a quasi-platonic entity, that bears no essential relation to actual language use, let alone practical endeavors. One would never think this airy contraption might be useful in getting a house built or ordering lunch! It seems like a language suitable for gods not men. Frege seems quite unconcerned with psychological reality and the concrete activity of speaking and hearing. Those simple builders know nothing of sense and reference, thoughts and truth-values, functions and objects. Isn’t the practicality doctrine a useful corrective to this kind of intellectualist thinking? Actually no, and for a simple reason: Frege is primarily concerned with syntax and semantics not pragmatics. He could allow that pragmatics emphasize the practical side of language and stick to his elaborate theory of syntax and semantics. The mind must operate at all three levels in order to organize speech, and the pragmatic level enjoys a certain autonomy with respect to syntax and semantics. Nothing in Frege’s semantics denies the practical (and impractical) uses of language at the pragmatic level; and this can be as pragmatic as you like. Language use could be practical through and through without prejudice to semantics. Of course, the linguistic mind can’t just be a reflex mechanism if it grasps the Fregean structure—it can’t just be an input-output device. But it can still be as practically oriented as it pleases, as unconcerned with matters intellectual and theoretical. Practicality of result doesn’t preclude complexity of structure. These are orthogonal issues. Given that practical tasks come in an enormous variety, it is likely that a complex semantic system underlies their possibility: the builders might also be cooks, car mechanics, landscapers, and fishermen. All that is going to require a sophisticated machinery of moving parts, the full complement of human language as we know it. And anything above the simplest type of practical behavior calls for theoretical understanding of principles and means-end reasoning. Theoretically limited practice is limited indeed. Really, the whole idea of the noble savage speaker, always bent over the tools of his trade, is a myth; he will talk trash and nonsense (as well as poetry and astronomy) at least some of the time. Human language will always burst the bonds of the boringly practical. It will not wither away as life becomes less practically burdensome. Language is not essentially a practical device.[2]

[1] Michael Dummett used to say this a lot, but it is a common refrain, especially in ordinary language philosophy.

[2] I think the picture of human language here sketched is broadly Chomskian, what with his emphasis on grammatical structure and creativity. The practical activity conception is closer to Skinner-type behaviorist linguistics. I do wonder how philosophers of language, whose use of language is seldom practical, could have arrived at the view that the essence of language is practical, as if manual workers are the true speakers. Reverse snobbery? Language is above all flexible.

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