How exactly should Scientific Language Philosophy proceed? First, it need not be the whole of philosophy: we can still discuss traditional philosophical problems that may have nothing to do with science or any discipline distinct from philosophy itself. Second, it is not the same as philosophy of science as this phrase is normally understood: it is restricted to questions concerning the language of science—its semantics and pragmatics. It is not concerned with scientific method or questions of scientific realism (except in so far as word meaning bears on this). Third, it should be conceived as an interdisciplinary effort involving linguistics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy—as well as the sciences being studied. We might call it “science semantics” just to have a catchy label.
How would this type of study approach its subject matter? The most obvious first step would be to compile a list of all the technical terms used in a given science. This list would no doubt be long and various, and range from basic vocabulary to terms of abbreviation. Then we could set about determining synonymies and near synonymies, entailments, and semantic groupings (maybe a bit of syntax). We might now turn to questions of etymology—when and how the word was introduced and how it was understood in the past. No doubt dictionary definitions would be part of this exercise. We would proceed to determine which, if any, words admit of straightforward definition and which do not. We could next try to identify ambiguous or vague or otherwise defective expressions. We could investigate the relationship between the word used in its technical sense and the sense it has (if it has one) in natural languages. More ambitiously, we could inquire into the truth conditions of sentences containing the word in question, as well as attempt to set out criteria of application. Also, which words are metaphorical or chosen for poetic or humorous reasons? Can those words be replaced by more literal equivalents? We would do well to conduct surveys of how scientists understand their preferred vocabulary—what do they mean by their words? How much interpersonal variation is there in this? What is the role of fashion in shaping scientific vocabulary? Which words and phrases do they find repellent or otherwise unsatisfactory? In other words, we could do a scientific study of scientific language as used by scientists. How do individual scientists define the words they use every day—can they define them? Can physicists define “physical”; can biologists define “life”; can psychologists define “mind”?
Let me give an example: the word “plant”. A standard botany textbook opens with these words: “Your present concept of plants is probably quite accurate. Most plants have green leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. But you can think of exceptions immediately. Conifers such as pine, spruce, and fir have cones rather than flowers, and many cacti and succulents do not appear to have leaves. But both conifers and succulents are obviously plants because they closely resemble organisms that unquestionably are plants. Similarly, ferns and mosses are easily recognized as plants. Fungi, such as mushrooms and puffballs, were included in the plant kingdom because they are immobile and produce spores, which function somewhat like seeds. But biologists no longer consider fungi to be plants because recent observations show that fungi differ from plants in many basic biochemical respects.” (Botany: An Introduction to Plant Biology by James D. Mauseth, 2003). The author then goes on to report that algae are “more problematical”, with some biologists classifying them as plants and some not. This is a rich passage for the philosopher to get his teeth into, aided by the linguist and psychologist. One is tempted to suggest that every science department should have a philosopher in residence dedicated to such semantic and conceptual questions. The botanists are too busy with their empirical research to bother with such footling questions; much better to leave them to those desk-bound philosophers.
Apart from anything else, this kind of collaboration between scientists and philosophers would do much to bridge the divide that has separated them for lo these many years. This strikes me as an exciting new field for philosophers to flex their expertise (and find steady employment). The philosopher can benefit from the work already done by the scientist while adding a welcome dose of conceptual clarification. Ordinary language was studied by philosophers with limited (though not insignificant) results; now is the time to switch to scientific language, which contains the most advanced knowledge yet acquired by human beings. No one can accuse the study of scientific language of neglecting science. It might even help the sciences make further progress.