Hesperus is Bosphorus

A group blog by philosophers in and from Turkey

Common Sense and Seduction by Grammar.

with 4 comments

In the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche suggests that because, grammatically, every verb requires a subject we naturally think that every deed requires a doer. This natural belief he argues is a result of being seduced by grammar; we confuse the need for a grammatical subject with the existence of a real subject. Nietzsche’s argument here is reminiscent of Kant’s argument in the Paralogisms of Pure Reason that rational psychology is the result of confusing the need for a logical subject of thought with the intuition of a real subject. Similarly, in “On Denoting” Russell argues that philosophers need to look beyond the surface grammatical structure of natural language to discover the underlying logical structure. In my previous post (here), I suggested that many contemporary philosophers have been seduced by a contingent feature of the grammar of Indo-European languages.

My argument might suggest that I am sceptical of appeals to the way natural languages work in philosophy. Unlike, Nietzsche, however I am not, in general, a sceptic about appeals to natural language in philosophy. Like Thomas Reid I I am sympathetic to the view that we can use certain features of natural language as defeasible evidence for (or against) philosophical positions. Although Reid is often seen as a forerunner of ordinary language philosophy I think that it is more plausible to describe him as a “universal language philosopher”, for what has philosophical significance for Reid is the agreement of all languages on a certain point, not the contingent features of a particular language.

Reid thought that grammatical features or lexical distinctions that were found in all languages were philosophically significant and should be taken as providing defeasible evidence for real differences in the world. And I agree. Like Reid I believe that, unless we have good reasons to doubt them in specific cases, we should trust the deliverances of our natural faculties, including our linguistic capacities. Languages evolve as the result of generations of experience and encode the wisdom and knowledge of countless generations. We should assume that our language is a generally reliable guide to the nature of reality. The development of language presupposes and expresses knowledge; languages evolve largely in response to what we know. If some features of our language are found in all languages, we should make the presumption that this feature reflects the nature of reality. If it turns out that the linguistic feature in question is a contingent feature of our own particular language, this should undermine its presumptive authority.

Such a meta-philosophical position suggests that many of our philosophical arguments are subject to empirical fortune. When we appeal to features of our own particular language in philosophical arguments, we often implicitly assume that such feature are found in all languages. Discovering that some other languages are really quite different can undermine such arguments – although, of course, undermining such an argument does not necessarily undermine its conclusion. This position suggests one avenue for experimental philosophy: in addition to testing the intuitions of different population groups, we should also pay attention to empirical studies in comparative linguistics. For a “universal language philosopher” such as Reid the empirical results of comparative linguistics can be philosophically significant. I’ll finish by presenting three arguments that Reid makes that appeal to what he takes to be universal features of all languages. I wonder if there are languages, probably unknown to Reid, where one does not find these features:

(1) Reid argues that the fact that all languages have verbs that require agents and objects implies that it is part of commonsense ontology that agents, actions and objects exist. Thus, talking of active transitive verbs, which Reid believes exist in all languages, Reid claims that “we know, that, in all languages, such verbs require a thing or a person which is the agent, and a noun following in an oblique case, which is the object. When it is evident, that all mankind, both those who have contrived language, and those who use it with understanding, have distinguished these three things as different, to wit, the operations of the mind, which are expressed by active verbs, the mind itself, which is the nominative to those verbs, and the object, which is, in the oblique case, governed by them.” (Reid, EIP, 224)

Reid makes it clear that he regards such evidence as defeasible arguing that: “A philosopher is, no doubt, entitled to examine even those distinctions that are to be found in the structure of all languages; and, if he is able to shew that there is not foundation for them in the nature of the things distinguished – if he can point out some prejudice common to mankind which has led them to distinguish things that are not really different – in that case, such a distinction may be imputed to a vulgar error, which ought to be corrected in philosophy. But when in his first setting out, the takes it for granted without proof, that the distinctions found in the structure of languages, have no foundation in the structure of all languages, have no foundation in nature, this, surely, is too fastidious a way of treating the common sense of mankind. When we come to be instructed by philosophers, we must bring the old light of common sense along with us, and by it judge the new light which the philosopher communicates to us… There may be distinctions that have a real foundation and which may be necessary in philosophy, which are not made in common language, because not necessary in the common business of life. But I believe no instance will be found of a distinction made in all languages which has not a just foundation in nature.” (EIP p.214)

(2) Reid believes that the fact that all languages have plurals implies that all men have notions not only of individual things, but also of attributes common to many. A few years ago I picked up a little bit of Malaysian and was told that Malaysian does not have plurals. I wonder if any native Malaysian speaker could confirm or refute this? If this were true about Malaysian to what degree would this undermine Reid’s argument?  Anyway Reid argues: “All languages have a plural number in many of their nouns; from which we may infer, that all men have notions, not of individual things only, but of attributes, or things which are common to many individuals; for no individual can have a plural number.” (EIP p.238)

(3) Reid believes that that if all languages make certain distinctions, this provides us with evidence for the existence of a real objective distinction. Thus Reid argues, “To perceive, to remember, to be conscious and to conceive or imagine, are words common to philosophers, and to the vulgar. They signify different operations of the mind, which are distinguished in all languages, and by all men that think…  and I think they are hardly capable of strict definition.” (Reid EIP, 1.1, p.222)


Written by Lucas Thorpe

February 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Lucas,

    I’ve been reading a bit recently about a related question that comes up when thinking about Chomsky’s theory of language. One of the issues is what we should make of the relationship between the things that we ostensibly refer to and our ontology. If I read Chomsky right, he thinks that we should treat ‘the coat in the closet’ and ‘the flaw in the argument’ equally as referring expressions. He then argues that if we were to go in for referential semantics we would be committed to there being such things as flaws. He concludes from this that we shouldn’t go in for referential semantics.

    In general, it seems that he denies that we can trust language as a guide to ontology because if we did we might end up committed to flaws as well as coats. (He also says that language isn’t even a guide to how its users think the world is.)

    I like the topic although I don’t see myself having a stable view any time soon.


    February 22, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    • Hi Thomas,

      This is an unthoughtout response to your comment. So I’m quite unsure what I think here too. So I guess I may sound more certain my response than I actually am. But let me give it a shot: On the specific question of flaws: I suspect that there really are flaws in nature: I think that I’m flawed, and that is an essential part of what I am. In thinking about this I’m influence by (my take on) what Sartre says about absences. If you are in love and you expect a person to be at a party and she (or he) is not there you notice her (or his) absence. And I think (and I’m not sure how committed to this I actually am) that their absence is something real that one can perceive, and because I think perception is factive then I guess I’m committed to thinking that absences and lack of being really exist. Phenomenologically it feels like this is the case. but does this mean that I think that “the nothing nothings”? I’m not sure.

      But to take a step back from your specific example. I agree that not everything we refer to in language is real. I seems likely that in earlier times much of nature was thought of as animate – and this is how our language work: we talk about a lot of things that we be believe to be inanimate as if they were animate (so, for example we use verbs that can only take a animate subject to refer to inanimate things). But I tend to think our ontology shouldn’t be guided by our (and perhaps universal) linguistic practice here. But I’m not sure I can give a principled reason why I think this.

      Reid’s call here is that only agents can be causes, and I think that he takes how natural languages work as one of his main sources of evidence here. And so he thinks that inanimate matter cannot have causal power. And so he concludes that the cause of material chance cannot be matter (or laws – laws are inert) but must be a mind – God. I’m not sure what to make of such an argument. I think that it might be the case that the way language functions implicitly commits us to a belief in God (although I think the argument here needs to be developed in more detail – but it would be an interesting argument). I think there is an analogous argument to be found in Kant, but it is not linguistic but based on his logic. But – I think there are two types of response one could give here: (a) that this is just a problem with our language, and what it implies is that we should change our language, and (b( [and I take this to be Kant response] the fact that our conceptual scheme presuposses a certain concept [which Kant calls ‘the ideal of pure reason’ = god] doesn’t entail that this concept refers. Our scientific practice presupposes the ideal of a completed ideal science – but this does not entail that such a completed science is possible.

      hmmm – that previous paragraph made sense to me – but I guess I packed too much into it. But this is a blog – not a paper – so I can say what I want – and if you have questions you can ask.

      Anyway – I guess I think that language is vaguely progressive. I’m not a historical determinist here – pushing a whig view of the history of language. But I think there is a tendency to learn from our mistakes and to refine our language. And I think that however imperfect our natural ontology (encoded in our languages) we don’t really have anything else to go with.

      Anyway – I guess this was a bit of a ramble. But I hope some of it made sense.

      Do you have a reference for the Chomsky? I’d be interested in having a look at what he has to say about this.

      Lucas Thorpe

      February 23, 2012 at 2:25 am

      • The things I’ve been reading in the last few days are:

        Ludlow, Peter. 2003. “Referential Semantics for I-Languages?.” In Chomsky and His Critics, Louise M Antony and Norbert Hornstein ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

        Chomsky, Noam. 2003. “Reply to Ludlow.” In Chomsky and His Critics, Louise M Antony and Norbert Hornstein ed. Oxford: Blackwell.

        Pietroski, Paul M. 2005. “Meaning Before Truth.” In Contextualism in Philosophy, Gerhard Preyer and Georg Peter ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

        There are references in those to the various places Chomsky has addressed this sort of thing.


        February 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm

        • Hi Tom,
          Thanks for those suggestions. I’m teaching a class on the British Realist Tradition from Reid to Williamson this semester – although I guess we’re only really going to get as far as Cook Wilson and Prichard this semester (we started by briefly looking at some of Knowledge and its Limits – as a sort of terminus as quem). And then over the summer I hope to find some time to look at some of the post war Oxford philosophy that comes out of this tradition (Austin, Ryle, Hart) and I guess I might then start moving forward a bit and I guess working out how Chomsky relates to this tradition might be interesting.
          So I’ll definitely have a look at these at some point. And if you come across anything else you think I might find interesting, let me know.
          Sorry about the slow response – I’ve been quite busy here.

          Lucas Thorpe

          March 5, 2012 at 11:09 pm

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