08 June 2008

What is language?

There's a fascinating essay (in a pdf) on the homepage of philosopher John Searle that concerns language.

Searle alleges that philosophers who have discussed language have failed to treat it naturalistically, i.e. as "a natural extension of non-linguistic biologic capacities."

The key philosophers of language, throughout the 20th century, were also students of formal and mathematical logic. Coming at language from a logicians' background necessarily yields different results than one would get coming at language from biology.

So Searle suggests the 21st century should take a new look.

"At one time, animals more or less like us, hominids, walked the earth without language. Now we have language. What happened in between?"

Even those pre-language hominids must have had a lot of the cognitive categories by which we navigate the world -- space, time, causation, agency, object -- though in speaking of what they had Searle deliberately uses the term "category" rather than "concept."

A dog has a category of space -- it recognizes that the squirrel is running across the lawn and getting further away from where the dog now is, whenever it gives chase to remedy the situation. So our pre-linguistic hominids had at least that much mental apparatus as well.

What don't dogs have? what didn't the early hominids have, exactly, by virtue of not having language? Searle's answer: the manipulable segmentation of the flow of experience: the segmentation reflected in periods and capital letters, or in the analogous inflections and pauses of speech.

"So the situation we are in when we move from experience to language is analogous to the situation when we move from a movie to a series of still pictures."

Instead of just watching the movie of our life, we can study it frame by frame.

I am simplifying Searle's article of course, but it seems to me that "the manipulable segmentation of experience" is his answer to the question "what is language." On a related point, he holds that semantics and syntax are in principle distinguishable, that cries like "Danger!" amongst hominids would have been steps toward language, though only small ones. Semantics without syntax.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.