[SIGCIS-Members] Origin of 'language'?

David Golumbia dgolumbia at gmail.com
Thu Nov 6 06:49:30 PST 2014

it seems important to note that Davidson in this essay (the response piece,
"A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs," to the 1985 Blackwell volume devoted to
his work) is responding to the notion of "a language" that had become
dominant in Chomskyan linguistics and in the many Chomsky-derived
philosophies of language that were often used in opposition to Davidson,
especially in the 1970s and 1980s, and as expressed in works like
Chomsky's *Knowledge
of Language* (which came out around the same time, based on lectures
Chomsky had been delivering for several years). There are many philosophers
(Wittgensteinians, as Davidson notes and in at least some ways was) and
linguists who are not orthodox Chomskyans (such as James McCawley, whom
Davidson approvingly quotes a page or two before) who do not believe in the
notion of "a language" as such that Davidson is critiquing.  (this is a
technical point, as they certainly do believe that there is a thing called
"French" in practical enough terms for it to be the the thing a linguist
specializes in, but as for what the boundaries and character of that thing
called "French" are, they are far hazier and less easily specified than,
say, the boundaries and character of R or C++).

and note the next sentence: "We must give up the idea of a clearly defined
shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases."

programming and formal languages are all about clearly defined structure,
and this is one of the main things that proves so evanescent when one
really starts to look at human language (and it is definitely the case that
Chomsky for decades insisted that such structures were at least available
for posit, and that in his latest version, the Minimalist Program, he has
almost completely abandoned them). in fact, I believe it would be possible
to show that what Davidson actually means here is something very close to
the following: human languages are not systematic objects that one can
learn and master in a discrete sense, in the way that one can and does
learn and master programming and formal languages (and many other
systematic and procedural skills). Though proving this would require some
textual exegesis.

On Wed, Nov 5, 2014 at 10:21 PM, JD Fleming <jfleming at sfu.ca> wrote:

> Personally I am fond of the philosopher Donald Davidson's late dictum:
> "There is no such thing as a language... no boundary between knowing a
> language and knowing our way around in the world generally." Though this
> also tends to invalidate exasperation at uses of the term, in computer
> science or elsewhere. JDF
> ------------------------------
> --
David Golumbia
dgolumbia at gmail.com
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