[SIGCIS-Members] Origin of 'language'?

JD Fleming jfleming at sfu.ca
Fri Nov 7 17:28:58 PST 2014

My point, I guess, was a more trivial and facetious one about semantics and diminishing returns. Not much to be gained, in my opinion, by saying to programmers, a la Princess Bride, "I do not think this word means what you think it means." Indeed, this kind of move involves *playing* the "well-defining" game that one is trying to get away from! 

Nonetheless, and more seriously: I entirely agree with your paraphrase of Davidson's insight. "There is no such thing as a language" in the "Derangement" piece means precisely that there is no language with a sufficiently well-defined structure that one can say, in the end, where it starts and where it stops (even though one is, sometimes, speaking French, learning Chinese, unable to master German, or whatever). Insofar as the assumption of formal programming languages is that there are such languages--and here are some examples of them--then Davidson's insight and the formal assumption are, indeed, diametrically opposed. 

And I would go farther: Davidson does believe--and I think he's right--that there is such a thing as our "finding our way around in the world." (One of many interesting places, I think, where the later Davidson joins hands with Gadamer.) And it seems to follow from his dissolution of the boundary between this phenomenological activity and "language" that unboundedness is requisite to the phenomenological activity itself. What's "language," for Davidson, this thing that there's no such thing as? Well, if any usefulness remains in the category, it's as a front in the larger area of our finding our way around. If you do it ("language") right, you will always be finding yourself in that larger area. If not, not. That's the point; that's the insight that Davidson wants to hold to. 

But what's finding our way around, then? Can it be anything other than the very area of unboundedness? For it is to this recognition--the recognition that the work of understanding can always be surprised by its own acquisition of another sub-routine --that the discrete "language" category is supposed to yield. If so, then our openness to surprise, in the world we are supposed to be finding our way around in, is the very marker of whether in fact we are doing that. 

All of which is to say that I completely agree that formal/artificial languages of well-defined and discrete structure, in computing or elsewhere, point phenomenologically in a very wrong direction. JD Fleming 

----- Original Message -----

From: "David Golumbia" <dgolumbia at gmail.com> 
To: "members" <members at sigcis.org> 
Sent: Thursday, 6 November, 2014 06:49:30 
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Origin of 'language'? 

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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J ames Dougal Fleming 
Associate Professor 
Department of English 
Simon Fraser University 

Burnaby -- British Columbia -- Canada. 

He answered and said, I will not; but afterward he repented, and went. Matt.21:29. 

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