Notes On Higginbotham "Philosophical Issues In The Study Of Language"

Rules Of Language

What is a rule of language? "Are the rules of language like the general statements in science, or the rules of common life?" No. First, we are not conscious of the rules of language, and second we don't really have explicit intentions to follow these rules.

So, "how are the rules of language, rules of which we are not in general aware, related to our thoughts and intentions?" Higginbotham considers four general positions:

  1. Rules are habits
  2. Rules are not conscious or explicit, but could be
  3. Rules are unconscious mechanisms or algorithms
  4. Rules are just like any others, except that we are not conscious of them
The last view is Chomsky's, the other three are reductionist in nature. We can get a sense of which is the best approach by considering empirical studies of language. These studies show that the rules of language are not ordained to the last detail, because there are many different languages. The rules must also be able to account for the unboundedness of language.

The unboundedness condition speaks against language rules as habits. Lots of complex rules suggest that it is unlikely that language rules could ever be conscious or explicit. Are the rules modular? You can make a good case about this for syntax, but not for semantics. "Because it is not committed to reducing the rules of language to something else, the fourth, Cartesian, view of linguistic rules is compatible with the known phenomena that we have reviewed, including the complexity of the rules of grammar, their inaccessibility to consciousness, and their autonomous character."

Types Of Explanation

There are many different kinds of explanations that can be proposed -- some that answer "why" questions, some that explain events, some that explain capacities and abilities, some that explain the state component (what is responsible for a disposition) of a capacity independently of the conditions which permit that state to become evident.

These different kinds of explanation map onto four different kinds of explanations that linguistics needs:

  1. Explanation of a particular linguistic event
  2. Explanation of a kind of linguistic event
  3. Explanation of a language ability (e.g., why could someone learn a language?)
  4. Explanation of a state component of a linguistic ability (e.g., what is it about a brain that allows it to learn a language?)

Linguistic Structures And Structures Of Thoughts

"The analysis fo the structure of our thoughts has two components, the structural and the conceptual. The first is concerned with explaining how thoughts are put together out of the concepts that make them up, and the second with the nature of the primitive concepts themselves." (NB: This is like the distinction between rules, and the primitive symbols that rules can put together into complex tokens.)

Structural components of thoughts can be studied by looking at how reasoning is embodied in language. Eg. by looking at relation between logic and language to explain why one problem makes sense, but another does not, one can uncover qualitatively different kinds of logical reasoning.

"The concepts that we have, or that we find in langague after language, constitute only a small number of the concepts that are potentially available." Natural concepts are much like those described by Rosch's basic level. Abstract concepts -- "the shapes of bodies are innumerable, but only a few of them have names." Natural concepts are embodied as simple words or morphemes. "The objects that fulfill our natural concepts constitute our system of `things', the common world in which human beings live. In proging the basis for our knowledge and use of language, we investigate our largely untaught and highly structured conception of that world."

(NB: Lots of this last view is similar to Atran's view, but I personally find it much more compelling. Why do we have some concepts, but not others that are logically possible? The answer might be the kind of universal conceptual structure that Atran championed -- but Atran's stuff only really makes sense to me by thinking about kinds of conceptual structures that *didn't* reveal themselves in his analysis!)

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