Linguistics 001     Lecture 5     A philosophical perspective

On one view, held by most linguists, communication is something that we use language to do. We study linguistic structure on its own terms, and we study the communicative use of language as a separate matter.

On another view, (essential aspects of)  language arise as part of the process of communication, and can't usefully be studied outside that context.

In this course, we'll mostly follow the first point of view. In studying sound structure (phonology), word stucture (morphology), and sentence structure (syntax), it's the natural way to proceed. In these areas, we look at bits of language -- words or phrases -- as objects on their own terms. Their form is constrained by their function, to some extent -- but in saying this, we are viewing form as separable from function.

However, in studying the connections of language to the world -- the connection to physical acts of speaking (phonetics), or the connection to "meanings" (semantics and pragmatics), or the connection to social situations (sociolinguistics) -- things are different. We'll still talk about linguistic forms and their interpretation or their distribution. However, the connections to the communicative process may now be an essential part of the discussion, and these connections are at least as intricate and curious as language itself is.

Much of 20th-century philosophy has centered around this question of the connections between language and the world. A good deal of interesting and practically-important mathematics has come out of the same problem area.

Strawson's dichotomy

In a chapter entitled "Meaning and Truth," from his 1971 book Logico-linguistic papers, the philosopher P.F. Strawson writes:

What is it for anything to have a meaning at all, in the way, or in the sense , in which words or sentences or signals have meaning? What is it for a particular sentence to have the meaning or meanings it does have? What is it for a particular phrase, or a particular word, to have the meaning or meanings it does have?
[ . . .]
I am not going to undertake to try to answer these so obviously connected questions. . .  I want rather to discuss a certain conflict, or apparent conflict, more or less dimly discernible in current approaches to these questions. For the sake of a label, we might call it the conflict between the theorists of communication-intention and the theorists of formal semantics. According to the former, it is impossible to give an adequate account of the concept of meaning without reference to the possession by speakers of audience-directed intentions of a certain complex kind. . . The opposed view. . . is that this doctrine simply gets things the wrong way round. . . the system of semantic and syntactical rules, in the mastery of which knowledge of a language consists -- the rules which determine the meanings of sentences -- is not a system of rules for communicating at all. The rules can be exploited for this purpose; but this is incidental to their essential character. It would be perfectly possible for someone to understand a language completely -- to have a perfect linguistic competence -- without having even the implicit thought of the function of communication
[. . .]
A struggle on what seems to be such a central issue in philosophy should have something of a Homeric quality; and a Homeric struggle calls for gods and heroes. I can at least, though tentatively, name some living captains and benevolent shades: on the one side, say, Grice, Austin, and the later Wittgenstein; on the other, Chomsky, Frege, and the earlier Wittgenstein. . .

Oversimplifying: some people (the formal semanticists) think that meaning is something that sentences have, while others (the communication-intention-ists) think that meaning is something that people do.

Strawson enlists on the side of the "theorists of communication-intention," and goes on to say:

We connect meaning with truth and truth, too simply, with sentences; and sentences belong to language. But, as theorists, we know nothing of human language unless we understand human speech.
He does not seem to have followed up on this insight by pursuing research in phonetics.

The "captains and benevolent shades"

Who are Strawson's Homeric heroes: Grice, Austin, Chomsky, Frege and Wittgenstein (early or late)?

His "theorists of formal semantics" included Frege, the early Wittgenstein, and Chomsky.

Here is the entry on Gottlob Frege from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gottlob Frege (b. 1848, d. 1925) was a German mathematician, logician, and philosopher who worked at the University of Jena.  Frege constructed the first predicate calculus, developed a new analysis of basic propositions and quantification, formalized the  notion of a proof in terms that are still accepted today, and demonstrated that one could resolve theoretical mathematical statements in terms of simpler logical and mathematical notions (for example, Frege was the first to propose a definition of the natural numbers in terms of sets or extensions). To ground his views about the nature of logic, Frege conceived a comprehensive philosophy of language that many philosophers still find insightful. However, his lifelong project, of showing that mathematics was reducible to logic, was not successful.

Here is the entry for Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Wittgenstein was a most peculiar man, whose life is as interesting as his work. He started as an engineer, and then without other formal training, went to work with Bertrand Russell on logic and philosophy. In this early work, Wittgenstein saw himself as carrying out Frege's program of grounding mathematics and philosophy in logic, and logic in language. A formal reconstruction of language in logical terms would map a correspondence among words, objects and thoughts. Philosophical puzzles can arise only when "the logic of our language is misunderstood."

Wittgenstein felt that his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) provided "on all essential points, the final solution of the problems." Therefore he left philosophy, and turned his attention to giving away his inheritance, teaching elementary school, and working as a gardener. He came to believe that his early work was wrong, and returned to Cambridge University in 1929, where he held a chair in philosophy until his death.

We've already encountered Noam Chomsky, and we'll meet him again later in the course. His inclusion in this set is a bit odd, since he is not known for theorizing about meaning, and indeed has argued that meaning is a "mystery", which we don't really know how to investigate productively, as opposed to grammatical structure, which is a "problem" that repays study. For Strawson, Chomsky seems to stand for the idea that linguistic structure should be studied on its own terms, without necessary reference to its use.
Strawson's "theorists of communication-intention" include Grice, Austin and the later Wittgenstein.

The early Wittgenstein saw language as establishing formal connections between things in the mind and objects in the world.

In his later work, Wittgenstein came to see language use as "interactions with other individuals in which we move around sets of linguistic counters; and like a set of games, each of these little encounters has its own set of rules." Meaning in general arises only in the context of such interactions, and it is not possible to reconstruct a successful formal account of meaning that ignores them. The meanings of words cannot be extricated from the matrix of individual and cultural associations in which they arise. In this connection, he gives the famous account of the meaning of the word "game" in terms of family resemblances:

Consider for example the proceedings we call 'games'. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? -- Don't say: 'There must be something common, or they would not be called "games"' -- but look and see whether there is anything common to all. -- For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think but look! -- Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear ...

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterise these similarities than 'family resemblances' ...

Wittgenstein also coined the aphorism "Etymology is destiny" -- to suggest that the meaning of words can only be explained in terms of their lingustic and cultural history.

The British philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-1960), author of the famous article  How to do things with words, is best known for the theory of "speech acts." He pointed out that utterances are also often actions -- promises, threats, and so on -- and that their "meaning" in the normal sense of the word cannot be understood without reference to the actions that they (attempt to) perform, and the communicative contexts in which the acts occur. Austin is also responsible for the aphorism "fact is richer than diction."

Another British philosopher, H.P. Grice (1913-1988), argued that notions such as "to communicate" and "to mean" can only be understood in terms of multiple layers of intentions and beliefs on the part of conversational participants. Thus for a sentence to "mean that P," someone has to use that sentence with the intention of making an audience believe that she believes P, and also with the intention of making them believe that she used the sentence with the intention of making them believe that she believes P, and indeed with any number of even more complex conditions on various parties' beliefs and intentions. Grice went on to argue that the normal operation of this process in human conversation is based on some assumptions about norms of cooperative behavior, and that these norms become an active part of the (very complex) reasoning process that speakers and hearers use in the join construction of conversational meaning.

Grice gave many complex and convincing examples of these ideas in action. Here is a relatively simple one: suppose that a professor, in writing a letter of recommendation for a student applying to graduate school, writes only that  "X has excellent handwriting and is invariably on time." Although these are both positive qualities, the recommendation would be naturally be interpreted as a very negative one. A rigorous logical account of why this so is very complicated. In brief,  the crucially-relevant qualities (intelligence, originality and so forth) are never mentioned, thus apparently flouting a general principle of cooperative conversation, which we can express as "Be Relevant." In order to maintain the assumption that the letter is nevertheless a cooperative act, the recipient will go through a series of deductions whose conclusion is that the sender means to torpedo the candidate without saying anything explicitly negative.

Grice's best-known presentation of his ideas is in Logic and Conversation, originally given as the William James lectures at Harvard in 1967-68.

For a more extensive discussion of Grice and Austin in the context of computational models of conversation, see some lecture notes from (an earlier version of) CIS 530.

The "theory-of-mind problem" and the complexity of communication

The examples of reasoning about layers of intentions and belief found in Grice (and others who have adopted his ideas) are so complicated that many people, while granting the force of the examples, are reluctant to accept his explanations. Attempts to implement such ideas, in fully general form, in computer models of conversation have generally not been impressive. Things work in very simple artifical 'worlds', as in the John and Mary dialogue in the CIS530 lecture notes, though the poverty of shared culture results  in a sort of endearing cluelessness that is like Samuel Beckett on Prozac. In more realistic circumstances, the deductive problems are simply too complex for existing theorem-proving technology to be useful, even where the needed cultural assumptions have been reduced to logical form. As a result, most computer dialogue systems rely on more specific and less flexible recipes for conversational behavior as a function of circumstances, though research on general "Gricean" approaches continues.

There is even a recent proposal for A Programming Language Based on Speech Acts, by an eminent computer scientist who in 1956 invented the widely-used programming language LISP.
Gricean issues are front and center in discussions of animal communication. Thus Cheney/Seyfarth write on "attribution" in monkey and ape communication:

To attribute beliefs, knowledge and emotions to both oneself and others is to have what Premack and Woodruff (1978) term a theory of mind.  A theory of mind is a theory because, unlike behavior, mental states are not directly observable
[. . .]
[E]ven without a theory of mind, monkeys are skilled social strategists. It is not essential to attribute thoughts to others to recognize that other animals have social relationships or to predict what other individuals will do and with whom they will do it. Moreover, it is clearly possible to deceive, inform, and convey information to others without attributing mental states to them.
[. . .]
However, the moment that an individual becomes capable of recognizing that her companions have beliefs, and that these beliefs may be different from her own, she becomes capable of immensely more flexible and adaptive behavior.
[. . .]
Most of the controversy surrounding animal communication. . . centers on second- and third-order intentionality -- whether animals are capable of acting as if they want others to believe that they know or believe something. . . Higher-order intentionality implies the ability to attribute knowledge, beliefs and emotions to others. Attribution, in turn, demands some ability to represent simultaneously two different states of mind. To do this an individual must recognize that he has knowledge, that others have knowledge, and that there can be a discrepancy between his own knowledge and theirs

It's worth adding that one also needs the ability to use this understanding in the complex reasoning required to plan meaningful acts (speech- or otherwise), and to interpret the acts of others. Such ability to manipulate higher-order intentionality in communicating seems to be one of the innovations of the last couple of million years of hominid evolution.  

So who's right?

Which side is the winner of Strawson's epic struggle for the meaning of meaning?

Most linguists, at least implicitly, come down firmly on both sides of the fence.

Most linguists believe that linguistic structure is most productively studied in its own terms, with its communicative use(s) considered separately. On the other hand, most linguists believe that Austin, Grice and the later Wittgenstein were right about many aspects of what is commonly called "meaning."

There is a difference of opinion about whether a theory of "sentence meaning" as opposed to "speaker meaning," along roughly Fregean lines, is possible or not.  We can easily imagine what such a theory would be like: sentences have their own "literal meanings", but speakers sometimes use sentences creatively to communicate other messages as well, just as someone might use a screwdriver as a weapon, a pry bar or a writing instrument. One difficulty is that some aspects of language seem to be tangled up with interpersonal communication (pragmatics) at the same time as with central "sentence meaning" notions like truth and reference (semantics). This is what Muffy Siegel is getting at in her article "Like: The Discourse Particle and Semantics", when she wrote that "the various components of grammar must be organized to allow information from pragmatic/discourse elements to affect basic compositional semantics."






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