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Monday, April 11, 2011

Reading "Language, sense and nonsense"

For a while now, I've been forcing myself to read Language, Sense and Nonsense. A Critical Investigation into Modern Theories of Language by G. P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker. I started reading it, because the main theses sounded interesting and controversial: the authors clam that modern philosophy of language and linguistics are based on false identification of main problems and severe misconceptions.

The book is meant to show that "the most of what goes by the name of `theories of meaning' or `scientific study of language' needs not remedial readjustment, but wholesale abandonment." [x]  The authors criticize  modern linguistics and philosophy of language  on account of assuming that (i) any natural language has a deep structure of a "(correct) formal, function-theoretic, logical calculus" [2], (ii) the task of the philosophy of language is to construct a theory of its meaning which would elicit "the underlying principles of construction of any language in virtue of which we can construct and understand the infinite array of meaningful sentences" [3], (iii) that our ability to understand an infinite assembly of sentences shows the existence of compositional meaning principles, (iv) that there is a sharp distinction between syntax, semantics and pragmatism [6]. Why did I have to force myself? Well, for one, they are pointlessly and rhetorically rude:
If the true Philosopher's Stone is at last almost within our reach, if a theory of meaning, once properly constructed, holds within it the key to the great problems of philosophy, if grammar holds the key to the structure of the human mind, then indeed this wonderful insight and advance must be hailed with fanfares. And philosophers, together with theoretical linguists, must bend their wills to a united effort to grasp this treasure. then they may go on to explain the deep mysteries of our ability to understand new sentences, to discover what really exists (e.g. whether events are essential for our `ontology'), to reveal what is innately known to the human mind, to uncover the true logical form of our thoughts and the essential nature of our understanding. But the Last Trumpet has been blown with tiresome regularity in the history of philosophy, and false prophets have been legion. If the promises held out by the possibility of constructing a theory of meaning are false promises, and if the very idea of such a theory of meaning as is currently envisaged is incoherent, then this too must be proclaimed, the incoherences made clear and the hopes dashed. For then, far from being at last upon the true path of science, theorists are merely pursuing yet another monstrous chimera.
[...]
[W]e shall focus upon just those topics which are introduced in most theories of meaning with the barest of explanation, taken to be altogether perspicuous and treated with nonchalance. We shall probe the seemingly clear notion of the truth-conditions of a sentence, which is commonly taken to be the key to any cogent semantic theory. We shall place pressure upon the apparently obvious distinction, within every sentence, between its descriptive content [...] and its force. We shall test the soundness of the supposition that a language is a system, a calculus consisting of a network of hidden rules tacitly employed whenever we speak or understand what is spoken. And we shal examine whether the question of how it is possible to understand setences never heard before really is as deep as it is commonly taken to be. In general we shall resist by argument the theorists' habit of frog-marching the neophyte straight to a ceremony of initiation ito the full mysteries of the modern science of language. We shall unmask their conceptual conjuring tricks and break the mesmerizing force of their incantations by critical questioning. Our method will be the clarification of concepts. [11-12]
A few other samples of their style:
The issues we examine are important ... The misconceptions we identify ramify widely, contributing greatly to the barren mythology of late twentieth century culture. Hence this book is written with more polemical passion than is common in the typical reserved and detached forms of academic philosophy. For this we make no apology. [x]
 It was rather unclear to me how the popularity of the criticized view justifies the unusually polemical style. In this case, people being criticized are more likely to be convinced by cold, calculated arguments rather than by rhetorical and emotional ramblings.

Another sample:
[W]e [...] demonstrate a readiness to demolish large parts of what pass for significant modern intellectual achievements. But our ultimate purpose is not to persuade linguists or philosophers that their theories are false... It is rather to suggest that their endeavours are futile because pointless and misconceived. [13].
Sometimes, you can forgive the style, if the arguments are good. But these really aren't. Most of them are superficial and hasty straw-man strategies which are unlikely to convince anyone who doesn't buy into treating insults as real arguments. 

For a while, I was thinking about writing a short paper pointing out what went wrong in the book. But when I gave it some thought, I decided that it really wouldn't be short, and that since the book dates back to 1984, I wouldn't be addressing a really new and living concern either. Then, I also discovered a review in Mind (New Series, Vol. 94, No. 374 (Apr., 1985), pp. 307-310) by Jane Heal, and it turns out that it pretty much sums up my views about the book (below, the key fragment):
The  first thing  to be said about these books is that they are extremely aggressive  in  tone.  The  violence  and  frequency  of  pejorative  terms  is  striking.  Phrases like 'grotesque  conceptual  confusions'  (LSN  p.  I2),  'wastelands of the intellect' (LSN p.  13),  or 'frantic attempts to justify the bogus demands of a misguided theory' (LSN p. 94) are to be found peppered throughout the books. Where they do not condemn outright Baker and Hacker proceed by sneer, by loaded rhetorical question and by self-congratulation ('The several criticisms add up to a devastating indictment' LSN p. 24I).
This  might be  no more than robust intellectual knockabout. If  one  thinks something is nonsense one should be entitled to say so. But Baker and Hacker go  further and cast  aspersions not  only  on  the  intelligence but  also on  the intellectual integrity of  their  opponents. They  are  accused of  'intellectual  opportunism' (LSN  p.  9),  'conceptual conjuring tricks' (LSN  p.  12),  'mystery mongering' (LSN p.  I9),  and so on. One might say of  such abuse that it  is  totally out of  place in  a work with serious pretensions to philosophical scholarship. One could remark further that the repugnance it excites will lose Baker and Hacker what small chance they had of gaining converts. But from the point of view of  the philosophical enterprise neither of these is the gravest charge. The real danger is that hostility will prevent them approaching their subject in  such a spirit that they can feel the genuine attractions of the opposing views and hence put themselves in a position to see the real weaknesses there, if any; some level of sympathetic understanding is a prerequisite for truly efficacious demolition. Have Baker and Hacker avoided this danger? Have they, despite all the faults, something important to say?
The general problem area they have identified in both books is important; the correct interpretation of Wittgenstein's views on rules and meaning and their relevance to  modern theoretical approaches to  language are topics that many philosophers rightly want to see debated. But the detailed handling of the issues by Baker and Hacker is constantly disappointing. In  effect they discharge an enormous blunderbuss of arguments in the direction of their opponents. Most of the missiles spray out wildly into space and even those that are on target do not wound fatally.

1 comment:

tristanhaze said...

Interesting post! If the reviewer is right in her general conclusion, then Hacker and Baker fell into exactly the kind of morass I was in about two and a half years ago.

I was, and still am, extremely impressed by Wittgenstein's work. And, like Baker and Hacker, I felt a kind of outrage about certain kinds of confusions which I perceived were running rampant in philosophy (as though Wittgenstein had never written!). I wrote some bad polemical stuff where I tried to say so.

I soon realized, thankfully, that such shouting from the sidelines is relatively pointless, and resolved instead to try to use Wittgenstein's work as inspiration and training for doing original work.

I might add that it's not easy to find people who are 'Wittgensteinians' in this sense - a fact which, to be honest, bothers me quite a bit.