Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Cognizing a Language

I see metasemantics has having two major components (cf, David Lewis 1970, "General Semantics"). One component studies languages, what their properties are, how they're individuated, etc. The other component studies how languages are "cognized".

On the first issue, for the metasemantics I prefer, languages are finely-individuated mixed mathematicalia, whose intrinsic syntactic, phonological, semantic, pragmatic, orthographic properties are essential. The corresponding individuation condition is:
$L_1 = L_2$ if and only if they have the same syntax, semantics, etc, etc.
(If this seems somehow too obvious to need saying, or perhaps silly, then what do you suggest? The main alternative, at least, the main one I can think of, would somehow introduce a speech community somehow in the very individuation of languages. But I think this is wrong.)

Languages then do not undergo change, either temporal or modal. Rather, we have various sequences of distinct languages. This theory of language individuation is, more or less, Lewis's, as sketched near the start of "Languages and Language" (1975). It seems to have been endorsed also by Scott Soames and Saul Kripke too.

[The issue is quite complicated because languages are usually mixed mathematicalia, grounding out somehow in concrete/physical "tokens" (e.g., tokens of certain phonemes or tokens of the letter "A", etc.); and, consequently, one needs some sort of account of the individuation criteria for mixed mathematical: e.g., the set of US Presidents or the magnetic field $\mathbf{B}$, which is a function on spacetime, to a certain linear space isomorphic to $\mathbb{R}^3$.]

Once we have got some sort of account of what languages are, and how they're individuated, we next need to provide some sort of account of how they are spoken, or as I like to say, "cognized" by agents.

I believe the most basic notions required in a workable account of this are roughly of this kind:
Agent A assigns meaning M to string $\sigma$
I call these "cognizing" relations. (One can of course add bells and whistles, various parameters, indices, contexts and time and world parameters. But I want to keep it simple.) So, I cognize my idiolect $L_{JK}$ by my mind assigning meanings to various strings (my mind also assigns some kind of syntactic structure too, and pragmatic meaning functions too, but I am ignoring that for the moment).

My mind's assigning meanings is not, I think, for the most part "conscious"; and is not, in many cases, something I can articulate. Somehow,
  • I acquire meanings
  • copy/borrow meanings.
  • bestow meanings.
Admittedly, I don't have a good theory of this. For example, I use the string "Kripke" to mean Saul Kripke. But I do not have a good theory how I acquired this meaning assignment (it must have involved meaning copying/borrowing, as Kripke himself has argued at length). I use the string "finite ordinal number" to refer to elements of $\omega$, and again I simply don't know how I acquired this meaning assignment, except to say, flat-footedly, that I learnt set theory ...

Even so, I'm pretty sure that these features of language cognition---the basic meaning assignment relations---are what need to be clarified for the (more difficult) "cognizing" side of metasemantics.

[Though this is not forced, I'm somewhat sceptical about the notion of "shared" languages. The languages that agents or individuals speak/cognize, are, first and foremost, idiolects. But this is a very big question, involving complicated questions about normativity, "meaning gaps" and some of the topics that arise in debates about semantic internalism and externalism. Admittedly, there's a huge overlap amongst idiolects in language communities. But there is also heterogeneity as well. And this must be accounted for.]

6 comments:

  1. (If this seems somehow too obvious to need saying, or perhaps silly, then what do you suggest?

    This seems to make language individual-specific, which misses out on the fact that language is a communicative tool, and hence there has to be some notion of "speaking the same language" which explains how it is that we can communicate. I suppose it's fine if you want to have such a narrowly defined view of individual language, but it seems to me to make the story way more complicated than it needs to be.

    The main alternative, at least, the main one I can think of, would somehow introduce a speech community somehow in the very individuation of languages. But I think this is wrong.)

    Why?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Sara,

    Thanks for that.

    "... hence there has to be some notion of "speaking the same language" which explains how it is that we can communicate"

    Can we not communicate by speaking words with the same meanings? Idiolects can overlap, but still be distinct. After all, people frequently do not communicate; they miscommunicate! So, a conception of language needs to explain why and how this happens.
    What sort of proposal do you have in mind for:

    L = L* if and only if [.......]?

    Would this condition "[....]" involve the concept of a shared language?

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Jeff,

    You point to two problems above. One is what languages are & how they are individuated, which is spelled out as a problem of mixed mathematicalia. The other is the problem of giving an account of how they are spoken. It seems to me that solving both will topple your Lewisian distinction between languages and cognizing.

    Your mention of concrete physical tokens is somewhat surprising because it seems to take the account very far away from the Platonism your readers have become accustomed to. But it is, of course, most welcome. So what needs conceptualising now is the various delimitations of language, (i) in terms of what counts as constituents parts of language: these are presumably sounds, marks and signs (as used in sign language); but of course, not every sound, not every mark and not every gesture is a language token, so we need a definition here about what's in and what's out; (ii) in terms of delimiting languages against each other: slicing them into idiolects, as you suggest, is unfortunately both too narrow and too wide; too narrow as reducing a language to what one person cognizes at time t does not explain what she shares with the people with whom she communicates with the help of that language; and too wide in that it does not offer a tool for distinguishing between the various languages one speaker usually cognizes (as a minimum various sociolects, very often a dialect and a "high" language, and often enough a mothertongue and one or more foreign languages); (iii) in terms of modality: is it every token actually produced by speaker S, or every token S could produce at time t? And does "produce" mean utter, sign or write only or also hear, watch or read & understand?
    It is only once that's decided that we can actually get to what you want to study in your first component: all those "intrinsic syntactic, phonological, semantic, pragmatic, orthographic properties". In collecting them, so as to study them, you will find that you have to isolate and abstract them from what one (or more) speaker(s)/signer(s)/writer(s) do. But that means going through a very cumbersome exercise of collecting and ordering, and thereby reifying, the concrete/physical aspects of an activity. In then trying to come up with a theory of how they are spoken, or what you call "cognizing", we would be inventing something that somehow undoes what we did in that cumbersome exercise. It is like defining a relation between a way of walking and the walker (I am thinking of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks as a reductio). In other words, trying to come up with a "cognizing" relation is like first driving a wedge into something and then trying to fill the gap thus opened. What's the point of doing that?

    Note also that a theory of how languages are spoken is different from a theory of how parts of speech come to be meaningful for us, and the latter is necessarily prior to the former. The latter theory, it seems to me, must contain a large chunk consisting of perception.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Naomi,

    I've written about tokens before - this is very important for Platonists!
    For example, it is what lies behind confusions about ultra-finitism,

    http://m-phi.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/ultra-finitism-types-and-tokens.html

    Numbers aren't tokens and numerals aren't tokens either. There are $\aleph_0$ many natural numbers, but only strictly finitely many tokens. So, numbers cannot be reduced to tokens. There are $\aleph_0$ many numerals, so numerals can't be reduced to tokens either.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  5. HI Naomi,

    "too narrow as reducing a language to what one person cognizes at time t does not explain what she shares with the people with whom she communicates with the help of that language"

    No, what I'm saying is anti-reductionist. And it does explain this. As far as I can tell, it's the *only* account that does. If A cognizes L and B cognizes L*, then L and L* may overlap, so that there are some strings to which A and B assign the same meanings. This is the explanation.

    What would your explanation be?

    Cheers,

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi again Naomi,

    Quick comment again,

    "... slicing them into idiolects, as you suggest .."

    I simply don't suggest this. I suggest the opposite. For example, the language $L_{PA}$ of Peano arithmetic is not an "idiolect". An infinitary language such as $L_{\omega_1, \omega}$ is not an "idiolect". Etc. Biologically, $L_{\omega_1, \omega}$ couldn't be an idiolect.
    I am simply opposed to your reductionist view. As an anti-reductionist, I am saying that there are countlessly many different languages, and infinitely many of them are not spoken, and not cognized, etc.

    What *speakers* speak are idiolects and there is *heterogeneity*, which needs to be explained. I think you're conflating languages with their speakers - and this means you're making the confusion that Lewis points out. But a speaker is not a language. A language is something quite different, and in some cases, a speaker may speak/cognize/use a language.

    Cheers,

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete