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Philosophy of language

Philosophy of language addresses how the uses of some vocabulary have particular effects by saying that it is because of their meaning. Part of the problem with this answer is that meaning is borrowed from conversational use and is not given much explanation. Philosophy of language is more preoccupied with the effects of meanings than a detailed description of what a meaning is. The tenets of philosophy of language are well outlined in the standard reference works.

Consider the Encyclopedia of Philosophy [1]. William P. Alston enumerates six fundamental questions asked by philosophy of language:

What is it for a linguistic expression to have a certain meaning?

Under what conditions do two linguistic expression have the meaning?

Under what conditions are we justified in saying that a word has two same senses in two different contexts?

What are the ways in which the meaning of an expression may be more or less vague?

What is the difference between a literal and a figurative use of a word?

What kinds of meaning are there? For example, is there any distinction between cognitive and emotive meaning?

These questions are all dependent on a definition of meaning. As of yet, no theory of meaning has satisfactorily met the criteria of general inquiry. The yardstick of a good theory should include the following criteria:

The Platonic notion of universals has lingered even into the twenty-first century in which the idea of truth is intimately linked to meaning. For Plato, every object in the world is an imperfect instantiation of its form, or of the idea of itself, that is, every object in the world holds some essential quality that is universal, ideal. These essential qualities are a priori, that is, somehow extant before things came to be in the world and they are assumed to be timeless. There are layers of universals and the purest form is Truth. It is assumed that there is Truth in everything in the world but that our perceptual tools are misleading. Since our senses are themselves imperfect, much like the objects of this world, we must rely on rhetoric to access universals and specifically Truth. Rhetoric is the practice of rational discussion about objects in the world. A consensus amongst philosophers about the resemblance that is shared as some abstract quality between objects, is a bridge but not a definite proof of universality and a window to the true nature of things [15]. The importance of apprehension of Truth in Plato is that it leads to moral behavior. Though Plato has not focused on a study of language, many after him have tried to give a detailed account of Universals that could be applied to the objects of language.

Like Plato, Frege presupposes a priori truths that are somehow different from a sensory apprehension of the world, which can sometimes be partial. Frege's identity claim postulates a separation in linguistic propositions, between the essential truth of an outside reference and a sensory truth about the presentation.

Frege has discriminated between sense and reference to establish the nature of meaning. Frege's inquiry is an attempt to disambiguate the notion of identity. This study started in mathematics with a formal investigation of the constraints of the identity (=) symbol. Later on, Frege extended his theory to propositions of natural language. His example: the morning star = the morning star is a true statement of a priori identity while the statement the morning star = the evening star is also true because of they both refer to the planet Venus. However, different information is put forth accordingly as the morning star or the evening star is used to refer to Venus or not. Frege goes on to claim that both expressions have the same reference, that is, a relationship of identity to itself, the planet, but different senses as the presentation of the statements give us different relevant information about the object of reference. For Frege, the truth of each statement of identity lies in its reference. However, we cannot ignore the manner in which the information is presented and how the sense of a statement adds to the truth of an identity relation.

Russell [54] argues that logical vocabulary such as or occurs in natural language as a choice of the form p or q. This kind of statement can only be true by the facts that p and by the facts that q represents. The use of or, Russell says, does not represent any facts. It belongs to the world of propositions. In the world of propositions or refers to a person's disposition of hesitation.

Some, like Grice [26], suppose that the inability or difficulty in defining meanings is a problem linked to lexical vocabulary which is thought to be semantically difficult. He thinks connective vocabulary is semantically easier, that it lends itself more readily to rational inquiry because a formal account of it can be given from truth functions. We do not think this is so.

In fact we think the opposite is true. Later on we will show that a semantic theory is more readily available to lexical vocabulary and that connective vocabulary cannot be reduced to a truth-functional account.

However, Grice is important to us because he connects hearer and speaker in a relationship. In this research we preserve this relationship and we will show that it is an important aspect of our theory.

This research diverges from the philosophy of language approach dramatically as we have found the account for meaning unsatisfactory for our goals. In pursuit of theoretical understanding of language, we direct our focus to the fundamentals of scientific process and substance. Going back to the root of scientific inquiry allows us to assess the usefulness of scientific methods and theories in our attempt to describe language.

Fundamentally, we argue that Nature is economical in its use of mechanisms and dynamics. In that light, we suppose that a physical phenomenon such as language may exhibit behaviors that belong to a class of behaviors common to a more basic phenomenon. For example, we might find a similarity between the behaviors of fundamental systems such as simple gases and seemingly abstracted systems such as language. So we borrow methods of inquiry, mostly from physics, to explore the phenomenon of language. We expect a physical theory of language to be consistent with findings in physics since it shares in its method and idiom. We also assume that such a theory will provide an explanation of why a theory of meaning seems to resist a clear description and why it is discontinuous with the body of scientific knowledge.

We offer a causal history of language and the complex dynamics involved in the inheritance of it, across a population and its generations, as an explanation for the relationship between linguistic utterances and their effects. In doing so, we will use several models offering a range in detail, situated somewhere between the levels of descriptions of synaptic functions and population dynamics. That is, terms from these various disciplines are borrowed and repurposed, just as physicists may talk about surfaces, interactions or the way mathematicians refer to a field. Theories, such as physics and mathematics, are bound to use theoretical language. A theory defines object types that are of interesting generality so that important features are represented. With our theory of language, there is no need for a reform of language, merely a redefinition of certain terms borrowed from conversational language.

Dispersion is such a term. It is commonly used but also precisely defined in physics. We will apply it, and others of that sort, in the context of language analysis.

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Next: Time scales to linguisticity Up: Opening Remarks Previous: Opening Remarks
Thalie Prevost