From a skeptical point of view
So, what explains the diffused character of these chapters? I think the answer lies in the way in which my own intellectual interests unfolded. Having made a decision to shift, early in my career, from the beautiful abstractions of mathematical physics to the more existential concerns of philosophy, I settled down to a range of exciting new developments in analytic philosophy in the post-Wittgensteinian era. The work of fine philosophers like John Austin, Peter Strawson, Willard Quine, Hilary Putnam, Donald Davidson, Michael Dummett, and other stalwarts of late 20th century analytic philosophy, promised a healthy mix of rigorous, often formal, inquiry with what Hilary Putnam called ‘the whole hurly-burly of human actions’ (cited in Nussbaum 2016). Philosophers such as Peter Strawson (1992) and others have often suggested that philosophy attempts to produce a systematic account of the general conceptual apparatus of which our daily practices display a tacit and unconscious mastery.
But the subtle, abstract, and yet unifying framework of physics lingered in the mind. This led to a variety of dissatisfaction with analytic philosophy, especially in the study of language. We need to step back a little to see why. In the first half of the 20th century, great philosophers like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolf Carnap, Alfred Ayer and others took what Richard Rorty (1967) called the linguistic turn. Tracing it to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Alberto Coffa (1991) called this mode of doing philosophy the semantic tradition. Within this broad tradition, each of the authors cited in the preceding paragraph—Austin, Quine, etc.—belonged primarily to the broad discipline of philosophy of language. The study of language thus formed a central part of the analytic effort. As with most students of analytic philosophy in those days, I was attracted to the study of language both for the intricate formal character of human language, and its ubiquitous role in human life.
Linguistic philosophy promised a rigorous, scientific approach of its own on classical philosophical topics such as realism, knowledge, belief, even consciousness. For example, Willard Quine (1953) argued that for something to exist it has to be the value of a bound variable in a true theory; Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) suggested that to understand consciousness is to understand the meaning of the first-person sentence I am in pain; Bertrand Russell (1919) held that beliefs such as <Ramanuj is wise> are propositional attitudes. I will have much more to say on these things in the chapters that follow.
Since linguistic philosophy proposed to examine classical issues by viewing them as ‘semantic’ problems—that is, in terms of the structure and function of language—it is reasonable to expect that this philosophy will also furnish a formally satisfying account of language itself from which the solution to philosophical problems maybe rigorously derived. However, linguistic philosophy lacked a genuinely theoretical understanding of the immense richness of human language. This is what a mind initially trained in physics sorely missed. This philosophy did make formal proposals occasionally, such as Russell’s famous theory of descriptions (Russell 1905), to address philosophical problems. But the formal tools were borrowed from the discipline of symbolic logic which is not only a poor substitute for human language; its character is parasitic on human language.
In any case, even with the tools of formal logic, human language resisted any grand formal theory for addressing philosophical problems, as Peter Strawson (1950) pointed out in his stringent criticism of Russell’s theory of descriptions: ordinary language, Strawson declared, has no logic. ‘Ordinary language’ philosophers thus focused on detailed, taxonomic properties of language in the style of a botanist, as John Austin (1962) suggested, rather than that of a physicist. The study of language fostered what Strawson (1971) called a Homeric struggle between ‘formal-semantic’ and ‘communication-intention’ theorists of language. My impression is that the scene in analytic philosophy hasn’t improved since even if no one openly makes claims for either ‘ideal language’ or ‘ordinary language.’ At that stage, it was too early for me to admire the value of this uncertainty in philosophical inquiry.
While analytic philosophy was going through this apparent absence of direction, interesting developments took place elsewhere. I expressed my disenchantment with the state of linguistic philosophy in my doctoral thesis, and turned to linguistics and cognitive science to see if there was a ‘physics’ of human language and mind. Two related developments promised what I was looking for: exciting proposals in theoretical linguistics by Noam Chomsky, and the formulation of a computational theory of mind by Alan Turing. Both strands of research, and much else besides, had become established academic pursuits by the time I completed my doctoral thesis. As I continued with my exploration of the new science of the mind, certain interesting ideas and results did appear on the table in due course which I put together in some papers and monographs culminating in the Primacy of Grammar (2010). That form of work continues elsewhere.
However, throughout my engagement with the new science of the mind, I was beginning to realize that the ideas that interested me there covered very restricted and abstract domains of human cognition such that the intellectual salience of much of the rest of the new science could be questioned. For example, the formal resources of linguistic theory no doubt explained some intriguing facts about how sound is connected to what may be called the internal significance of a structure, called Logical Form (LF) in the technical literature. However, it is also clear that the theory does not have either the resources or the desire to explain what may ordinarily be viewed as the meaning of a sentence.
(To be continued)