A Contextualist Account of the Linguistic Reality

In Joanna Odrowąż-Sypniewska (ed.), Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science at Warsaw University 4. Semper (2008)
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In this paper I consider the idea of external language and examine the role it plays in our understanding of human linguistic practice. Following Michael Devitt, I assume that the subject matter of a linguistic theory is not a psychologically real computational module, but a semiotic system of physical entities equipped with linguistic properties. 2 What are the physical items that count as linguistic tokens and in virtue of what do they possess phonetic, syntactic and semantic properties? According to Devitt, the entities in question are particular bursts of sound or bits of ink that count as standard linguistic entities3 — that is, strings of phonemes, sequences of words and sentences — in virtue of the conventional rules that constitute the structure of the linguistic reality. In my view, however, the bearers of linguistic properties should rather be understood as complex physical states of affairs — that I call, following Ruth G. Millikan, complete linguistic signs4 — within which one can single out their narrow and wide components, that is, (0 sounds or inscriptions produced by the speaker and (if) salient aspects of the context of their production. Moreover, I do not share Devitt's view on the nature of linguistic properties. Even though I maintain the general idea of convention-based semantics — according to which semantic properties of linguistic tokens are essentially conventional — I reject the Lewisian robust account of conventionality. Following Millikan, I assume that language conventions involve neither regular conformity nor mutual understanding.

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Maciej Witek
Uniwersytet Szczeciński


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