Category Archives: Language

The Science of Language

Let us for only a moment set aside the truth. We wish to command the science of language—or at least be commanded by it. We wish to know how to use a language, how to serve a language, how to speak a language. This is the province of the linguist. Here they have dominion. So let us listen to them and obey. They should teach us their science, their science of language, and how we might live harmoniously in discourse.

The science of language begins where all science begins: with first principles, with the essence. Language is said in different ways. The linguist alone knows its primary sense. Let us again listen. Let us again obey. They should teach us their science, their science of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is known. It is something we are all capable of using. The francophone is capable of uttering meaningful statements understood “all or most of the time,” as Aristotle is fond of saying, by all those initiated into the French cult. This the linguist calls “competence.” The francophone as francophone is competent in French insofar as they, all else being equal, utter intelligible French sentences. Their actually doing so the linguist calls “performance.” Performance can be impeded by some confounding condition, some injury, some illness, some other physical or mental impairment. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not impeded by some confounding condition. The francophone with a Broca’s lesion does not cease to be a francophone. Performance, it follows, is not essential to language. Only competence is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is psychological. It is a product of an individual’s inner cognitive processes. The product of these processes the linguist calls “idiolect.” The francophone says only what they wish to say, and only how they wish to say it. Their speech bears only passing resemblance to any other francophone. This resemblance the linguist calls a “dialect.” The dialect is an abstraction from the speaking patterns of individuals within some cohort. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not an abstraction. The francophone’s speech expresses only their own inner cognitive processes. Dialect, it follows, is not essential to language. Only idiolect is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is unique. It is a system of coherent, self-satisfying rules or norms. This the linguist calls “grammar.” The francophone as francophone speaks intelligibly only insofar as they adhere to French grammar, only insofar as they follow the rules. The linguist calls the set of expressions which satisfy its grammar the “extension” of the language. The extension of a language is unlimited even where speakers are limited. If there be such a thing called language, it need not be understood. Le francophone des Alpes need not be understood by le francophone du Québec, nor any other. Extension, it follows, is not essential to language. Only grammar is.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is human. It is a faculty possessed only by the more-than-mere-animal. This faculty the linguist calls “Reason.” The francophone as francophone expresses differently that same Reason as the sinophone as sinophone. Their differences are a product not of the faculty of language, of Reason, but some other faculty—perception, intension, memory, or some other merely animal faculty. If there be such a thing called language, then it is not animal. The francophone and the sinophone both have equal standing. Expression, it follows, is not essential to language. Only Reason is.

Language is said in many ways. If there be such a thing called language, then it is essentially competence. It is essentially idiolect. It is essentially grammar. It is essentially Reason. All are one. All are identical. All else is other, foreign to language, foreign to the science of language. To command the science of language, to be commanded by the science of language, is to command, to be commanded by language alone. It is to divide and separate language from its pretenders, from all those shadows and images of its immanent perfection. Language is not performed. Language is not expressed. Language is not extended. It is not negotiated. It is not communal. It does not evolve. It is unchanging and systematic. There is nothing greater than language which determines it. There is nothing like language. To speak rightly is to speak only intelligibly. This the linguist calls living harmoniously in discourse.

To speak intelligibly is a choice, but it is not easy. It is quite human—as animal as we are—to subject ourselves to the wills and whims of another. This is the fundamental threat of all that which is foreign to language, all that is inessential to it. In performance, in dialect, in extension, in expression there is only subjugation. Language becomes alien. It becomes degenerate, mixed with its images and shadows. This is the condition in which we find French and Mandarin and English. The francophone’s language has been alienated from them; a dialect, a linguistic community, has been imposed upon them from without, from Paris probably, or la ville de Québec. And the francophone accepts without protest this imposition, for they lack the power to change it.

The science of language is in this sense a political project, a project which aims at universal liberation from the oppressive influence of linguistic expression. Let us continue for only a moment set aside the truth. If there be such a thing called language, then all humans stand as equals before it. They each possess by nature the faculty of language, Reason, competence, grammar. Language cannot differ genuinely between them. It is a coherent system: any evolution could only contribute to its decay. Nature has selected for the whole of language as a single unit with no variation. Only when we have come to realise this, only when we have come to divide and separate our language from all those oppressive structures which alienate it from us will we be understood, will we speak intelligibly, will we be emancipated. For only then will we recognise the slavish condition to which we are subject and have the means to overthrow it.

This is the genius of the science of language. For what objection have the powerful to the science of language? They indeed have promoted it, funded it, and attempted to use if for their own purposes. They do not see that they have only promoted their own destruction. Only the science of language could have accomplished this. It alone has naturalised the politics of liberation. It alone has smuggled us out from the darkness and into the light beneath the watchful eyes of censors and capitalists. The powerful do not, cannot, recognise the deep truth of the science of language. They see it as an instrument, something which better enables them to persuade and control. They think that language can be improved, moulded, perfected. Only the science of language demonstrates this error. For language is silent, unchangeable. Genuine language says nothing. It has no use beyond itself. It neither moves nor is moved. It is the foundation upon which the human is built, the foundation upon which truth is built. So let the truth stand up and speak… For the science of language makes of language what it is not: the decadent symbol of an unmoved, unmoving, silent reaction of the powerless.

The science of language has set itself upon a tightrope, balancing in one hand the community of speakers and in the other their individuality. The linguist should stand, and yet they fall. The science of language appeals to nature, to what is demonstrable scientifically. But it does not in either case demonstrate its naturity. It suffers the same fate as all systematism: by first presupposing the character of language—that which they have taken themselves to be demonstrating—they achieve nothing more than ideality: they have created a system, they have created Reason, they have created grammar, idiolect, competence, and all this they call language. But language it is not. By sleight of hand they have compelled the speaker to keep silent, to listen, to obey. But the truth shall not be silenced. This is the foolishness of the science of language.

The linguist lacks the power to change what has been presupposed of language. This they accept without protest. But the linguist’s language is alien to them, alien to nature. The linguist claims that language is universal and unique. It is shared by all those who share also in their humanity. This they say is the linguistic community. There is no end to this community: all those who share in Reason belong to it. But each does so on their own terms, in their own way. Language is not the property of that community: it is each human’s property as individual. It is their freedom, their will, their most human of faculties, which, though universal, is expressed uniquely by each. The linguist has made their job much too easy. Language for them is everywhere and everything. This is the choice they have made, one which has made language unintelligible.

The science of language accepts no discourse and no disharmony. For it, all speech occurs rightly because to speak wrongly is impossible. There is nothing beyond language. Everything is determined by it. Everything is subordinate to its system, to its unchanging essence. But this is the problem: any hypothesis which explains everything explains nothing. If this really is the essence of language, then what shall we say of what people actually do? Speech is negotiated. Speech is communal. Speech is extended, performed, expressed… The science of language does not understand or explain speech and its elements. It separates them from language. But how might the science of language command language if it can say nothing about speech? Speech is foreign from language, other, distinct. And yet it is itself language. For language is not one. Language is not all. It is plural, discordant, incoherent, a bundle of tensions and incongruities.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is natural, then it is human, then it is animal, then it is alien. It is intelligible only coequal and continuous, only distinct and apart from life. What can this be called? What else both commands and is commanded? What else serves and is served? What else both enfranchises and enslaves? The francophone as francophone lives their life in French, their whole life. But not all is French. They bake. They condescend. They protest. These too are parts of life which order, which are ordered by French. And for the sinophone too who lives their same life differently in Mandarin. If there be such a thing called language, then it is an instrument, then it is essence, then it is power, then it is impotence. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is incoherent, then it is unique, then it is ordinary, then it is consistent. It is self-satisfied. It is a compromise. Language is negotiated, renegotiated, constantly changing, constantly enforced. The francophone as francophone speaks intelligibly only insofar as they negotiate the terms of their language, only insofar as they propose and pass motions and amendments within its legislative body, within its sphere of influence, within its extension. Le francophone des Alpes negotiates a different language than le francophone du Québec, even if their terms are identical. If there be such a thing called language then it is organic, then it is moved, then it is moving, then it is systematic. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is social, then it is psychological, then it is abstract, then it is individual. The francophone is not a subject of the French language. They are not delimited by it or determined. But neither do they delimit or determine French. Neither servant nor lord, we call the francophone one of many speakers of French. French we call the spoken language of the francophone. If there be such a thing called language, then it is constructed, then it constructs. This we call the meaning of language.

If there be such a thing called language, then it is learned, then it is known, then it is a performance, then it is a competence. It is something grasped. It is something to be grasped. The francophone ever develops their speaking, their comprehension of French. The francophone ever already speaks, comprehends French. We call speech the act of a speaker. We call a speaker one who is capable of speech. If there be such a thing called language, then it is intended, then it is conditioned. This we call the meaning of language.

The science of language, the genuine science of language, begins with the end of language, with its uses, with its purposes, with its role in a life. There are as many languages as there are lives. There is no single language, no single grammar, no single dialect, no single extension. The science of language is one with language. The science of language is apart from it. The linguist alone is unaware of the essence of language. All who speak have heard it. All who speak are commanded by it. But the linguist has never spoken a language. Their science is a science of nothing. It is a science of silence.

So let the truth stand up and speak. Let it command the science of language. Let it be commanded by the science of language. Only when we know how to use a language, how to serve it, how to speak it, will we know the truth. And only then shall we have abandoned the linguist. Only then shall we have seen their harmony for discord. Harmony occurs not in language but in life.

Nonsense and The Fight for a Transparent Political Rhetoric

Clear expression is the foundation upon which we build our political rhetoric. It is important for any liberatory project that our protests and our pronouncements be understood and that we have the means to expose as nonsense any justification given to us for our oppression. However, for the liberal academic, animated as they are by a spirit of charity, accusations of nonsense and their concomitant demand for clear expression have become suspect. These academics are too stupid and too cowardly to appreciate what their charity has bought them. Their suspicions have undermined their own rhetorical foundations and left them ill equipped to respond to the present political moment and to the swelling tide of dispossession and violence that will crash down upon them. If we are to respond at all, if we are to have any hope in succeeding for the sake of the marginalised and oppressed, we must oppose the erosion of our political discourse and fight for clear expression. This may be only the beginning of a liberatory project, but it is an essential step towards its success.

For the liberal academic, of course, language is a purely descriptive, theoretical concern. They recognise no stakes and accept no demands. They are blind to the normative dimension of language and its political valence. It is from this ignorance that Charles Pigden demeans accusations of nonsense as totalitarian and unjust. For him, Neurath was just as bad, just as evil, as the Fascists he was fighting. And certainly there must be a case to be made here. Neurath is not perfect. His ISOTYPE was a distinctly Viennese symbolism which struggled to accommodate the diversity of human experience. Pigden worries that Neurath has unjustly excluded lives and languages other than his own. That this equates in Pigden’s mind to full-scale totalitarianism is laughable. Especially since he is not worried about defending different cultures or different lifestyles. He is worried instead about defending the prospects of metaphysics. “Are there no languages which are, so to speak, metaphysical all the way down?” he asks.[1] And of course if this is your worry you might be tempted to equate the fascists with those fighting against them (even despite the explicitly metaphysical character of German fascism). But Neurath’s project is entirely different. He sought to eliminate racism and nationalism by making racist and nationalist thought and expression impossible. Neurath may have failed in this effort, but it does not follow that racism or nationalism or metaphysics is sensible, as Pigden alleges. Far from it.

A victim of liberal modernity, Pigden reacts to Neurath by declaring any and all “coercive theories of meaning” to be false. His ultimate argument against them, beyond badly misunderstanding their use[2], is an exercise in stone-kicking. The explananda of a theory of meaning, he says, are our linguistic intuitions about what sorts of expressions are meaningful. A coercive theory of meaning attempts to revise what we take to be significant, to “contract the realm of the meaningful.”[3] But, he asks, “Where does the theory get the authority to overcome [our linguistic intuitions]?”[4] When Rosenberg talks about the Eternal Jew and the racial ladder, or when Heidegger talks about the German people hoisting Dasein upon its shoulders, what right does Neurath have in saying that they are speaking nonsense? Surely they must mean something by their convoluted expressions! These fascists are not totalitarians, no: it is Neurath who unjustly coerces them by dismissing their views as nonsense.

A theory of meaning is quite a different thing than a scientific theory. It does not explain. It cannot explain. It has no explananda, least of all our pretheoretic linguistic intuitions. Rather, a theory of meaning is strictly normative. Through it we understand, cultivate, and negotiate our agency as linguistic creatures not alone but within a linguistic community. For Neurath, German had been poorly negotiated. A long history of competing and evolving influences had exacerbated rather that resolve the tensions implicit in human experience. Far too often did German expressions appear to have a meaning only to have that sense evaporate under closer inspection. Instead of waiting for German to organically correct itself, Neurath appealed to the productive power of theoretical science in order to engineer a language. He failed. It has become clear that the functions of natural language cannot (yet) be replicated by even the best science. But this is not to say that we should give up entirely the project to improve language. In their reluctance to treat language as normative, liberal academics have cast themselves off into the current of language and surrendered to its rhetorical ebbs.

If we are seriously interested in constructing a better, juster, freer society, we should take pains to master our language. This is a different project than strict political rhetoric just as surveying a battlefield differs from fighting a battle. A theory of meaning is impartial with respect to what can be meant.[5] But taking stock of how meaning is conveyed and negotiated permits us not only our own interventions, but also to recognise when expressions violate the terms of our agreement. This is nonsense. This is when an expression, despite any appearances to the contrary, fails to signify. This most often occurs by accident, when a speaker mistakenly transgresses linguistic strictures. But this occasionally occurs purposefully, even if unknowingly, for the sake of some rhetorical exercise. It is at this time that linguistic negotiation begins in order that an expression may be either made meaningful and incorporated into a language or dismissed as a confusion. That dismissal is only one (often marginal) possibility demonstrates just how far off Pigden’s understanding of “coercive” theories of meaning has strayed. There is nothing coercive about them. They rather provide transparent mechanisms  for including and supporting diverse discourses into the whole of our language. It appears still that Pigden only objects to dismissing those expressions which not only do not signify but which cannot signify. But if Pigden wishes to continue kicking stones he should be prepared to express himself clearly in order that his expressions may become meaningful. These are the risks: at times, our expressions dissipate into the aether and what appeared to us to be meaningful ceases to have any significance for us. And if that’s the cost of justice, we could have purchased it centuries ago.

In truth, nonsense has a rhetorical mystique and power that is difficult to surrender. No party has been willing thus far to do so. They most often oscillate back and forth between exposing the nonsense of their opponents and manufacturing their own nonsense. So often we think of rhetoric as trickery that we forget that in politics, we wish to persuade. And so I contest that we ourselves shrug off the need for nonsense and trickery and strive instead for clear expression. If we speak in terms that people can confidently grasp, we shall find our projects to be more confidently embraced. Then, and perhaps only then, shall we find liberation.  


[1] Charles Pigden, “Coercive Theories of Meaning, Or: Why Language Shouldn’t Matter (So Much) to Philosophy,” Logique et Analyse 53 (210): 151, 2010: 155

[2] Pigden charges Neurath, Wittgenstein, et cetera with performative and theoretical contradiction for declaring some domain of discourse to be nonsense because, on his view, these theories of meaning necessarily outstrip the thoughts expressible in language. Had Pigden thought deeply about the motivations for these theories, however, he would recognise his error: “coercive” theories of meaning are not supposed to be sensible, expressible, verifiable, or any such thing. They are normative constraints on what can be sensibly expressed and understood. Wittgenstein goes so far as to openly and purposely construct his Tractatus as a work of nonsense, and Neurath too is open about his political and normative motivations. It was not until logical positivism was appropriated by apolitical English theorists that the question of the empirical adequacy of a theory of meaning even arose in part because these theorists could not grasp the normative even if it had handles.

[3] Pigden, 179

[4] Pigden, 178

[5] Philosophers must of course be careful that they genuinely examine language impartially. Far too often they pretend to an appreciation of an ordinary conception of meaning, whatever that might be, while nevertheless using a theory of meaning to obscure their own agenda. Wittgensteinians in particular are guilty of this, often in order to isolate their own philosophical commitments (such as Wittgenstein’s mystical Christianity) from philosophical critique. One indication of this is that the Wittgensteinian grounds their theory of meaning in a simple meaning relation, namely rules, that are manifested by a form of life. But as with everything human, meaning relations come in a wide variety, and their interaction provides the complexity and often the intractability of language.