Signs of omission

Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language

May 1, 1998

What's wrong with the philosophy of language?" was the title of a famous paper published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1962. The same question could be asked today, but the answer would be different. The complaint behind the 1962 paper was that philosophers who pronounced on linguistic questions exhibited wilful ignorance of theoretical developments in modern linguistics. The pendulum has now swung to the opposite extreme.

The editor confesses in his introduction that he can see no sharp line separating work done by theoretical linguists and philosophers of language, and concedes that the collection of articles he has assembled might show an imbalance in favour of linguistics over philosophy. For good measure he has included one or two that focus on literary topics as well. The fact is that almost all the contributions are lifted from the ten-volume Pergamon Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics of 1994, of which this Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language in effect presents a small selection. This cannibalising approach to publishing encyclopedias creates problems that the editor has either overlooked or not been able to tackle.

The most serious among them is that coverage which might seem adequate in the context of the more general encyclopedia can begin to look thin when attention is focused specifically on philosophy of language. For example, the entry "Plato and his predecessors" consists of three sections, of which the first discusses Homer, the Greek writing system and Greek literary education, while the second deals briefly with the Sophists and is mostly about Protagoras. The third is devoted to Plato. But instead of discussing any of Socrates's rather subtle arguments about words and meanings, or the linguistic underpinnings of the theory of forms, the section on Plato is mainly concerned with treating the Platonic dialogues as providing evidence for our knowledge of the state of Greek grammar in Plato's day. It is an article patently addressed to linguists and its philosophical interest is, to say the least, obscure.

Similarly the substantial article on Saussure includes no attempt to say what relevance Saussure's linguistic doctrines have had for philosophers, or to what philosophical problems they might be applied. Saussure himself did not list philosophy as one of the neighbouring academic disciplines with which linguistics had close links and he seems to have regarded logic as having only an undesirable effect on the study of grammar. In the published text of Saussure's Cours there is no reference to any philosopher, living or dead, and no discussion of such problems as truth, reference, presupposition, negation, quantification or proper names. The only "non-linguistic" influences on Saussure's thinking seem to have come (possibly) from Durkheim and (just conceivably) from Anton Marty. But the name of Marty is nowhere mentioned, in spite of his having published an important work on philosophy of language in 1908, just at the time when Saussure was giving his Geneva lectures.

Thus the case of Saussure highlights a crucial question about what the term "philosophy of language" is supposed to cover. All the major philosophers dealing with language ignored Saussure's work, with the exception of Croce, who disapproved from a distance. But there is no article on Croce in this encyclopedia either, although he does rate one passing mention in the entry on "Metaphor". It has been suggested that Wittgenstein may have read Saussure, but there is no concrete evidence. Given all this, we seem invited to draw either of two conclusions. One would be that Saussure's work falls under the head of philosophy of language by virtue of the general claim that linguistic theory just is by definition philosophy of language. (In which case it is inexplicable why many other linguistic theorists are not included in this encyclopedia too.) The other conclusion would be that, although Saussure himself did not realise it, his work has rather special implications for philosophers studying language, even if they never realised it either. But then one would like to know exactly what these implications are supposed to be.

The other linguistic theorist placed on a similar pinnacle in this publication is Chomsky. The article on Chomsky did not appear in the 1994 Pergamon Encyclopedia. The new contributor has evidently been instructed to discuss Chomsky's philosophical position. He does so with commendable clarity, although concluding a little oddly that we shall have to wait and see whether the philosophy underlying Chomskian linguistics turns out to be any good or not. That will depend, he says, on "the depth of insight attained on the nature of the grammatical processes at work in the 5,000-odd languages of the world". It sounds as if we are in for a long wait, since Chomsky shows little interest in investigating any of the 5,000-odd languages except English. However, the possible tedium involved in waiting is hardly the point. Much more disconcerting is the implication that only historical hindsight at some point in the future will resolve basic questions in the philosophy of language. This is a curious position for any philosopher to take.

The long article on the history of logic disappoints for a complementary reason. It gives us no reason to believe that this is of the slightest interest to linguists or linguistics. But there is at least one point of confluence between logic and language in the western tradition, and that is reached with the modistic grammarians of the Middle Ages. There is a large gap here in the history-of-logic article, apologetically bridged by directing the reader to "Medieval philosophy of language". Following this, one finds an entry that is remarkable for the way it manages, in the course of some five pages, to restrict mention of the modistae to one sentence and to omit any reference to Martin of Dacia and Thomas of Erfurt altogether.

There is a noticeable lack of cohesion about the whole volume. The writer of the article "Sign" appears not to have read what the writer of the article "Semiotics" has to say, nor vice versa, even though semiotics is usually defined as the study of signs and their use. One might have expected at least a cross-reference from one article to the other. Someone has not done a very good job in putting this publication together.

The first duty of an encyclopedia is to be encyclopedic. Calling it a "concise" encyclopedia excuses brevity, but does not license major omissions. And these are numerous. Apart from those already mentioned, they include the lack of any serious account of contributions to philosophy of language in the work of Bakhtin, Cassirer, Gadamer, Genette, Gusdorf, Habermas, Lacan, Levinas, Marcuse, Mauthner, Merleau-Ponty, Voloshinov or Vossler. Heidegger gets in only by courtesy of Derrida and deconstruction, as does Freud. A bizarre reversal of priorities.

In short, as a work of reference it is not only sloppily compiled but wears blinkers of local manufacture. As for the rest of the world, we are offered a solitary contribution about Indian theories of meaning. The riches of Arabic and Chinese linguistic thought are conspicuous by their total absence.

Philosophy of language as presented here is not a coherent agenda of conceptual inquiry or historical investigation or interdisciplinary study, but a chatty cocktail party for selected western philosophers and linguists. The answer to the question "What's wrong with the philosophy of language?" might well be that the philosophers have given up trying to distinguish between a linguistic question and a philosophical one.

Roy Harris is editor, Language and Communication.

Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language

Editor - Peter V. Lamarque
ISBN - 0 08 042991
Publisher - Pergamon
Price - $171.50
Pages - 599

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