Sensualism for Dummies

Els Elffers
University of Amsterdam

1. From sensualism to intentionalism. Four examples.

What do Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), Jacques van Ginneken (1877-1945), Ernst Cassirer (1894-1945) and Martinus Langeveld (1905-1989) have in common?

Apart from the fact that they were all men, prominent scholars, and active in the first half of the 20th century, there seem to be few common features at first sight. Wundt was a pioneer German psychologist, Van Ginneken was a well-known Dutch linguist, Cassirer was a famous German neo-Kantian philosopher, and the Dutchman Langeveld was one of the founders of pedagogy as a scientific discipline.

However, they shared one interest: language, and its relation to thought. In Wundt’s most famous work, the ten-volume Völkerpsychologie, two volumes are devoted to language and its psychological foundations. For Van Ginneken, this issue was the central theme of his internationally recognized Principes de linguistique psychologique. Also Cassirer’s three-volume Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen deals with this theme and is regarded as his most original work. Finally, Langeveld started his successful career with his influential thesis Taal en denken (Language and thought), written when he was still a language teacher, which explains why he connects the theme to problems of language education at secondary schools.[1]

What is more, the positions of the four scholars in the contemporary language-and-thought debate are similar. In very general terms, this debate concerned the transition from sensualism to intentionalism.

According to sensualism, mental life mainly consists of representations and associations, all based upon sense data and internal sensations; language exteriorizes mental life, so meanings are mainly equated with successive representations. This view became prominent in the 18th century and, despite criticism (for example by Humboldt), it continued during the whole 19th century. Condillac, Steinthal and Paul are well-known defenders. From the end of the 19th century onwards, this view was gradually abandoned in favor of a more active view of mental life. Meanings of words and sentences were no longer seen as purely representational. As their mental counterparts, more complex volitional acts were assumed. Initially these acts were conceived as purely intra-psychical. Later on, genuine intentional acts were assumed: acts not definable solely in terms of internal occurrences in the speaker’s mind, but also in terms of their purpose, their appeal to the listener, and, moreover, in terms of their being about objects and states-of-affairs. The work of Marty and especially Bühler exemplifies this transition. Bühler’s famous triangular organon-model can be regarded as the pinnacle of this development: linguistic signs are not only symptoms, expressing the speaker’s mental state, but also purposeful signals, appealing to the listener, and symbols, representing external objects and states of affairs (Bühler 1990 [1934]: 34).

The four scholars all participated in this general transition, each in his own way. They took steps away from sensualism, and towards a more active and intentionalist view of mental life and linguistic semantics. But the main reason why I focus on these four scholars is that they all exhibit remarkable and similar ideas about special, allegedly “lower-level” types of language and thought; for example the language and thought of small children, of so-called primitive people, or of mentally deficient people. The language and thought of these groups is described in purely sensualistic terms.

This is somewhat surprising: the four scholars all regard non-sensualistic features as essential for human language and thought in general. At the same time there appears to be residual sensualism in their description of these special types of human language: sensualism for dummies.[2]

How did they defend these seemingly paradoxical views?

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Austria, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics, Netherlands, Psycholinguistics

Some Remarks on Objectivity in Pragmatics

Samuel Lewin
University of Sydney

I

Let me start with some background. In recent decades, linguists and philosophers have debated the role played by context in determining what we say, as opposed to what we imply or otherwise mean, when we utter a sentence. The debate hinges on whether the grammar of a sentence is sufficient to establish something truth-valued, granting, of course, that some context-sensitivity is grammatically mandated – the reference of personal pronouns, for example. The way theorists answer this question dictates their initial conception of pragmatics (viz. narrow linguistic pragmatics; for a broader historical picture, see Nerlich 2006). Take Gazdar’s formulation:

Pragmatics has as its topic those aspects of the meaning of utterances which cannot be accounted for by straightforward reference to the truth conditions of the sentences uttered. Put crudely: PRAGMATICS = MEANING TRUTH CONDITIONS (1979: 2)

In this picture, truth is the crucial semantic notion. Words in a sentence are paired with meanings (usually assumed to be senses) that combine, according to the rules of the language, to produce something truth-valued, a proposition or thought. Apparently, we can understand an astonishing number of novel thoughts because the sentences that express them decompose into familiar elements. This wouldn’t be possible, in Frege’s venerated words, “wenn wir in dem Gedanken nicht Teile unterscheiden könnten, denen Satzteile entsprächen, so daß der Aufbau des Satzes als Bild gelten könnte des Aufbaues des Gedankens” (1993: 72).

At one pole in the current debate, then, the minimalist takes the view that saying is sensitive to context “only when this is necessary to ‘complete’ the meaning of the sentence and make it propositional”, whereby necessary context-sensitivity extends to only a limited number of context-dependent expressions, like “I” and “yesterday” (my usage here follows Recanati 2004: 7-8). As minimalists Herman Cappelen and Ernie Lepore put it, “context interacts with meaning only when triggered by the grammar of the sentence” (2005b: 70). If this is right, the proper object for pragmatics is what speakers mean, imply, suggest, over and above what they say. To revisit Gazdar’s useful crudity, PRAGMATICS = MEANING TRUTH CONDITIONS.

At the opposite pole lies radical contextualism, the view that context-sensitivity is pervasive (I am again following Recanati’s usage; for a survey of intermediate positions, see his 2004). Charles Travis calls this “the pragmatic view”:

It is intrinsically part of what expressions of (say) English mean that any English (or whatever) sentence may, on one speaking of it or another, have any of indefinitely many different truth conditions, and that any English (or whatever) expression may, meaning what it does, make any of many different contributions to truth conditions of wholes in which it figures as a part. (1997: 87)

If this is right, then truth can’t be a purely semantic notion. I’ll illustrate this by reproducing one of Travis’s examples, an utterance of “The kettle is black”. Suppose this is said when “the kettle is normal aluminum, but soot covered; normal aluminum but painted; cast iron, but glowing from heat; cast iron, but enameled white on the inside; on the outside; cast iron with a lot of brown grease stains on the outside; etc.” (1985: 197). Without knowing what will count as a black kettle on a given occasion, which is by no means self-evident, it remains unclear how I am supposed to ascribe truth-conditions to “The kettle is black”. This seems to suggest, to quote Austin, that “the apparently common-sense distinction between ‘What is the meaning of the word x’ and ‘What particular things are x and to what degrees?’ is not of universal application by any means” (1979: 74). To maintain that “black” contributes identically to what is said whenever someone uses it, the minimalist has to argue for a context-insensitive notion of something like blackness. How such a notion might figure in communication is, at best, opaque. It is preferable, the radical contextualist argues, to generalise context-sensitivity, and to allow that “black” can contribute variously to what is said, just like expressions traditionally acknowledged to be indexical, context-dependent. Truth, then, is necessarily also pragmatic. For the radical contextualist, pragmatics cuts across the distinction between what a speaker says and what she means. But so much for background.
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Posted in Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics, Semantics

Examining material aspects of manuscripts. Part II: Bindings and provenance

Anna Pytlowany
University of Amsterdam

This is Part II of a series. Part I is here.

At first glance, the history of Dutch East India Company (VOC) linguistics is simply a history of texts. Published or not, edited, translated, or not – the wordlists, grammars and phrasebooks remain a witness to the times when Dutch merchants and missionaries started documenting the new cultures and languages they encountered overseas.

But the historical reality is more multifaceted.

Besides the ones kept in the main VOC archives, some of these Dutch manuscripts and printed books are scattered in private and public collections from Paris, to London, to Venice, to Sydney. How to reconstruct the itineraries of displaced books? How to uncover the real place of creation of a manuscript? How to decide whether two similar copies are related or not, and how to date them? How to establish authorship of anonymous works?

The answers are contained in the very materiality of these objects. But to unlock them, we need to know what we are looking for.

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Posted in 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Europe, Linguistics, Netherlands

Somewhat caught between lexicology and syntax: a look at Phraseology

Sabine Fiedler
University of Leipzig

Terminology and characteristics

A number of different terms have been used to name the topic of this blog entry. For example, in English, the following expressions are used synonymously: multi-word lexemes, phrasemes, set phrases, prefabricated speech, lexical bundles, formulaic sequences, clichés, idioms, lexical phrases, phrasal lexemes and phrasal lexical items. I prefer the traditional expression phraseological unit, which has been widely used recently, largely due to international cooperation between phraseology researchers and the dominant role the English language plays in the linguistic community. It is also significant that it has equivalents in many languages, such as unité phraséologique in French, фразеологическая единица in Russian, phraseologische Einheit in German. Charles Bally introduced unité phraséologique as early as 1909 in his Traité de Stylistique Française.
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Posted in 20th century, History, Lexicography, Linguistics, Phraseology

Program February-June 2015

11
February
Somewhat caught between lexicology and syntax: a look at phraseology
Sabine Fiedler
University of Leipzig
25
February
Examining material aspects of manuscripts (Part II)
Anna Pytlowany
University of Amsterdam
13
March
Some Remarks on Objectivity in Pragmatics
Samuel Lewin
University of Sydney
25
March
Sensualism for dummies
Els Elffers
University of Amsterdam
8
April
The history of linguistics and the history of foreign language learning
Nicola McLelland
University of Nottingham
22
April
Le formalisme russe dans l’histoire de la linguistique
Patrick Flack
sdvig press
6
May
Translation as a search for divine meanings: Francisco Blancas de San José and his grammar of the Tagalog language.
Marlon James Sales
Monash University
20
May
Hugo Schuchardt and his network of knowledge
Johannes Mücke and Silvio Moreira de Sousa
Hugo Schuchardt Archiv, University of Graz
3
June
Salon: Anachronism in linguistic historiography
John Joseph (Edinburgh), Gerda Haßler (Potsdam), Andrew Linn (Sheffield), and Nicola McLelland (Nottingham)
17
June
Phonetische Studien – applied linguistics gets its first journal?
Andrew Linn
University of Sheffield
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La aportación de Nicolau Peixoto para el estudio del español en Portugal

Sónia Duarte
Centro de Linguística da Universidade do Porto

En la historia de la enseñanza/aprendizaje del español en Portugal, Nicolau António Peixoto (?–1862) ocupa un lugar fundamental cuyo significado se procurará precisar aquí, presentando su Grammatica Hespanhola para uso dos Portuguezes (Oporto 1848) e intentando aclarar cuál es la aportación de esa obra como soporte del susodicho proceso.

Peixoto 1848 portada

Peixoto 1848 portada

Esta es, según los datos disponibles hasta el momento, la primera gramática de español publicada en Portugal, como ya han puesto de relieve varios estudios (Álvarez 2005; Ponce de León 2005, 2007; Salas 2005; Duarte 2008, 2009, 2010, en prensa). Importa, no obstante, matizar dos aspectos: i) su carácter inaugural; ii) el rol que en ella ha jugado Nicolau Peixoto. Read more ›

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In Praise of “Exceptionless:” Linguistics among the Human Sciences at Bloomfield and Sapir’s Chicago

Michael Silverstein
University of Chicago

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) arrived at the University of Chicago for Autumn Quarter, 1925, having spent the summer, in transit from Ottawa, in New York City teaching summer school at Columbia. Two years later, in 1927, Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), a native Chicagoan who had his Ph.D. in Germanic Philology from Chicago (1909), returned to succeed his Doktorvater, Francis A. Wood (1859-1948), who had just retired, as Professor in Germanic. The two great figures in the history of linguistics in America were thus colleagues at Chicago for four years, through the 1930-31 academic year, after which Sapir removed to New Haven as Sterling Professor and founding Chair of the Yale Department of Anthropology, with a concurrent appointment in Linguistics. (After the death of Bloomfield’s early mentor, Eduard Prokosch, in August, 1938, and of Sapir, in February, 1939, Bloomfield, too, would go to Yale as Sterling Professor in Linguistics and Germanic, in effect replacing both.)

Linguistics at Chicago, originally denoted by the expression “Comparative Philology,” was one of the original subjects, or “departments of knowledge,” filled by President William Rainey Harper (1856-1906). Harper himself had gotten his Ph.D. in Hebrew and Semitic Philology at Yale under the great William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), and in 1892 another Whitney student more in the master’s image, Carl Darling Buck (1866-1955), started as “Assistant Professor of Sanskrit and Indo-European Comparative Philology” on return from a degree at Leipzig. By the mid-1920s, Buck presided over a department captioned “Comparative Philology, General Linguistics, and Indo-Iranian Philology,” with a set of course offerings both by himself and by various others whose primary appointments were in other departments. Sapir, originally appointed in Spring, 1925, as Associate Professor of Anthropology and of American Indian Languages in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology (as it then was), taught a range of linguistics courses, listed as well among the offerings in Comparative Philology, to the coterie of students who would continue and expand Boasian anthropological linguistics in the 1930s. (They would all be marginalized by the more doctrinaire Bloomfieldians, as it turned out.) By Autumn Quarter 1927, Sapir was a full “Professor of Anthropology and General Linguistics,” and early in Winter Quarter, 1928, Buck formally arranged for Sapir’s titular appointment in the department, as attested by an exchange of administrative letters with higher-ups in the central administration. Bloomfield’s courses in Germanic, too, were listed under the umbrella of Comparative Philology on his 1927 return, and since Francis Wood had been a member of the department, so, too, was his student and successor, Bloomfield (and would be Bloomfield’s successor, George J. Metcalf [1908-1994]). A number of the students of the late 1920s, for example Li Fang-Kuei (1902-1987) and Mary R. Haas (1910-1996) took courses with all three of Buck, Bloomfield, and Sapir, recalling for me in later years their very different pedagogical styles and emphases.

But it is not pedagogical style as such that concerns me so much as intellectual and professional affiliations and outlooks, and the way that these emerged in a face that linguistics as a discipline would for some time show to its congener disciplines at Chicago and in America more generally. Everything we know about Sapir’s and Bloomfield’s biographies shows that their centers of intellectual gravity and their aspirational commitments pulled in very different directions. This was already very clear by the time they had joined Buck’s enterprise at Chicago, each of them in his early 40s and each of them accomplished and authoritative in his respective scholarly work, and each widely connected in their own disciplinary networks of “invisible colleges,” as Merton termed them.
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Posted in 20th century, America, History, Linguistics
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