Philosophy of linguistics: the phenomenological perspective

Lei Zhu
Shanghai International Studies University

Philosophy of linguistics is a special branch of the philosophy of science which focuses on linguistics, the scientific study of language. It was formally established in the last decades of the 20th century after the Chomskyan revolution, and has been under the influence of analytic philosophy since then. Its concern for the foundations of linguistics, however, is not unique to analytic philosophy, but is shared by phenomenology, although discussions on linguistics in the latter tradition are scattered in various works and almost never appear under the title ‘philosophy of linguistics’. The following is a very brief summary of what phenomenologists have contributed to the philosophical understanding of linguistics.

1. Methodology

Like analytic philosophers, phenomenologists are concerned with conceptual investigation, but they conduct it in a different way. Above all else, they highlight the importance of excluding the ‘natural attitude’ in human thinking by ‘parenthesizing’ or ‘suspending’ what ‘on-hand’ convictions we have. Therefore, although they never agree on every detail, phenomenologists share a basic reflective attitude towards conceptual language, for the latter provides us with innumerable ‘on-hand’ convictions which we tend to take for granted, forgetting that they are representations by nature. The task of phenomenological reflection, in this sense, is to reveal and analyze the process of representation underlying our concepts.

If conceptual language is representation, linguistics as conceptual language about language is no exception. To a phenomenologist, a philosophical investigation of linguistics thus requires the suspension of linguistic concepts and the examination of the genesis of these concepts from what they ultimately represent.

2. Works

Phenomenologists occasionally express their views on linguistics when discussing the nature of language. In a few of these cases, they may even shift their focus from language to linguistics with a more overt attempt to suspend linguistic concepts. Heidegger’s On the Way to Language (Unterwegs zur Sprache) is an example of this kind.

The attempt to suspend and examine linguistic concepts is also found in a wide range of works which criticize, decentralize or even deconstruct linguistics from various perspectives. These include, among other things, Foucault’s Order of Things (Les mots et les choses), Said’s Orientalism, Derrida’s Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie) and the critical surveys of linguistics by such scholars as John Joseph, Talbot Taylor, and Roy Harris. These works are not all typically phenomenological, but their critical or historical attitude to linguistics make them relevant to the phenomenology of linguistics.

There have been, however, very few attempts to develop a ‘philosophy of linguistics’ by systematically applying the phenomenological method. My paper ‘Sound, Body and Writing’ represents some effort in this line.

3. Linguistics as an ‘other’

In On the Way to Language, Heidegger discussed Wilhelm von Humboldt’s view on the nature of language. According to Heidegger, Humboldt was actually on the way to letting language show itself as itself when he defined the nature of language as energeia (activity), contending that language ‘must not be regarded as a dead product of the past but as a living creation’. However, this was not enough for Heidegger, not only because the Greek word energeia, in particular, had been subsumed under the Leibnizian metaphysics of Humboldt’s time, but because all general notions on language are representations of – hence something other than – language:

When we reflect on language qua language, we have abandoned the traditional procedure of language study. We now can no longer look for general notions such as energy, activity, labor, power of the spirit, world view, or expression, under which to subsume language as a special case. Instead of explaining language in terms of one thing or another, and thus running away from it, the way to language intends to let language be experienced as language. In the nature of language, to be sure, language itself is conceptually grasped – but grasped in the grasp of something other than itself (ein Anderes als sie selbst).
(Heidegger 1982: 119)

For the above reason, phonetics, for instance, does not help us in understanding the living essence of vocalization:

… the phonetic-acoustic-physiological explanation of the sounds of language does not know the experience of their origin in ringing stillness, and knows even less how sound is given voice and is defined by that stillness.
(Heidegger 1982: 121-122)

In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty (see also the IEP) expressed a similar idea:

If it were possible, in any vocabulary, to disregard what is attributable to the mechanical laws of phonetics, to the influences of other languages, the rationalization of grammarians, and the assimilatory processes, we should probably discover in the original form of each language a somewhat restricted system of expression, but such as would make it not entirely arbitrary, if we designate night by the word ‘nuit’, to use ‘lumière’ for light.
(Merleau-Ponty 1962: 187)

For a linguist, what is interesting about English ‘go’, for instance, may include things like its inflectional paradigm, or its compounding with ‘a-’ or ‘fore-’, or the structure of ‘I am going’, or the cognitive basis of ‘I am going to do it’, or the phonetic changes from Old English ‘gan’ to Modern English ‘go’, etc. But if we put all these aside and come face to face with just ‘go’, we seem to have nothing else to turn to except arbitrariness. To Merleau-Ponty, however, this is exactly the place where language starts to show as language, because it proves that ultimately, there is no ‘other’ to which we can reduce language.

4. Examining linguistics

What kind of ‘other’, then, is language reduced to in linguistics?

In Order of Things, Foucault demonstrated, through his ‘archaeology of knowledge’, how the study of language has been intertwined with other branches of human knowledge in the changes of Western episteme through time. According to Foucault, the start of linguistic science at the beginning of the 19th century has to be understood against a larger intellectual background where the (17th- and 18th-century) Classical episteme was replaced by the modern. In this new episteme, language lost its ‘privileged position’ as the irreducible guarantee of all knowledge, and became one of the many objects to which the same methods can be applied:

From the nineteenth century, language began to fold in upon itself, to acquire its own particular density, to deploy a history, an objectivity, and laws of its own. It became one object of knowledge among others, on the same level as living beings, wealth and value, and the history of events and men. It may possess its own concepts, but the analyses that bear upon it have their roots at the same level as those that deal with other empirical forms of knowledge. The pre-eminence that enabled general grammar to be logic while at the same time intersecting with it has now been lost. To know language is no longer to come as close as possible to knowledge itself; it is merely to apply the methods of understanding in general to a particular domain of objectivity.
(Foucault 1989: 322-323)

Such ‘demolition of language to the mere status of an object’ (Foucault 1989: 323) set the tone for modern linguistics, which attempts to represent language with ‘objective beings’.

For scholars like John Joseph, Talbot Taylor and Roy Harris, the ideology behind the ‘objective beings’ to which language is reduced in modern linguistics is a central issue to the understanding of the nature of the discipline. This is consistent with Said’s view in Orientalism, which shows further how the ‘objectivity’ of linguistics has contributed to the establishment of power in Western studies of the East:

My thesis is that the essential aspects of modern Orientalist theory and praxis (from which present-day Orientalism derives) can be understood, not as a sudden access of objective knowledge about the Orient, but as a set of structures inherited from the past, secularized, redisposed, and re-formed by such disciplines as philology, which in turn were naturalized, modernized, and laicized substitutes for (or versions of) Christian supernaturalism.
(Said 1978: 122)

The ‘objectivity’ of linguistic science has been criticized in a different way by Derrida, who, in Of Grammatology and other writings, highlighted the openness of relations in linguistic structures. In order to demonstrate the genesis of meaning in structures as a result of endless chains of cross-reference rather than that of any extra-linguistic reality, Derrida attributed a more original status to writing than to speech sound in the study of signs. However, his criticism of Saussure, which provided a basis for some of his key ideas, has itself become a target of criticism for its misinterpretation of Saussure (Daylight 2011).

5. Linguistics as/vs. Writing

In a paper titled ‘Sound, Body and Writing’, I tried to develop a ‘philosophy of linguistics’ by systematically applying the phenomenological method. My major findings are as follows:

  1. All linguistic discourses are reducible as representations of the speech sound. In other words, all linguistic representations – either phonetic, phonological, morphological, syntactic, sociolinguistic, pragmatic, or of any other kind – are divisions, groupings and generalizations of the speech sound at different levels or from different perspectives.
  2. The first and most important step in the establishment of modern linguistic discourse is the Körper-ization of the speech sound – a process started in phonetics and phonology by means of their arithmetic (in phonetics) and algebraic (in phonology) processing. Here, I drew on the phenomenological distinction between Leib (the original body that feels and controls itself) and Körper (the abstracted objective body in natural science) proposed by Husserl (1960), and argued that the physical, physiological or psychological representations of sound in linguistics is based on the abstracted Körper, while the original speech sound is the Leib of language.
  3. Linguistics, as representation of the speech sound, is on par with various writing systems. This explains the incongruence between modern linguistics and some scripts like Chinese characters in that both are writings of the speech sound and that neither conforms to the other so long as it attempts to preserve the way it writes.
Additional web links

On philosophy of linguistics:

On Heidegger

On Foucault

References and resources beyond the web

Daylight, Russell (2011) What if Derrida Was Wrong about Saussure? Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (See description on publisher’s website.)

Derrida, Jacques (1997) Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Devitt, Michael (2008) ‘Methodology in philosophy of linguistics’. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86:4, 671-684. (Link to article on journal’s website.)

Foucault, Michel (1989) Order of Things: an archaeology of the human sciences. London & New York: Routledge.

Kempson, Ruth, Tim Fernando, and Nicholas Asher, eds. (2012) Philosophy of Linguistics. Oxford: North Holland. (See description on publisher’s website.)

Heidegger, Martin (1982) On the Way to Language. Translated by Peter Hertz. New York: Harper & Row.

Husserl, Edmund (1960) Cartesian Meditations. Translated by Dorion Cairns. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Joseph, John & Talbot Taylor, eds. (1990) Ideologies of Language. London: Routledge.

Katz, Jerrold, ed. (1985) The Philosophy of Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by Colin Smith. London: Routledge.

Said, Edward (1978) Orientalism. London and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Spiegelberg, Herbert, ed. (1994) The phenomenological movement: a historical introduction. Dordrecht: Kluwer. (See description on publisher’s website.)

Taylor, Talbot (1992) Mutual Misunderstanding: scepticism and the theorizing of language and interpretation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Zhu, Lei (2011) ‘Sound, Body and Writing: a phenomenological view of linguistics as representation of speech’, in Turning Points in the Philosophy of Language and Linguistics, edited by Piotr Stalmaszczyk, 213-224. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

— (forthcoming) 书写汉语的声音:现象学视野下的汉语语言学 Shuxie Hanyu de Shengyin: Xianxiangxue Shiye Xia de Hanyu Yuyanxue (Writing the Sound of Chinese: a phenomenological study of Modern Chinese linguistics). Ji’nan: Shandong Education Press.

How to cite this post:

Zhu, Lei. 2013. ‘Philosophy of linguistics: the phenomenological perspective.’ History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Article, Phenomenology, Philosophy
5 comments on “Philosophy of linguistics: the phenomenological perspective
  1. Nick Riemer says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post. A particularly fruitful arena for the application of phenomenological insights to linguistics (it seems to me) is in the notion of rules and rule-following, obviously central to many kinds of linguistic theory. Inspired by Heidegger and, especially, Merleau-Ponty, Hubert Dreyfus in work published between the 70s and the 90s elaborated a thorough-going critique of approaches to intelligent behaviour that assume that the mind is essentially a rule-following device. The idea that explicit rule-systems only capture something psychologically real in cases where the subject has to consciously attend to the problem at hand — i.e. in cases of breakdown rather than of flow — has numerous implications for the way linguists conceive of their theoretical models. It influences everything from semantic questions — the psychological reality of definitions — to phonological ones. Port and Leary’s work would be a good example of theorizing compatible with this kind of spirit.

  2. James McElvenny says:

    Thanks for a great post, Lei. Of possible relevance to the discussion here is the following paper by Klaas Willems looking into phenomenological aspects of von der Gabelentz’ linguistic theory:

    Klaas Willems: Von der Sprachforschung zur Sprachwissenschaft. Phänomenologische Aspekte in der Sprachtheorie von Georg von der Gabelentz und ihre Relevanz für die moderne Linguistik, in: Ezawa, K./Kürschner, W./Rensch, K./Ringmacher, M. (Hrsg.): Linguistik jenseits des Strukturalismus. Akten des II. Ost-West-Kolloquiums Berlin 1998, Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 2002, S.55-71.

  3. Lei Zhu says:

    Thank you very much for your comments! I think I may have put too much emphasis on the phenomenological view of linguistics as a whole (and somewhat homogeneous) discipline rather than a meeting ground of individual and diverse views and methods, many of which are not really specific to linguistics. Probably, the second view on linguistics is more realistic, and a review based on this view would be more interesting. I am not quite sure, though, which specific topics to include if a more detailed and complete review of this kind were to be given. ‘Rule-following’ should certainly be one of them. In my own research, I argued that an important difference between traditional grammar and modern syntax, though both of them seem to be concerned with the discovery of rules in language, is that traditional grammar leaves a certain space for the irreducible life experience in its presentation of the functioning of language, while modern syntax seeks to pervade language with rules so that language is presented as consistently rule-based as possible. There is, of course, a lot in common between phenomenology and late Wittgenstein in this regard.

    Another reason why I focused on the phenomenological view of linguistics as a whole discipline in this review is that I tried to keep a distinction between ‘philosophy of linguistics’ and ‘philosophy of language’. These two are certainly related on different levels, but it is my belief that questions about the nature of linguistics should not be confused with those about the nature of language, as they are (to me at least) in, e.g. some of Katz’s works. With the rise of cognitive studies, phenomenology can be an important source of enlightenment for our understanding of language, and can even contribute to the rise of certain new linguistic approaches, but I do not regard these as typical examples of ‘phenomenology of linguistics’.

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