Paul Laurendeau, linguiste, sociolinguiste, philosophe du langage


Texte d’une communication intitulée « Positivism and neopositivism in linguistics and language philosophy », à la neuvième International Conference on the History of Language Sciences (ICHOLS IX) tenue aux Universités de São-Paulo et de Campinas, Brésil, du 27 au 30 août 2002.

Some in their discourse desire rather commendation of wit, in being able to hold all arguments, than of judgement, in discerning what is true; as if it were a praise to know what might be said, and not what should be thought.

Francis, Bacon, « Of Discourse », in The Essays, Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 160.




Abstract: The prestige and legitimity of positives sciences had an huge ideological impact on the so-called Human Sciences or Social Sciences in the two last centuries. A vulgarized version of the so-called « scientific method » has been massively imported in linguistics and language philosophy, via Comte and Durkheim, the two main influences on Ferdinand de Saussure… and that is where the notion of « model » was born in descriptive linguistics. But what was imported from Nature Sciences to Social Sciences is rather the tics, mannerism and allure of science than the core of its methodology. A new scolasticism is born: the scienticist scolasticism, and its impact is tremendous. Language itself plays in that dynamic a crucial role, not only through an extensive importation of jargon and phrases, but, with the broad impact of notions such as « Syntax », « Semantics », « Pragmatics »  as an illusory manifestation of scientificity itself. To neopositivism, science is just a language, and that myth has a devastating impact on Social Sciences. On the exemples of Bloomfield and Chomsky, we inquiry into the manifestations of positivism in linguistics and language philosophy, and, with the patient and indulgent help of Habermas, Della Volpe, and a couple of other franc tireurs, we try to see if Linguistics and Language Philosophy could not have their own specific « logic ».

Positivism, the philosophical fetichisation of Science, emerges out of Science, but is not Science

For the purpose of the present topic, Linguistics is the description of languages and dialects in a non normative perspective, whereas Language Philosophy is a specific philosophical framework characterized by the feature of defining language as a determining category of knowledge and/or existence. In that perspective, it is considered that the core of current Language Philosophy is a linguisticist deviation of onto/gnoseological Philosophy. We then assert that such a stand in Language Philosophy is inspired by positivist views, since that stand is a tendancy to import the objects and patterns of application of a certain discipline into another. In its fundamental sense, positivism is an attitude claiming explicitely that the methods and procedures of Natural Sciences are integrally valid in Social Sciences. Fascinated by the power and prestige of Natural Sciences (called also Positive Sciences), Positivism spares them from their own specific epistomology, and becomes a mere scienticism in other spheres, under the form of methodological generalization. In Knowledge and human interest, Habermas explains in what way Positivism is a non-epistemological scienticism:

« Positivism certainly still expresses a philosophical position with regard to science, for the scientistic self-understanding of the sciences that it articulates does not coincide with science itself. But by making a dogma of the sciences’ belief in themselves, positivism assumes the prohibitive function of protecting scientific inquiry from epistemological self-reflection. Positivism is philosophical only insofar as is necessary for the immunization of the sciences against philosophy. For methodology by itself does not suffice, it must also prove itself as epistemology or, better, as its legitimate and reliable executor. Positivism stands and falls with the principle of scienti[ci]sm, that is that the meaning of knowledge is defined by what the sciences do and can thus be adequately explicated through the methodological analysis of scientific procedures. Any epistemology that trenscends the framework of methodology as such now succumbs to the same sentence of extravagance and meaninglessness that it once passed on methaphysics. » (HABERMAS 1972: 67)

These developments reached an almost caricatural level in the fetichisation of Natural Sciences by Social Sciences. For primitive Positivists (like, for instance, Saint Simon, see Marcuse 1996: 332), society was to be treated like nature. Positivism in Sociology  lead to a doctrine of society as a « branch of physics ». One can also quote the biologism of Behaviorist Psychology as an example of that phenomenon of crude an triomphalist Positivism. In a second phase of development, when Natural Sciences required an increase of the mathematization of their methods and procedures, traditionnal Positivism (exemplified, say, by the rigid and unilateral promotion of the experimental method) started to loose focus, as mathematization and formalisation became the new fetishes. That sharp decline of Positivism as an empirical source of inspiration was compensated by the new speculative model of Neo-Positivism. Neo-Positivism is fundamentally a logicist and linguisticist theory of knowledge. There is a clear continuity between the general frame of mind of Positivism and the one of Neo-Positivism. As a matter of fact, when their internal evolution forced Natural Sciences to mobilize the procedures of mathematization and formal abstraction, the positivist sensitivity had to pursue on its path of the imitation of the framework of Natural Sciences within Social Sciences and Philosophy. The hypertrophy of logicism and mathematization, the sacralization of their scientific virtues, in Social Sciences and Philosophy, is nothing other than that second phase of Positivism, namely Neo-Positivism. The blatant lack of empirical grounding for Neo-Positivism generated the intellectual context which allowed Linguisticism to kick in, in Philosophy and even in certain Natural Sciences. The will to produce a theoretical discipline joined to the undermining of « metaphysics » causes a general escape from all empirical and mental categories. The linguistic categories (and their numerous lookalikes: the « formal » categories, the « syntactic » models, the « languages ») are the only remaining tools for the non metaphysical theory aimed at. These tools will be thoroughly used in the general framework of Neo-Positivism.

« Let us begin with the most general principles of the neo-positivist school, the so-called Vienna Circle, which are intended to provide us the foundations of an « anti-metaphysical » logic. These principles, as expounded by W.H. Werkmeister, may be summarized as follows.

  1. Knowledge is knowledge only in its form; in any cognition, only the form is important, while all the rest is inessential (Moritz Schlick).
  2. A proposition has meaning only to the extent that it can be verified (Schlick), and to verify a proposition means only to find out whether or not it accords with the rules established to govern the connections of that proposition in a given language.
  3. Knowledge is always empirical, based on that which is given directly (Schlick); moreover, the sense-data of sensation, which lie at the foundation of the edifice erected by this school (the fundamental architecture of which was devised by Ernst Mach), are afforded by protocol propositions – primary, or elementary, propositions that are not debatable.
  4. The logical analysis of language demonstrates that all metaphysical propositions are pseudo-propositions wholly devoid of meaning (Carnap).
  5. All fields of research are based on a single science: physics (Neurath, Carnap); hence the doctrine of physicalism.
  6. The propositions of logic are tautologies (Wittgenstein). Hence: ‘In logic, process and result are equivalent. (Hence the absence of surprise.)’ And: ‘Proof in logic is merely a mechanical expedient to facilitate the recognition of tautologies in complicated cases.’ [Quoted from Wittgenstein Tractacus logico-philosophicus, 6.1261 and 6.1262 – P.L.]
  7. Mathematics is a logical method (Wittgenstein); all mathematical concepts can be derived from the fundamental concepts  of logic (Carnap).

The logic embodied in these principles has been theorized especially by Bertrand Russell, Alfred Tarski, and Carnap, who have given it perhaps its most extensive development. » (DELLA VOLPE 1980: 247-248, see also PHILLIPS 1979: 55-64)

As Positivism before it, Neo-Positivism spreaded, and lead to the formalization and mathematicization of Social Sciences, « from outside ». The promotion and generalization of statistics in Social Sciences was the first step of that new development. Fanned by the prestiges of Mathematics, Logics, and Formal Physics, the influence of Neo-Positivism completely reshuffled the epistomology of Social Sciences. That new « epistemological shift » favoured the emergence of one of the Social Sciences which is the most susceptible to take profit of a linguisticist treatment of reality: Linguistics itself, the cherished child of structuralism, the so-called pilot-science of the 1960’s. But, the « shift » that brought Linguistics at the peak of its momentum was actually far more superficial than it may seem.

« It is not certain that the human sciences have really changed their ‘nature’ by changing their name and their methods. The relations that are currently being established between the literary disciplines are proof of that: the systematic mathematicization of a number of disciplines (economics, psychology, sociology); and the ‘application’ of disciplines manifestly more advanced in scientificity to others (the pionnering role of mathematical logic and especially linguistics, the equally intrusive role of psycho-analysis, etc). Contrary to what has occured in the natural sciences, in which relations are generally organic, this kind of ‘application’ remains external, instrumental, technical and therefore suspect. The most aberrant contemporary example of the external application of a ‘method’ (which in its ‘universality’ is following fashion) to any object whatsoever is ‘structuralism’. When discipline are in search of a universal ‘method’, we may wager that they are a little too anxious to demonstrate their scientific credential really to have earned them. True sciences never need to let the world know that they found the key to becoming sciences. » (ALTHUSSER 1990: 96)

More than rationalization or systematization, what Positivism and Neo-Positivism provided to Linguistics (and other Social Sciences) was rather a new set of self-legitimating rhetorical reflexes, which could be summarized in the following motto: Mathematics do it, so let’s do it too. Saussure -to quote one exemple among many – argues the shift from diachronic linguistics to synchronic linguistics on which the whole development of Structuralism is grounded, as follows:

An absolute state is defined by lack of change. But since languages are always changing, however minimally, studying a linguistic state amounts in practice to ignoring unimportant changes. Mathematicians do likewise when they ignore very small fractions for certain purposes, such as logarithmic calculation. » (SAUSSURE 1983: 100)

Nothing in the internal logic of the object studied is required to legitimate the methodological options displayed here. Its foundations are automatically considered solid and reliable the minut some similarities between it and a Positive Science is spelled out. With Saussure, the 20th century scienticist scolasticism is born in Linguistics. Let us now meet two of it’s children: Bloomfield and Chomsky. Both have several points in common. One of them is that they are both linguisticist theoricians. As previously mentionned, you are a linguisticist (or a glottocentrist) when you claim that language is a key factor in knowledge and/or existence. You usually  tend to do that when your discipline and your inquiry within that discipline attempt at the same time to be non-empirical and non-speculative. The importance of praxis and of generalization is suddenly replaced by the importance of… language. Bloomfield:

« Language plays a very important part in science. A typical act of science might consist of the following steps: observation, report of observation, statement of hypothese, calculation, prediction, testing of predictions by further observation. All but the first and last of these are acts of speech. Moreover, the accumulation of scientific results (the « body » of science) consists of records of speech utterance, such as tables of observed data, a repertoire of predictions, and formulas for convenient calculation.

The use of language in science is specialized and peculiar. In a brief speech the scientist manages to say things which in ordinary language would require a vast amount of talk. His hearers respond with great accuracy and uniformity. The range and exactitude of scientific prediction exceed any cleverness of everyday life: the scientist’s use of language is strangely effective and powerful. Along with systematic observation, it is this pecular use of language which distinguishes science from non-scientific behavior.


In scientific procedure we mean by deduction the purely verbal part of an act of science which leads from the report of observation and the hypotheses to a prediction. If we replace the report of observation by arbitrarily invented postulates, the discourse makes no pretense to validity in the sphere of handling actions. Deductive discourse of this kind is produced in logic, mathematics, and the methodology of science. It is made to fit some type of observational data, or else it exists for its own sake, in readiness for the emergence of observational data to which it may be applied. Until modern times, Euclidian geometry was viewed as an « a priori » system: the underlying everyday observations about the spatial character of object were viewed as inborn and unquestionable truths. Today the same system, apart from the correction of flaws, is treated as purely verbal discourse of deduction from postulates. It is especially useful because these postulates, by virtue of their historic origin, are such as to make the discourse applicable to the placing of objects, as this placing is observed in the first approximation that is customary in everyday handling. We have learned, however, that astronomical magnitudes make sensible the error in these postulates, and they accordingly demand a different discourse, based upon other postulates which, in turn, will be chosen so as to fit the new observations. » (BLOOMFIELD 1965: 1-12)

It seems impossible to abandon conceptual generalization without becoming linguisticist.. And of course it is even easier to be a linguisticist « scientist » if you are a scienticist linguist… And then, the old Humboldtian idea of the determination of thought by language surfaces easily in the views of such a scienticist linguist. Bloomfield:

« I shall not presume to enter here upon the epistemologie [sic] problems in which linguistic considerations must play a part. Far more of our experience than one generally assumes is shaped by the linguistic habits in which we live. The apparatus of logic, more especially, depends upon the language we speak: the logical forms, in other words, must develop historically with the language. Not only our more abstract concepts, but also those of qualities and actions are due to linguistic forms, or rather, are the subjective phase of linguistic forms, which have been evolved in the course of time. Much of our philosophy, in consequence, moves captive in the plane of its author’s language, which it should, for freedom, transcend, – as it can only through the study of language. » (BLOOMFIELD 1983: 324)

Now, on the linguisticist stand, Chomsky is -at first sight- in total opposition with Bloomfield views:

« [According to Humboldt:] Speech is an instrument of thought and self-expression. It plays an « immanent » and « constitutive » role in determining the nature of man’s cognitive processes […]. Although languages have universal properties, attributable to human mentality as such, nevertheless each language provides a « thought world » and a point of view of a unique sort. In attributing such a role in the determination of mental processes to individual languages, Humboldt departs radically from the framework of Cartesian linguistics, of course, and adopts a point of view that is more typically romantic.

Humboldt does remain within the Cartesian framework, however, in so far as he regards language primarly as a means of thought and self-expression rather than as an animal-like functional communication system… » (CHOMSKY  1966: 21)

But is that opposition as fundamental as commonly believed? Humboldt remains a major inspiration to Chomsky. And most of all, the linguisticist dimension of Neo-Positivism culminates in the fascination for formal language-like models as supreme descriptive and explicative devices. Hence, that conception reached with Chomsky summits never attained before in a discipline like Linguistics. We propose that the Positivist and Neo-Positivist inspiration is what Bloomfield and Chomsky have in common. We even suggest that the passage from Bloomfield to Chomsky is nothing other than the passage from Positivism to Neo-Positivism in the specific development of Linguistics.




Bloomfield: observations, trial and error, and the hypertrophy of the empirical datum

Positivism is the philosophical stand of the ones who believe that they can rid themselves of philosophical issues. In the direct line of that so-called anti-metaphysical stand of Positivism, Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) claims, in the broader epistemological terms imagineable, that Mentalism is non-scientific:

« It is the belief of the present writer that the scientific description of the universe, whatever this description may be worth, requires none of the mentalistic terms, because the gaps which these terms are intended to bridge exist only so long as language is left out of account. If language is taken into account, then we can distinguish science from other phases of human activity by agreeing that science shall deal only with events that are accessible in their time and place to any and all observers (strict behaviorism) or only with events that are placed in co-ordinates of time and space (mechanism), or that science shall employ only such initial statements and predictions as lead to definite handling operations (operationalism), or only terms such as are derivable by rigid definition from a set of everyday terms concerning physical happenings (physicalism). These several formulations independently reached by different scientists, all lead to the same delimitation, and this delimitation does not restrict the subject matter of science but rather characterizes its method. It is clear even now, with science still in a very elementary stage, that, under the method thus characterized, science can account in its own way for human behavior – provided, always, that language be considered as a factor and not replaced by the extra-scientific terms of mentalism. » (BLOOMFIELD 1965: 13)

That anti-mentalist option is clearly in conformity with the positivist program. Seen the old-fashion way, a « Science » is actions, observations, manipulations leading to empirical statements. The second point of Bloomfield’s axiomatic is that Semantics is nothing other than a mere manifestation of subjectivist mentalism. Bloomfield is in harmony with the views of the character which he designates here as: the mechanist:

« Adherents of mentalistic psychology believe that they can avoid the difficulty of defining meanings, because they believe that, prior to the utterance of a linguistic form, there occurs within the speaker a non-physical process, a thought, concept, image, feeling, act of will, or the like, and that the hearer, likewise, upon receiving the sound-waves, goes throught an equivalent or correlated mental process. The mentalist, therefore, can define the meaning of a linguistic form as the characteristic mental event which occurs in every speaker and hearer in connection with the utterance or hearing of the linguistic form. The speaker who utters the word apple has had a mental image of an apple, and this word evokes a similar image in a hearer’s mind. For the mentalist, language is the expression of ideas, feelings, or volitions.

The mechanist does not accept this solution. He believes that mental images, feelings, and the like are merely popular terms for various bodily movements…


Although this difference of opinion plays a decisive part in our views about the fundamentals of language, as of other human activities, and although mentalists lean heavily upon their terminology in all discussion of meaning, the dispute has really very little to do with problems of linguistic meaning. The events which the mentalist designates as mental processes and the mechanist classifies otherwise, affect in every case only one person: every one of us responds to them when they occur within him, but has no way of responding to them when they occur in anyone else. The mental processes or internal bodily processes of other people are known to each one of us only from speech-utterances and other observable action. » (BLOOMFIELD 1966: 142-143)

The logical conclusion of all that mechanics is then unavoidable: the grasp of the semantic facet of language is  (so far, and possibly forever) external to its scientific description. The solution to the problem of meaning can come only from other Sciences:

« The meanings of speech-forms could be scientifically defined only if all branches of science, including, especially, psychology and physiology, were close to perfection. Until that time, phonology and, with it, all the semantic phase of language study, rests upon an assumption, the fundamental assumption of linguistics: we must assume that in every speech-community some utterances are alike in form and meaning.


« The statement of meanings is therfore the weak point in language-study, and will remain so until human knowledge advances very far beyond its present state. In practice, we define the meaning of a linguistic form, whenever we can, in terms of some other science. Where this is impossible, we resort to makeshift devices. One is demonstration. » (BLOOMFIELD 1966: 78, 140-141)

Clearly, for Bloomfield, semantics is the « metaphysics » of language. It is subjective, non-empirical, uncertain, « demonstrative », and fluctuating. A definition in terms of some other science is unavoidable to adress it. Therefore, meaning cannot be considered as part of the linguistic datum. This one is to be investigated in its formal combinations and distributions, in an activity of trial and error blind to the semantic dimension. So the program of linguistics is then easy to state:  like the good « Science » we want to be, let’s stick so far to our empirical datum, our « concrete entities »: the linguistic forms!

« A workable system of signals, such as language, can contain only a small number of signaling-units, but the things signaled about -in our case, the entire content of the practical world- may be infinitely varied. Accordingly, the signals (linguistic forms, with morphemes as the smallest signals) consist of different combinations of the signaling-units (phonemes), and each such combination is arbitrarily assigned to some feature of the practical world (sememe). The signals can be analyzed, but not the thing signaled about. » (BLOOMFIELD 1966: 162)

And there you have it: primitive Positivism in descriptive Linguistics sticking to the materiality of language to spare itself from the danger of speculative distortions. Better to destroy the internal logic of the object and turn its study to some absurd set of manipulations than admit for it a specificity which would deviate from the path of Positive Science. Such was the Bloomflield of 1933, the hegemonic one. Such was not the Bloomfield of 1914 (in An Introduction to the Study of Language). Both had in common a joint venture with psychology (actually two opposed schools of psychology from one version of his fundamental treatise to the other) but the epistemological dimension of that specific situation was exaggerated. The real motivation of Bloomfield’s option in descriptive linguistics was the positivistic eagerness to be… scientific. Only the champion of Neo-Positivism in Descriptive Linguistics will manage to bump the Bloomfieldian hegemony away.




Chomsky: formalization as « abstraction », and the fascination for « explanation »

Indeed, Chomsky claims to bring back Cartesianism and Humboldian mentalism. He is the anti-Bloomfield, and poses as such. The fact that he is rather a mentalist than a behaviorist, makes him the most outspoken opponent to primitive Positivism in Linguistics:

« Behavioral science has been much preoccupied with data and organization of data, and it has even seen itself as a kind of technology of control of behavior. Anti-mentalism in linguistics and in philosophy of language conforms to this shift of orientation. As I mentionned in my first lecture, I think that one major indirect contribution of modern structural linguistics results from its success in making explicit the assumption of an anti-mentalistic, thouroughly operational and behaviorist approach to the phenomena of language. By extending this approach to its natural limits, it laid the groundwork for a fairly conclusive demonstration of the inadequacy of any such approach to the problems of mind.

More generally, I think that the long range significance of the study of language lies in the fact that in this study it is possible to give a relatively sharp and clear formulation of some of the central questions of psychology and to bring a mass of evidence to bear on them. What is more, the study of language is, for the moment, unique in the combination it affords of richness of data and susceptibility to sharp formulation of basic issues. » (CHOMSKY 1972: 65-66 )

This is clear. But despite that very explicit anti-behaviorist stand, the semantic facet of language is (still) external to its scientific description, according to Chomsky. Consequently, Chomsky and Bloomfield ended up working together to build a solid tradition which gives its specificity to American Structuralism: the marginalization of Semantics. Chomsky:

« Linguistic theory has two major subdivisions, syntax and semantics. Syntax is the study of linguistic form. Its fundamental notion is « grammatical », and its primary concern is to determine the grammatical sentences of any given language and to bring to light their underlying formal structure. The goal of syntactic study is to show that the complexity of natural language, which appears superficially to be so formidable, can be analyzed into simple components; that is, that this complexity is the result of repeated application of principles of sentence construction that are in themselves quite simple. Semantics, on the other hand, is concerned with the meaning and reference of linguistic expressions. It is thus the study of how this instrument, whose formal structure and potentialities of expression are the subject of syntactic investigation, is actually put to use in a speech community. Syntax and semantics are distinct fields of investigation. How much each draws from the other is not known, or at least has never been clearly stated. The subject of investigation in the following pages will be syntactic structure, and we shall study it as an independent aspect of linguistic theory.

In part, our decision to place no reliance on meaning in systematic developments is motivated by a feeling that the theory of meaning fails to meet certain minimum requirements of objectivity and operational verifiability. We need not enter into this question, however, since a much more important motivation is that semantic notions, if taken seriously, appear to assist in no way in the solution of the problems that we will be investigating. » (CHOMSKY 1975a: 57)

With Syntax as an independent aspect of linguistic theory, and despite the strong opposition formulated against Bloomfield by Chomsky, Semantics does not come back. Why does Chomsky entertain such an inconsistency with his own fundamental neo-mentalist views? Why is he suddenly so Bloomfieldian, with all these requirements of objectivity and operational verifiability? The answer is that the rejection of Semantics is not consistent with the rest of Chomsky’s stand, neither as a Language Philosopher nor as an epistemologist of Linguistics. The rejection of Semantics is not an internal feature of Chomsky’s vision. It is actually held from outside, as the result of the compulsive imitation of a bundle of Neo-Positivist logicist formalism, emenating from several science-like theoricians, among which the logician Carnap is a main figure. Through these external influences on Chomsky, the heart of the problems end up being simply that Mathematics have a highly sophisticated syntax, but do not happen to have some Semantics similar to the one specific to natural languages. To imitiate Mathematics (and later Computing) being the cardinal priority, the features of natural languages the most mathematic-like are given an automatic « epistemological » priority. The contradiction of Chomsky with himself becomes more obvious when one is given the opportunity to observe that, despite a clear rejection of Semantics in the generative program, the promotion of so-called idealization is present, solidly grounded in the model of Science.

« Opposition to idealization is simply objection to rationality; it amounts to nothing more than an insistence that we shall not have meaningful intellectual work. Phenomena that are complicated enough to be worth studying generally involve the interaction of several systems. Therefore you must abstract some object of study, you must eliminate those factors which are not pertinent. At least if you want to conduct an investigation which is not trivial. In the natural sciences this isn’t even discussed, it is self-evident. In the human sciences, people continue to question it. That is unfortunate. When you work within some idealization, perhaps you overlook something which  is terribly important. That is a contingency of rational inquiry that has always been understood. One must not be too worried about it. One has to face this problem and try to deal with it, to accommodate oneself to it. It is inevitable.

There is no simple criteria that provide the correct idealization, unless it is the criterion of obtaining meaningful results. If you obtain good results, then you have reason to believe that you are not far from a good idealization. If you obtain better results by changing your point of view, then you have improved your idealization. There is a constant interaction between the definition of the domain of research and the discovery of significant principles. To reject idealization is puerile. » (CHOMSKY 1998:57-58)

Clearly opposed to primitive Positivism, the promotion of idealization as the only « rationalist » solution is to be associated with the idea of model, as well as with the will of promoting Explanation over Description in Linguistics. With that « next task » of Linguistics -Explanation- around the corner, the Chomskyan epistemological myth of the progress of the Linguistic Science kicks in.

« The next task is to explain why the facts are the way they are, facts of the sort we have reviewed, for example. This task of explanation leads to inquiry into the language faculty. A theory of the language faculty is sometimes called universal grammar, adapting a traditional term to a research program somewhat differently conceived. Universal grammar attempts to formulate the principles that enter into the operation of the language faculty. The grammar of a particular language is an account of the state of the language faculty after it has been presented with data of experience; universal grammar is an account of the initial state of the language faculty before any experience. It would include, for example, the principle that rules are structure dependent, that a pronoun must be free in its domain, that there is a subject-object asymetry, some of the principles mentioned in the preceeding lecture, and so on. Universal grammar provides a genuine explanation of observed phenomena. From its principles we can deduce that the phenomena must be of a certain character, not some different character, given the initial data that the language faculty used to achieved its current state. » (CHOMSKY 1988: 61-62)

With the formal notion of the UG, the goal is now to constitute a « genuine explanatory theory »… like they did in Physics! Chomsky’s stand is simply that Bloomfield’s Linguistics was empiricist whereas his is scientific…

« Recall the logic of Descartes’s [sic] argument for the existence of a second substance, res cogitans. Having defined « body » in terms of contact mechanics, he argued that certain phenomena lie beyond its domain, so that some new principle was required; given his metaphysics, a second substance must be postulated. The logic is essentially sound; it is, in fact, much like Newton’s, when he demonstrated the inadequacy of Cartesian contact mechanics for the explanation of the motion of the heavenly bodies so that a new principle, the principle of gravitational attraction, had to be postulated. The crucial difference between the Cartesian and the Newtonian enterprises was that the latter offered a genuine explanatory theory of the behavior of bodies, whereas the Cartesian theory offered no satisfactory account of properties such the creative aspect of language use [sic] that lie beyond mechanical explanation in Descartes’s view. Therefore Newton’s conceptions came to be the « scientific » common sense of later generations of scientists, while Descartes’s fell by the wayside. » (CHOMSKY 1988: 146-147)

Chomsky says nothing other than: the same way my Linguistics is similar to Newton’s Physics, my abstraction is similar to scientific abstraction… and the language structure is a « physical structure ».

« In what sense is language a physical structure? We do not know for certain, but we believe that there are physical structures of the brain which are the basis for the computations and the representations that we describe in an abstract way. This relationship between unknown physical mechanisms and abstract properties is very common in the history of science. So, for example, in the nineteenth century, chemists constructed abstract diagrams that were supposed to represent a complex molecule with carbon and hydrogen and oxygen attached in some fashion. But that’s a completely abstract representation. For example, the chemist couldn’t say what the particular parts of the diagram referred to in the physical world. In fact, it wasn’t clear whether there were things corresponding to the parts of the diagram. Even now that we know better what carbon is, we recognize that it is something abstract. So, you can’t hit carbon. In fact, it’s a very abstract concept. But the point is that the chemist’s descriptions were part of an explanatory theory. They were part of a theory from which you could predict what would happen if you sent an electric current through some physical object, for example.

Now those theories of the chemist are similar to a linguist’s theory of the computations of the brain. In each case the abstract theories pose a further question for the physical scientist. The question is, [sic] find the physical mechanisms that have these properties. In the early part of the twentieth century, physicists began to discover the physical entities that had the properties that had been described by the chemists. In fact, until the early part of the twntieth century, many scientists weren’t convinced that there were even such things as molecules. The thought this was just an abstract idea, an abstract computational idea. In the early part of the twntieth century, evidence accumulated showing that there really are things that have these properties.

Now physics could not have developed the structure of the atom and the molecule if nineteenth-century chemistery hadn’t provided the abstract theories. That’s what told the physicists what they should look for. They had to look for things which had the very complicated properties described in the abstract theories. And the brain sciences are in the same state today. They have to ask the linguist or the psychologist what are the abstract structures that human possess for which we have to search for the physical basis. » (CHOMSKY 1988: 185-186)

« Let us suppose that we discover a domain of intelligence where human beings excel. If someone has developed a rich explanatory theory in spite of the limitations of available evidence, it is legitimate to ask what the general procedure is that has permitted this move from experience to knowledge – what is the system of constraints that has made possible such an intellectual leap.

The history of science might provide some relevant examples. At certain times, rich scientific theories have been constructed on the basis of limited data, theories that were intelligible to others, consisting of propositions linked in some manner to the nature of human intelligence. Given such cases, we might try to discover the initial constraints that characterizes these theories. » (CHOMSKY 1998: 64-65)

Loud and heavy references to positive sciences are made to build a credibility to what Chomsly envisions as being a linguistic theory. That fetichisation of theory is a crucial elements in Chomsky’s conception of Formal Linguistics. He is in all shape or form a theoricist, and the burden on descriptive linguistic of that type of ideological inflation got heavier and heavier during the hegemonic period of Generative Grammar. And, in time, Chomsky has more and more to deny playing Neo-Positivistic « games », and to explain that all this is THEORY!

« There has been some discussion recently as to whether the linguist « plays mathematical games » or « desc[r]ibes reality » in linguistic analysis of particular languages, where the phrase « playing mathematical games » often appears to refer to the conscious development of a theory of linguistic structure for use in constructing and validating grammars. If by « describing reality » is meant meeting the external conditions of adequacy, then in order to give content and significance to the requirement that the linguist must describe reality, it is necessary to give independent (i.e. outside the particular grammar) characterizations of these conditions e.g., for sentencehood, by constructing informant response tests to determine the degree of accepability or evocability of sequences. But within whatever bounds can be clearly set independently, the linguist’s goal can only be to construct for each language a simple grammar related to other grammars in such a way as to lead to a revealing general theory of which all are exemplifications. There seems to be no reason to consider the constructs established in pursuit of these goals as being in some sense invalid. If the methods developped with these goals in mind lead to unacceptable results, it is important to show this. But the alternative to ineffective methods is not abandonment of theoretical inquiry. » (CHOMSKY 1975a: 81-82)

Neo-Positivists statements of that nature are the foundations of Chomsky’s spontaneous epistemology. It is obviously more important to Linguistic to « be a science » and pose as such than to simply do its work, whatever this one may be. After almost forty years of this nonsense, can Linguistics simply go back to work before completely collapsing under the weight of its positivist scolasticism?




A « logic » for language sciences?

Let’s not argue about it. Let’s go study it…

Captain James T. Kirk,  USS Enterprise, A piece of the action, teleplay by David P. Harmon and Gene L. Coon, Paramount, 1968




Social Sciences are seeing more and more clearly that Logical Positivism and its gadgets dont work. Galvano Della Volpe

« The major difficulty in arriving at a proper comprehension and complete critical assessment of the modern formal (or rather, formalized) logic championed by logical positivism lies in its dual character as theory of thought and of language. Once the theory of thought is examined, and its inability to serve as a valid logic, philosophical or otherwise, is demonstrated (for, as we shall see, it leaves the problem of scientific law unresolved), there remains the theory of language, particularly of semiotics, associated most closely with the name of Rudolph Carnap. Excessively abstract and partial, this theory, with its pecular obsession with ‘correct’ language, or the language of ‘truth’ turns a merely technical language (or a mathematical type) into a dogma and thus fails as a general, truly philosophical theory of semiotics (or semantics). » (DELLA VOLPE 1980: 247)

Then what are the other options in our disciplines? First we have to look into the specificity of our object, into what makes it so different from the object of a Positive Science. Bloomfield, in one of his few non-positivist moments, gives us some hint:

« Language has been developed in the interchange of messages, and every individual who has learned to use language has learned it through such interchange. The individual’s language, consequently, is not his creation, but consists of habits adopted in his impressive intercourse with other members of the community. The result of this is the individual’s inhability to use language except in the form in which the community as a whole uses it: he must speak as the others do, or he will not be understood. As a matter of fact, he does not, in normal cases, try to speak otherwise, but unquestioningly follows his and his fellow-speakers’ habits. The change which occurs in language is thus never a conscious alteration by individuals, but an unconscious, gradual change in the habits of the entire community. The motives which cause it are not individual reflective considerations of the result, but new associative tendencies or new conditions of innervation [sic] due to some change in the circumstances of life affecting the community. As we examine more closely the different aspects of language, we shall again and again find the same characteristics: as the individual speaker receives his habits from the community, individual motives do not come into play, but only causes affecting the community as a whole. » (BLOOMFIELD 1983: 17)

Language is at the same time social and mind-dependant. It cannot even begin to be sampled as carbon or viruses can be. Conseqnently, we have to review completely the method of approach of that object, even if that review leads to a quite drastic tabula rasa. Will we have that modesty to admit that we lost ourselves in the forest of external models?  Well, Chomsky, in one of the rare non-scienticist moments where he drops all the Neo-Positivistic flim-flam and speaks his heart, has it.

« As for my own methods of investigation, I do not really have any. The only method of investigation is to look hard at a serious problem and try to get some ideas as to what might be the explanation for it, meanwhile keeping an open mind about all sorts of other possibilities. Well, that is not a method. It is just being reasonnable, and so far as I know, that is the only way to deal with any problem, whether it is a problem in your work as a quantum physicist or whatever.

There are certain fields like psychology where people do carry out extensive study of methods of investigation. There are other fields like physics where you do not study methods of investigation. So at MIT the physics department does not have a course in experimental methods, but many psychology departments spend a lot of time on what they call methodology. Well, there is a lesson there, but I won’t draw it. » (CHOMSKY 1988: 190)

With this Chomsly and with Althusser, we have to admit it. In our teaching as in our research, our hypertrophy of « methodology » proves more than anything else that we still have a lot to do in terms of genuine method… Physics is supposedly free minded about all this. Why are’nt we? Because we imitate science instead of simply doing it. Let’s not argue about what our object should be, or which method would be the best to borrow from Sciences. Let’s simply go study our object, and pull our method out of its own specific logic.


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