Language and Empiricism - After the Vienna Circle by S. Chapman

By S. Chapman

This booklet compares attitudes to empiricism in language examine from mid-twentieth century philosophy of language and from present-day linguistics. It specializes in responses to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, really within the paintings of British thinker J. L. Austin and the less recognized paintings of Norwegian thinker Arne Naess.

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Certainly, deduction took the scientist beyond immediate observation to the realms of extrapolation, imagination and speculation, but for Popper this offered the only possible chance of saying something interesting and significant. The problems for induction had already indicated that simple immediate personal experience was not enough to license the types of statements that scientists needed to be able to make. In fact, any scientific statement must go beyond the immediate evidence if it was to say anything about the world and offer anything more than a simple summary of personal experience.

For Chomsky, the study of language should go beyond the immediately available evidence of language data to posit unobservable entities and processes. Such hypotheses should be subject to testing against further data. Traces of this attitude were present as early as Chomsky’s description of linguistics in Syntactic Structures: A grammar of the language L is essentially a theory of L. Any scientific theory is based on a finite number of observations, and it seeks to relate the observed phenomena and to predict new phenomena by constructing general laws in terms of hypothetical constructs such as (in physics, for example) ‘mass’ and ‘electron’.

He argued in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax that ‘It is a curious fact that empiricism is commonly regarded as somehow a “scientific” philosophy. Actually, the empiricist approach to acquisition of knowledge has a certain dogmatic and aprioristic character that is largely lacking in its rationalist counterpart’ (Chomsky 1965: 207). He also distanced himself from the positivistic approach to knowledge inherent in this type of empiricism, reflecting on what he saw as the temporary and unsustainable attempts to ‘limit the term “theory” to “summary of data”’, which may have been fostered in part by ‘strong verificationism’ (Chomsky 1965: 194).

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