Ernst Cassirer on Kant and modern linguistics

In 1945, just a few days before his untimely demise, the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer gave a speech entitled ‘Structuralism in modern linguistics’ in front of the Linguistic Circle of New York (his paper was published in the journal WORD a few months later). Importantly, Cassirer did not use the label ‘structuralism’ to refer to the mainstream, mechanistic approach inspired by an early (rather outdated) version of behaviorist psychology whose proponents only focused to the description of the strictly observable (see the work of scholars such as Bernard Bloch or George L. Trager, among others). Rather, he referred to an alternative position, which we may define as ‘European/Sapirian-oriented’, whose advocates investigated language as an instrument to attain certain goals; as such, they were not content with describing linguistic structures but they also aimed to account for how linguistic structures contribute to communication (see the work of André Martinet or Morris Swadesh, for instance).

This approach to the study of language was based on three tenets. First of all, the analysis of meaning should be based on occurrences of actual language use, rather than etymology or textbook rules. In order to achieve an accurate description of the formal and semantic structures of a language, it was deemed necessary to observe the linguistic behavior of native speakers, which takes place in a specific socio-cultural environment, as language is shaped by use. Second, the function of linguistic units deserves to be brought to the fore, at the same level as the form. Indeed, a description of the formal shape of linguistic elements and their distribution does not count as a full description of a linguistic system: such an account may describe the formal relations among the elements of a system, but it will miss out on the role of these elements within the system and their functional relationship with the other elements. Finally, the different levels of language analysis (phonology, morphology, syntax) are not watertight compartments which should be separated by a dividing line; rather, they are interconnected. In particular, Kenneth L. Pike insisted that grammatical and phonological analysis should be run in parallel since one can benefit from findings in the other.

In other words, this approach consists of a systemic view of language which takes form, function and meaning all into consideration, giving prominence to the way a language is actually used, also being attentive to the socio-cultural background of a community of speakers. Since structure is created and shaped by function, a study of structure cannot be pursued regardless of the study of function. In turn, the study of function is made possible by the observation of how language is used. Observing language in actual use is also important in semantic studies, as meaning has always been a thorny issue in linguistic theory; actually, the nature itself of meaning has always been a matter of debate. However, the study of language in use allows for a consistent treatment of meaning as socially shared. This perspective finds philosophical support in Wittgenstein’s claim that meaning is use, i.e. the semantic properties of a linguistic unit are identical with its use in the language. Indeed, the adoption of an approach to language based on actual usage provides the analyst with a principled framework for addressing matters of meaning adopting an empirical perspective which, though fallible, is more reliable than etymological criteria or received knowledge, both synchronically and diachronically.

The study of language in use is unavoidably bound to take cultural issues into consideration. This is particularly important for the fieldworker, especially when it comes to translating texts into languages spoken in close communities. Observing the actual use of language is the key to understanding the adjustments to be made in order to strike a balance between respecting the purport of the original text and removing the obstacles to comprehension for the target audience. The observation of language in use and the relevance of function along with form also suggest that phonology and grammar are interwoven in a single linguistic system, where semantics also has a role to play. Indeed, all units of language are to some extent related to meaning. Even the phoneme, which does not have a meaning in itself, plays a role in determining the meaning of a larger unit, through its function of distinguishing it from other units which might have occurred in the same position.

With regard to the (perennial?) debate on the belonging of linguistics to the natural or the social sciences, Cassirer argues that this orientation firmly sides with the latter view. While mechanist linguists strive after assimilating linguistics to the natural sciences, European/Sapirian-oriented structuralists are keener on the Humboldtian perspective of language as a human activity (ένέργεια), rather than as a measurable product (έργoν). For them, merely describing sounds in terms of their acoustic and articulatory properties conceals the symbolic nature of language. Instead, adopting a systemic perspective on phonology and grammar on the one hand and on form, function, and meaning on the other reflects the view that language is a coherent whole in which all parts are interdependent upon each other, rather than a set of autonomous facets. Linguistics, as a semiotic science, focuses on the study of language as an instrument to engage with the outer world.

This attitude is consistent with Cassirer’s (1945, p. 114) suggestion that linguistics is a Geisteswissenschaft (i.e., belongs to the humanities), but with the qualification that Geist (literally, ‘spirit’) should not be understood as some metaphysical entity; rather, the term is to be used ‘in a functional sense as a comprehensive name for all those functions which constitute and build up the world of human culture.’ From this perspective, the approach described above is in harmony with Immanuel Kant’s holistic view of human experience (which is also necessary to science). Language is an integrated instrument shaped by use, which takes place in the context of a socio-cultural environment; as such, it is part and parcel of human experience at large. The systemic nature of experience may be seen as underpinning the success of structuralism in several scientific disciplines, as in the case of the recognition of sense-perception as having a definite structure by Gestalt psychologists.

As a final note, it is worth mentioning that present-day so-called ‘usage-based approaches’ to the study of language such as variationist sociolinguistics, systemic functional linguistics, and cognitive linguistics have to some extent inherited or rediscovered this perspective in the last few decades, emphasizing the need to study language in actual usage events, the nature of grammatical constructions as form-function pairings, the interweaving of phonology and grammar, and also the importance of the social and cultural context. Although this is rarely acknowledged, today the structural linguistics of the kind described above may be unfashionable but is far from relegated to the past; indeed, the three functional tenets and the overarching Kantian principle proposed by Cassirer can still be observed in contemporary linguistic theory and practice. If we accept Cassirer’s proposal, Kant’s perspective on human experience represents the basic philosophical background which present-day usage-based linguistics shares with European/Sapirian-oriented structuralism.

 

 

Mind, the history of linguistics, and a Western bias

From the beginning of my M.A. studies back in 2008, I have always approached language from a broadly cognitive/constructionist perspective, in the belief that within such a framework I could best account for the target linguistic phenomena. Throughout the years, I dedicated myself to gain a broad and in-depth knowledge of this paradigm and applied it to my case-studies with commitment and enthusiasm. However, by the time I was approaching the end of my Ph.D., something had changed. I had begun to see inconsistencies within the framework and to question many assumptions I had previously taken for granted. Therefore, I began to explore different frameworks and to consider how to combine insights from different approaches. Still, I was experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction with regard to these theoretical frameworks. Then, one day, I came across a paper by the Finnish linguist Esa Itkonen entitled ‘On explanation in linguistics’, which boldly states at the onset, “[…] I have resisted here the utopian impulse which is all too common among the representatives of ‘theoretical’ linguistics: the present is thought to be full of promises that will be redeemed in the near future. As far as I can see, the reverse is true. If the present moment is experienced as less than satisfactory, it is so with respect to the past and not to the future. Is this view justified? Certainly, no one who is ignorant of the history of linguistics has the competence to answer this question.”

That was an eye-opener.

What did I really know about the history of my discipline? Very little, I had to admit. In my student years, I had never had the chance to attend a course in the history of linguistics and, whenever the ‘past’ was considered at all, it was just mentioned in passing (and normally these mentions referred to de Saussure or, at best, Franz Boas). The received view was that after the publication of Chomsky’s book ‘Syntactic structures,’ generativism replaced structuralism as the mainstream framework and, later on, a few competitors arose. So strong was the advent of Chomskyan linguistics, that some overenthusiastic scholar claimed that more knowledge about human language was gained in the 1980s than in the previous 2,500 years (!). Advocates of rivals traditions (such as construction grammar, functional typology, or sociolinguistics) generally maintained the same forgetful attitude toward structural and pre-structural linguistics.

As I read Itkonen’s paper, I grew intensely curious and decided to go on and read his books and the sources mentioned therein, in particular authors such as Eugenio Coşeriu and Raimo Anttila, among others. All these authors have in common a vast knowledge of the history of linguistics, as well as philosophy, classical languages, literature, and so on. Reading their work lead me to look for further readings, including both primary and secondary sources. In particular, I focused my attention on (especially American) structural linguistics, but I also explored in some detail the kind of linguistics which was practiced in antiquity and not only in Europe, but also India, China, and the Arab world. Becoming acquainted with the linguistics of the past was a really rewarding experience, which helped me see how distorted the general idea of linguistics as science we tend to have, at least in the Western world.

As a matter of fact, we tend to hold the belief that successive approaches replace the previous ones because of greater scientific merit, and that this change is relatively quick and sharp. This is far from accurate, as often pointed out by historiographers of linguistics such as, e.g., Dell H. Hymes or E.F.K. Koerner, whose calls generally tend to fall on deaf ears among theoretical/empirical linguists who do not share the same historically-oriented outlook. More importantly, knowing the past of the discipline is necessary to appreciate the many similarities, along with the differences, between contemporary linguistic approaches and past practices. To this end, it would be very important to teach the history of linguistics to students, although they may often find it hard to follow or, in the worst case scenario, see it as a waste of time (but it should not be too hard for the lecturer to help them change their mind). Even more importantly, it would be relevant to point out that the so-called (somewhat inaccurately) ‘paradigm shift’ which can be observed in the history of Western linguistics is not to be found in the history of linguistics in India, where the practice of grammar is still based on Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī (c. 400 B.C.), a grammar of Sanskrit still unsurpassed today. A similar consideration also holds for Sībawayhi’s Al-kitāb fī an-naḥw (c. A.D. 760-796) in Arab countries.

As a consequence, it would be wise to adopt a less Western-centered and more inclusive approach to the teaching of linguistics. Indeed, while Pāṇini’s work, the oldest grammar of a known language, is often mentioned as a monumental intellectual achievement, it is normally only known by fame by non-specialists, in spite of the availability of exegetic sources (though admittedly not free from controversy). The significance of this work could not be stressed enough: this grammar, consisting of 3,959 rules on syntax, morphology, and semantics, composed and transmitted orally, was more advanced than any theory put forward in the Western world until the 20th century. As Itkonen suggests in the conclusion of his book ‘Universal history of linguistics,’ not only does this call into question the too often taken for granted Western ‘intellectual supremacy,’ but it would also suggest that we should revise our beliefs about the potential of the human mind, which we see through the lens of our culture. It is no chance that centuries ago certain Eastern societies developed the ability to exert control over one’s own thoughts and emotions, which is often still seen as a utopia in our hyperkinetic Western world. It may, therefore, be time for us to forget our egotism and dive into the adventure of exploring other traditions as well as our own past.

SHESL-HTL slides available

screenshot 2019-01-24 18.50.07The slides of the presentation I gave at the Colloque de la Société d’Histoire et d’Epistémologie des Sciences du Langage, entitled ‘Sifting through the pages of WORD: The International Linguistic Association as a promoter of academic pluralism,’ are now available for download. The event took place at Université Paris Diderot on January 24-26, 2019. It was really an honor to join SHESL and be part of such an interesting conference.

Presenting at SHESL-HTL 2019

ILA foundersI have been accepted for presentation at the conference for the 40th anniversary of the Société d’Histoire et d’Epistémologie des Sciences du Langage (SHESL-HTL 2019), which will be held at Université Paris – Diderot, France on January 24-26, 2019. My contribution will be entitled ‘Sifting through the pages of WORD: The International Linguistic Association as a promoter of academic pluralism.’ As usual, I will post the slides shortly after the conference. Stay tuned!