What was meant by what was said

Roy Harris

  • Language, Sense and Nonsense by G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker
    Blackwell, 397 pp, £22.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 631 13519 7

The picture on the dust-jacket of Language, Sense and Nonsense is a 17th-century allegory by Laurent de la Hire. It shows Grammar as a lady seriously engaged in watering some rather spindly potted plants. In her left hand she holds what looks like a very long tape-measure, bearing the words vox litterata et articulata debito modo pronuntiata. Presumably this tape-measure is for checking inch by inch the growth of her diminutive and sickly-looking horticultural specimens. For Grammar in the 17th century, that is fair enough. But in the 20th century the allegory would need to be painted rather differently. Grammar would not need a watering-can at all. The spindly plants would give way to a luxuriance of hothouse foliage, and the tape-measure would have to be calibrated to measure the proliferation of nonsense. That is approximately the canvas sketched in by artists Baker and Hacker.

The ‘nonsense’ of their title is the nonsense propagated in profusion nowadays by grammatical theorists and philosophers of language. Most of us will doubtless have heard of grammar. But what exactly, we may well ask, is ‘philosophy of language’? According to one view, it is ‘the foundation of all other philosophy’ (Dummett). But does it stand in the same relation to linguistics as philosophy of science to science? Or in the rather different relation which aesthetics bears to art? Does the philosopher qua philosopher have any message to pass on to those non-philosophers who are categorised professionally as ‘linguists’? If so, what is it? Although these questions are not directly addressed by Baker and Hacker, their book comes closer to providing intelligible answers than anything hitherto published. For this reason, if for no other, it is a publication which will command the attention of all academics whose interests are either philosophical or linguistic, or both. But what it says will also concern a much wider audience who have watched, either with fascination or with trepidation, the rising star of Modern Linguistics in the firmament of Arts and Sciences.

At the heart of philosophy of language is the problem of ‘meaning’. Or that is how the matter is commonly put by philosophers themselves. But unlike other investigators of meaning, the philosopher of language does not propose to base his semantic theorising upon a systematic study of how words are actually used in speech communities, or of their recorded semantic histories, or of what their users say they mean. He proposes, rather, to reflect upon the notion of ‘meaning’ and reason about the general conditions which would have to be met by any theory of meaning applicable to languages such as English. By a ‘theory of meaning’ he means, usually, an account of how the meanings of sentences are derived from the meanings of their constituent words. To this end, he searches for combinatorial rules which will determine how word-meanings are to be ‘put together’ to yield sentence-meanings. The complete theory of meaning for a given language will thus reveal ‘how the language works’ insofar as it shows how the language is derivable from the meanings of individual words and of the combinatorial procedures involved. Whether what the philosopher of language reflects on and calls ‘meaning’ is what the layman would count as meaning is another question, however – and quite an important one.

The authors shrewdly identify four main theses which conceal the nonsense endemic in much contemporary theorising about language, and give it a superficial plausibility. These are: 1. the doctrine of the separation of the ‘sense’ of a sentence from its ‘force’; 2. the explication of linguistic meaning in terms of truth-conditions; 3. the dependence of thought and speech on ‘tacitly known’ sets of rules; 4. the mystery of our apparent capacity to understand sentences we have never encountered before. Systematically they set about demonstrating how questionable each of the above theses is when seriously scrutinised. They expose the credibility gap between the facts which lend it support and the theoretical task it is pressed into performing. Their aim in all this is not to effect dramatic Pauline conversions upon committed defenders of the current orthodoxies, but rather to influence ‘prospective recruits who have not yet taken the Queen’s shilling’.

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