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John Ellis: Language, Thought, and Logic (Book Review)

John Ellis: Language, Thought, and Logic (Book Review)
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  Language, Thought, and Logic  . By John M. Ellis. Northwestern University Press,1994. Pbk. x + 163 pp. Endnotes, bibliography. There are so many academic books writtenand published each year that reading even asmall fraction of them is out of the question.Luckily this does not matter much, since themajority are of no interest to anyone ex-cept a few specialists. They fill universitylibraries, enhance CV’s, and have negligibleimpact beyond that.There is a serious downside to this stateof affairs. Since academics have little timeto read books, occasionally a book whichshould be read and discussed by everyoneis born into oblivion and stays there alongwith most of the others. That is the casewith this little gem. The paperback, whichwas printed twenty years ago (the hardbackwas published in 1993), does not even reach200 pages. Yet in this limited space Ellismanages to cut through a lot of the nonsenseand prejudice which adheres to so much of the philosophy of language and makes it sofrustrating—even annoying—to read if yourprimary aim is to learn something about lan-guage.While Ellis may not always be right, or ex-press himself well enough for us to see whathe might be right about, every page hereilluminates some philosophical or linguisticquestion or problem and the basic insight iscrystal clear: language is first and foremosta system of categories. It is only secondarilya tool we use for communication.What is interesting in this insight (whichin itself is not new) comes in asking  how  semantic categories are elaborated in reallanguages. Ellis insists that our conceptsare functional (rather than descriptive) andhence display values (rather than reflectingnatural divisions). Furthermore, the mostfundamental, universally human ideas, suchas the idea of what is ‘good’, serve to col-lect functionally similar but  actually diverse or dissimilar   objects, events, characteristics,etc. To see this working by example, El-lis asks us to simply consider what ‘poison’means.A reorientation like this naturally impliesthat aesthetic and ethical distinctions mustbe made before the possibility of logical dis-tinctions even begins to make sense, and judgements involving objective propertiesare late arrivals. Words are actually  never merely labels   for things or properties of things. Needless to say, accepting all thissuggests that a great deal of common opin-ion about language (and logic, and percep-tion too) relies on thinking topsy-turvy.While everyone who uses language to com-municate has a claim to some competencein its use, Ellis points out how remarkablyoften highly educated people are willing to1  tell us  what language is   without even both-ering to notice what linguistics and philologycan teach us, sometimes without even both-ering to notice languages other than theirmother tongue! What is even more remark-able, and to me extremely vexing, is howoften people who really should know bettercling stubbornly to naive ideas about lan-guage in forming their entire philosophicaloutlook, even while placing language at thecentre of this endeavour.Once one commits the error of assuming thatwords can unproblematically label (physi-cal) things—facilitating ‘positive’ or factualassertions—the utterances which do not andcannot fit this scheme get ignored or depre-cated by some kind of special pleading.Ellis starts his book by mentioning Ayer, soa quotation from  Language, Truth and Logic  can fittingly illustrate the second tendency:The propositions of philosophy are notfactual, but linguistic in character—thatis, they do not describe the behaviour of physical, or even mental, objects; theyexpress definitions, or the formal conse-quences of definitions. Accordingly, wemay say that philosophy is a departmentof logic.As Ellis says at the end of the book, whatis wrong here is not the idea that languageis important, but the fact that Ayer startswith entirely mistaken assumptions aboutlanguage, and we might add to that entirelymistaken assumptions about logic, truth andfact. The main consequence is that this pos-itivism is barren and it will sooner or laterbe abandoned by anyone not willing to putup with terminal boredom.The kind of deeply disruptive reworking of our view of language which Ellis attempts ineight short chapters and a terse conclusioncan’t be expected to rely on patient reason-ing and detailed evidence. There is simplyno room for that. What we get instead arebold assertions, with our assent expected.Much of what is said is presented as if anyreasonable reader will recognise it as obvi-ous, and most of the argumentative energyis spent on attacking those who have not wo-ken up to, or ignored, or even denied theseobvious truths.This strategy has its limits and dangers, butin my view Ellis carries it off rather well. Ithelps of course if the reader comes to thebook positively disposed to the idea thatthere is something very wrong, even scan-dalous, in what some of the better knownfigures who pretend to be instructive aboutlanguage actually say about it. However,if the reader is not already predisposedto agree with Ellis—and cheer him on—there are stylistic issues which could be off-putting; there is no denying that this text isa polemic, and a pretty personal one at that.Ellis structures his exposition by explaininghow our understanding of language is like apuzzle which everyone is tempted to start re-assembling as if no one had ever managed toput any pieces in place. Everyone wants tostart over again, neglecting what has alreadybeen learned. This has led to a tedious repe-tition of false starts based on mistakes mademany times before. Fortunately, there arefour ‘brilliant thinkers’ who  have   managedto do substantial work, each on a differentpart of the puzzle, so the task before us is tonotice what they have achieved and synthe-sise it into a coherent whole.The four great protagonists are Saussure,Wittgenstein, Peirce and Whorf. There isno denying that these are important figures,but my guess is that a reader who alreadyknows and admires all four in some measurewill find it much easier to follow the direc-tion in which Ellis is pointing. Even so, onemight still wonder how Ellis manages to getthem all to sing in harmony and contributeto one big theme.As it happens, Ellis does manage to pick away through just those concepts and distinc-2  tions needed to assemble a satisfying wholefrom the individual voices in this great quar-tet. What may prove more difficult to takethan the conjoining of four very differentvoices is the counterpoint: a seemingly end-less list of antagonists brought in only to bedisparaged. Even in the short space he hasallowed himself, it is never enough for El-lis to give us only one example of someonewho has assumed something false or takenthe wrong approach. He is at pains to men-tion as many examples as he can.The list of failures is long. Since this is ashort book, we cannot expect their sins tobe dealt with in detail. The likes of Piagetand Vygotsky get shot down in a few lines.Others face castigation only in an endnoteor two. There is just one notable excep-tion to these summary dismissals: Chomsky(along with others from his school of genera-tive grammar) is brought in over and over, todisplay how someone can be wrong on prettymuch everything.All this negativity—delivered in an indig-nant tone and peppered with adjectives suchas ‘blinkered’, ‘primitive’ and ‘careless’—would be hard to excuse except for twothings.Firstly, throughout his criticism Ellis offersa great deal of valuable advice on method-ology. Indeed once he explains the funda-mental thesis that inventive categorisationprecedes, i.e.  enables   structured communi-cation in human languages, he does littlewith it apart from using it to critique thepresent aims in most of what is now pur-sued in academic or philosophical studiesof language. These aims—informed by thetendency to separate grammar from seman-tics in order to explore and formalise struc-tures, and to reduce semantics to lexicog-raphy, and to understand natural languagesas more complicated versions of ‘formal lan-guages’, i.e. algorithmic or simply structuredcoding systems—are all for Ellis tainted byscience envy. Regrettably, the rush to be sci-entific is misplaced because our antagonistsfail to grasp how real science actually works,a fact which Ellis brings out clearly.Secondly, the extended parade of nameswho function here as the mistaken multitudedrives home an important point: a great dealof mainstream thought about language re-ally is badly off track. If the name droppingwas simply an exercise in showing us howmany books Ellis has read then it would bemerely annoying. As it is, there is a valu-able lesson in finding out how many peo-ple working in a range of diverse disciplinesdon’t even manage to get to first base whenit comes to understanding language.Since Chomsky merits more attention fromEllis than anyone else, some considerationmust be given to this choice of chief antag-onist. It may well be true that generativegrammar is a blind alley in linguistics andthat Chomsky is guilty of most or even allthe errors that Ellis credits him with. Yetnone of the censure directed at Chomskycan be directed uniquely at him. In factif Ellis was keen to explore how the errorsmade in thinking about language relate toour ideas about cognition, truth and othersuch philosophical foundation stones then itmight have been better to leave Chomskyand his followers to their quite narrow con-cerns and explore how a philosopher such asDonald Davidson dealt with language.The two cardinal mistakes that Ellisattacks—that language is a tool for com-munication and that words are labels forthings—are not mistakes made in a philo-sophical vacuum. They are taken for com-mon sense only because a set of unexaminedassumptions make them appear unproblem-atic. These tacit assumptions have nothingspecifically to do with linguistics and if onewishes to examine them then it is the philos-ophy of mind and philosophy of perceptionthat one must look to.3  To seek clarity among grammarians (of anyschool) is simply barking up the wrong treebecause it is philosophical  representation-alism   which is the root of the problem.Representationalism—the notion that per-ceptions represent external objects to ourminds—is partly explicit and partly hiddenin so great a variety of philosophical andnaive opinion that only an examination of how the mistakes made in our theory of per-ception fairly  dictate   more mistakes in every-thing else will explain why so many peoplestart off on the wrong foot when it to comesto language.Davidson does get a censorious mention ina couple of footnotes—he is noted for his‘tin ear for language’—but the radical viewson language associated with him would havemade much more fruitful points of attack forEllis than those impenetrable redefinitionsof what generative or ‘deep’ grammar mightactually be, offered by Chomsky and his fol-lowers.Perhaps there are good reasons why El-lis took Chomsky rather than someone likeDavidson or even Ayer into the ring. Chom-sky is a much bigger target and attackinghim was likely to prove more controversialthan attacking someone less well known, orsomeone largely ignored. It is possibly alsorelevant that Ellis has been much exercisedin retirement by what he considers to be lib-eral activism in academia.The sustained attack on Chomsky distractsEllis from taking up, perhaps even noticing,a great opportunity. After he explains thefundamental reorientation in thinking aboutlanguage, he feels qualified to sketch out fu-ture programs for philosophy and linguistics.There is some good sense in what he says,but focusing mainly on comparing differentlanguages threatens to turn into butterflycollecting. It seems to me that it would bebetter to note immediately that the elab-oration of categories within a sign systempoints directly to the importance of action.A representative theory of meaning all butblocks this path, which happens to be theroyal road to any productive understandingof imagination and thinking. Removing therepresentationalist roadblock and restoringthe link between meaning and intention (ev-ident already in the ambiguity of the verb  tomean  ) would direct us down avenues moreworthy of the likes of Saussure and Peirce. Evaluation: Essential reading for anyone seeking orientation in thinking about lan-guage and philosophical treatments of it. The best parts clarify the place of logic in thinkingand demonstrate how envying the ‘method’ followed in some of the physical sciences (andadopting a caricature of it) corrupts open inquiry. The title  Language, Thought, and Logic  plays on Ayer’s  Language, Truth and Logic   and indeed Ellis has little of any use to sayabout truth.Hobart DV 2014.4
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