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Ontolog a Del Lenguaje

Ontolog a Del Lenguaje

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The historical ontology of language
Philip Seargeant
*
Centre for Language and Communication, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, The Open University, Walton Hall,Milton Keynes MK7 6AL, UK 
Received 2 September 2008; received in revised form 24 November 2008; accepted 30 November 2008
Abstract
This article examines the ontology of language from a historico-cultural perspective. Acknowledging the importance of pre-ontological assumptions for setting the epistemic parameters within which scientific disciplines operate, the article dis-cusses the elements of a methodological framework for theorising such assumptions, based upon Foucault’s conception of ‘historical ontology’ [Foucault, M., 1991. In: Rabinow, P. (Ed.), The Foucault Reader. Penguin, London]. By using a gene-alogical method that analyses ontological beliefs as they occur within their historical and cultural context, it is suggestedthat it is possible to narrow in on what is ‘‘singular, contingent and arbitrary
 (p. 45) in any specific conceptualisation of language, and use this information as an important variable in the self-reflexive analysis of linguistic research.
 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords:
 Historical ontology; Linguistics; Conceptual metaphor; Discipline; Foucault; Heidegger
1. Introduction
What I am most loathe to renounce are the diverse perspectives which, from this genetic point of lan-guage in the human soul, open out into the wide fields of logic, aesthetics, and psychology, especiallywith regard to the question, how far can one think without and what must one think with language,a question whose subsequent applications would spread out into practically all branches of knowledge.Johann Gottfried Herder,
 Essay on the origin of language
 (Herder, 1986 [1772], p. 127).That language is an object of study in the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, and that it isalso the chief medium of study for all these, is not an especially profound statement. The implications of sucha statement, however, are profound; and they are also dauntingly complex. To become an object of scientificinvestigation it is necessary that that object be delimited and have boundaries imposed upon it, but with suchregulation comes the danger of partialism, of ignoring the holistic picture (albeit out of practical necessity) infavour of something more manageable. The result is an object of study refracted by different disciplines, eachof which attempts to animate an isolated feature while (temporarily) numbing the rest of the organism. Aconsequence of this is that the disciplinary nomenclature can become a determining factor in the way that
0388-0001/$ - see front matter
 
 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.langsci.2008.11.001
*
Tel.: +44 (0)1908 658677; fax: +44 (0)1908 654111.
E-mail address:
 Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
Language Sciences 32 (2010) 1–13
www.elsevier.com/locate/langsci
 
language is perceived and, to an extent, analysed, as the attempt is often to coerce all results of languagebehaviour into an explanation rooted in one relatively acute perspective. Even the term ‘linguistics’, ostensiblythe broadest term for the study of language, has come, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, to denote avery specifically bounded approach; and often, in certain popular belief, the meaning of the term is restrictedeven further to one dominating theory.
1
This is, in part, the consequence of certain historical processes. As Calvet (2006, p. 21) observes:When linguistics came into being, it needed to define its field of study in order to guarantee its scientificstatus. This definition transformed and even hardened practices into an object, but while structuralistlinguistics needed to invent language, it does not realise that it is now a prisoner of that invention.To describe the conceptual apparatus that provides the analytic framework in which a scientific discipline con-ducts its research as a ‘prison’ is, perhaps, to resort to a somewhat contentious metaphoric vocabulary. Afterall, any research into language needs first to have a firm conception of what it takes ‘language’ to be, and toensure stability and coherence for the subsequent research programme it will then have to adhere consistentlyto the framework it has established for itself. Of theoretical interest, though, is not so much that scientific dis-ciplines
 do
 conduct themselves within paradigmatic confines – this has been a commonplace in the philosophyof science now for almost half a century (Kuhn, 1962) – but rather
 how
 each discipline arrives at its conceptu-alisation of language, and how (or if) it attempts to ensure that these conceptual and terminological decisionsdo not become naturalised into epistemic assumptions which close down the scientific ambition of the research.The rhetorical move that names the object of study is also, of course, an ontological move, and operates todisclose the field in which research and debate is to be pursued. Heidegger (1962 [1927], p. 30) observes thatscience always presupposes ontology, and that:Basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided bythis understanding.His argument is that scientific investigation inevitably proceeds on the basis of pre-ontological assumptions(that is, embedded beliefs about being which have not been raised to the level of explicit theory
2
) about theentity that is the object of research. These pre-ontological assumptions constitute the background againstwhich objects of interest are measured, and as such they are both inevitable and indispensable, as they providethe meaning-structure within which the foreground entity is understood.One way in which ontology is posited rather than pursued is unequivocal assertion of the sort that Chom-sky (1957, p. 13) makes in his famous prefatory statement to
 Syntactic Structures
:From now on I will consider a
 language
 to be a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in lengthand constructed out of a finite set of elements. All natural languages in their spoken or written form arelanguages in this sense.There is little acknowledgement here of the rationale or justification for interning such an exclusive portion of linguistic behaviour within what counts as ‘language’,
3
and much has been made of the philosophical and dis-
1
Lawson (2001, p. 14), in his analysis of the way in which the concept of language is understood in linguistics textbooks, identifies ‘‘astartling trend in twentieth century linguistics in the United States [which] appears to be the progressive narrowing of language andlanguage study such that introductory texts have come to act as indoctrination devices which impress the reader into one particulardominant theory rather than presenting several currently viable options in a meaningful way
. Investigation of the strategies that result insuch a ‘narrowing’ of the disciplinary framework is the substantive subject of this article, and will be discussed in detail in later sections.
2
‘‘[I]f we should reserve the term ‘ontology’ for that theoretical inquiry which is explicitly devoted to the meaning of entities, then whatwe have in mind in speaking of Dasein’s ‘Being-ontological’ is to be designated as something ‘pre-ontological’. It does not signify simply‘being-ontical’, however, but rather ‘being in such a way that one has an understanding of Being’
3
I have not drawn a clear distinction between ‘language’ and ‘languages’ in this article as, in effect, such a distinction is part of theideological approach to linguistic behaviour that abstracts from actual practice a singular concept which is then used as part of thetheoretical apparatus to rationalise about that linguistic behaviour. In this respect it is a fundamental distinction for the study of language,but nevertheless it is one which is interpreted in different ways in different periods, and which is accorded different significance by differentsub-disciplines.2
 P. Seargeant/Language Sciences 32 (2010) 1–13
 
cursive tradition to which Chomsky conforms in constructing his theoretical approach around such ontolog-ical assumptions. Lakoff and Johnson (1999, p. 496), for example, with their dissection of the conceptual met-aphorical complexion of Western thought and its consequence for cognitive science,
4
consider Chomskyanlinguistics to be ‘‘a perfect case of a priori philosophy predetermining specific scientific results
. Their conten-tion is that an adherence to Cartesian dualism is the foundation for the innateness paradigm, where ‘language’is a property of the mind, and physical and social manifestations of linguistic behaviour are thus quite separateand distinct phenomena (and thus beyond the purview of linguistics).
5
I shall return below to the trend for critiques of the metaphysical and ontological assumptions upon whichChomskyan linguistics is founded. (One of the consequences of stage-managing a shift in scientific paradigmsis that one’s own argumentative and analytic approaches become a touchstone for ‘revolutionary’ dissention.)For the moment, however, what is of note is that the ontological assertion comes by means of a blunt rhetor-ical strategy which acts to present this particular view of language (this definition of the concept) as a naturalgiven. Any programme of language research, however, will involve in some form this same issue of how to dealwith the meaning-structure (i.e. the complex of pre-ontological assumptions) latent in our rationalisationsabout linguistic behaviour, which constitutes the being of the entity under investigation; and it is this issuethat the current article addresses. To frame the concern as a question, we can ask how language is conceptua-lised as a feature of the human experience, and what existential form it is understood to take within the world.As has been noted, this is an issue of ontology, and it is one of fundamental importance in that it sets theparameters for any subsequent discussion of language, thereby playing an influential (albeit often a with-drawn) role in determining the direction of linguistic research. It is for this reason that it is important to for-mulate an operational means or methodology that will allow us to critique the (pre-)ontological assumptionsfrom which we work, and scrutinise both the evidence upon which these are based and the implications towhich they give rise. It is a discussion of the elements that would constitute such a methodology which formsthe substance of this article.
2. Language myths and disciplinary matrices
Before moving to an explication of the significant features that this methodology will need to take accountof it is worth briefly reviewing some of the critiques that have been made of the assumptions upon which thediscipline of linguistics is based. One major examination of this sort is that pursued by Harris with his ‘inte-grationist’ linguistics project (Harris, 1998a,b). For Harris, theoretical linguistics within the Western traditionhas structured itself around a ‘myth’ (Harris, 1981) which conceives of language systems as autonomousobjects which can be studied without reference to the contextual environs in which they operate as meansof communication. His contention, by contrast, is that languages are inherently open-ended and variable,and thus it ‘‘becomes vain to look for a
 fixed code
 underlying the communicational practices of particularcommunities
 (Harris, 1998b, p. 24, italics added). Based upon such reasoning he suggests that for ‘‘the inte-grationist it is possible to do linguistics without assuming that the linguistic universe consists of a large numberof discrete objects called ‘languages’, let alone having to treat each such object as a self-contained system
 (p.18). One consequence of this move is that it would appear to provide an alternative ontology for languagewhich would involve the re-evaluation of much of the history of the language sciences.The recognition and analysis of an ideology which takes languages as ‘discrete objects’ has also been a sali-ent concern in linguistic anthropology (see, for example, Duranti, 1997, ch. 3.3), and of recent this has beenexplicitly theorised by Blommaert (2006, 2008b) with his identification of an ‘artefactual’ view of language pre-valent in many contemporary commonsense linguistic beliefs. Drawing upon the foundational work on ‘lan-guage ideology’ by Silverstein (1979), Blommaert sees the belief that ‘‘reference-and-predication
 is the chief function of linguistic behaviour (Silverstein, 1979, p. 205) as resulting in a conceptualisation of language as a
4
‘‘The job of the cognitive science of philosophy is to point out philosophy when it sees it, analyse the conceptual structure of thephilosophy, and note its consequences
5
Lakoff and Johnson (1999, p. 472) are emphatic in this contention, arguing that the ‘‘basic tenets of Chomsky’s linguistics are takendirectly from Descartes
. Their thesis is that the adherence to this philosophical worldview produces a linguistics which is inconsistent withthe cognitive science they propound.
P. Seargeant/Language Sciences 32 (2010) 1–13
 3

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