Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Linguistics meets Philosophy

Daniel Altshuler

All scientific fields were born from philosophy. And most were born a long time ago. So long ago that conversations between the philosophic ‘parent’ and the scientific ‘child’ are currently non-existent. For example, it’s rare to see collaborative research that involves a physicist and a metaphysician, and you won’t find a philosopher at a chemistry or biology conference. Things are different, however, when it comes to theoretical linguistics, the youngest science, born in the mid 20th century through the Chomskian revolution. And things are especially different when it comes to formal semantics (‘the scientific theory of meaning’), which didn’t become an autonomous subfield of linguistics until the late 1980s/early 1990s. The development of formal semantics was predicated on conversations between linguists and philosophers and I would argue that its future impact depends on these conversations continuing.

One goal of Linguistics meets Philosophy is to offer a survey of where conversations between linguists and philosophers stand after a half century of transformative collaboration. The volume contains leading researchers that make a powerful case for continued partnership, highlighting questions where progress requires integrating perspectives from both disciplines. For example, questions have arisen about whether we have been wrong to hold onto alleged axioms such as Fregean compositionality, acquaintance relations, the idea that rejection can be reduced to assertion, strong theoretical dependence on external objects in the world or judgments of truth. Questions have also arisen about how to analyze previously excluded data (e.g. literary prose, multi-modal and argumentative discourse), and adopt methodologies from neighboring fields (e.g. psychology, computer science, narratology). Moreover, there are some trends that have emerged: while Gricean pragmatics remains a staple in current conversations between linguists and philosophers, other frameworks (coherence- and question-based approaches) have taken center stage, especially in the analysis of context-dependence, discourse and information structure. In addition, crosslinguistic research has blossomed in linguistic semantics, but not in philosophy, where fieldwork is not a practiced method of inquiry. As a result, semantics of underrepresented languages are rarely discussed between linguists and philosophers. This volume offers notable exceptions which illustrate the dire need for such conversations to not only take place, but to become the centerfold of discussion moving forward.

Another goal of the volume is to make the reading experience more interactive than a typical volume, with the hope of spurring new conversations between linguists and philosophers. To that end, each chapter begins with the authors’ answers to the following four questions:

  • Why do you think both linguists and philosophers find [topic x] interesting?
  • What recent developments in linguistics and philosophy do you think are most exciting in thinking about?
  • What do you consider to be the key ingredients in adequately analyzing?
  • What do you consider to be the outstanding questions pertaining to [topic x]?

These questions allow the reader to engage with the volume in multiple ways, e.g. they can first look at how each author answered the questions above, and then decide which contribution to read closely, or they can read the author’s answers and then continue reading their contribution. Either way, the reader is encouraged to engage with the whole volume, rather than choosing to read a particular chapter, as is common practice for an edited volume. The hope is that this sets a new standard and a new way of thinking about what a volume can be like: an invitation to enter a conversation that has no beginning or end.

Linguistics Meets Philosophy by Daniel Altshuler

About The Author

Daniel Altshuler

Daniel Altshuler is Associate Professor of Semantics at the University of Oxford. His first book, Events, States and Times (2016), won De Gruyter's Emerging Scholar Monograph Compe...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!