Tasks of an Ontology of Language

The term ‘ontology’ has played a role in recent discussions of language and linguistics almost exclusively in connection with the problem of the so-called ‘ontological commitments’ of a linguistic theory. In the present paper however the term ‘ontology’ is used in a way that is at once more modest and more ambitious. It is more modest, because ontology will be understood not as a higher-order investigation of certain theories, but as a discipline having as its subject-matter the objects themselves, which such theories investigate. It is more ambitious, because it will extend beyond ‘language’ as narrowly conceived to include also, for example (in conformity with an older tradition of universal grammar), the acts and actions of language-using subjects. Indeed we may say that the ontology of language is concerned precisely with the relations between uses of language, both overt and covert, and other entities, whether in the world or in the mind of the subject.

A first survey of the sorts of relations which might come into question for such an ontology would include:

(a) relations between a referring use of an expression and its object (assuming, of course, that it has an object),

(b) relations between the use of a (true) sentence and that in the world which makes it true,2

(c) relations between a used predicate and the object or objects of which it is predicated, and also, at least in certain cases, between this object and those of its parts and moments in virtue of which the predicate holds,

(d) relations among uses of language themselves, for example anaphoric relations, relations between those events which are referring and predicating uses of expressions, relations between successive uses of sentences in higher-order structures such as narratives, arguments, conversations, and so on.

I shall have something to say about all of these species of examples in what follows. My main concern, however, will be with the ways in which uses of language are bound up with mental acts. Thus for example I shall be concerned with:

(e) relations between mental acts on the one hand and underlying mental states (attitudes, beliefs), on the other,

(f) relations between my acts and states and those associated uses of language which are overt actions on my part, for example actions of promising or of asking questions,

(g) relations between my mental acts and states and the overt actions (including utterances) of other subjects with whom I come into contact (relations of understanding, of communication).

It is remarkable how few analytic philosophers have attempted to describe any of these relations in more than merely metaphorical terms – as if language, narrowly conceived as a system of abstract types, would exist in splendid isolation from mental and other sorts of structure. Proponents of causal and historical theories of names have taken some initial steps in connection with (a), but their accounts are too narrowly causal, and often little more than promissory notes. Advocates of the semantics of natural language have done some work in the areas of (c) and (d), but the analytic philosopher’s understanding of the object-predicate relation has advanced not at all since Frege conceived his peculiar function-argument interpretation. Moreover, work on the interrelations between successive uses of language, at least on the part of the more philosophically minded theorists of language, has been concentrated overwhelmingly on those cases which can be pressed within the schemata of one or other orthodox system of logic. Some work, especially that associated with the names of H. P. Grice and P. F. Strawson, has been done by analytic philosophers on the interconnections bteween language and associated mental acts, and proponents of speech act(ion) theory have made some headway in particular with parts of (f) and (g), but their accounts do not mesh at all with any worked-out ontology: they resolve into elucidations of certain logical relations between sentences (promise S is felicitous if and only if…), and throw little light on how speech act(ions) are structured in such a way as to be bound up in more complex wholes with those mental events which are acts and those mental states which are beliefs, convictions, desires, etc.

There is one philosophical tradition, however, which did concern itself precisely with the whole range of relations of the given sort. It is the tradition which began with the work of Brentano and his students, above all Alexius Meinong (1853-1920), Carl Stumpf (1848-1936) and Anton Marty (1847-1914), and reached its high-point in the Logical Investigations of Edmund Husserl (1858-1938). This tradition was carried forward in philosophy by the realist phenomenologists such as Johannes Daubert (1877-1947) and Adolf Reinach (1883-1917) and in linguistics by such thinkers as Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and Karl Buehler (1879-1963). The present essay is a brief survey of the philosophical work on language by the members of this tradition, together with a comparison of the results of their work with other, competing approaches.

Barry Smith, Husserl, Language, and the Ontology of the Act


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