LINGUIST List 7.1478

Sat Oct 19 1996

Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>




Date: Sat, 19 Oct 1996 21:59:25 EDT
From: Sebastian Shaumyan <>


According to the widespread view effectively promulgated by Noam
Chomsky, natural languages are mental systems, and therefore
linguistics is a part of psychology. This view is shared even by
linguists whose theories, such as Lexical-Functional Grammar, are very
different from Chomsky's theories (Bresnan 1974; 1982).

It is true that language exists in the human mind and the use of language
involves psychological processes. But we must distinguish between
psychological processes and the content of psychological processes. Thus,
mathematical and logical operations also involve psychological processes,
but mathematics and logic are not concerned with the content of these
processes--mathematical and logical relations, which are independent of
psychological processes. Similarly with language. Language is a system of
social conventions for representing reality. This system of social
conventions is called a semiotic system. Semiotic systems are
independent of psychological processes that accompany their use.
Languages are semiotic systems and therefore linguistics is a part
of semiotics--the study of semiotic systems in general, whether artificial
or natural. By "semiotic system" I understand a system of bilateral
units, each consisting of sign and meaning. As a semiotic system, used
as an instrument for the expression of thought and for communication,
language is a social phenomenon of a special kind, which has a unique
ontological status, because, on the one hand, it exists only in human
consciousness, but on the other hand man is forced to treat it as an
object that exists independently of him. Semiotic systems belong to a
special world, which can be called the world of sign systems, or the
semiotic world. The essential property of this world is that
genetically it is a product of human consciousness, but ontologically
it is independent of human consciousness. (Shaumyan 1987).

Linguistics is not ancillary to psychology: it is an independent
science in its own right. Linguistics is completely independent of
psychology. The psychology of speech is not even an auxiliary science
of linguistics. The investigation of linguistic phenomena by means of
psychology is of course possible and it is important. But a necessary
prerequisite for such investigation is the previous establishment of
linguistic facts: the psychology of speech presupposes linguistics as
its basis.

It is interesting that back in the XIX century mathematics
and logics were also treated as psychological phenomena and part of
psychology. In John Stuart Mill's A System of Logic it is explicitly stated tha
introspection, which is a psychological phenomenon, is the only basis
of axioms of mathematics and principles of logic. Logic is classified
as part of psychology in Mill's "Examination of Sir Hamilton's
Philosophy". Mill's view was influential; it was widely accepted.

The psychologism of Mill was opposed by Rudolf Hermann Lotze in his
LOGIC. Lotze explained that we must distinguish sharply between the
psychological act of thinking, which is a determinate temporal
phenomenon, from the content of thought, which has another mode of
being--validity. Later on Frege defended the same point of view with
respect to mathematics. He wrote:

 Never take a description of the origin of an idea for a definition,
 or an account of the mental and physical conditions through which we
 become conscious of a proposition for a proof of it. A proposition
 may be thought, and again it may be true, never confuse these
 two things. We must remind ourselves, it seems, that a proposition
 never ceases to be true when I cease to think of it than the sun
 ceases to exist when I shut my eye. (The Grundlagen der Arithmetic.

Husserl continued the attack against psychologism in logic and
mathematics, using a similar argumentation. He wrote: "To refer to it
[number] as a mental construct is an absurdity, an offence against
perfectly clear meaning of arithmetic discourse, which can at any time
to be perceived as valid and precedes all theories concerning
it". (Husserl 1931, Sec. 22).

Husserl warned against the tendency to
"psychologize the eidetic", that is, to identify essences, which are
the authentic objects of knowledge, with the simultaneous
consciousness of these essences (ibid., Sec. 61).

As a result of effective critique of psychologism in logic and
mathematics by Frege, Husserl, and many other logicians,
mathematicians, and philosophers, nobody now contends that psychology
constitutes the basis of logic and mathematics. Nowadays logicians and
mathematicians understand that psychologism in logic and mathematics
is a fallacy. Psychologism in linguistics is a fallacy similar to
psychologism in logic and mathematics. Still this fallacy persists
among linguists.


Bresnan, Joan W. 1978. "A Realistic Transformational Grammar". In
Linguistic Theory and Psychological Reality. Eds. M. Halle,

J. Bresnan, and G.A. Miller. Cambridge: MIT Press. Bresnan,
Joan. W. 1982. "The Passive in Lexical Theory" In The Mental
Representation of Grammatical Relations, ed. Joan
W. Bresnan. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1913. Ideen zu einer reinen Phenomenologie und
Pheomenilogishchen Philosophie. Vol. I. Halle. Translated by
W. R. Boyce Gibson as Ideas-General Introduction to Pure
Phenomenology. London 1931.

Lotze, Hermann. 1874. Logik. Leipzig. Translated by Helen Dendy as
Logic. Oxford. 1984.

Mill, John Stuart. 1965. Examination of Sir
William Hamilton's Philosophy. London.

Shaumyan, Sebastian.1987. A Semiotic Theory of Language. Bloomington
and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Frege, Gottlob. 1984. Die Grundlagen der
Arithmetic. Breslau. Translated by J. L. Austin as The Foundations of
Arithmetic. Oxford 1950.

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Sebastian Shaumyan				 119 Whittier Road
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics	 New Haven, CT 06515, U.S.A.
Yale University					 (203) 397-1814
						 FAX: (203) 387-7433
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