LINGUIST List 7.1512

Sat Oct 26 1996

Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Sebastian Shaumyan, Re: 7.1482, Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics: Reply

Message 1: Re: 7.1482, Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics: Reply

Date: Wed, 23 Oct 1996 07:13:47 EDT
From: Sebastian Shaumyan <>
Subject: Re: 7.1482, Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics: Reply
On Tue, 22 Oct 1996, The Linguist List wrote:

> 1)
> Date: Sun, 20 Oct 1996 12:29:03 BST
> From: (Martin Kusch)
> Subject: 7.1478, Disc: Psychologism in Linguistics
> On October 19th, Professor Shaumyan wrote:
> > ...
> > 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.
> Two comments:
> (1) In suggesting that Frege's and Husserl's anti-psychologistic
> arguments carry over into linguistics, Prof. Shaumyan has been pre-
> ceded by J.J. Katz (and a number of authors, including Chomsky him-
> self) have replied to Katz. (See J.J. Katz, _Language and Other
> Abstract Objects_, Totawa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlewood, 1981.)

It is difficult for me to figure out who preceded who. I claimed that
language is a semiotic object rather than a psychological object in my
published in Russian in 1974 (Nauka, Moscow) and then published in
English in 1977 (University of Edinborough and University of Chicago
Press: Edinborough & Chicago). I think that Katz and other authors
came up with the same conclusions as I independently. The important
thing is not who preceded who but the following consideration:
J.J. Katz and a number of other authors who share his approach deny
that language is a psychological object. In this respect, their view
is similar to my view. But as to the alternative to the notion of
language as a psychological object, there is a significant differences
between us. Katz and linguists who share his view claim that language
is merely a formal object. True, language is a formal object. But any
object in any advanced science is a formal object. The essential
question is: What kind of formal object is language? My answer is:
Language is a semiotic object.

The revolutionary ideas of linguistics as a semiotic theory of
language were forcefully presented by Ferdinand de Saussure in his
COURS DE LINGUISTIQUE GENERALE, published in 1916. Although the ideas
of de Saussure had a considerable influence on some linguistic
communities, mostly in Russia and some other European countries, they
were poorly understood by most linguists. The profound but highly
abstract theory of de Saussure demanded a great deal from the
reader. As a result, it was eclipsed by inferior but more accessible
trends in linguistics.

To understand the revolutionary ideas of de Saussure, one must partly
rediscover and partly discover the significant properties of the sign
which determine the whole structure of language, but there's the rub:
the concept of the sign has been trivialized, to many linguists the
sign seems to be an obvious, trivial, uninteresting thing. A sign is a
sign is a sign...

In my A SEMIOTIC THEORY OF LANGUAGE (Indiana University Press:
Bloomington,Indiana, 1987) I have done this: I have extricated the
significant properties of the sign and have raised them from the
position of trivial things to the level of the supreme fundamental
principles of linguistics.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these principles. One
of them is the Principle of Semiotic Relevance. Here is not the place
to describe this principle and its implications. Suffice it to say
that the consequences of this principle constrain heavily linguistic
theory and lead to a drastic overhaul of its foundations. Thus,
neither the notion of autonomous syntax, nor generative phonology are
compatible with the Principle of Semiotic Relevance. The Principle of
Semiotic Relevance and other semiotic principles represent a challenge
to any linguistic theory. A SEMIOTIC THEORY OF LANGUAGE contains an
analysis of the conceptual and empirical foundations of Generative
Grammar, Generative Phonology, Montague Grammar, Lexical-Functional
grammar. and Relational Grammar. The analysis aims to determine how
the fundamental principles underlying these linguistic theories stack
up against the semiotic principles. The results of the analysis show
that the semiotic principles set the standards that non-semiotic
linguistic theories have yet to equal.

> (2) It seems to me that Prof. Shaumyan overestimates the extent to
> which Frege's and Husserl's arguments against psychologism are
> accepted amongst philosophers today. For a summary of the case
> against their arguments, see e.g. M. Kusch, _Psychologism_,
> London: Routledge 1995, Chap. 4, and Appendix 2. Appendix 2
> is not part of 'physical' book itself, but can be accessed over
> the internet:

Psychologism is routed in the nineteenth-century doctrine called
positivism, which says that science must concern itself only with
things it can actually observe. In other words, science must concern
itself directly with data. This seems to be a reasonable requirement,
but in fact this is a fallacy: direct analysis of data leads
nowhere. Why? Because raw data are heterogeneous. In order to make
data a reasonable object of inquiry, science must first formulate the
problem it aims to resolve, then it must advance a hypothesis
characterizing the significant data to resolve the problem, and
finally select the relevant data. Science has to concern itself not
with any data but with relevant data. This is the only right way to
go. The modern methodology of science has recognized this and has
replaced the concept of data by two sophisticated concepts: empirical
object and theoretical object. An empirical object is a mere corpus of
data that exists independently of science. A theoretical object is a
homogeneous corpus of data selected by a hypothesis advanced with an
aim to resolve a problem or a set of problems. The subject matter of
science is a theoretical object rather than the raw empirical object.

Let us now turn language. Before any science, language exists as an
empirical object. As an empirical object, language is a complicated
phenomenon in which we can define many theoretical objects. It may be
a theoretical object of a branch of acoustics, a branch of biology, a
branch of anthropology. As to our question--the relation between
linguistics and psychology--here is the answer: You, as Chomsky and
all those who share his views, confuse two logically independent
things: language and knowledge of language. Language as a system of
signs is a theoretical object of linguistics, and knowledge of
language is the theoretical object of psychology of language.
Psychology of language is concerned with psychological processes
relating to acquisition of knowledge of language. Evidence from
psychology of language neither confirms nor disconfirms facts of
linguistics. Actually, psychology is just window dressing. In
practice, Chomsky and other linguists whose theories are supposedly
based on psychology are doing ordinary linguistics. Oh, I forgot: they
love to talk about competence. The notion of competence is
vacuous. But the term "competence" is a convenient rhetorical device
to be used on occasion as a red herring in case one is not able to
explain some facts.

-Sebastian Shaumyan
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