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Mon Apr 15 2019

Review: Linguistic Theories: Behme, Neef (2018)

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Date: 03-Jan-2019
From: Keith Begley <>
Subject: Essays on Linguistic Realism
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Christina Behme
EDITOR: Martin Neef
TITLE: Essays on Linguistic Realism
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Language Companion Series 196
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Keith Begley, Trinity College Dublin


The edited volume will be of interest to philosophers and linguists working on the foundations of linguistics. It also contains material regarding some recent technical applications of realist frameworks in semantics, phonology, and morphology. The volume is derived from the proceedings of a workshop convened by the editors, Christina Behme and Martin Neef, on the theme ‘The Foundations of Linguistics: Languages as Abstract Objects’, at Technische Universität Braunschweig, in June 2015. The editors claim that “The workshop was the first scientific event ever that was exclusively devoted to the topic of Linguistic Realism” (p. xi). The volume (pp. xiii + 296) consists of an introduction by the editors and eleven chapters of varying lengths contributed by philosophers and linguists, some of whom have been working in the field for over fifty years.

Paul M. Postal’s chapter ‘The ontology of natural language’ is just over four pages long, shorter than the introduction, and is an attack upon naturalism in linguistics, both theoretically and politically. He says that the acceptance of this view represents “a largely unquestioned overwhelmingly culturally dominant conformism” (p. 3). He argues against Chomsky and “biolinguistics” in this regard and points out that “essentially everything said about natural language sentences involves taking them to be abstract objects, specifically, various kinds of set-theoretical objects” (p. 4). Hence, he says, it is “incoherent” to hold the view that set-theoretical entities and operations, such as Merge and its objects, are “brain objects”. Postal misadvertises one of his own articles calling it “Chomsky’s Ontological Admission (Postal 2012)”, given that it is posted on LingBuzz as ‘Chomsky’s Foundational Admission’. In that article, he gives the evidence for his claim that Chomsky admits the incoherence of his position, but he does not argue for this in the present chapter. Referring to Professor Chomsky as a ‘laugher’, he says: “This laugher implicitly recognizes the contradiction between claiming natural language reality is biological, while taking sentences to be set-theoretical” (p. 5). He compares the situation to the counterfactual one in which Frege, exasperated by Russell’s paradox, instead opts uncritically to accept the inconsistency. Postal ends with a stark warning that certainly sent a chill down my spine: “[…] if you do [accept a Platonist view], I would advise being quiet about it or you might not get a grant” (p. 5). If the reader happens to be a grantor, be not afraid and read onward.

In David Pitt’s chapter ‘What kind of science is linguistics?’, he is concerned “to deny that the distinction [between empirical and formal sciences] depends upon the ontological categories of the objects of their generalizations, since these are one and all abstract objects – types or kinds” (p. 10). Hence, if this were the criterion, all science would be formal science. He thinks that it must instead be the ontological category of the tokens of these types, which determines the methodology of a science and, hence, whether it is formal or empirical. This, he stresses, is the main claim of his chapter. This position is somewhat like the one held by Alexander George, which was attacked by Katz (cf. 1996, p. 282), but Pitt does not engage with this debate except to set his position against footnoted quotations from Katz’ article (p. 8: n. 1). Based upon his criterion, Pitt argues that linguistics is a mixed science. Since the tokens of orthographic and phonetic types are concrete, orthography and phonetics are empirical departments of linguistics. Pitt identifies linguistic meanings with thought contents to which we have direct experiential access through introspection. Whether or not semantics is empirical, then, “depends upon the epistemic status of introspection.” (p. 19). On this question, he leans away from taking empirical methodology as being foundational for semantics, but he does not provide his full argument for this position. He is even less definite regarding syntax, but he does not think that syntactic structures are literally instantiated by concrete tokens. Instead, he suggests that such structures are instantiated by meanings, which are thought contents on his view of meaning, and hence syntax is also a psychological (but non-empirical) science.

In Robert Levine’s chapter ‘‘Biolinguistics’: Some foundational problems’, he argues that the current ‘Biolinguistics’ paradigm is “essentially result free” (p. 21). He attacks the “literalism” of the view, particularly of Anderson and Lightfoot (2006), that with sufficiently advanced brain-scanning technology, we would be able to find linguistic capability, or even the grammars themselves, “realized as a specific set of neural structures” (p. 24). The problem with this view, he thinks, is that neural arrays are not the kind of thing that could “literally embody set-theoretic, algebraic, or category-theoretic objects and mathematical relations” (p. 25). Moreover, although he agrees with Katz and Postal that biolinguistics conceals a “category error”, his own argument involves showing that the exemplar of cognitive science that is often pointed to, Marr’s modelling of edge detection in the visual system, offers no support to literalist claims, given that “by the very nature of his achievement, Marr has adopted a strongly anti-literalist ontology” (p. 32). That is, the mathematics of Marr’s model is not thought of as being literally instantiated in the brain, rather, the functions that each part of this model represents abstractly are found to be satisfied by the actual work of various pieces of neural anatomy (p. 33). However, no comparable models have been proposed for biolinguistic computations. Next, Levine changes tack and addresses the doctrine of domain specificity in linguistic cognition. Here he draws upon some of his recent technical work in Hybrid Type-Logical Categorial Grammar (HTLCG), together with “some support from recent work on the neurobiology of language carried out by actual neurobiologists – what one might call real biolinguistics, without the need for scare quotes” (p. 51). This research points instead towards “domain generality”, presenting further “severe obstacles to the prospect of identifying distinctively neurolinguistic structures in the human neocortex” (p. 55).

Christina Behme’s chapter is entitled ‘The relevance of realism for language evolution theorizing’. She begins by providing “[s]ome highlights from current language evolution research”, particularly from investigations into animal communication. She points out that the terms “phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics” are often used “rather loosely or metaphorically” by researchers into animal communication (p. 66), and often in different ways, potentially leading to misinterpretations. Especially at issue here are, of course, the various conflated senses of the word ‘syntax’. Behme suggests that researchers should avoid this by clearly distinguishing “their findings in relation to human language”, and by stating “how evolutionary transitions from one system to another could be modelled” (p. 68). Next, Behme turns to realism. She repeats Katz’ point that for a “rational realist” (referring to a proponent of Katz’ Realistic Rationalism (1998), with a description that she has been using consistently for a number of years, even renaming Katz’ book to match in another article (cf. Behme, 2014, p. 383)), intuitions of the structure of abstracta are nonetheless corrigible. This implies that neither naturalists nor realistic rationalists have privileged and incorrigible access to direct evidence of the objects of their sciences. Behme suggests that accepting the realist’s distinction between language and knowledge of language would “allow language evolutionists to refocus their attention fully on the cognitive capacities that are in need of an evolutionary explanation” (p. 74).

Hans-Heinrich Lieb’s chapter is the longest in the volume, spanning one fifth of it, and is entitled ‘Describing linguistic objects in a realist way’. The chapter covers too much to summarise fully here, including applications in informal and formal grammar, adequacy problems, formats for axiomatic grammars, and relating linguistics to other disciplines; so, I will keep to the issues regarding realism. Lieb, an emeritus professor of linguistics, refers throughout to his more than fifty years of scholarship in the field, both “in linguistics” and “on linguistics” (p. 81). He puts forward what he now calls ‘Modified Realism’ formerly known as ‘New Structuralism’ (Lieb, 1992), which he sees as being a “framework for linguistics”; his own approach to fulfilling it is called “Integrational Linguistics” (p. 81). The new more realist sounding name, he thinks, is more in line with the terminology in related work and in the present volume. However, his realism is a Constructive Realism rather than a Platonism, and he distinguishes their respective notions of ‘abstract’ in the following way: “This notion of ‘abstract’ as ‘non-concrete’ differs from a Katzian conception by being relativized to a hierarchy of ontological levels where entities on a higher level are ‘constructs’ from entities on lower levels, in a purely ontological sense […]” (p. 83). ‘Concrete’ meaning, in general, belonging to the zero-level of the hierarchy, except in cases where a zero-level entity is nonetheless, surprisingly non-concrete, e.g., a number. Lieb envisages a notion of degree of abstractness, determined not merely by level but also horizontally, as it were, by sort and intensional character of an entity, in order to handle differences in abstractness between entities. This seems somewhat in tension with, if not contradictory to, his earlier definitions that he references: “x is concrete in H iff x belongs to the zero level of H” and “x is abstract in H iff x is not concrete in H” for a hierarchy H, which obviously do not allow for “differences of abstractness between concrete entities” (1992, pp. 45–6). So, it is clear that the definition of ‘abstract’ here, does not define ‘abstractness’, given that not belonging to the zero-level of H is the only criterion employed. This seems to me to be a bit of an ontological muddle. “Very roughly, Modified Realism blends Katz with Searle, adding a functional perspective” (p. 83). What is taken from Katz is certainly not his notion of ‘abstract’. What is taken from Searle is his notion of intentionality.

Ryan M. Nefdt’s chapter is entitled ‘Languages and other abstract structures’, a play on the title of a book by Katz (1981) in which ‘objects’ has been replaced by ‘structures’. So, it is apt for the “non-eliminative structuralism similar to that offered for mathematics by Shapiro (1997) and independently by Resnik (1997)” (p. 167), for which he argues. He calls this foundation for linguistics an ‘ante rem realism’, but at one point describes it as being “Aristotelian” (p. 177), operating within a framework he calls ‘Mixed Realism’, which is opposed to Platonism, we are told, in all but spirit. Nefdt thinks that it is common to both Nominalism and Platonism that “linguistics is about something outside of psychological reality.” Mixed Realism is an “amalgamation of desiderata informed by Platonism and Nominalism” (p. 151), especially looking to the nominalism of Devitt (2006) and his notion of RESPECT. These three desiderata are: (1) Providing separate accounts of creativity and ‘potential infinity’; (2) Linguistic theory is a theory of sentence types at the appropriate level of abstraction; (3) Linguistics is the study of NL, not of competence in NL, but the grammatical structures and structures of competence should nonetheless RESPECT each other (p. 155). Nefdt argues not just that infinity is not necessary for creativity, compositionality being enough, but also that Platonism is incompatible with creativity because it posits that maximal abstract languages exist independently of their speakers, which entails that apparent acts of creation are mere acts of discovery (p. 159). However, Nefdt here fails to distinguish between type and token. On Katz’ view (1998, p. 168), one certainly discovers a type but, in tokening it, creates a token of that type. Thus, creativity, originality, etc., can be explained in these terms. Regarding RESPECT, Nefdt acknowledges, Platonists are somewhat disrespectful. However, this is unsurprising given that, for example, mathematicians generally are analogously unconcerned with RESPECT for mathematical competence and output, and nor should we expect them to be. Hence, this desideratum is just another way of begging the question regarding linguistics, because RESPECT desired should not be considered in any way RESPECT earned. Nefdt provides the following view of linguistics (and reply to Postal’s warning): “One could either take it to be an empirical science with formal aspects or a formal science with empirical aspects (depending on your funding grant)” (p. 179). This is, whether an apparently motivated one or not, a way of avoiding the question, funding or no funding.

Martin Neef’s chapter ‘Autonomous Declarative Phonology: A realist approach to the phonology of German’, begins by discussing in what way “Linguistics is the scientific study of language” (p. 185). He follows both Katz (1981) and Saussure (1916) in distinguishing three kinds of linguistic approaches, based on a distinction between three concepts of language: ‘Language use’ (parole), which is an empirical object; ‘knowledge of language’ (loosely related to langage), which is a mental object; and, since knowledge is knowledge of something, ‘language system’ (langue), which is an abstract object. The methodology of the social sciences is apt for the empirical, that of psychology for the mental, and that of theoretical linguistics for the abstract. Neef notes that Chomsky made the brief of theoretical linguistics the mental, and Harris made it the empirical, but that he follows Katz in opting for the abstract. However, later he seems to align himself with realists of other persuasions, so it is uncertain exactly what he takes ‘abstract’ to mean and, indeed, why it is opposed to ‘empirical’ and ‘mental’. He also seems not to hold the same epistemic success criteria as Katz does, taking something more like a conventionalist line: “Given that there is no external evidence available to evaluate a theory of an abstract object, it is ultimately the reception of the theory in the linguistic discourse that determines its success” (p. 187). This is an epistemology neither of exactly what, nor of how. Neef’s phonology is based on his view of linguistic realism, and so it is autonomous from phonetics derived from language use, i.e., what it studies is not empirical. He says that it is similar to Declarative Phonology and Optimality Theory, but also to Lieb’s Integrational Linguistics (p. 189). The remainder of the chapter concerns the basics of such a phonology.

In Andreas Nolda’s chapter, ‘Explaining linguistic facts in a realist theory of word formation’, he assumes, following Katz and Postal, that “linguistics is an autonomous formal science” (1991, p. 515), and examines what “such a position means for a realist word-formation theory” (p. 204). He discusses two questions: (1) What are the true statements (‘facts’) to be described, explained, or predicted? and (2) what linguistic objects are they about? His answers being (1) the facts of the word-formation relations in a particular linguistic system, and (2) that these are about abstract lexical units. 1 and 2 are discussed in terms of his “Pattern-and-Restriction Theory (PR)”. Lexical units are understood in terms of Lieb’s “Integrational Linguistics (IL) as abstract pairings of a paradigm and a lexical meaning” (p. 205). Again, ‘abstract’ here is Lieb’s notion of abstract, not that of Katz and Postal. Nolda aims to show that word-formation facts “can be logically derived in PR from lawlike sentences – theorems of the word-formation theory” and system-specific facts, and that “such a logical derivation represents a deductive-nomological (DN) explanation or prediction in the sense of Hempel (1965)” (p. 205). The chapter is largely a formal one, for which Nolda provides, in an appendix, the symbols and axiomatic formalisation of PR employed. In DN, particular statements C1…Cn, and laws L1…Ln, together imply an explanandum/prediction statement E, and so are seen jointly as the explanans of E. However, it is not clear that any of the standard problems with DN have been addressed.

Scott Soames’ chapter, entitled ‘Cognitive propositions in realist linguistics’, in which he often refers to one of his recent books (2015), rewards careful reading. He argues against propositions as conceived by intensional semanticists, “[s]ince both truth and world-states are conceptually downstream from propositions” (p. 237). He takes propositions to be “a species of purely representational cognitive act-types o[r] operations” (p. 241). Entertaining a proposition “is not to cognize it but to perform it”; for example, to predicate red of o when representing o as red in thought or perception. It is primarily agents who represent the world, propositions doing so only derivatively (p. 239). Propositions do not “have to exist or be entertained in order to be true” (p. 241). Propositions are not sentences, they can be performed with or without the use of language; nor are they spatio-temporal performance events, and so are abstract (p. 241: n. 5). For a proposition to be the meaning of a sentence is for speakers to use the sentence to perform it. This does not require them to have any thoughts about the proposition or its relation to the sentence (p. 241). Soames believes that this notion of propositions “opens up new explanatory opportunities” regarding “cognitively distinct but representationally identical propositions” (p. 242), such as those in the classic puzzles treated by Frege and Kripke. Soames distinguishes between the representational semantic content and “what one who speaks the language understands when one understands it” (p. 236). The former cannot “be extracted from individual psychologies” and so “There is no such thing as semantic, as opposed to communicative competence” (pp. 249–50). The blind, or possible agents who perceive the usual colours via some other sense, can use words with the same semantic contents as the sighted, but may nonetheless have difficulty communicating with them for pragmatic reasons (p. 251). Soames makes the point that, in ascribing a predication to an alien being, one does not ascribe “the fine-grained neural realisations of those predications characteristic of normal human beings” (p. 252), even if predication by humans were reducible to such neural realisations. Thus, as in other realist frameworks, there is a distinction available between the language, which is the object of a realist semantics, and “its causal origin or its realization in particular populations of speakers.” (p. 252).

D. Terence Langendoen’s chapter, entitled ‘Languages as complete and distinct systems of reference’, begins by providing a useful commentary upon Edward Sapir’s article ‘The grammarian and his language’ (1924), quoting liberally from the original. In that article, Sapir posited two principles of language: “Formal completeness” and the “relativity of the form of thought” (‘formal distinctness’). Formal completeness is “the capacity to satisfy every communicative need” (p. 256). Langendoen suggests that formal completeness was “reinterpreted” by Katz (1972) as his principle of effability. However, Katz doesn’t mention Sapir in that regard: “the principle of effability, was, to the best of my knowledge, first suggested by Frege”; he also says that Tarski and Searle adopted similar principles (Katz, 1972, p. 19). In this section of Katz’ book, Sapir is instead mentioned together with Benjamin Lee Whorf in the context of being proponents of linguistic relativity (1972, p. 20). That is, the view that developed from Sapir’s principle of formal distinctness, which is, roughly, that language determines thought to some degree, through the relativity of concepts to the forms of distinct languages. Langendoen claims that these two principles have usually been considered separately and that “Sapir’s unified conception of languages as formally complete but distinct systems of reference for experience was not picked up on.” (p. 261). The remainder of the chapter is a formal exploration of this unified conception of language. Langendoen begins with arithmetic systems of reference that use digit strings with distinct numeral bases to refer to a denumerably infinite set, before moving on to systems of reference for the set of possible experiences. For this purpose, he offers an extension of first-order logic with a particular ordering for individuals, which is related to some earlier work by Richard Dedekind.

Armin Burkhardt’s chapter is entitled ‘The so-called arbitrariness of linguistic signs and Saussure’s ‘realism’’. Burkhardt distinguishes between (as Katz might have put it) the Saussure of legendary fame, i.e., the ‘structuralist’ of the ‘Cours’ (1916), the ‘avatar’ of his disciples’ promotion, and the Saussure of the unpublished writings who “insisted on the dynamic character of signs and the intrinsic diversity and instability of any language with regard to its historical and geographic appearance” (p. 272). Burkhardt points out that although the notion of arbitrariness is associated with Saussure the avatar, the man himself must have known that it “was already commonplace” (p. 277). Burkhardt shows that Saussure allowed for both absolute and relative arbitrariness, the former being unmotivated and the latter being more or less motivated. For example, onomatopoeic signs are at least somewhat motivated by the imitation of natural sounds, etc. Some proper names also have lexical meaning, by which they refer to properties of their referents, and in name-giving “proper names are hardly ever characterized by absolute arbitrariness” (p. 285). However, even these signifiers descend over time into arbitrariness as the original motivation is forgotten. Viewed in this way, absolute arbitrariness is merely a synchronic idealisation; the system of signs could have been otherwise, but the system as it stands is more or less motivated by various factors, which can be investigated both synchronically and diachronically. In a final section, entitled ‘Saussure – A realist?’, Burkhardt tries hard to shoehorn Saussure towards some kind of Katzian realist position, even though the shoe doesn’t fit either of his two Saussures. This leads to somersaults like the following one: “by calling language a ‘concrete object,’ the Geneva’s linguist’s, as it were, light version of conceptualism comes quite close to a realist position.” (p. 293). Further, Burkhardt’s final conclusion seems to be that Saussure didn’t really address the question of whether language qua object was abstract or concrete and, on some accounts, avoided doing so (pp. 293–4).


The editors explicitly situate the volume in a body of literature that stretches back at least to Katz’ (1981) tripartite division of foundational approaches into Nominalism, Conceptualism, and Platonism. The volume nonetheless admits of a range of other views on the topic of linguistic realism. There are some references made between chapters, and a number of points of debate on specific details. However, in the context of this breadth of perspectives, in some chapters there is a tendency for insufficient specification and slippage of terminology. That Platonists, Structuralists, and Constructivists are all called ‘Realists’ in some respect, or posit ‘abstract entities’, ‘types’, or ‘kinds’, in some sense, does not necessarily indicate any deep connection between their views. These terms and distinctions could have been handled with more care. The editors merely mention such differences of perspective generally in their introduction, but this does very little to assist or prepare the reader.

There would certainly seem to be unexplored avenues of research in this field. For example, Katz’ tripartite fork might not provide all of the options available regarding the ontological status of the objects of linguistics. Indeed, orthogonal distinctions have been mentioned in the literature, and some employed in chapters of the present volume. Rather than merely haranguing Chomskyan biolinguistics with variations upon the usual categorical arguments, further proofs of principle, applications, and debate are required from all quarters. Where the volume succeeds in these further challenges especially, either positively or critically, it is at its most progressive and engaging.


Anderson, Stephen R. & and Lightfoot, David. 2006. Biology and Language: A response to Everett (2005). Journal of Linguistics 42: 337–383

Behme, Christina. 2014. Assessing Direct and Indirect Evidence in Linguistic Research. Topoi 33: 373–383

Devitt, Michael. 2006. Ignorance of Language. Oxford: OUP

Hempel, Carl G. 1965. Aspects of scientific explanation. In Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other Essays in the Philosophy of Science, Carl G. Hempel, 331–496. New York Ny: The Free Press

Katz, Jerrold J. 1972. Semantic Theory. New York: Harper & Row

Katz, Jerrold J. 1981. Language and Other Abstract Objects. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield

Katz, Jerrold J. 1996. The Unfinished Chomskyan revolution. Mind & Language, Vol. 11. No. 3, pp. 270–294

Katz, Jerrold J. 1998. Realistic Rationalism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press

Katz, Jerrold J. and Postal, Paul M. 1991. Realism vs. Conceptualism in Linguistics Linguistics and Philosophy. Vol. 14, No. 5, pp. 515-554

Lieb, Hans-Heinrich. 1992. The case for a New Structuralism. In: Prospects for a New Structuralism [Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 96], Hans-Heinrich Lieb (ed.), 33–72. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Postal, Paul M. 2012. Chomsky’s Foundational Admission. LingBuzz. Online:

Resnik, Michael. 1997. Mathematics as a Science of Patterns. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Sapir, Edward. 1924. The grammarian and his language. American Mercury 1: 149–155. Reprinted in David G. Mandelbaum (ed.) 1963. Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in language, Culture and Personality, 150–159. Berkeley CA: University of California Press

de Saussure, Ferdinand. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot

Shapiro, Stewart. 1997. Philosophy of Mathematics: Structure and Ontology. Oxford: OUP

Soames, Scott. 2015. Rethinking Language, Mind, and Meaning. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press


Keith Begley is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, where he currently teaches epistemology, philosophy of science, analytic philosophy, and Heraclitus. His current research interests are in philosophy of language and linguistics, metaphysics, and history of philosophy, especially the work of Jerrold J. Katz and the ancient philosophy of Heraclitus. He has papers in preparation and forthcoming on Katz, logical atomism, explication, antonymy, and computational philology applied to Heraclitus.

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