[hist-analytic] Deliberation and Grammar

Danny Frederick danny.frederick at tiscali.co.uk
Mon Jul 13 15:41:20 EDT 2009

Hi Steve and JL,


Did you read that paper to which Stephen Clark posted a link on Philos-L
last week? The woman who wrote it has a companion piece, entitled
'Linguistic Relativity,' available on her webpage, in which she considers a
sentence 'the elephant ate the peanuts.' She says:



'In Russian, the verb would need to include tense and also whether the
peanut-eater was male or female (though only in the past tense), and whether
said peanut-eater ate all of the peanuts or just a portion of them.'



Now suppose that a particular Russian speaker has the idea that elephants
are not animals at all, but are cleverly constructed machines placed on
earth by aliens to monitor us and send information back to some planet with
an unpronounceable name. He thinks, then, that elephants have no sex. If he
wants to say that the elephant ate the peanuts, he can do so only by
violating a rule of Russian grammar. His Russian comrades (if they are still
called that) who are aware of his eccentric theorising will understand what
he means despite, or because of, the solecism.  His thought could be
expressed only by means of an ungrammatical sentence; and it could be
understood (given some context) in virtue of the kind of grammatical error


I don't speak Russian, so this example may need some re-working to be stated
properly. But it seems to be a simple enough case.


It also shows that, in the sense of 'conceptual scheme' commonly associated
with linguistic relativity, we really can change a conceptual scheme at the
drop of a hat (Popperian or other).


But it is (or was) generally thought that grammar reflects a conceptual
scheme in a much more metaphysically significant way. Thus, the
subject-predicate relation seems to be straightforwardly linked to the
metaphysics of objects and properties. The Russell-Frege logic of relations
and functions had metaphysical implications (I can only vaguely remember it,
but I recall that Russell's book on Leibniz laboured this point). But even
Russell-Frege logic retains the particular-universal metaphysic, as
relations are just universals instantiated by ordered n-tuples. But we do
not need to have a metaphysic of objects and properties/relations, do we? We
could have a stuff or 'feature-placing' metaphysics, or a Parmenidean or
Einsteinian block-universe view, or something else. And young children,
according to Piaget, initially inhabit a world of free-floating properties
rather than things. It may be that we can only properly describe the world
in these various ways by breaking the bounds of our ordinary grammar.


This is all a bit speculative and unthought-out, as I have very little time
to read, think or write at the moment, being preoccupied with more practical
affairs. But any comments are welcome, especially critical ones.





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