Walker Percy Wednesday 179


The Antinomy of Language

Examples of the linguistic assertion S is P.

Dr. ltard writes in The Savage of Aveyron that he tried to teach Victor the wild boy the word for milk, lait, as a sign of a biological need, by withholding the milk and uttering the word in its absence. This failed: After the milk was given to Victor, however, and the word lait uttered by chance, to Dr. ltard’s astonishment, Victor understood at once that lait was the name of the milk.

What is this?


What color is it?


Did you drink some?

This morning I drank some milk.

tl ‘imshya ‘isita ‘itlma

(He invites people to a feast)

(A sentence in the Nootka language)

(1) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is proposed to him as a true-or-false-or-nonsense claim:

I receive your statement S is P as a true-or-false-or-nonsense claim. I shall accept it as more or less true or false or as nonsense according to my criteria of verification.

If you wish to call this white liquid milk, then I will agree to the semantic rule by which the symbol “milk” shall henceforth be applied to this white liquid.

If you say that milk is a liquid, or that milk is a gas, or that milk is upside down, I shall accept your statement as asserting a state of affairs which is open to verification and otherwise is nonsense.

(2) What the scientist thinks of the assertion S is P when the assertion is itself a phenomenon under investigation, to be ordered with other phenomena in the general corpus of scientific knowledge:

An interchange of language is not the uttering and receiving of sentences which assert or deny a state of affairs in the world; it is rather a space-time sequence of stimuli and responses which are meaningful only in the sociobiological sense of learned behavior. A language symbol and the understanding of it are not qualitatively different from the signal and response of animal behavior (Morris, Mead). “In its biophysical aspect language consists of soundproducing movements and of the resultant sound waves and of the vibration of the hearer’s eardrums. The biosocial aspect of language consists in the fact that the persons in a community have been trained to produce these sounds in certain situations and to respond to them by appropriate actions” (Bloomfield). Human meaning is a context of stimulus and response (Ogden and Richards). Only causal sequential relations between signs and organisms are real; denotative relationships are not real but semantical (Ogden and Richards, Chase). The relation of identification between word and thing, subject and predicate is “wrong” (Korzybski). Human meaning and mind itself is a product of responses and responses to responses (Mead). A symbol and the idea associated with it cannot possibly refer to a real state of affairs in the world; if it did, it could only be a copy; a realistic metaphysic must always end in skepticism (Cassirer).

In summary, the sentence you speak is not, after all, a true-or-false-or-nonsense claim referring to a state of affairs in the world. It is instead a biological signal mediating an adjustment between organisms and the organisms’ response to an environment. It is impossible for me to take your meaning intersubjectively; I can only respond to your behavior.

(3) Comment. The source of the antinomy and the central phenomenon of language is a relationship which the scientific method cannot construe by its functional schema and hence must disqualify as “wrong.” It is the peculiar relationship of denotation between name and thing and the relationship of identity between subject and predicate.

The antinomy is found in its most characteristic form in the current discipline of “semiotic,” which attempts to bring together pragmatics, syntax, and semantics into the unity of a single science. Semiotic is basically incoherent because it tries to unite the corpus of natural science (organic and inorganic matter in functional interaction) with the corpus of semantics and syntax (naming and asserting and calculus formation by rule) without showing how one discipline is related to the other.

Thus semanticists find themselves in the position of protesting as objective scientists against the very subject matter of their science, the relation of denotation. The science of semantics is the study of the rules by which symbols are assigned to their designata. Yet the science of responding organisms (behavioristics) does not explain how organisms can “assign” names to things in the first place. The relation of denotation is said to be only a “semantical relation,” but its status is never settled from the point of view of the scientific method beyond saying that it is not a “real” relation. One simply speaks in one breath of organisms responding to an environment and in the next of organisms assigning names and making propositions about the world (Reichenbach).

The central act of language, both of naming-classificatory sentences and predicate sentences, is an intentional act of identity. It is essentially a pairing of elements which amounts to an is-saying. In a naming sentence, This is grass, a symbol and a thing are paired and the pairing is the means by which the namer intends that this green blade is one of a group. The basic sentence Grass is green is an identification brought about by a dividing and a composing, a union of the thing with what the thing is. The identity in either case is not real-no one believes that word is the grass or that the grass is the same as its color-but intentional. The identity is the instrument with which the knowing subject affirms the object to be what it is.

The stumbling block to a scientific philosophy of language is the pairing of elements in the assertory act. The scientific method can only grasp elements ordered in a functional or dependent relation, the causal order of the function E = f (C). The assertory act cannot be grasped in a scientist-data framework in which the scientist practices an activity which he disallows in the data. A scientist will accept the statement S is P as a proposition open to verification or disproof. He pays attention to sentences and for himself accepts them as stating a possible fact about the world. When he hears this sound in the air, “A gas expands in direct proportion to temperature increases,” he receives the sound as an intending instrument, an assertion open to verification. But if one asked the scientist to study the sound-sentence not as an assertion to be proved or disproved, not as a phonetic phenomenon subject to Grimm’s law of consonantal change, but as an assertory phenomenon to be grasped as such by his method, the scientist cannot reply coherently. The functional method of the sciences cannot construe the assertory act of language. The only alternative open to the positivist philosopher of language is to accept the peculiar assertory relation of language as a “semantical phenomenon” but to disqualify it as a real “scientific” phenomenon. The upshot is not merely an incoherent exposition of language but a contradictory one, an antinomy.

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