Agency, Structure and Realism in Language and Linguistics

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


    This thesis considers the scientific status of linguistics and the historical and contemporary attempts to view linguistics as closely aligned to, or one of, the natural sciences. Such attempts share certain common features that make up what is identified here as the ‘Formalist Attitude’. The question ‘what is a language?’ is central to the discussion of the scientific status of linguistics, so a central task of the thesis is to show how answers to this question display the features of the Formalist Attitude. In particular it is shown that attempts to constrict the theoretical purview of linguistics around a view of language that sustains claims to natural scientific status fail to account for the social ontology of language and the role of speakers within the creation and reproduction of language. A consequence of this failure is an inability to explain important language phenomena such as language change, arbitrariness and knowledge of language, which the alternative conception of language defended here successfully accounts for. ‘Language’ is best seen as a power of
    speakers to communicate with one another, a view which emphasises the motivated, social, reproductive and transformative aspects of actual speech. The negative and positive arguments jointly defended, support the view that linguistics, considered with respect to its object of knowledge, methodology and ability to offer explanations and predictions, is not akin to natural science but should be considered a social science. Besides historical contextualisation of the problem, the thesis looks at current trends, such as cognitive and integrationist linguistics, that are broadly consistent with its criticisms and conclusions. The purpose of the thesis then is twofold; to identify, explain and criticise a problematic and influential tradition within linguistics and then to provide
    some Lockean underlabouring for contemporary linguistics that will be valuable to linguists and philosophers.
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Sussex
    Award date1 Nov 2012
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2012


    • Philosophy
    • Linguistics
    • Realism
    • Philosophy of Language
    • Social sciences


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