A History of Language Philosophies (Studies in the History by Lia Formigari

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By Lia Formigari

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Even the radical opposition between an empiricist approach (the mind is originally a tabula rasa, speech is learned by experience) and the rationalist one (speech develops spontaneously as a natural endowment of man) is largely a stereotype. A philosophical theory of language has to keep the two aspects of the problem together. In other words, it must explain semantic arbitrariness without denying the universality of the mechanisms governing the logic of language, describe the multiplicity of languages without denying the unity of language, distinguish between the accidental aspects of learning and the results of linguistic instinct.

In fact, however, there was no transition to explain; any separation between the two phases — private individual invention and the social use of signs in communication — is excluded from the start, not only by Epicurus (Brunschwig 1977), but by the whole naturalist tradition. Invention is set off by universal mental mechanisms. Since the stimuli of the environment for each community of speakers are largely the same, the linguistic responses within the community are similarly uniform. Thus, the private language phase never takes place; from the outset natural signs enjoy the same degree of consensus that characterizes actual languages.

In the ancient world, musicians, too, along with grammarians, studied phonetics, using syllables as metrical units; physicians, from Hippocrates to Galen, described the anatomic structure of the organs of phonation and studied their movements and pathologies. Philosophers focused on the mechanisms that transform voice into signifying speech. We have already seen the description of this transition from mere bodily action to symbolizing function in Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Thanks to this function, the Stoics included the study of voice as signifying sound into dialectics.

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