Is Linguistics a Science?

Only rarely is the question posed about the scientific character of linguistics. When it is asked, it is usually with the aim of ‘proving’ that linguistics is a science, or in order to overhaul it into a ‘proper science.’ The latter is the case of Leonard Bloomfield’s seminal 1926 article ‘A Set of Postulates for the Science of Language’ (Language, Vol 2, No 3, pp 153–164). ‘Scientific’ in this case means governed by general and unchangeable laws of ‘nature’ (Universe, the material reality), as in the case of laws of matter, which are discovered by physicists or chemists. Furthermore, such scientific character of a research subject may be limited to a system smaller than the Universe, for instance, to life on Earth, when researched by biologists. Only recently did they find the scientific basis of their discipline of biology in DNA and the theory of evolution.

Linguistics and the Social Reality

In other terms, scientific means observable (with senses) and independent of human will. Only when a phenomenon is accessible to repeated observation by all interested humans, and none of humans is capable of altering the very nature of a phenomenon at hand, this phenomenon may be analyzed in a scientific manner. Subsequently, such observation may yield the discovery of a law that governs the nature of the phenomenon in question everywhere across the (material) system where this phenomenon occurs.

Does the subject matter of linguistic research fulfill the criteria of being accessible to scientific analysis? This subject matter into which linguists usually delve is languages in plural (Einzelsprachen). But languages as discrete entities are the creation of human ingenuity, including the western in its origin concept of Einzelsprache (‘a language’). By definition, each artifact crated by humans and their groups is dependent on human will, and as such is not accessible to scientific scrutiny. It is part of the social (‘fictive,’ imagined) reality that humans and their groups generate, maintain and alter as they wish and see fit. Elements of the social reality exist solely as shared concepts in human minds, recorded in certain neural configurations in the brain. The social reality and its elements are neither accessible to senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing) nor to detecting or measuring devices and instruments employed by scientists, be it a telescope, microscope, ph meter, or an odometer. A human in order to be able to ‘see’ an element of the social reality with her ‘mind’s eye’ must be ‘in the know.’ She must share the concept of this element with other humans who act as though it existed in the material world, and she must act as the others do with regard to this element.

The social reality is the environment in which all humans and their groups are necessarily immersed. It is the medium through which they interact. The social reality makes humans and their groups human, as we understand it. The structure and dynamics of this social reality is researched by scholars within the disciplines of the social sciences and humanities. Because the social reality is created by humans and solely dependent on human will, a scholar of this type does not hope to discover any laws in the scientific meaning of this word. No laws similar to those, which physicists, chemists or biologists identify, are there to be discovered in the case of the social reality. No such ones exist. The only things which can be discovered are certain regularities which last for a couple of generations in this or that set of human groups.

Ergo, linguistics is at most a social science, not a natural science, like physics or biology. The social reality is secondary to the material reality. Hence, in the case of the linguistic there must be a link between languages that are part of this social reality of a secondary character, and the material reality that is of the primary character. This link is the human biological (material) capacity for language (Sprache), or speech, which developed in the course of the biological evolution. Speech in this biological (material) sense is not dependent on human will. Humans, however, can ‘do things’ with it, which, among others, lead to the generation and maintenance of the social reality. But humans did not create and do not control the biological hard wiring of speech into the human body, let alone the evolutionary process that in the first place led to the emergence of this biological (material) capacity for language in humans.

The primary (evolutionary) function of language was to improve the human capacity for forming and maintaining socially cohesive (‘closely-knit’) groups. Language gave humans ‘an edge,’ allowing them to create numerically much larger and more stable groups than in the case of other animals. As a result, Humankind as a species was able to extend disproportionally their originally tiny ecological niche across Earth’s landmasses, to the detriment of the majority of the planet’s other species. The rise of the social reality is a mere side effect of the afore-described evolutionary development. Likewise, communication (dispassionate exchange of information) is a secondary function of language, unnecessary for group bonding, though indispensable for the generation and maintenance of the social reality.

In a nutshell, language (Sprache, speech, biological capacity for language) is primary, while languages (Einzelsprachen) are secondary. Language (Sprache) belongs to the biological (material) reality, while languages (Einzelsprachen) to the social reality. Humans use their biological (material) capacity for language (Sprache, speech) in order to create languages (Einzelsprachen) that, in turn, constitute the very (imagined, ‘fictive’) medium, which is already part of the social reality (‘culture,’ ‘politics,’ ‘economy,’ ‘social relations’), and through which this social reality is also generated and maintained.

However, some sub-disciplines of linguistics probe into the biological capacity for language, which constitutes part of the material (biological) reality. Because this capacity and its biological wiring into human bodies are not dependent on human will and are not part of the social reality, findings of such sub-disciplines of linguistics may be scientific. Perhaps, thus far the most important scientific discovery of linguistics is the identification of phoneme, as the basic building block of language (Sprache, speech). Humans are biologically wired for production and detection of phonemes. This happens at the subconscious level, humans do not control the process. However they use the effects of this process for generating and maintaining the social reality.

26 September 2017

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