Sunday, October 08, 2006

Sentences are physical structures

Frank Jackson says repeatedly that sentences (types and tokens) are physical structures. I am confused what he means by this. Just to be up front, I don't think anything in Jackson's argument hinges on this, but it is a very curious assertion. Starting with tokens, it seems fairly clear that they are physical structures. They are either markings on some surface or vibrations in the air or pixels in proper formations of color. Well, if you think that some intentions have to be the causes of these, then that caveat must be added. Now, let's take the sentence "Snow is white", just to stick to something we all know and love. Hand-written tokens, spoken tokens, and digital tokens are all possible, but there isn't anything physical that connects them as being tokens of one thing. On to types. It is hard to see how types of anything are physical structures as types are abstractions. If he means that they are types of physical structures, then he's probably right. They wouldn't be types of any one single physical structure though. This would make them disjunctive I guess. The ontology of language is kind of complex.

As an aside, Stanley Peters once told a funny story about how he gets confused when philosophers talk about sentences. He said that philosophers tend to see them as linear strings of characters, on a board or on paper. Linguists, he says, see them as complexly structured objects, not only in the syntactic dimension, but also in the phonetic dimension. The transition from a wave form to a string of characters or a syntactic structure, let alone a semantic object, is a huge step. While we can idealize away a lot of it (and we do), one needs to stop and ask, is the resulting theory really a theory of anything like the language we deal with? It is nice to know that linguists think stuff philosophers do is weird since I would venture a guess that philosophers think stuff linguists do is weird to some extent.

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