Re: Metalanguage and Metaphysics (was: aspect of present tense)

Carl W. Conrad (
Fri, 13 Dec 1996 07:28:03 -0600

At 10:35 PM -0600 12/12/96, M. Palmer wrote:
>On Thu, 12 Dec 1996, Carl W. Conrad wrote:
>> [SNIP]. . . do we really
>> have an objective "meta-language" for describing the tense systems of
>> English and Greek (or whatever other languages one may choose) that is
>> independent of the perspective of one or both of the languages compared?
>Objective, no. We do have a metalanguage, but I would call it more
>*relative* than objective. In fact, from one point of view linguistics is
>an attempt to develop just such a metalanguage. Of course total
>objectivity is not really possible. We are always to some degree
>dependent on the categories of the languages we speak, though we can
>certainly attempt to minimize that dependence by critically evaluating
>those categories. We work in the tension between the goal of objectivity
>and our dependence on what we already know.
>> [SNIP]. . . I worry increasingly that our descriptive categories
>> for Greek and Latin and English grammar (these are the ones I'm most
>> concerned about, but I think the same might apply to other languages) are
>> derived from each other and tend to misrepresent, at least sometimes, the
>> distinctive nature of the language being described.
>This is a worry which any linguist worth her or his salt must share. In
>fact, one of the major objectives of linguistics is to urge the critical
>evaluation of these very descriptive categories. We never reach the final
>goal of developing the perfect categories, completely independent of the
>languages we speak (though a few linguists seem to *think* we have
>done so), and even if we did, the next generation would simply
>reinterpret them in accord with the expectations of its own language(s).
>Still, we constatly strive to sharpen our critical skills, becoming more
>and more aware of the limitations of our categories and adapting them to
>overcome as many of thos limitations as possible.
>> [SNIP]. . . What philosophic assumptions underly the
>> metalanguage of Linguistics?
>That depends entirely on which brand of linguistics you choose. The main
>deviding lines between the various schools of linguistics in present use
>are defined by this question.

Micheal, I cannot tell you how very refreshing it is to read this response.
I have always (well, since undergraduate days, at any rate) thought that it
is very important to be conscious of the difference between what one can
affirm with bold confidence and what one is ready to affirm provisionally
because it is the best understanding one has regarding a particular
question or set of questions. I have been repeatedly dismayed by the
unwillingness, particularly of my own colleagues, to question fundamental
assumptions, as if it were either not worth while to do so or (I suspect)
they don't want to consider the abyss of what is really unknown to us, of
how little we honestly understand about the matters regarding which we
profess certitude and competence.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR