History and Philosophy of Linguistics Research Morning

Sam Lewin: A Utopian Instrument: Remarks on Neurath’s Protocols

Otto Neurath’s International Picture Language, an introduction to his pictographic language ISOTYPE, was first published in 1936. Written in the 850-word vocabulary of C. K Ogden’s Basic English, it was one of two books to come out of Neurath’s collaboration with Ogden. Opposite the book’s contents page is a brief but tantalising passage from H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, published three years earlier, which imagines Ogden’s Basic as the precursor of a future world language. The present talk accepts the invitation, implicit in this epigraph, to take Neurath’s ISOTYPE—and his thinking about language more broadly—as part of a Utopian project. The main business of the talk is to clarify how doing so helps us understand an important part of Neurath’s legacy: his protocols, his basic sentences of science. In a series of exchanges with Carnap in the early 1930s, Neurath elaborated his vision of a scientific language that would be global but not universal, a language, in other words, for the communication rather than the justification of knowledge. In this sense, we can think of Neurath’s protocols, like his encyclopaedia, as a ‘genre of synthesis’. The close connection between protocols and ISOTPYE is perhaps most evident here. The secondary business of the talk is to set out what is characteristically technological about Neurath’s account of language. Working with protocols will, Neurath supposes, change those who use them habitually. In a later paper, he writes that ‘[w]hat comes from an ‘experiment’ with a modified scientific language will be analysed by a man who is modified by this ‘experiment’ ’. Similarly, citizens of Wells’ future World State are modified by the ‘larger keyboard’ of their language. A language is, in this sense, not just an education technology but a ‘technology of self’, the repeated use of which will produce a new speaking subject in its image. Here, where a language and its ethos most clearly interanimate, is the consonance between Neurath and Utopist Wells most striking.

Paul Sidwell: A history of Austroasiatic studies: motivated incoherence

The study of the Austroasiatic  language family, particularly from a  comparative perspective, was put on a solid footing in the early 20th century with the publication of well organised data sets and historical analyses that solved many fundamental problems. Yet, the subsequent history of progress of the field was wracked with delays and conflicts over theory and method, often attributable to national academic traditions/imperatives and various “big men” whose working practices mitigated strongly against constructive cooperation and programmatic coherence. While there has been a tendency to blame events such as wars (hot and cold) and other external circumstances for lost opportunities and interruptions in work and cooperation, I reject these as poor excuses. In this talk I offer my personal take on the motivations and explanations underlying the broad course of Austroasiatic studies up to the present, reflecting on the lessons and successes.

Daniel Marra da Silva: Language levels: Eugenio Coseriu’s linguistic theory

From his very early writings onwards, the Romanian linguist Eugenio Coseriu, like Saussure before him and Coseriu’s own contemporary Chomsky, delineated the concept of ‘linguistic knowledge’. His pursuit of this concept led him to elaborate his famous distinctions of the ‘levels of language’, which came to be one of his most important contributions to linguistic theory. Coseriu’s theoretical proposal consists of a complex set of distinctions that he considers of capital importance to the understanding of what linguistic knowledge or linguistic competence is. Besides presenting Coseriu’s distinctions of the levels of language, this talk details his view of the nature, content and structure of linguistic competence. It also analyses the external and internal circumstances that explain the widespread ignorance of Coseriu’s ideas in the realm of contemporary general linguistics, including the existence of an effective ideological boycott of his work, as well as language barriers, strategic errors, and misunderstandings of his theories.

Nick Riemer: Magic and the ideological critique of linguistics

A remarkable characteristic of the structural and descriptive mainstream of contemporary linguistics is its general obliviousness to the numerous ideological and other critiques that have emerged of its most basic assumption, namely the very viability of formal explanation of language along ‘scientific’ lines. After surveying some representative examples of these critiques, I give an account of one significant obstacle they face: their essentially ‘magical’ analysis of the ideological import of theoretical ideas. This account, inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972), is followed by an attempt to recast the classical ideological criticisms of structural/descriptive linguistics in a way that insulates them from the kind of objection that Baudrillard makes. In doing so, I hope to suggest the seriousness with which the ideological analysis of linguistics should be taken, while also contextualising it with respect to some classic political critiques of so-called “bourgeois” social science.

Hourly Schedule

9.30 - 9.45
Why the history and philosophy of linguistics?
9.45 - 10.15
Sam Lewin (HPS, Sydney): A Utopian Instrument: Remarks on Neurath’s Protocols
10.15 - 10.45
Paul Sidwell (Linguistics, Sydney): A history of Austroasiatic studies: motivated incoherence
10.45 - 11.15
Discussion and questions
11.15 - 11.30
11.30 - 12.00
Daniel Marra da Silva (Federal Institute of Tocantins, Brazil): Language levels: Eugenio Coseriu’s linguistic theory
12.00 - 12.30
Nick Riemer (English and Linguistics, Sydney): Magic and the ideological critique of linguistics
12.30 - 1.00
Discussion and questions


29 Mar 2019


9:30 am - 1:00 pm


Rogers Room N397
John Woolley A20, The University of Sydney
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