A dreary foray into linguistics

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Oh dear. One of my favorite columnists, Nicholas Kristof, wrote this in his column today on animal rights:

Professor Singer wrote a landmark article in 1973 for The New York Review of Books and later expanded it into a 1975 book, “Animal Liberation.” That book helped yank academic philosophy back from a dreary foray into linguistics and pushed it to confront such fascinating questions of applied ethics as: What are our moral obligations to pigs?

No comment. Just a sad sigh. (I'm all for the animal rights topic, just "too" and not "instead".) I have no idea why he feels that way (or who he got it from.)


  1. Tim Silverman said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    Perhaps he means "linguistic philosophy" rather than "linguistics". By 1975, of course, the Russelian attitude that all philosphical problems were really confusions over language was long since dead, but it seems to have left an enduring impression outside philosophy.

    Or perhaps Kristof found formal semantics dull…

  2. Mark Eli Kalderon said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 8:12 am

    I think Tom is on the right track, but I suspect that something more specific is being gestured at. Not just the "linguistic turn" in philosophy, but also the way in which ethics in the mid-twentieth century had been dominated by metaethics where the foucs is more on the language of morals than on morality per se. So the contrast is with, say, the emotivism of Ayer (who claimed that moral utterances were nonfactual but served only to express the emotional attitudes of the speaker). If you are an emotivist, the only substantive matters of fact in the area are not about morality, only about the language of morality. Anyway, real linguists are not the target here, I think.

  3. language hat said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    Yeah, I'm pretty sure this isn't about actual linguists. I'd love to know what he meant, though.

  4. Bloix said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    He is presumably referring to ordinary language philosophy, also known as linguistic philosophy, a branch of philosophy associated with Wittgenstein and having nothing to do with linguistics.

    Given the singular importance he awards to Singer in redirecting philosophy to practical issues, he has apparently never heard of John Rawls, among others.

  5. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    Maybe he was reflecting Wittgenstein's Tractatus, which has been described as a meditation on the declarative sentence.

    Here's the obligatory YouTube link:


    Of course, Wittgenstein elaborated on the idea to some extent in his later work.

    It is not widely known that Wittgenstein's first interest was in the aerodynamics of kites.

  6. Gramsci said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 10:54 am

    Mark has the idea, I think. Philosophy in the 70's was not brooding over the final lines of the Tractatus nor, for that matter, was it too enamored with Wittgenstein's "ordinary language" work. It had moved onto the professionalized, technical address of "problems" into which it divided its task (philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, ethics, etc.). I think what Kristof is getting at is Anglo-American analytical philosophy's prepossession with nailing down the truth conditions of various kinds of statements (including ethical ones), often with very formalized, technical argumentation. Using such logical notation often repelled the type of student (like Kristof?) who thought "philosophy" would be about the "big," immediately impressive questions, why live life, how do we treat animals, etc.

  7. Barbara Partee said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Well, I know it isn't directed at "linguistics linguistics" (that's a "salad salad" construction, discussed somewhere on LL), but the early 1970's is just when philosophers and linguists were working together so productively, so I'm unhappy if he's targeting philosophers like Montague and Thomason and Stalnaker and Terry Parsons and Grice and Quine and Davidson and David Kaplan and Hamblin and Cresswell and David Lewis and Hans Kamp and Michael Bennett and John Perry and Keith Donnellan and …. I can't IMAGINE the word "dreary" for all that explosion of wonderful work! My worry is that as Tim Silverman suggests at the end, maybe he finds formal semantics DULL???

  8. John Lawler said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    ¡ ¬◊ (∃x) (∃y) (Human (x) ∧ Semantix (y) ∧ Formal (y) ∧ Study (x, y) ∧ Perceive (x, Dull (x, Study (x, y)))) !

  9. Ian said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 12:54 pm

    Linguistics has applications in ethics too, such as delineating what one means by "moral obligations".

  10. Rubrick said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    You're all off target. Clearly it's a typo. He actually meant "dreamy".

  11. Q. Pheevr said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    In the spirit of John Lawler's comment, I would note:

    [∀x: foray(x)] ¬dreary(x) ∨ ¬linguistic(x)

  12. peter mcburney said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    Further to Dan Lufkin and Barbara Partee: At the time Charles Hamblin died, he was engaged in setting the Tractatus to music, and complaining that modern undergraduates were increasingly unwilling to learn a new language in order to complete a coursework assignment. Nothing dreary about him!

  13. Morten Jonsson said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

    For some reason, as much as I love animals, and as much as I'm befuddled by serious linguistics, I find linguistics a much more inviting topic than animal rights.

  14. Barbara Partee said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    Thank you John Lawler!! And Q Pheevr has gone even further (further than I would — I'm very inclusive)! And hey, while Q Pheevr's here, I can thank him for the great testimonial letter he's just written for the Linguist List fund drive! (I posted about it on Live Journal, but I don't know if he's seen it there since it's posted on my own site. LJ has some disadvantages compared with Facebook, though for real discussions it's nicer, more like this blog). I saw it in advance since I'm on the Advisory Board; watch for it any day now on the Fund Drive page, under a different name!
    I imagine that Gramsci and Mark Eli are probably right. Just like most people didn't like diagramming sentences in school — though I still can't imagine why!

  15. Barbara Partee said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

    Oh, and I found Nick Kristof's blog, which is taking comments on that column, and told him I liked the column except for that gratuitous remark about linguistics, and told him that over here we were speculating about why, and asked him if he wanted to tell us why himself, though I doubt he'll have time to. And I mentioned lots of philosophers of language who were doing exciting wonderful stuff in the 70s. I did mention Hamblin. Exciting to hear what he was doing at the end.

  16. Ben S. said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    I think MEK (second comment) is probably right in his guess that Kristof is referring to meta-ethics. Metaethics is not concerned, directly, with specific moral questions such as "is it right/wrong to do X?" but rather about what do we *mean* when we say "it is right to do X". This gets into lots of discussion about the language of morals because it seems that exploring how moral words function can help to answer the question. Ayer, if I remember correctly, basically thought that "X is right" = "I approve of X" –as MEK notes this was "emotivism" because under this view, moral statements do not express facts about the world. (Because in this view, there *are* no moral facts to express. In meta-ethics parlance, if you *do* think there are moral truths you are a "realist"). In any case metaethics itself is pretty interesting and is supposed to be about the nature of morality, not the language of morality, not that I'd doubt that some veered off in that direction.

  17. Nathan Myers said,

    April 9, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

    Can't the foray itself be dreary, whatever fields it happens to trample underfoot?

  18. Americaman said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 3:22 am

    Hardly a Russellian attitude. Russell had no patience with the later Wittgenstein, J. L. Austin, and their ilk. They had given up serious thinking in favor of game playing, he thought. See "My Philosophical Development" for specifics.

  19. acilius said,

    April 10, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I for one am not committed to emotivism in either ethics or aesthetics, and would be grateful to someone who could present arguments that would convince me that there were objective standards of evaluation that we should use in making either ethical or aesthetic judgements. If there are objectively true standards of aesthetic judgement, it might be wrong to describe the work of Quine, Davidson, et id genus omne by the aesthetic label "dreary."

    If there are objective standards of aesthetic judgement that transcend the emotional reactions of particular individuals, then perhaps Kristof should consult those transcendent standards in formulating a description of Quine and company. Such standards might show that, even though the works of Quine (for example) may depress Kristof and leave him with a feeling of despair, and even though the testimony of everyone he knows who has ever assigned Quine to an undergrad philosophy class may justify him in expecting most of his readers to have the precisely the same reaction, still he should not tell those readers that Quine's works are dreary, because they are in reality beautiful and thrilling. The true standards of aesthetic judgement might tell him so. Pending the discovery of such standards, I don't see how we can reprove Kristof for his tastes.

    The issue might be different had Kristof labeled the "linguistic turn" as "silly," or "trivial," or even "pedantic." These would seem to be characterizations of the work itself and of its position within the larger discussions of which it is part. One might rebut those characterizations by analyzing the substance of the work and exploring its influence. But as I understand words like "dreary," "tedious," "dull," "boring," and "soporific," they seem to characterize an aesthetic response to an object rather than the object itself.

  20. Baka said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 2:27 am

    Sometimes things don't mean anything. Writing fast is part of newspaper journalism traditionally (as one of my editors told me, getting it done it fast is part of the gig–papers have printing schedules to keep and news gets old fast)) and it was once assumed that readers would quickly forget what they had read and not refer back to it much less "blog" about it. Under pressure to get it out fast, mistakes get made and cliches get "trotted out".Things have changed.. Likely Kristol didn't mean much or anything by his comment about linguistics, which is even assuming that he had a clear idea of what "linguistics" means to the folks who do it in the first place, which I wouldn't bet on.

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