Philosophical Interests

Philosophy of Language

  

My general area of interest is philosophy of language which includes a very broad interest in sociological and socio-economic approaches to the study of language, as well as the following topics: communication in other species, the evolution of language, language and identity, the politics of language, innate and learned concepts, meta-ethics and trolley problems, artificial intelligence, and even more broadly, languages of art, formal languages, and scientific languages. 


My area of specialization is the science of language contrasting the innatist (rationalist) perspective (say, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Jerry Fodor, James Mcgilvray) with cultural and behaviorist or empiricist or causal approaches (say, Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, Saul Kripke, and Hilary Putnam). 


Briefly summarizing the main argument of my thesis: if we can justifiably distinguish the science of language from the science of human nature, then we do nonetheless need a way to talk about what we use language for, and possibly also, a structured way of contrasting language-use with what we should be using it for. Part of the goal of the thesis is to rescue philosophical work from a kind of misinterpretation of the Chomskyan internalist project. I do think the generative approach is on the right track; language is primarily a faculty generating mature idiolects in the context of E-languages (dialects and instituted languages). However, I introduced the notion of C-language in my thesis thus providing researchers with a new avenue from which to approach topics like linguistic diversity, propaganda, feminism, norms, political constitutions, and so on, without arguing against innate biological structure and atomic concepts. In other words, one can accept naturalism without giving up on philosophical concerns. We should keep in mind also, that Chomsky’s political work (e.g. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman) would, in this framework, be understood to be in the domain of C-language studies.


My research has grown from a general interest in the languages of the arts and sciences. What links all my research interests is the word ‘language’ taken in its widest senses to include all symbol systems, including maps, graphs, scores, and paintings. I believe that properly distinguishing the languages of the sciences from both natural language and artistic languages, while appreciating the role the arts play in how we understand our worlds is the best place to start in philosophy of language. I was fortunate enough to meet Nelson Goodman, his student Noam Chomsky, and more recently Philip Kitcher, who have all maintained similar views on this topic. 


According to Israel Scheffler, Goodman’s Languages of Art “brought art and science into communication, providing an ingenious common framework for analyses of musical scores, literary scripts, scientific discourses, pictorial depictions, architecture and dance.” 


My work as a doctoral student has led to two connected projects that I am currently developing. The first project is from cognitive science and concerns the line one can draw between innate concepts and learned concepts (if there are such things). If concepts undergird our social and instituted linguistic meanings (and I think they must) then we have a way to compare natural language-use and its involvement with the arts to concepts in scientific languages. There is no doubt that innateness is a problem topic. When done badly, it results in terrible conclusions that can be used to fight against progressive movements for greater equality. 


The second project I am currently exploring relates to artificial intelligence (AI). While I am conservative regarding how successful AI will be in helping us explain how humans create grammars (we are fundamentally natural creatures) I do think that because AI is flourishing to the extent that it is, it is of great importance for students in the humanities to understand the fundamentals of the topic, and therefore, I am currently building a reading list in order to introduce AI to my students. 


I have co-taught courses in philosophy of language at Université de Montréal and I have also taught art courses at the university level. As a visual person, I am also intrigued by the representation of complex concepts by visual means, say I-language, E-language, or volume integrals in three-dimensional calculus. Richard Feynman offered the following humorous description of his own mind which expresses what I am trying to convey: “as [the mathematicians] are telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something that fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set.... one ball... disjoint... two balls. Then the balls turn colours, grows hairs... Finally, they state the theorem... which is some dumb thing about the ball, which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, False!” While imagery may not be for every student, it may be helpful for some.


I am currently a PhD candidate in Philosophy at McGill University and my supervisor is Ian Gold.


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