Dummett-When I Know a Language.pdf

Dummett-When I Know a Language.pdf - 3 What do I Know when...

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Unformatted text preview: 3 What do I Know when I Know a Language? Our usual ways of thinking about the mastery of a language, or of this and that element of it, are permeated by the conception that this mastery consists in knowledge. To understand an expression is to know its meaning; we speak of knowing what an ostrich is, of knowing what “credulous” means, and, above all, of knowing Swedish or Spanish. Are we to take seriously the use of the verb “to know" in this connection? ls an ability to speak a language really a case of knowledge? The verb “to know" is used in connection with many practical abilities: in English we speak of “knowing how to swim/ride a bicycle" and in French, for example, one says “ll sait nager” rather than “i1 pent nager". But does the knowledge—the practical knowledge—involved in these cases explain the practical ability, or is it, rather, that the practical ability is all there is to the practical knowledge, that our appeal in these cases to the concept of knowledge is a mere manner of speaking, not to be taken seriously? And, if the latter view is correct, does not the same hold of the mastery of the language, which is also a practical ability? A character in one of the novels of the English humourist P. G. Wodehouse, asked whether she can speak Spanish, replies, “I don’t know: We never tried”. Where does the absurdity of this lie? Would there be the same absurdity in giving that answer to the question. “Can you swim?" The suggestion that the absurdity would be the same in both cases amounts to the proposal that our use of the verb “to know" in these two connections—“knowing Spanish”, “knowing how to swim"—is due to the empirical fact that speaking Spanish and swimming are things no one can do‘ unless he has been taught, that is, has been subjected to a certain training; “to know", in these cases, means “to have learned”. But is this right? It is only an empirical fact that we cannot swim unless we have been taught. It would not be magic if someone were, instinctively as we should say, to make the right movements the first time he found himself in water, and, indeed, I have heard it said that this is just what happens when very small infants are put in water. But it seems natural to think that it would be magic if someone who had not been brought up to speak Spanish and First published as a paper resented at the Centena C l b l‘ ' ' 24 May l978_ p ry ee ra Ions, Stockholm Untverstty. What do I Know when I Know a Language? 95 had never learned it since were suddenly to start speaking it. If asked for an explanation of the difference, we should be inclined to say that, if you are to speak Spanish, there are a great many things that you have to know, just as there are many things that you have to know if you are to play chess. The difference lies in the fact that speaking a language is a conscious process. We can conceive that someone, put in the water for the first time, might simply find himself swimming. He need not, in any sense, know what he is doing; he need not even know that he is swimming. But what are we imagining when we imagine that someone, arriving for the first time in his life in a Spanish- speaking country, should find himself speaking Spanish? There are two different cases, according as we suppose that he knows what he is saying or that he just hears the words coming out of his mouth without knowing what they mean. In either case, it is magic, but, in the latter case, although, miraculously, he can speak Spanish, he still does not know Spanish. Knowing Spanish, or knowing how to speak Spanish, is not, after all, to be compared with knowing how to swim. Both may be called practical capacities: but practical capacities are not all of one kind. What do you not know if you have not learned to swim? You know what swimming is; you just do not know how to do it. And, if you found yourselfin water, you might do it all the same, without knowing how you did it. You know what it is to swim; you can, for example, tell whether or not someone else is swimming: that is why, if you had to, you might try to swim, and you might find out that you could. But, if you have not learned Spanish, you do not even know what it is to speak Spanish; you could not tell (at least for sure) whether someone else was speaking it or not: and that is why you could not even try to speak Spanish. Indeed, when you learn Spanish, you do not learn a technique for accomplishing the already known end of speaking Spanish. There is no gap between knowing what it is to speak Spanish and knowing how to do so (save in special cases of a psychological inhibition or the like): you do not first learn what speaking Spanish is and then learn a means by which this feat can be executed. ‘ There are degrees of consciousness with which a person may perform a skilled operation. At one extreme, he will formulate to himselfthe action to be carried out at each step and the manner in which it is to be done, as when someone unaccustomed to such tasks has memorized instructions how to cook a certain dish, or how to assemble a machine. This is the case in which a person has explicit knowledge how to perform the operation, and appeals to that knowledge in the course of performing it. At the other extreme, someone may simply be unable to say what it is that he does, even on reflection or when he tries to observe himself very closely; notoriously, those who have acquired physical skills may be quite unable to explain to others how to perform those feats. This'is the case in which, if we speak of him as knowing how to perform 96 What do I Know when I Know a Language? the operation (say swimming or riding a bicycle), the expression “knows how to do it” has only the force of “can do it as the result of having learned to do it”. But there are also intermediate cases. In these, someone may be unable to formulate for himself the principles according to which he acts, but may nevertheless be capable of acknowledging, and willing to acknowledge, the correctness of a statement of those principles when it is offered to him. In cases of this intermediate kind, it seems to me, we have to take more seriously the ascription of knowledge to someone who possesses the practical ability in question: “knows how to do it” is not here a mere idiomatic equivalent of “can do it”. Rather, we may say of the agent that he knows that certain things are the case, that he knows certain propositions about how the operation is to be performed; but we need to qualify this by conceding that his knowledge is not explicit knowledge, that is, knowledge which may be immediately elicited on request. It is, rather, implicit knowledge: knowledge which shows itself partly by manifestation of the practical ability, and partly by a readiness to acknowledge as correct a formulation of that which is known What do I Know when I Know a Language? 97 speakers understand or know the language. Each has, so to speak, the same piece of internal (mental) equipment, which enables each to interpret the utterances of the other as an expression of thought, and to convert his own thoughts into sentences that the other can likewise understand. It thus seems as though the key to the explanation of the expressive power which makes a language a language is an individual speaker’s mastery of the language; and this mastery, as we saw, requires the notion of knowledge for its explication. This, then, becomes our second question: Is the significance of language to be explained in terms of a speaker’s knowledge of his language? Philosophers before Frege assumed that it is; and thewdflheflldaj what a speaker an t knows is a kind of code. Concepts amended intg_w9;ds____~W are compounded out of concepts, into sentences, whose structure mirrors, by and large, the complexity of the thoughts. We need language, on this View, only because we happen to lack the faculty of telepathy, that is, of the direct transmission of thoughts. Communication is thus essentially like the use of a telephone: the speaker codes his thought in a transmissible medium, which is when it is presented. Consider, as an example, the knowledge of how to play chess. As a matter of fact, no one ever learns chess without being given some explicit information, such as that no piece except the knight may leap over another. Nevertheless, I can see no reason why it should be in principle unthinkable that someone should learn the game without ever being told anything, and without even framing rules to himself, simply by being corrected whenever he made an illegal move. Now, if we said, of such a person, that he then decoded by the hearer. feta by, The whole analyticalschoolof philosophy jsrfgundedontherejectignpf this i l a. Q- ,5; conception, first 9M1! repudiatedbyffiregg. The conception of language as a ("0%, What we may ascribe concepts and though to people Leap. independently of their knowledge of language; and one strand 0 biection is a: gal» that, for any but the simplest_cor_tge_p_t§,we_ cannot explain what it is to grasp Aral/7b knew how to play chess, should we be using the verb “to know” solely in that sense which is involved in saying that someone knows how to swim? It appears to me that we should not. The reason is that it would be unthinkable that, having learned to obey the rules of chess, he should not then be able and willing to acknowledge those rules as correct when they were put to him, for example, to agree, perhaps after a little reflection, that only the knight could leap over another piece. Someone who had learned the game in this way could properly be said to know the rules implicitly. We might put the point by saying that he does not merely follow the rules, without knowing what he is doing: he is guided by them. There now arises a further question, not so easy to answer or even to state. The central task of the philosopher of language is to explain what meaning is, that is, what makes a language language. Consider two speakers engaged in conversation. To immediate inspection, all that is happening is that sounds of a certain kind issue from the mouths of each alternately. But we know that there is a deeper significance: they are expressing thoughts, putting forward arguments, stating conjectures, asking questions, etc. What the philosophy of language has to explain is what gives this character to the sounds they utter: what makes their utterances expressions of thought and all these other things? The natural answer is that what makes the difference is the fact that both them independently of the ability to express them in language. As Frege said, 3 mg, 5‘“ dog “imam notice a difference between-being'sét' on by several dogs and being set on by only one, but he is unlikely to have even the dimmest consciousness of anything in common between being bitten by one larger dog and chasing one cat, which he would have to do were we to be able to ascribe to him a grasp of the concept we express by the word “one”. Or, again, as Wittgenstein remarked, a dog can expect his master to come home, but he cannot expect him to come home next week; and the reason is that there is nothing the dog could do to manifest an expectation that his master will come home next week. It makes no sense to attribute to a creature without language a grasp of the concept expressed by the words “next week”. It is, however, a serious mistake to suppose this to be the principal objection to the conception of language as a code. W .someone’s mastery of his mother tongue lith his mastegy A a second language. His mastery of a second language may be represented as a grasp of a Wandation between it and his mother tongue: by appeal to this, he can associate expressions of the second language with expressions of his mother tongue. In a similar way, his mastery of his mother tongue is viewed, ‘x—on this conception, as an ability to associate with each of its words the corresponding concept, and thus with each sentence of the language a thought compounded of such concepts. 98 What do I Know when I Know a Language? The fundamental objection to this conception of language is that the analogy it uses breaks down. If we explain someone's knowledge of a second language as consisting in his grasp of a scheme of translation between it and his mother tongue, we tacitly presuppose that he understands his mother tongue; it then remains to be explained in what his understanding of his mother tongue consists. We can, in this way, proceed to explain his understanding of the second language in two stages—first, his ability to translate it into his mother tongue, and, secondly, his understanding of his mother tongue—precisely because, in principle, the 333$ng tggrLsLatejoeanotjnvolvethLabilii to understand] In principle, we can imagine a person—or a very skilfulTy- programmed computer—able to translate between two languages without understanding either. That is why, when we explain someone’s knowledge of a second language as an ability to translate it into his mother tongue, we are not giving a circular account: the ability to translate does not, in itself, presuppose an understanding of the second language like the understanding someone has of his mother tongue. It is quite otherwise when we try to explain someone’s understanding of his mother tongue after the same model, namely as consisting in his associating certain concepts with the words. For the question arises what it is to ‘associate a concept with a word'. We know what it is to associate a word of one language with a word of another: asked to translate the one word, he utters, or writes down, the other. But the concept has no representation intermediate between it and its verbal expression. Or, if it does, we still have the question what makes it a representation of that concept. We cannot say that someone‘s association of a particular concept with a given word consists in the fact that, when he hears that word, that concept comes into his mind, for there i_srgallvmsensie to speaking 9f a concepts cominginto Qmeone's mindTAllflthat we can think of is some image's coming to mind which we take as in some way representing the concept, and this gets us no further forward, since we still have to ask in what his associating that concept with that image consists. ' Rather, any account of what it is to associate a concept with a word would have to provide an explanation of one thing which might constitute a grasp of the concept. What is it to grasp the concept square, say? At the very least, it is to be able to discriminate between things that are square and those that are not. Such an ability can be ascribed only to one who will, on occasion, treat square things differently from things that are not square; one way, among many other possible ways, of doing this is to apply the word “square" to square things and not to others. And it can only be by reference to some such use of the word “square", or at least of some knowledge about the word “square" which would warrant such a use of it, that we can explain what it is to associate the concept square with that word. An ability to use the word in such a way, or a suitable piece of knowledge about the word, would, by itself, sufiice as a manifestation of a grasp of the concept. Even if we grant that there is no What do I Know when I Know a Language? 99 difficulty in supposing someone to have, and to manifest, a grasp of the concept antecedently to an understanding of the word, we can make no use of this assumption in explaining what it is to understand the word: we cannot appeal to the speaker's prior grasp of the concept in explaining what it IS for him to associate that concept with that word. The uestion whether a grasp of the concepts expressible in language could precede a knowl ge 0 any language thus falls away as irrelevant. A e ave, t ere ore, o r e conception of language as a code for thought by some account of the understanding of a language that makes no appeal to the prior grasp of the concepts that can be expressed in it. Such an account presents language, notjust as a means of expressing thought, but as a vehicle for thought. The idea of a language as a code became untenable because a concept's coming to mind was not, by itself, an intelligible description of a mental event: thought requires a vehicle. And for this reason, the philosophical study of language assumes a far greater importance as being, not just a branch of philosophy, but the foundation of the entire subject, since it has to be, simultaneously, a study of thought. Only if we take language to be a code can we hope to strip off the linguistic clothing and penetrate to the pure naked thought beneath: the only effective means of studying thought is by the study of language, which is its vehicle. _ The observation that there is no such mental event as a concept’s coming to mind is paralleled by Wittgenstein‘s remark that understanding is not a mental process. One of the advantages of the approach to language as a vehicle of thought is that we do not need to look for any occurrence save the expressron of the thought. Suppose that I am walking along the street with my wife, and suddenly stop dead and say (in English), “I have left the address behind". What constitutes my having at that moment had the thought I expressed need be no more than just the fact that I know English and said those words; there does not have to have been anything else that went on within me simultaneously with my utterance of the sentence. Wittgenstein said, “To understand the sentence is to understand the language". He did not mean that (as some American philosophers believe) you would not understand the sentence in the same way if you knew only a fragment of the language to which it belonged. He meant, rather, that, given you understand the language, that you are, as it were, in that state of understanding, nothing need happen, in which your understanding of the sentence consists, no act of understanding, other than your hearing that sentence. This consideration only reinforces our initial idea, that the ke ‘93? accounquJanguage—and now, it seems, of thogg ' elf—is the explanation Ming-individpal Lspgeglgegfsnmasterywo w is- gutag—e':~ Accordingwto the camping; of language as a vehicle of thought, this explanation must embody an account of what it is to have the concepts expressible in the language; and Frege, who originated this new approach, gave the outlines of an explanation l/ 100 What do I Know when I Know a Language? of this kind. Naturally, I cannot here do more than gesture towards his theory: it involves distinguishing three different types of ingredient in meaning, sense (Sinn), force (Kraft) and colour (Fdrbung). The fundamental conception is that of the primacy of sentences. To a fair degree of approximation, we may say that what a speaker does by uttering a sequence of sentences is the sum of what he could do by uttering each sentence on its own. Nothing of the kind, however, holds good of the words that make up a single sentence: save in special contexts, nothing at all is conveyed by uttering a single word. The words do not make up the sentence in the same way that the sentences make up the paragraph. We indeed understand new sentences that we have never heard before because we already understand the words that compose them and the principles of sentence-construction in accordance with which they are combined. But we cannot explain the meanings of words independently of their occurrence in sentences, and then explain the understanding of a sentence as the successive apprehension of the meanings of the words. Rather, we have to have first a conception of what, in general, constitutes the meaning of a sentence, and then to explain the meaning of each particular word as the contribution it makes to determining the meaning of any sentence in which it may occur. As regards that ingredient of meaning wh...
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