[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[Xmca-l] The Downtown of Language

Robert Brandom, who seems so very close to the "lingualist" interpretation
of Vygotsky in so many ways, argues that "language does have a downtown". I
take it that what he means is that, contrary to what Wittgenstein and
others have argued, it is not a "motley" but a city: it has outskirts where
language and non-language are clearly interspersed (the "activity" reading
of Vygotsky might be considered a "suburban" version), but it is
essentially defined by its urban centre: making assertive claims that
"things are thus and so" and then backing them up, in the face of "why"
questions with reasons.

It's a good guess for his purposes: he wants to solve the "LED" questions:
how does language LEVERAGE all of the behaviors of which humans are capable
and non-humans are not, how does this apparently human-specific ability
EMERGE, and what DEMARCATES linguistic from non-linguistic abilities. If
the downtown of language really is experiential ideation, that is, making
claims about the ways of the world and answering the whys that inevitably
follow, then language leverages behaviour in much the same was as a
socially shared extrasensory perception would, it emerges in the way any
cultural representation/transformation of nature would, and it is
demarcated from the surrounding nature rather as an architecture is rather
than as a framed picture is.

But it's very intellectualistic. This year I am taking a course in the
history of linguistics that begins essentially with Plato and Aristotle
walking out of the Academy of Athens in Rafael's painting:


Plato points upwards towards the eternal abstract rational, but Aristotle
waves his hand, palm outstretched in many directions, towards the fleeting
future concrete, the downtowns of language.

Last year at this time I was TEACHING a course in the history of TESOL--the
branch of linguistics that is concerned with getting people from one
downtown of language to another. I was trying to argue that actually most
people in the history of TESOL were just like you and me: they were busy
staying alive in the bitter sea. I started with this painting, by Francois
Dubois, of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (there is some argument
about whether he painted this from memory or not; my feeling is that it is
just too accurate to be based on hearsay):


Within a few years of this massacre, every tenth Englishman was a
Frenchman--and having literally nothing else to sell, the business of
language teaching was founded by Huguenot refugees living in Britain. The
survivors of the massacre disguised themselves as Catholics, set up
Jansenist monasteries, and started producing the first
rationalist-naturalist grammars of English (as opposed to the
empiricist-humanist ones favoured by mainstream Catholics, with their
emphasis on merciless repression tempered by human forgiveness).

But perhaps even this is not the right starting place. Perhaps the real
core of the rationalist naturalist approach, the idea that every utterance
and even every word is made of interchangeable parts, like a Model T Ford
(or a terracotta soldier), started with Gutenberg. The one thing we
probably can say is that the downtown of language is not to be found near
its origins, and if Brandom is right about the downtown of language with
respect to demarcation-leverage (I find it hard to demarcate these two
questions as he does) then we need to look askance with respect to

David Kellogg

Macquarie University.

teaching English I was

, and the you

Last year I taught a course in the history of TESOL which took as its point
of departure the idea that

  city does from a countryside, and it is demarcated from that countryside
int eh same way.

n answer to all three claims that is both naturalist and emerge, it helps
him give what he calls a "rationalist response to the demarcation"