Searching for a new, universal grammar
That language reflects and expresses thoughts is a major tenet of the axiomatics which underpins the tradition described by linguist Noam Chomsky as “Cartesian linguistics”. Cartesian linguists maintained that thinking possesses a certain degree of autonomy in regard to language: language “translates” the accomplishments of the intellect or reason, which supplies the “content” for language. Here language itself is no more than a material or phonetic vehicle, whose symbols only have a random or arbitrary relationship with the thoughts expressed. Thoughts have an existence independent of language, being determined by the laws of logic and reason rather than by grammar.
In an “ideal” language, in contrast, grammar and logic would be accorded equal value. This was indeed one aim of the numerous general or philosophical grammars published since the 17th century. These focused on preserving the unity of the grammars of all human languages, to counter the emerging tradition of national philologies.
As opposed to this, the “Un-Cartesian Linguistics” project aims to link back to an alternative tradition of universal grammar: that of the so-called modistic grammars which arose in the 13th century, and attempted to provide philosophical grounds for grammatical categories. According to this tradition, the structure of existence is reflected in the structure of language, in the same way in all languages. In line with these early universal grammars, the German-British project regards language as non-arbitrary, and thus not random: the pattern and system of language symbols is, according to this paradigm, also the pattern and system of thinking. Both systems reflect the ordering principles of reality.
Modistic grammars were “philosophical” in the sense that language is the mode by which we attain knowledge of the world. Thus a modistic philosophy of language is a theory of language as “copy” or “reflection”, but additionally provided with an elaborated theory of grammar which defines the latter as an instrument of perspectivist representation of the world. Grammar is thus the tool by means of which we codify systematically structured perspectives of the world. Language provides a template allowing us to grasp the world and bring it into a specifically human-related, cognitive format.
The “Un-Cartesian Linguistics” project takes its starting point from these fundamental ideas. Its aim is to connect linguistics and philosophy in a seamless whole, so as to systematically develop a new philosophical perspective on language.
Professor Elisabeth Leiss
Chair of German Linguistics
Tel.: ++49 (0) 89 / 2180-2339