Publication 4474

Bickhard M. H. (1995) Intrinsic constraints on language: Grammar and hermeneutics. Journal of Pragmatics 23(5): 541–554. Fulltext at
Functional and pragmatic approaches to grammar, and to language more broadly, are well known. All of these approaches, however, accept a core aspect of sentences, or utterances, as consisting of encodings of propositions. They proceed on their functional and pragmatic explorations with this much, at least, taken for granted. I wish to argue, to the contrary, that the functional characteristics of utterances penetrate even to the level of the structure – the grammar – of supposed propositional encodings. More specifically, I argue that the structure that is taken as a structure of propositional encodings is not that at all, but is instead a structure of functionally organized action. Constraints on such structures, in turn – constraints on grammars – emerge as intrinsic constraints on that functional organization. My point will of necessity be made programmatically, since to fill it out completely would be to complete a functional version of universal grammar. The mere logical possibility of intrinsic constraints on the grammatical possibilities of language refutes attempts to construe grammatical constraints as logically arbitrary. Typically, because grammatical constraints are construed as being (logically) arbitrary, some additional explanation of the constraints is required should those constraints be shown or argued to be universal. That additional explanation is usually some equally logically arbitrary innateness postulate. I will show that the possibility of intrinsic grammatical constraints invalidates standard arguments for such innateness – specifically, that such a possibility invalidates the poverty of the stimulus argument. Grammatical constraints are not the only characteristics of language that are intrinsic to its nature. I also show how phenomena of implicature, the hermeneutic circle, and forms of creative language can be understood as being naturally emergent in the functional nature of language. Most broadly, then, intrinsic constraints constitute a rich realm for exploration in attempting to understand language.


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