NC Wieland

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Book project on linguistic reality

This monograph presents a central conception on what language is like—whichever language it is and whomever is using it. The perspective taken here is panoramic in the sense that it does not attempt to solve particular problems in semantics and pragmatics—although the metaphysics of language defended has implications for these particulars. Instead, the focus is on the foundational questions about the limits, scope, location, and constitution of languages and particular linguistic entities (words, sentences, meanings, propositions). The consideration of these questions falls within the historical tradition of talking about the nature of language itself, from the early modern period to the 20th c. development of universal grammar. These essays build on previous work within the area of meta-linguistic analysis on quotation, context dependence, idiolects and private languages, universal linguistic types and concrete tokens, and whether (and how) there exist meanings independently of use by speakers. The conception of language defended here treats utterances in contexts as the basic units of linguistic analysis, and develops the claim that since language does not have context-free, fixed, eternal content, a new metaphysics of language is required—one grounded in speakers themselves.

Pt. I:

1. Origin Stories: Everybody has a story for the origin of human language: divine origins, family trees, early hominids manipulating political sympathies. We can learn about mother tongues and proto-languages from pidgins, child development, and linguistic universals. Each approach tells a different story about what we're looking for and what we think language is. This chapter presents these origin stories and how they have shaped linguistic theorizing in historical context. From Rousseau, Condillac, and Herder’s speculations on the emergence of language from imitative cries emotional outbursts to the range of evolutionary theories that have tied linguistic development to political or gustatory advantage.

2. The Idiosyncrasy of Human Linguistic Competence: Is human language different in degree, but not in kind, from other natural forms of communication? Is human language integrated with, and should be understood in terms of, other psychological and cognitive capacities? Taking a stance on each of these questions has framed much of the study of language throughout history. They also mark differences in how we treat other human abilities. For example, the human visual system  differs in degree, but not in kind, from other visual systems found in nature. It is also obvious that rich aspects of human experience — such as attraction and disgust — are integrated with, and should be understood in terms of, other human psychological and cognitive capabilities. Human language, on the other hand, is regarded by most theorists as idiosyncratic on at least some important dimension. It is a combinatorial system with unlimited expressive power; it requires mental representation; it is not realized in our phenotype alone but only emerges in social settings; it is an open system; it is not exclusively iconic; it is unemotional, spontaneous, and not bound to concrete contexts. 

3. Empiricism and Rationalism in Linguistic Theory: There is a divergence in method in the study of language: On one hand, language is conceived as an abstract object idealized away from any facts about history, usage, or realization in a cognitive system. On the other hand, language has been conceived of as a natural phenomenon, subject to constant change through usage. Linguistic reality lies somewhere between these poles.

4. Language, Dialectic, Idiolect: Languages are political objects. Dialects are what makes language learning possible. Idiolects are what we end up actually knowing. But then we're faced with a fundamental insurmountable problem of normativity. This problem of normativity bears on linguistic theory in the following way: developing syntactic and semantic theories requires, in part, relying on use-data and prompted intuitions from ‘native’ speakers. While all speakers are standardly considered ‘native’ speakers of some language — usually their first language — there is an open question of how to exclude speakers from this category. There is also an open question about the object of the theory: what counts as the boundaries of any given language and how are ‘native’ speakers identified? 

5. Realism and Idealism about Linguistic Entities: If the real instantiation of a language is the steady knowledge state of an individual idiolect, then is any language ever the language of a human population? Probably not. Then what should we study? If we just study idiolects we can't form general theories. If we just study the languages of populations then we're never studying anything real. It seems we're forced to study an idealization over idiolects and away from human populations. Theorizing about more and more abstract linguistic entities is itself a kind of fallacy that divorces the linguistic theory from integration with related cognitive and psychological capabilities. 

6. Orthographic, Phonetic, and Gestural Conceptions of Language: The vast majority of human languages have never taken a written form. Yet, the history of philosophy has primarily conceived of language as a set of abstract entities. As such, they can be effectively studied in orthographic representations. Linguistic science has primarily conceived of language as a natural phenomenon that is best studied in its phonetic and signed modalities. Each modality—orthographic, phonetic and signed—makes unique and independent contributions to linguistic content. The history of philosophy of language, unlike other branches of linguistic theorizing, has prioritized orthographic, and artifactual, representations of language which distorts philosophers’ understanding of the real linguistic phenomena.

7. The Ambiguity of Human Language: A fundamental property of human language is that signs are arbitrarily attached to objects and situations. This is contrast with other forms of natural communication that are concretely tied to particular situations. The (apparent) problem with this is that the signs of human language require additional cognitive effort to resolve ambiguities in reference and meaning. While it might seem that widespread ambiguities in a system of communication are defects of that system, we can also see that they are the very tools that enable combinatorial and computational power in human language.

8. Codes and Ostensive Inference: How are the ambiguities of human language resolved to make language learnable and expressively powerful? Two models of linguistic entities combine to do this: a model of language as a form of code transmission (where the codes themselves are re-combinable in infinite ways), and a model of ostension whereby ambiguities in the codes are resolvable through inferential processes, embodied cues, context, pragmatic expectations, and narrative structure.

Pt. II:

1. Explanation in Linguistics: What is the evidential base of linguistics? Could anything count as evidence in a linguistic theory? Is linguistic theory obligated to account for anything in particular? It might be that the study of language requires us to remain agnostic about the structure of linguistic reality. After all, any view taken constrains the bounds of the evidential base.

2. Idiolectal Error: Is it possible to defend an idiolectal conception of human linguistic competence and still identify the conditions that make possible deviation and error for an individual speaker? Idiolectal conceptions of language face a problem of explaining normativity (or the correctness conditions for knowing a language), and of explaining the use of idiolectal judgments as evidence in linguistic theory. Whatever standards are selected to identify error cannot distinguish the phenomenon from novelty or purposeful linguistic agency.

3. Reports: Reports and quotations are used in natural language in many different ways. This makes them theoretically complicated. But they are central to an account of linguistic reality because it is in the act of quotation that ordinary speakers come closest to wrangling with meta-linguistics: language about language. The theoretical complexity multiplies when we consider reports across modalities (in writing, speech, and sign language). This makes it easy for theorists to get confused about the central quotational phenomenon in natural language, which is reporting speech in verbal conversational contexts. This central case is inter-personal, dynamic, embodied, and used for purposes of scene-setting and story-telling. Starting from this central case requires a novel theoretical framework.

"Metalinguistic Devices in Fiction." The Language of Fiction, Andreas Stokke and Emar Maier, eds. (forthcoming, Oxford University Press)

Abstract: Metalinguistic devices are used in fiction to represent dialogue, for the quotation of characters’ speech within dialogue, for direct and indirect reporting of characters’ speech and thought, for direct and indirect reporting of speech from outside of the fictional world, and as a framing device for an entire fiction. These in turn structure storytelling as the characters perform secondary narrative roles, change narrative pace, and shift perspective. What happens when real persons from outside the storytelling world are quoted in a fiction?  The quoted persons are ‘storified’ in the fictional world as ‘near-real’ fictions. In cases of the misquotation of real persons, the near-real fictions and near-real quotations must adequately exploit resemblances between the real and the fictional representations. How do fictional and nonfictional uses of metalinguistic acts diverge? In both cases, they are psychologically compelling; they structure and inform interpretations of the world; they import common ground; they permit secondary narration; but only in fictional contexts can real and near-real utterance contexts merge. In both cases, they have the internal structure of a story. The working explanation for this this continuity is that imagination is broader than, but contains, make-believe. 

Review of Interpreting J.L. Austin: Critical Essays by Savas Tsohatzidis (ed.). Analysis Reviews.

"The Abnegated Self." Tales of Good Character: Agency, Virtue, and Narrative. Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl van Zyl, eds. (forthcoming, Routledge).

Abstract: A self-abnegating person lacks contact with her agency, either against or without her will. This does not mean that she cannot provide reasons for or a narrative about her actions. It’s just that the reasons and narrative are someone else’s. People abnegate parts of their agency regularly; for example, within hierarchical institutions. In other cases, the self-abnegation is all-encompassing; for example, for victims of brainwashing. An agent in such a position can completely fail to understand herself or be understood by others as having a self. I focus on two problems related to self-abnegation. The first is whether there is a conception of a self that can reliably discriminate between strong selves and abnegated selves. The second is whether a person with an abnegated self should be treated as a person with a strong self. I conclude that the good of respecting derived or instrumental agency comes in putting that individual in a position to agentially flourish and maintaining the structural conditions and expectations of agency. 

Review of Beyond Speech: Pornography and Analytic Feminist Philosophy by Mari Mikkola (ed.) in Hypatia Reviews. 2018. 

Abstract: This is a review of Mikkola's 2017 book on analytic feminist analyses of pornography in the wake of the speech act approach. 

"Agent and Object." Social Theory & Practice 43(3): 503-518, 2017.

Abstract: If a person has lost all or most of her capacities for agency, how can she be harmed? This paper begins by describing several ways in which a person loses, or never develops, significant capacities of agency. In contrast with other work in this area, the central analyses are not of fetuses, small children, or the cognitively disabled. The central analyses are of victims of mistreatment or oppressive social circumstances. These victims are denuded of their agential capacities, becoming, in an important sense, objects or pseudo-agents. In light of this, the concern of this paper is how further harm to ersatz agents should be understood.

Review of How to do Things with Pornography by Nancy Bauer in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. 2015.

Abstract: This is a review of Bauer's 2015 book on philosophical authority, speech act theory, and self-objectification, among other topics.

"Reporting Practices and Reported Entities." In Indirect Reports and Pragmatics: Interdisciplinary Studies, eds. A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo & M. Carapezza. Dordrecht: Springer, 2015. (link is to penultimate draft)

Abstract: This essay discusses speakers’ conceptions of reported entities as evident in reporting practices. Pragmatic analyses are offered to explain the diversity of permissible reporting practices. Several candidate theses on speakers’ conceptions of reported entities are introduced. The possibility that there can be a unified analysis of direct and indirect reporting practices is considered. Barriers to this unification are discussed with an emphasis on the cognitive abilities speakers use in discerning the entities referred to in reporting contexts.

"Indirect Reports and Pragmatics." Perspectives on Pragmatics and Philosophy (389-411), eds. A. Capone, F. Lo Piparo & M. Carapezza. Dordrecht: Springer, 2013. (link is to penultimate draft)

Abstract: An indirect report typically takes the form of a speaker using the locution “said that” to report an earlier utterance. In what follows, I introduce the principal philosophical and pragmatic points of interest in the study of indirect reports, including the extent to which context sensitivity affects the content of an indirect report, the constraints on the substitution of co-referential terms in reports, the extent of felicitous paraphrase and translation, the way in which indirect reports are opaque, and the use of indirect reports as pragmatic vehicles for other speech acts such as humor, insult, or irony. Throughout I develop several positions: (i) that a semantic analysis of indirect reports is insufficient, (ii) that the distinction between direct and indirect reports is not clear and that indirect reports are the predominate way of reporting while direct reports may be a para-linguistic variation on them, (iii) that most questions about the semantics and pragmatics of indirect reports will rely on a full understanding of the nature of what is reported and how it gets reported, (iv) that an analysis of reporting requires the pragmatic tools of metarepresentation and a social, inter-personal understanding of relevance and shared knowledge.

"Finding Love in the Kingdom of Ends." Jurisprudence 2: 417-423, 2011.

Abstract: This is an essay on Kant, objectification, love, and pornography, and Rae Langton's Sexual Solipsism.

"Parental Obligation." Utilitas 23: 249-267, 2011.

Abstract: The contention of this article is that parents have an obligation to care for their children, but for reasons that are not typically offered. I argue that this obligation can be unfair to parents but not unjust. I do not provide an account of what our specific obligations are to our children. Rather, I focus on providing a justification for any obligation to care for them at all. My argument turns on providing an external description of the parent–child relationship in order to establish that parents are in a unique position among adults in their ability to help and harm their own children. Given that children are deserving of moral regard, I conclude that parents are obligated – in a way that is often unfair – to provide this care. I end by considering implications for social policy.

"Context Sensitivity and Indirect Reports." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 81: 40-48, 2010.

Abstract: In this paper, I argue that contextualist theories of semantics are not undermined by their purported failure to explain the practice of indirect reporting. I adopt Cappelen & Lepore’s test for context sensitivity to show that the scope of context sensitivity is much broader than semantic minimalists are willing to accept. The failure of their arguments turns on their insistence that the content of indirect reports is semantically minimal.

"Minimal Propositions and Real World Utterances." Philosophical Studies 148: 401-412, 2010.

Abstract: Semantic minimalists make a proprietary claim to explaining the possibility of utterances sharing content across contexts. Further, they claim that an inability to explain shared content dooms varieties of contextualism. In what follows, I argue that there are a series of barriers to explaining shared content for the Minimalist, only some of which the contextualist also faces, including: (i) how the type-identity of utterances is established, (ii) what counts as repetition of type-identical utterances, (iii) how it can be determined whether semantically minimal content has been repeated, and (iv) what the nature of such content is.

"Linguistic Authority and Convention in a Speech Act Analysis of Pornography." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 85: 435-436, 2007.

Abstract: Several philosophers have recast feminist arguments against pornography in terms of Speech Act Theory. In particular, they have considered the ways in which the illocutionary force of pornographic speech serves to set the conventions of sexual discourse while simultaneously silencing the speech of women, especially during unwanted sexual encounters. Yet, this raises serious questions as to how pornographers could (i) be authorities in the language game of sex, and (ii) set the conventions for sexual discourse—questions which these speech act-theoretic arguments against pornography have thus far failed to adequately answer. I fill in this gap of the argumentation by demonstrating that there are fairly weak standards for who counts as an authority or convention-setter in sexual discourse. With this analysis of the underpinnings of a speech act analysis of pornography in mind, I discuss a range of possible objections. I conclude that (i) the endorsement of censorship by a speech act analysis of pornography competes with its commitment to the conventionality of speech acts, and, more damningly, that (ii), recasting anti-pornography arguments in terms of linguistic conventions risks an unwitting defence of a rapist’s lack of mens rea—an intolerable result; and yet resisting this conclusion requires that one back away from the original claim to women’s voices being ‘silenced’.

Reviews: L. Antony & N. Hornstein's Chomsky and His Critics and N. Chomsky's On Nature and Language. Philosophical Psychology 17: 127-130, 2004.

Abstract: two reviews on books about and by Noam Chomsky.