Linguistic epiphenomenalism - Davidson and chomsky on the status of public languages

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The aim of this paper is to highlight an individualist streak in both Davidson's conception of language and Chomsky's. In the first part of the paper, I argue that in Davidson's case this individualist streak is a consequence of an excessively strong conception of what the compositional nature of linguistic meaning requires, and I offer a weaker conception of that requirement that can do justice to both the publicity and the compositionality of language. In the second part of the paper, I offer a comparison between Davidson's position on the unreality of public languages, and Chomsky's position regarding the epiphenomenal status of "externalized" languages. In Chomsky's case, as in Davidson's, languages are individuated in terms of the formal theories that serve to account for their systematic structure, and this assumption rests upon a similarly strong and similarly questionable understanding of what it is to employ finite means in pursuit of an infinite task. The alternative, at which I can only hint, is a view of language as a social and historical reality, i.e., a realm of social fact that cannot be exhausted by any formal theory and cannot be reduced to properties of individual speakers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of the Philosophy of History
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2010


  • Donald Davidson
  • Linguistic individualism
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Philosophy of language
  • Public languages

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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