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Reconceiving Linguistics in the Light of Pragmaticism: Language Analysis as Hermeneutic

Recalling the singular appearance of the word hermeneutic in the title of any article published over the multi-year history of the journal Language (“Russian Conjugation: Theory and Hermeneutic,” vol. 56 [1980], pp. 67-93), and relying anew on Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism and his apothegm “My language is the sum total of myself,” a program for reorienting linguistics in the twenty-first century can be sketched, prompted by the conviction that the prevailing conception of language as rule-governed behavior tout court has driven linguistics into barren byways which are powerless to explain speech as it is manifested in nature (in the spirit of the physis versus thesis debate in Plato’s Cratylus). This sterility can be overcome by postulating as a fundamental principle the idea that the locus of linguistic reality is THE ACT, THE CREATIVE MOMENT OF SPEECH––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech.

This principle then encompasses the following five conceptual postulates: (1) language is like a piece of music or a poem––i. e., a made (aesthetic = L formosus) object, a work that unfolds in time (unlike an art work which is static), always dynamic, while remaining changeable and stable simultaneously; (2) linguistic competence can only transpire in performance, and in ensembles of performances, and is not a work; (3) the ecology of language is constituted by discourse rather than by structural relations; (4) linguistic theory is immanent in the concerted––i. e., the syntagmatic––data [=performance] of language in its variety, not merely in its paradigmatic structure; (5) hence the goal of theory is the rationalized explication of linguistic variety.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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