When Arne met J. L.: attitudes to scientific method in empirical semantics, ordinary language philosophy and linguistics

Synthese 201 (4):1-20 (2023)
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In the autumn of 1959, Arne Naess and J. L. Austin, both pioneers of empirical study in the philosophy of language, discussed their points of agreement and disagreement at a meeting in Oslo. This article considers the fragmentary record that has survived of that meeting, and investigates what light it can shed on the question of why the two philosophers apparently found so little common ground, given their shared commitment to the importance of data in the study of language. Naess and Austin held different views about two significant aspects of the relationship between scientific method and philosophical investigation. The first aspect concerns the nature of experimental data; Naess used the statistical analysis of data collected from non-philosophical informants while Austin advocated deliberation leading to agreement over usage by a few skilled experts. The second aspect relates to their respective attitudes to the role of theory in philosophical inquiry, attitudes which drew on discussions of scientific method, and its relevance to philosophy, from the early decades of the twentieth century. This article traces the evidence for these views on scientific method in Naess’s and Austin’s respective published work, and in the record of their Oslo meeting. It concludes with a brief overview of opinions about scientific method manifest in the decades since that meeting in various branches of linguistics. These opinions speak to the enduring importance of attitudes to scientific method in relation to our study and understanding of human language.



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Siobhan Chapman
University of Liverpool

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