Complex Community: Towards a Phenomenology of Language Sharing

In Chad Engelland (ed.), Language and Phenomenology. New York: Routledge. pp. 177-193 (2020)
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Language is indisputably in some sense a social phenomenon. But in which sense? Philosophical conceptions of language often assume a simple relationship between individual speakers and a language community, one of which is attributed primacy and used to understand the other. Having identified some problems faced by two such conceptions—social holism and individualism—this article outlines an alternative phenomenological view of shared language by focusing on two principal ways that language is shared. First, it draws on the late Wittgenstein to characterize how shared practices ground linguistic communities. Based on the link between language-games and corresponding subcommunities of language users, I argue that pragmatic language sharing is more fragmented than social holism suggests but more cohesive than individualism intimates. Second, it considers how linguistic community is grounded in shared sign systems. Merleau-Ponty’s appropriation of Husserl’s notion of institution is used to highlight that existing linguistic structures are adopted in an open process that allows varying degrees of differentiation. Combining these two perspectives, I conclude that who we are in linguistic community with and how closely we converge varies over different parts of language. Our linguistic communities are thus complex in the sense of being fragmented, differentiated and nonuniform.



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Andrew Inkpin
University of Melbourne

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