Are the speakers of English that population amongst whom there is a convention to speak English? 


How one chooses to answer this question depends on how one conceives of "a linguistic community" and "a convention".  I will deal first with the concept of "a convention", and then address the concept of "a linguistic community".  I will conclude that, on balance, the answer to the essay's title question is "Yes!" -- but only in a philosophically uninteresting sense.

The notion of "a convention " is quite ambiguous.  In the words of Nelson Goodman -

"The terms 'convention' and 'conventional' are flagrantly and intricately ambiguous. On the one hand, the conventional is the ordinary, the usual, the traditional, the orthodox as against the novel, the deviant, the unexpected, the heterodox. On the other hand, the conventional is the artificial, the invented, the optional, as against the natural, the fundamental, the mandatory".(1)

As used in the title question, it is ambiguous between the traditional versus the invented.  As a matter of historical fact, there is no sense of an implicit or explicit contract between speakers of English that is in any way suggested by speaking English.  There can be no sense, therefore, of an artificial, invented, or optional sense of contract amongst English speakers.  So it will be assumed that the sense queried in the title question is a convention in the traditional and orthodox sense. 

David Lewis has given a detailed analysis of "a convention" reached by a population with no implied or explicit agreement involved.  Lewis describes it as an arbitrary, self-perpetuating solution to a recurring coordination problem.(2)  It is self-perpetuating because no one has reason to deviate from it, given that others conform.  To Lewis,

"A regularity R in the behavior of members of a population P, when they are agents in a recurrent situation S, is a convention if and only if it is true that, and it is common knowledge in P that,
in any instance of S among members of P,
        (1) everyone conforms to R;
        (2) everyone expects everyone else to conform to R;
        (3) everyone has approximately the same preferences regarding all possible combinations of actions."(3)

In his exploration of this definition, Lewis adds a number of clauses and caveats, and modifies it to allow some exceptions to the universality implied by "everyone".  But this simplified rendition will suffice for this essay.  But now the question arises as to just what constitutes the regularity R of "speaking English", and just how the population P is to be delineated.  These, in turn, are the questions of whether there exists "a language" that can be labelled as "English", and whether there can be delineated a population that speaks that language.

There are three approaches to these questions:  (i) one can assume that there exists a language called "English", and let the linguistic community be the speakers of "English" -- however imperfectly they manage to communicate;  (ii) one can somehow delineate a language, call it "English", and then empirically discover the population that speaks that language;  or (iii) one can delineate a population and define as English the language spoken by that population.  In the philosophy of language, it has largely been the first approach that has been employed.

The traditional orthodoxy of Frege, Quine, and Dummett assumes that one can delineate "a language".  The linguistic community is thus assumed to be the speakers that just do in fact speak that language.  This orthodoxy starts with Gottlob Frege's premise that the kernel of linguistic meaning is the sentence -- specifically the sentence as used by the linguistic community.  Words thus acquire a "public (or literal) meaning" constituted by the contribution of those words to the sentences that have in the past been used by a linguistic community to communicate meaning.  The meaning of a newly encountered/constructed sentence is assembled from the "public meaning" of the words constituting it (plus, of course, the applicable rules of grammar).  Semantics is thus compositional both downward (from the meaning of past uttered/encountered sentences to the words contained in them), and upward (from the meaning of previously encountered words to the meaning of newly constructed/encountered sentences).

Frege noticed that we can have two different names for the same object.  The classic example he used was "The Morning Star" and "The Evening Star".  It is a matter of scientific discovery that the two names refer to the same object -- the planet Venus.  So Frege concluded that, contrary to the Millian approach to names, there must be more to a name than just its referent.  He coined the concept of "sense" (Frege's "sinn", also referred to as a "mode of presentation") to describe what else a name has beyond its referent.(4)  Thus "The Morning Star" and "The Evening Star" have two different senses, and it can be informative rather than truistic that the one is identical to the other.  But to Frege, senses are not ideas in someone's mind.  They are objective.  

"[A sense] may well be common property of many and is therefore not a part or mode of the single person's mind; for it cannot well be denied that mankind possesses a common treasure of thoughts which is transmitted from generation to generation."(5)

In other words, the sense or meaning of a name is a public existent.  Frege extends this notion to maintain that the sense or meaning of complex sentences is also a public existent -- the sentence's truth conditions.(6)  Frege takes the requirements he has established for his senses of names to jointly determine the truth-condition of sentences containing them.  So to Frege, meanings (truth-conditions) are objective entities derived from how words are used in by the linguistic community.  The existence of the linguistic community is prior, and their use of words delineates the linguistic meaning of English sentences.  On the other hand, the language of English is prior and how the words of English are used by the community determines their meaning.  A somewhat circular conception in which no opening is left for convention.

Following on from Frege, Quine argues that for a theory of language to be scientifically respectable, its expressions ought to be defined purely in terms of empirical content -- observable linguistic behaviour.  Quine offers the following argument(7).  For the linguist, he argues, "the behaviorist approach is mandatory."  The reason is that in acquiring language, "we depend strictly on overt behavior in observable situations  . . .  There is nothing in linguistic meaning, then, beyond what is to be gleaned from overt behavior in observable circumstances."   (And presumably the same holds true, by parity of argument, for the study of pronunciation, phrase structure, or whatever aspect of language we choose.(8))

In order to develop an empirical theory of meaning, Quine therefore restricts his analysis of language to correlations between external stimuli and dispositions to verbal behavior.  To Quine, a language is "a fabric of sentences variously associated to one another and to non-verbal stimuli by the mechanism of conditioned response"(9).  From Quine's point of view, a language is a social construct consisting of "a complex of present dispositions to verbal behavior, in which speakers of the same language have perforce come to resemble one another"(10)  A language in Quine's view is an organic network of sentences.  The peripheral sentences are provided meaning by the behavioral stimulus that elicits their acceptance.  The non-peripheral sentences are provided meaning by their inferential links to other sentences -- peripheral as well as non-peripheral.  "Meaning" to Quine is a holistic concept.  The meaning of a sentence is constituted by its place within the network.  But a Language Theory differs from a scientific theory in that, for a Language Theory, the collective behavioral dispositions of the language using population defines the truth, rather than merely models the truth.  Quine thus views a Language Theory in anti-realist terms.  In other words, unlike Frege's vision, meanings are not ontological entities out there to be discovered -- things about which we may be mistaken.  The collective linguistic behavior of the linguistic community defines the meaning.  Here we have the perfect conditions constituting a Lewisian convention.  The language of English and the speakers of English co-define one another as the "dispositions to verbal behavior" have "come to resemble one another". 

Continuing in this tradition, Michael Dummett argued against the kind of truth-conditional semantics presented by Frege.  Instead, he took the Verificationist approach of Quine to its logical conclusion.  He argued that basing semantics on assertion conditions avoids a number of difficulties with truth-conditional semantics, such as the transcendental nature of certain kinds of truth condition.  Dummett was also unsatisfied by Frege's account of sense.  For Frege, several people may grasp the sense of one word or of one thought, and that just as the sense of a name denotes an object, the sense of a thought denotes a truth-value.  Frege's senses are not part of the world of spatio-temporal objects, nor do they exist inside the minds of individuals.  Instead, they belong to a platonic "third realm", to which all of us have access.  But what is involved in grasping a sense?

Dummett thinks that these two loose ends should be tied together.  Rather than describing linguistic understanding as involving mysterious and timeless entities known as Fregean senses, Dummett argues that we must focus instead on our actual practice of using language.  Dummett thus replaces Fregean truth-conditions with the judgements we use to classify sentences as true or false.(12)  And he argues that "the meaning of a statement consists solely in its role as an instrument of communication".(13)  He maintains that regular use by a whole community of speakers is a necessary condition for an expression to have a linguistic meaning.  Therefore, each individual speaker must maintain a normative attitude towards the common language.(14)

We succeed in communicating with one another only because we each hold ourselves and others accountable for acting in accordance with the standards of the practice which constitute our common language.  We each accept that we are subject to correction in our use of our common language.  Language is possible because we form a community of users engaged in a shared set of practices.  As members of that community, we are responsible both for acting in accordance with and for enforcing the rules.(15)

To Dummett, "A language is a practice in which people engage.  . . .  a practice is essential social, in the different sense that it is learned from others and is constituted by rules which is a part of the social custom to follow".(16)  Dummett writes "The natural choice for the fundamental notion of a language, from the viewpoint that sees language as a practice, is a language in the ordinary sense in which English is a language, or, perhaps, a dialect of such a language."(17)  In "the ordinary sense", a language is a social practice (a regularity R) of the members of some population (P) where it is a common expectation that everyone in P conforms to R.  In other words, English to Dummett exists as a Lewisian convention among the speakers of English.

This traditional approach of Frege-Quine-Dummett therefore assumes a linguistic community that has a convention to speak the same language.  But the challenge facing this approach is the issue of delineation -- either of the language, or of the linguistic community.  Whatever population is chosen, their past utterances define the language spoken.  The meaning communicated by the stock of previously generated sentences establishes the "public meaning" of the words employed.  However you draw the line around that stock of sentences will define a different language.  There is no principled way to determine what is acceptably English and what is not.

There are two kinds of problems here.  Consider two distinct language populations living together (bilingual residents of Quebec who switch easily between English and French, sometimes in the same sentence).  Or consider two populations speaking the same language but with sufficiently distinct accents that they are (to some extent) mutually incomprehensible (an Oxford don faced with Cockney, or a Canadian senior speaking with a Microsoft Helpdesk person in Mumbai).  How are you going to delineate just what constitutes "English"?  If you use the Oxford English Dictionary to set the boundaries of "English", then in the United States (or Canada, or India), they speak a different language -- even though the two populations can often communicate quite well.  Based solely on empirical evidence, there is no basis except language to separate two populations, and no basis upon which to separate two languages.  And since two is just the start of the logical possibilities, even a holistic approach will not suffice. 

The alternative to the traditional approach was pioneered by Chomsky.  In response to Dummett's argument for the real existence of "a language", Chomsky argues:

"The concept of language that Dummett takes to be essential involves complex and obscure sociopolitical, historical, cultural, and normative-teleological elements.  Such elements may be of some interest for the sociology of identification within various social and political communities and the study of authority structure, but they plainly lie far beyond any useful inquiry into the nature of language or the psychology of users of language."(18)

It is an obvious fact that we can identify languages in the sociological sense, delineation of which "involves complex and obscure sociopolitical, historical, cultural, and normative-teleological elements".  Consider that the Indian census of 1961 recognised 1,652 different languages in India.(19)  The question is whether "languages" delineated in this sense can fulfill the function required by the traditional orthodoxy in the Philosophy of Language.  The philosophical problem of sociological language identification is that it is the language that delineates the linguistic community and not vice versa.  You can't have a body of sentences, as used by a linguistic community, define the "public meaning" of words, when it is the existence of that "public meaning" that identifies the linguistic community.  That is circular reasoning par excellence.

Robert Stainton takes Chomsky's logic as it applies to the problem of individuating languages, and extends it to the problem of individuating words.  Given that the only empirical evidence available is the audio quality of a string of phonemes (or the written or visual equivalent), there is just as much of a challenge with regards to individuating the words being interpreted as there is with regards to the language(s) involved. 

"Because there is no objective way to individuate/count words (across or within a 'dialect'), and because what makes something a shared, public word, if there really were any, would need to appeal to 'ought' rather than 'is', the Chomskian concludes that there aren't really any 'public words'."(20)

In other words, there is no uniquely identifiable population within which the use of a particular sentence can provide the "public meaning" for the words employed.  There is only a "speaker/utterer" and the utterer's "audience/hearer" who may or may not have learned to associate a given meaning with a given symbol.

As Donald Davidson has famously written -

"I conclude that there is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed.  . . .  We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases. And we should try again to say how convention in any important sense is involved in language; or, as I think, we should give up the attempt to illuminate how we communicate by appeal to conventions."(21)

On the other hand, as Michael Dummett has argued in response --

"Conventions, whether they be expressly taught or picked up piecemeal, are what constitute a social practice; to repudiate the role of convention is to deny that a language is, in this sense a practice."(22)

One can only conclude that English exists as a language only sociologically delineated using "complex and obscure sociopolitical, historical, cultural, and normative-teleological elements".  But this means that the delineation of the speakers of English, and the delineation of the language of English are so inter-twined (the regularity R and the population P are so interdependent that neither can be delineated without using the other), that it would be difficult to view their relationship as anything other than a Lewisian convention.  And because the delineation criteria are so obscurely sociological, Davidson must be granted his argument -- there is no such thing as a philosophically interesting concept of a language.


Notes & References

(1)  Goodman, Nelson;  "Just the Facts, Ma'am!" in Relativism: Interpretation and Confrontation. Michael Krausz (ed.). University of Notre Dame Press. Notre Dame, Indiana, 1989. p. 80.

(2)  Rescorla, Michael;  "Convention" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

(3)  Lewis, David;  Convention: A Philosophical Study, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969. pg 76.

(4)  Wikipedia contributors;  "Gottlob Frege" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>

(5)  Frege, Gottlob:  "On Sense and Nominatum" in The Philosophy of Language, A.P. Martinich (Ed.), Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 2006. ISBN 978-0-195-18830-1. pp 217-229.

(6)  Zalta, Edward N.;  "Gottlob Frege" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=<>.

(7)  Quine, W.V.O.;  "Indeterminacy of Translation Again" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 5-10. URL=<>.

(8)  Chomsky, Noam;  New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 2000. ISBN 0-521-65822-5.

(9)  Quine, W.V.O.;  Word and Object, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1960. ISBN 978-0-262-67001-2. Pg. 11.

(10)  ibid, Pg. 27.

(11)  (intentionally omitted)

(12)  Dummett, Michael;  Frege: Philosophy of Language, 2nd Edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1981. Pg 413.

(13)  Dummett, Michael;  Truth and Other Enigmas, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press Press, 1978. Pg 216.

(14)  Dummett, Michael;  The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, Harvard university Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, Pg 85.

(15)  Hanna, Patricia;  "Swimming and Speaking Spanish" in Philosophia, Vol 34, No 3 (Sep 2006), Pg 267-285.

(16)  Dummett, Michael;  "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs: Some Comments on Davidson and Hacking" in in Truth and Interpretation, E. Lepore (ed.), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, England. 1986. P 473.

(17)  Dummett, Michael;  "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs: Some Comments on Davidson and Hacking" in Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, E.Lapore (ed.), Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford England, 1986, ISBN 978-0-631-14811-1. Pg 473.

(18)  Chomsky, Noam & Smith, Neal;  New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, op cit.

(19)  Wikipedia contributors;  "Languages of India" in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<>.

(20)  Stainton, Robert J.;  "Meaning and Reference: Some Chomskian Themes", The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Language, Ernest Lepore & Barry C. Smith (Eds.), Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 2006. ISBN 978-0-19-955223-8. Pg 920

(21)  Davidson, Donald;  "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs" in Truth and Interpretation, E. Lepore (ed.), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, England. 1986. Pg 446.

(22)  Dummett, Michael;  "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs: Some Comments on Davison and Hacking" in Truth and Interpretation, E. Lepore (ed.), Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, England. 1986. Pg 474


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