Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences in Italy

1The current status of Philosophy of Language in Italy reflects the multifaceted philosophical research in our country. Even at first glance, the framework looks clearly deficient : it is not possible to identify a uniform and prevailing trait around which to outline a specific account of the theoretical reflection on language. Analytic philosophy has the virtue of a well-defined profile, but other schools of thought with more blended theoretical limits also offer a similarly significant contribution. However, a way to settle the problem of sketching the state of the Italian philosophical approaches to language is represented by an element that can be considered the lowest common denominator of various different accounts. Most contemporary representatives of Philosophy of Language in Italy side with the anti-scientistic approach (specifically, anti-mentalist and anti-naturalistic). Such an approach, therefore, reflects the more general issue concerning the relationship between science and philosophy, traditionally an uneasy relationship within a country where « scientism » often has a negative connotation. When it comes to exploring the current connection between Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences, the firm anti-scientist attitude of the Italian philosophers becomes particularly relevant. Exploring such a connection means first looking at the strong suspicion (even ostracism) of those methodologies and objectives inherent in the sciences of mind and language.

2There are two main aspects of the anti-scientist attitude that impede a mutual interplay between Philosophy of Language and the Cognitive Sciences : anti-mentalism and antinaturalism. A more general claim is needed before addressing these issues. In order to understand fully the philosophical bias against Cognitive Sciences, it is worth considering that Philosophy of Language in Italy nearly coincides with a « history of philosophy. » Hence, the focus of the Italian research involving even the theoretical approach to the Philosophy of Language is mainly on the study of authors, rather than on themes. Such an attitude has historical roots (for instance, the idealism espoused by Croce and Gentile is still influencing Italian philosophical investigations). Irrespective of both this general consideration and the causes behind it, the independence of the study of language from those methodologies used in the study of the mind represents a key idea. This idea is founded on the assumption that the defining features of language, especially meaning, must be analysed independently from any reference to mental states and processes. This Italian anti-mentalism depends to a large extent on the dominance of classic scholars as Frege and Wittgenstein (among others) that still have a strong appeal in the Philosophy of Language, and not only on the analytic side. The antimentalism is, in fact, a theoretical basis for many current perspectives related to the study of language. Accordingly, the reference to what happens inside the brain (a private and subjective dimension, in the anti-mentalistic account) is completely unsuitable for the study of human communication (grounded in the public and shared nature of meanings). In the anti-mentalist view, then, the investigation of the prerequisites of meaningful communication must not involve the analysis of those mechanisms and processes governing effective communication among real people in real contexts. As it is reasonable to expect in such a perspective, psychology and the empirical sciences engaged in the study of the mind (from neuroscience to computational linguistics) play only an ancillary role. As the foundation of communication concerns abstract conditions autonomous from those functions and systems that allow humans to understand language in real communication, referring to such functions and systems is not suitable from an explanatory point of view. From this kind of arguments follows that the antimentalistic attitude of the Philosophy of Language has turned into an open rebellion against the cognitive revolution. That’s not all. Besides this firm anti-mentalism, this rejection is actually based on a resolute anti-naturalistic attitude of the Italian Philosophy of Language. Before analysing this issue in more detail, two further clarifications are necessary.

3The first clarification is this : the claim that the Italian philosophers of language are strongly opposed to Cognitive Science is a generalization, with all the limitations that term implies. In particular, two critical points are worth highlighting: the first is that since the Seventies several local institutions – along with independent researchers – have welcomed the idea of intertwining Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences. The work of these scholars continues to be of great relevance since, in recent years, the state of the art has shown some improvement. Indeed, new research centres (Departments and Masters Programs in Cognitive Sciences) have been founded and encouraged by philosophers, marking a crucial linkage between Philosophy of Language and the empirical sciences.

4That said, the institutional situation lags far behind that found in many other nations. Indeed, Italian cognitive scientists of language are still working in a fragmentary and autonomous way – either organized in small groups, or as independent individual researchers within departments generally oriented to other fields of research.

5When some philosophers have the opportunity to take part in official research groups (with linguists, neuroscientists, psychologists and technicians), this is generally due to the kind hospitality of scientists. It is noteworthy that this integration policy is almost always initiated by those scientists that host philosophers, rather than otherwise. This suggests that scientists are aware of the role that philosophy could play into the empirical research, whereas philosophers are less able to recognize the potential role of science in their theoretical accounts. Aside from those philosophers conducting their research within scientific departments, the relationship between Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences is at best tenuous and at worst non-existent.

6The second clarification, however, represents a more optimistic outlook. In spite of the general institutional situation, the philosophic analysis of language is at the base of a substantial theoretical revolution : those changes never realized at the institutional level are being found on the theoretical level. Although anti-mentalism is still considered the lowest common denominator widely shared among philosophers of language, the situation appears significantly different when we take into account the theoretical outcomes of small groups or independent individual researchers. The upheaval represented by the coming of cognitive sciences on the study of language has left its mark : the Chomskyan account (Biolinguistics based on Universal Grammar; see for example Chomsky, 1965, 1966) represents a point of no return for many philosophers (Berwick & Chomsky 2011 ; Di Sciullo & Boeckx 2011 ; Piattelli-Palmarini 1974 ; Piattelli-Palmarini, Uriagereka & Salaburu 2009). The Cognitive Science approach to human behaviour is based on the idea that an individual’s actions are the product of mental states and internal processes. Accordingly, cognitive scientists claim that language has to be interpreted from the same point of view : Universal Grammar is a set of rules and principles implemented by our mind-brain in order to produce and comprehend linguistic utterances. The approach is to analysing language by looking at the brain activity instead of conventions or social praxis) has been firmly opposed by semiotic and structuralist traditions, as well as by the analytic account. Nevertheless, the « biolinguistics » proposed by Chomsky in the mid-Fifties eventually became established also among various Italian researchers.

7The acceptance of Chomsky’s proposal entailed a radical change in the attitude towards anti-mentalism. There are two main reasons underlying this change in perspective. The first reason is that Universal Grammar reshaped the theoretical cornerstone of the anti-mentalistic view in favour of conceptual analysis. Thus, the idea that brain activity might be interpreted with reference to the « subjective » and « private » natures of individuals appears to be strongly influenced by the idea that essential features of language represent an endowment of structures and processes shared by all human beings.

8The second reason is derived from the Chomskyan view that stresses the explanatory weaknesses of studying language independently from the analysis of those processes that allow effective communication in real conversational exchanges.

9Italian philosophers strongly prefer to base their investigations on conceptual analysis. However, when it comes to studying mind and language, such an analysis – completely independent from empirical data – is better suited to the study of disembodied angels rather than flesh and blood humans. Considering language mainly as a communication system, why should an analysis of the defining features of language focus solely on what speakers comprehend in abstract, with no reference to those systems that allow embodied individuals to understand verbal utterances in actual conversational contexts ? For this reason, a cognitive-oriented approach to the study of language (based on collaboration of philosophers with psychologists, linguists, and neuroscientists) appears to be an essential approach of research. Despite such considerations, the reasons why some Italian philosophers support the Chomskyan paradigm can be very useful in understanding the relationship between Philosophy of Language and the Cognitive Sciences. This issue is relevant not only in understanding the state of the current link between philosophy and the empirical sciences, but also for the purpose of understanding the future direction of research. The adherence of philosophers to Universal Grammar’s program has both its good and bad aspects. Indeed, those elements of Chomsky’s model that fostered better relations between philosophers and cognitive sciences represent, at the same time, the main obstacles to a real integration between them. One of the reasons why philosophers embraced Chomsky’s paradigm is that they are sympathetic to that model centred on Universal Grammar, a model that refers to the Cartesian tradition (Chomsky, 1966; Fodor, 1983). Such a reference, a cornerstone of Chomskyan work, poses problems for a naturalistic research program, which Biolinguistics must be, by definition. Chomsky’s theory offers assumptions that (because of their ambiguous nature and their incompatibility with a « biolinguistics » perspective of language) have always distanced Universal Grammar from those methodologies and theoretical assumptions that characterize scientific research. Indeed, Universal Grammar represents a conceptual and abstract model (music to philosophers’ ears !), autonomous from data derived by empirical research. It is only recently that Chomsky, embracing the important experimental studies conducted by Andrea Moro and colleagues (Moro et al. 2001 ; Musso et al. 2003) began to take into account what he had always denied : the idea that the neurosciences of language could add something significant to the study of Universal Grammar. In order to clarify to what extent the Chomskyan model could be considered consistent with a biolinguistics approach, the point is not primarily a problem of understanding which role neurosciences (or any other empirical science) play in the study of language. The point is connected, instead, to a more general issue: the adherence by Philosophy of Language to naturalism – namely, to the idea that language, as a natural entity, has to be investigated in accordance with those methodologies and criteria applied to any other natural entity. Because of the difficulty in developing a Cartesian model of language and a fully naturalistic perspective of human verbal abilities, Chomskyan biolinguistics does not allow an investigation of this kind (Boeckx 2011 ; Ferretti & Adornetti, 2014). That is why some philosophers embraced Universal Grammar, keeping alive the strong antiscientist attitude that characterizes the Philosophy of Language in Italy.

10This difficulty is identified also in the international context. Although Universal Grammar theory is considered to be one of the approaches that, more than others, contributed to the emergence of Cognitive Science (in the second half of the previous century), the prevailing idea is that such a theory is today an obstacle to the establishment of a valid biolinguistics project. As proof of this, many attempts to deeply revise the Chomskyan model have been made by the supporters of the Biolinguistics 2.0 program (Boeckx & Benítez-Burraco 2007), a theoretical model designed to focus on the recovery of the relationships with the empirical sciences, from genetics to neurosciences, by preserving the Universal Grammar structure. On this point, it is vital to understand whether biolinguistics should still have Universal Grammar as reference model or whether cognitive sciences of language should suddenly change course. Philosophers of language certainly play a major role in settling this important theoretical question: it is still a significant unresolved issue understanding whether to commit to a compatible hypothesis between Universal Grammar and the new research programs (arisen thanks to the advances of cognitive sciences) or whether such new programs permit the creation of a model of language that is alternative to Universal Grammar. Although this issue is subject to a heated international debate, Italian philosophers of language (except some small groups or individual cases) seem to be excluded from the discussion on one of the main topics of cognitive sciences of language. Why are Italian philosophers rarely represented in this debate ? A central issue underlying the biolinguistics perspective is, indeed, an insurmountable obstacle for many language scholars : the idea that the analysis of language has to be put within the theoretical framework of evolutionary theory. On this specific point, Italian philosophers of language are more skeptical than they are on the mentalistic issue. For many of them, the reference to Darwinism mirrors a scientist’s attitude (in its negative sense) to the study of language.

11The reference to the theory of evolution represents a privileged tool of analysis to understand whether and to what extent the cognitive science framework can be included within the theoretical background of naturalistic perspectives. The attempts to provide an explanation of language in causal terms (with an explicit reference to the Darwinian tradition, as in Millikan 1984 for example) have been harshly criticized also from inside the cognitive sciences paradigm (Fodor 2008 ; Fodor & Piattelli-Palmarini 2010). At the basis of such response (significantly, led by the extreme wing of neo-Cartesianism) is one of the strengths underlying the critique of naturalistic approaches to language : the idea that human verbal skills are irreducible to causal explanations and, hence, not investigable with the equipment of natural sciences – especially, the evolutionary tools. This fact is connected with another significant issue in the attempt to outline the state of art of Italian reflection on language : the rebellion against the evolutionary paradigm, beyond its connection with the study of language. This case is even worse than that of mentalism : the hindrances (also religious and ideological) played a key role in this respect. If the introduction of Universal Grammar has been supported – although only recently – by several philosophers of language (especially within the line of analytic tradition that casts aside anti-mentalism), adherence to the theory of evolution has yet to be realized. The lack of interest in one of the current main topics, language origins, supports this claim. It is regrettable to find that in Italy, research has seemingly remained stuck in 1866, when the Linguistic Society of Paris issued the edict that prevented its members from dealing with the topic of language origins during the annual conferences. The commendation and enthusiasm accompanying Chomsky’s criticisms of the scholars actively involved in the study of language origin and evolution represent evidence that anti-scientism is the common trait unifying the otherwise diverse group of philosophers in our country. All of this is compounded by an issue not yet addressed, perhaps the major obstacle to the merging of Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences. It is the culturalist issue : the idea that language is the result of cultural practices, more than the product of bio-cognitive processing (the mind-brain functioning) is well-established in Italy.

12This is an idea hard to defeat, even though it is founded on the (completely erroneous) premise that studying the biological bases of language entails rejecting the analysis of a feature characterizing human linguistic codes : the extreme variability of language usage in the various speakers’ societies. The supporters of the culturalist perspective of language invoke an element that has been shamefully ignored by the Cognitive Sciences. That said, future research cannot be defined as a return to the past (with that bad habit typical of the Italian historicist attitude). Cognitive Sciences represent a point of no return in the reflection on language within a naturalistic perspective : at present, it is pointless to revive the topics dear to the culturalist account as a means of contrasting the idea that language has a biological basis and development, as well. This said, Cognitive Sciences would also have to take upon themselves the analysis of those components of verbal skills – the variability of linguistic codes, among others – that Chomskyan biolinguistics has erroneously considered as secondary, or irrelevant. Future research will have to aim at devising a synthetic perspective, in which those two traditions mutually exchange information, methodologies and ideas. This exchange must be put in place while yet taking account of two facts. First, complying with the Darwinian view, it will be necessary to leave the « specialty » status characterizing, according to many philosophers, the place of man in the nature. Claiming, along with Darwin, that man is an animal among other animals means claiming that all the properties and capabilities marking humans are properties and capabilities of an animal among others. The attempt to reject the idea that human beings are special entities within nature can point the way to a model of language as hybrid phenomenon, resulting at the same time from biology and culture.

13Secondly, although future research has to develop a synthetic account, it is also true that achieving this objective is the hardest challenge to pursue. This is true, first and foremost, for theoretical reasons : the idea that language is the product of biological and cultural constraints may appear to be a common sense claim unquestionable and accepted by everyone, but it is not the case. Although several scholars strongly emphasize the need to outline synthetic proposals, it must be made clear that such proposals have to be considered as the problem to be solved rather than a solution to the problem. Further, from a methodological point of view, the analysis of language as a hybrid phenomenon implies, by definition, a kind of research supported by the joint work of many different scholars. Given that in Italy the prevailing idea is that philosophy is autonomous and independent from science, this multidisciplinary aspect represents the most pronounced point of stasis. What is clear – and could be considered a good omen for the Philosophy of Language young generation – is the invitation to overcome the biggest stumbling block: the separation between science and philosophy that, in Italy is still an obstacle hard to be overcome.