Philosophy of Language and Cognitive Sciences in Italy
© Giulia Delprato
The 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.
There 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.