The Semantics of Science, Roy Harris

Roy Harris

London, New York: Continuum 2005, ISBN 0826478476


The contributors to the Pantaneto Forum hardly ever refer to publications coming from the domain of linguistics, so it may seem initially surprising that a book with an apparently specialized linguistic title is being reviewed here. However, Roy Harris (Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics at Oxford University) is not an ordinary linguist and his treatment of the semantics of science bears no resemblance to what is typically associated with linguists’ interests in the language of science, such as for instance investigations of particular word-formation patterns or characteristic sentence-structures. Rather, it relates directly not only to the very fundament of the Forum, namely, the thesis that communication by scientists and with scientists needs remedies, but also to the controversies latent behind the texts published. (Although the contributors ordinarily avoid head-on collisions, a careful reader will not have overlooked a diversity of diagnosis concerning the character and sources of the communicational difficulties and of suggestions on how to go about the desired improvement.) Harris is interested in the basic assumptions made by scientists and others about the language of science, and in its relation to the language of everyday. His investigation leads him to conclusions radical enough to be mistaken for a deeply anti-scientific position. So it must be stressed at the outset that Harris has nothing to do with postmodernist anti-science tendencies: the battles between modernism and postmodernism have been fought on the common ground of such assumptions about language and communication which Harris unequivocally rejects.

The theoretical perspective from which the book’s subject matter is viewed is integrationism, a philosophy of language and a linguistic theory created and refined by Harris over the last 30 years. Integrationism constitutes a formidable challenge to the linguistic orthodoxy, to various strands in the philosophy of language and to a range of epistemological positions. The challenge consists in rejecting two basic assumptions concerning languages and communication, which Harris calls the language myth, and in the reversal of certain ontological priorities. Thus, for an integrationist, languages are not codes which specify determinate forms and meanings of linguistic signs, and communication is not utilization of such fixed codes to transfer messages from the mind of one individual to the mind of another. Integrationism sees communication as an integration of activities by means of signs produced within the process: signs are not prerequisites of communication but its products. And so communication does not presuppose language, quite the reverse: language presupposes communication. While in the language myth codes have to be inherently stable, the integrationist takes signs to be inherently unstable: their apparent stability derives from the social utility of the activities integrated. Hence the epistemological consequences: unlike many thinkers for whom undisputed knowledge and change are incompatible, the integrationist will assume that our knowledge is always of change. That is a basic outline of the theoretical position from which Harris sets out to investigate two main questions:

What does science require of language?

What does language require of science?

The Semantics of Science belongs to the group of Harris’s publications which require from the reader no scholarly grounding in linguistics or philosophy of language. However, given that to many people the twin assumptions of the language myth may seem to be perfect common sense, such a radical departure from it could likely have resulted with a book very difficult to follow. Not just because the theory behind it is unfamiliar, but also because it is in such a stark contrast with what many scientists and non-scientists alike take for granted. But Harris is very well aware of this type of communicational barrier and carefully designs his exposition to reduce the difficulty. Nor is there any terminological barrier before the reader. Actually Harris uses so few special terms that it is possible to structure around them an account of the main argument.

Limiting his consideration to the Western intellectual tradition, Harris approaches science as one of supercategories, on a par with others, such as art, history or religion. These are all master-concepts which allow for an integration of otherwise separate activities and inquiries, and which organize society’s intellectual life. Debates on whether linguistics is a science, or whether photography is an art, or conflicts over how to distinguish between science and non-science, are among the more conspicuous manifestations of supercategories, without which such discussions would make no sense. A supercategory subsumes diverse individual disciplines and requires a certain cross-disciplinary unity and stability of terminology and practices of discourse. It has a characteristic rhetoric often used by those who want to deploy supercategory’s prestige to promote their own interests and convictions. It has its own journalists, philosophers and historians.

A view of the history of science by Harris is different than that offered by many historians who, retrospectively applying a number of assumptions characteristic to the modern supercategory of science, can reach back well beyond Classical Greece and Pharaonic Egypt in their search for ancient scientists. From an integrational perspective, science as a supercategory emerged as the concept of a literate society from the seventeenth century onwards and went through various stages, which Harris discusses on a number of examples: from Bacon and Sprat, through the authors of the Encyclopédie, to Einstein and Heisenberg. The crucial thesis in his exposition is that setting science up as a supercategory required support of a particular philosophy of language: a philosophy whose vital parts are the twin assumptions of the language myth.

This philosophy predates the emergence of the supercategory: Harris traces it back to Aristotle. Its semantic component has it that words get their meaning by standing for things in the real world. This is the reocentric version of the language myth, which can be contrasted with the psychocentric version, the view that words get their meanings by standing for ideas in the mind. If you define planet referring to the actual properties of particular heavenly bodies, you give a reocentric definition; a psychocentric one refers to beliefs about heavenly bodies. Scientists, from the earliest stages of the development of the supercategory up to the present day, have favoured reocentrism over psychocentrism.

In reocentric semantics, the required stability of signs ultimately derives from the (also assumed) natural stability of the real world. Thus it makes sense to expect from the language of science the possibility of more and more accurate descriptions of reality and to associate the advancement of science with actually offering such ever more accurate descriptions (cf. e.g. the recent reorganization of the Solar System).

Harris’s detailed analyses identify various tensions within several formulations of reocentrism, from Aristotle to Einstein and Kuhn. Many of them reveal the problem of scope: reocentrism rapidly loses plausibility when it extends to the regions covered by scientific inquiry which spread outside the area of tangible objects. And it is when theorists tend to slide towards the psychocentric model, which, in turn, results in all sorts of consistency problems, insofar as that move deprives signs of the stable anchorage in the reality outside the human mind. At this point, Harris raises the question whether a language fully explicable on the basis of reocentric definitions is possible in principle, and proceeds to argue that even those who have taken precisely such an uncompromising view on the language of science have never been able to provide a scientific justification, according to their own criteria, for taking this view. Nevertheless the model survives as the basis of the language of science.

Recognizing the role of calculations and measurements in the development of science, Harris also examines the semantic foundations of mathematics to reveal the reocentric basis of numerical signs. The unfailing belief in mathematics as the paragon of semantic stability plays an important role in the emergence of the semantic crisis of contemporary science. The crux of this crisis is a time-lag between modern scientific thinking and a model for formulating scientific statements. In other words, there is a disparity between discoveries of modern science and the language available for reporting and explaining what science has discovered.

How did this disparity come about?

Reocentrism was part of a theory designed to explain a language developed to cope with the communicational needs at the level of everyday human experience of life on Earth: at the anthropic level. Now, if science is seen in terms of integrating this anthropic experience with an expanding knowledge of Nature, it becomes visible that reocentrism can work for as long as it delivers assurance that it is possible to talk in basically the same way about objects from sub-anthropic and super-anthropic levels as one does about objects from the anthropic level (trees, bricks, or chairs). For a long time mathematics unproblematically gave that assurance. Still at the end of the nineteenth century, calculations and measurements indicated that the invisible worked in the same way as the visible. But when calculations and measurements suddenly delivered the message which, in verbal signs, could only be formulated as saying that one could not know both the momentum and a position of an atomic object, reocentrism potentially lead to questioning the physical reality of these attributes of the object. To keep the truth of such a statement one apparently would have to redefine the terms ‘position’, ‘momentum’ and ‘physical object’. But how? After all, these verbal signs functioned without a hitch at the anthropic level of experience. The rescue-operation boiled down to a decision to trust in mathematics’ unifying powers and to accept the growing verbal hiatus between the anthropic on the one hand, and the sub- and super-anthropic on the other. Science has been in a semantic crisis ever since.

But the realisation that the talk of ‘superstrings’ or ‘ten-dimensional space’ defies assumptions concerning the semantics of trees and bricks is only part of the picture. The steadfast maintenance of the time lag can be seen as a manifestation of a belief in an implausible metasemantic thesis in addition to the already dubious semantic plausibility of reocentrism: namely, the thesis that all parts of the universe are accountable to the same set of semantic assumptions.

These considerations lead Harris to a radical diagnosis of the language of science.

It is not just that the language of science still relies on an outdated linguistic model; and it is not just that the language of science can accommodate new discoveries and conclusions that are incompatible with its fundamental semantic assumptions only at the cost of becoming incomprehensible; and it is not just that these assumptions, therefore, restrict the ways in which new discoveries can be reported. Actually, the whole traditional picture of the universe, consisting of discrete objects having discernible properties and positions in time and space is an extrapolation from this linguistic model. Similarly, the communicational practice of verbal description, not the structure of the objects allegedly described, is the source of traditional distinctions between possibility and impossibility, truth and falsehood, observer and observed.

The tenor of Harris’s answers to the two main questions he formulates at the beginning of his book is in part negative and in part positive.

What does science require of language? It requires language to be semantically perspicuous. Semantic perspicuity, understood in reocentric terms, means that science needs a language capable of reflecting faithfully and objectively the workings of Nature. But that is not a requirement language can meet, for while science cannot go beyond the limits of language, language goes far beyond the limits of science.

What does language require of science? A scientific justification for the view that a fully reocentric language is possible has never been provided and is unlikely to be forthcoming. Instead, on a positive note, language requires of science a rejection of reocentrism in favour of integrationism. Scientists stand to lose nothing by doing that, except for some illusions. Such as, for instance, that their working practice can lead them to some ultimate truth about the universe, or that their language has a more reliable basis than the language of the street.

At this point a sceptic may ask: if reocentrism deserves rejection, then why has it not been rejected yet? What gives it its staying power? Indeed, it would be only a partial explanation to invoke in reply the self-supporting power of science as a supercategory which is manifest, for example, in numerous suggestions by Pantaneto Forum contributors that communicational difficulties could be reduced by teaching both scientists and the lay public some lessons in history and philosophy of science. This measure is bound to result in perpetuating the supercategory’s inherent problems, given how deeply both these domains are anchored in the language myth. A fuller explanation lies in the ubiquity of the language myth, of which reocentrism is but one semantic version, also outside science. Therefore, other books of Harris’s supercategory series: The Necessity of Artspeak (Continuum: 2003) and The Linguistics of History (Edinburgh University Press: 2004), where the linguistic bases of art and history are examined, are complementary to the considerations overviewed here. Lest the sceptic should now become alarmed by suspiciously wide ‘applicability’ of integrationism, a final general remark might be in order.

Science, art, history, religion are forms of language-making. How people utilize their language-making capacity depends inter alia on how and what they think about language. The reason why Harris promotes the integrationist mode of thinking about language is not that it promises some miraculously rapid expansion or improvement of our language-making skills, but that it enables us to assess our communicational experience to find out to what extent we are beneficiaries, and to what extent victims, of the dominance of the language myth over the Western intellectual tradition. The Semantics of Science, like the other books in the supercategory series, is an invitation and introduction to self-therapies that readers may, or may not, individually undertake.


Jan K. Wawrzyniak