Thomas Reid's Argument for Natural Language

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I don’t know much about philosophy of language but here’s an argument I picked up while reading Thomas Reid’s “An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense”. Reid is arguing that human beings have a “natural language”–a way of communicating using symbols that is prior to cultural development or any kinds of agreements about the meanings of symbols. Artificial language is those signs whose meaning has been fixed by an agreement to use them a certain way. His argument goes as follows:

1. Artificial language assumes an agreement to affix meaning to certain signs.
2. Therefore there must be compacts or agreements before artificial language and artificial signs.
3. But there can’t be compacts or agreements without language.

Therefore there must be a natural language before artificial language.

This argument does seem intuitively plausible to me. I would like to learn what critics have said in response to it.

Thoughts anyone?

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One Response to “Thomas Reid's Argument for Natural Language”

  1. Alexander Says:

    Hmm . . .”1. Artificial language assumes an agreement to affix meaning to certain signs.”I agree with this, and I believe most do becuase it is intuitive and almost obvious that we at least attempt when crafting a lnaguage to make certain “artifical symbols” that correlate to things that we ost immediately encounter as sense expirence.”2. Therefore there must be compacts or agreements before artificial language and artificial signs.”are these agreements between a society who uses the same langauge? If so that is true if we rephrase the point: “there there must be compacts or agreements before artifical language becomes useful for communication within a society.” Also, is there a distinction in your usage between “artifical language” and “artifical signs”? I the agreement you are refering to a formal unanimous decision conduct by people on a culture board? Until very recently with the rise of lexiconography and prescriptivist linguistics, there never existed formal counsels and the agreements, if they did occur, were unwritten, unspoken and very informal I would suppose.”3. But there can’t be compacts or agreements without language.”Is your use of the word “language” refering to written and spoken patterns of symbol, or can they include hand gestures and facial expression? If the don’t include the later, then it is likely by some ostensive form of hand gestures and facial expressions that a more complex, written, verbal, formal language was created. If it is the case that you define hand gesutres and facial expressions as on instnace of language, then it would be correct to say we have a natural language, for all humans and practically all developed animals take things from other sentient animals as signs for something, a gorilla, for instance, sees the “language” of a person smiling and takes that as a teeth-bearing symbol that the human is going to attack them. Therefore, if you use language in a more inclusive manner, then yes all animals and humans have certain pre-dispositions to intrepret certian states of affaris to be symbolic for some other states of affairs. given that definition, the existence of a “natural language” is undeniable. Therefore there must be a natural language before artificial language.

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