Language as a Scientific Tool. Managing Language as a Variable of Practice and Presentation
Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, 29th-30th November 2010
Institute for Culture Studies and History of Theatre, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Working Group History of Science, History Department, University of Vienna
Department of Political Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg
English and German Departments, University of Granada
Language has played an important and extended role in the history and philosophy of sciences, with language itself also becoming the subject of scholarship. Linguistic environments of scientists have unavoidably affected scientific research at various levels by, for instance, imposing cultural constraints and preconceptions, and by affecting the bounds of communication that structure science as social engagement. Despite the relevance of this phenomenon, insufficient historiographical and philosophical consideration has been paid to scientists' own thoughts on language as the essential medium of their practice, and as a malleable element that can be shaped to suit their goals.
The aim of this conference is, thus, to consider the history of language as an object of scientific concern, whether for epistemological or semantic reasons, stemming from scientists' understanding of language as a tool for conceptualising the world, from concerns on successfully communicating within the scientific community among specialists or merely between scientists and the general public. In either case the examination of the historical circumstances that have motivated such reflection appear paramount.
Language can also be considered as a consciously modelled tool for achieving definite scientific and political goals. Indeed, Bacon began his natural philosophy explicitly criticising scholastic ideas on language, which for him obscured nature instead of clarifying it. Therefore, it seemed to him that language had to be reformed and properly redefined to serve in the natural philosophic endeavour. Locke gave specific attention to language as a prior question to setting an epistemological basis to natural philosophy, in turn enforcing a separation between word and meaning that put natural philosophers in direct control over their language. This revolution in language was also one of the key points of the new science hailed by members of Royal Society such as John Wilkins, who was appointed a treatise on a new philosophical and universal language. Other voices argued that gaining explicit control over language was the only way to free it from past misconceptions. The claim that science needed to formulate a theory of language able to underwrite scientists' epistemic activity recurs right up until logical positivism.
At the same time, the Renaissance witnessed the struggle between Latin and the vernacular languages as means for the written codification of knowledge. From a dominant and hegemonic position, Latin gradually ceased being the only appropriate means for learned discourse, the vernaculars taking its place. Then, language critics displayed diverse arguments intertwining language with politics. In Germany, for instance, the main argument in linguistic change at the universities was the need of the introduction of a new science requiring a language distinct from scholastic Latin (Christian Wolff, Christian Thomasius), and thus not pervaded with scholastic ideas.
This conference focuses on the question of how the process of linguistic change was effected, perceived, and conducted by scientists. From the field of philosophical discussions, to the field of language in use, it is possible to pose crucial questions such as the following:
- How has science sought to manage language through philosophical conceptions or rhetorical techniques to obtain particular goals, epistemic or otherwise? To what extent have scientists engaged in linguistic argumentation to criticize competing paradigms?
- Has language been considered to be perfectly manageable? How have influences from e.g. other languages been coped with? Can it be said that linguistic purism relates only to alien words, or also to changing reality such as technology or geographical discoveries?
- How has the communication of science been discussed in relation to both the existing world and the learned community? Has science been seen as corresponding more accurately with the reality (following Herder) if written in the national language of a community? How has the communication of discoveries with other scientists been perceived if this was the case? Which were the points of conflict between perfect translatability and innate and unique features of natural languages in thisrespect?
- In what contexts have issues of language been raised and to what ends? Is it a purely philosophically-driven debate for the purpose of articulating science, or are political and social factors (co)responsible for the crises of languages commonly used in the past?
- Who were the actors of linguistic change? Did scientists/natural philosophers play only a minor role, or did the impulses and crises of used languages come from other sources?
- Did scientists try to develop their own definitions of language as competing with philosophical ones? How did the endeavors for perfection of language differ among different groups?
Postgraduates are particularly encouraged to submit proposals for twenty-minute papers.
The language of the conference is English. The organizers plan to publish a selection of papers from this conference.
Please e-mail 300-word abstracts or proposals with a brief CV to Rocío Sumillera: email@example.com by Monday, March 1st 2010.
Johannes Feichtinger (Institute for Culture Studies and History of Theatre, Austrian Academy of Sciences): firstname.lastname@example.org
Miles MacLeod (Konrad Lorenz Institut, Vienna): email@example.com
Ekaterina Smirnova (Department of Political Science and Sociology, European University at St. Petersburg): firstname.lastname@example.org
Jan Surman (History Department, University of Vienna / Center for Austrian Studies, University of Minnesota): email@example.com