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Scribbledehobble : a dissertation on linguistic agency


It is widely held that, although the scope of linguistic freedom is indefinitely large, its very expansiveness is thought to be possible only in virtue of rules that constrain what can be said. I argue that this widely held view is wrong because it posits nomic constraints on language where there aren't any--i.e., where there are only customs and habits, or uses in contexts. What this widely held view needs is a permissive conception of linguistic agency. The argument for my thesis proceeds by testing a novel account of linguistic agency against three theories of language that assume this widely held view. All three test cases are unified by a critical analysis of how the linguistic agent is controlled, but differ in the types of controls they posit, e.g., by the linguistic content of the expressions the agent utters, by the agent's subpersonal language faculties, and by the agent's linguistic environment. The first test pits my conception of linguistic agency against Semantic Minimalism, which claims that truth-conditional content can be ascribed to sentences without reference to speakers' intentions or to context. In place of Semantic Minimalism, I argue for an utterance-based pragmatism about linguistic content. This alternative is truer to the interpretation of, and truthconditions for, actual utterances made by real speakers. The second test pits actual, "performative" utterances against the assumptions of generative grammar. Whereas generative grammar has assumed that the seat of language is the subpersonal, competence system of a speaker, I suggest a realist alternative that rejects the privileging of the subpersonal in favor of a usage-based model that integrates performative aspects of language use. The third test pits the lone speaker against her linguistic community. Contra this final view, I argue for a leaner, sparser, interpretation-based alternative to the externalist tradition. From these points of departure, a maximally rich conception of the linguistic agent emerges. This conception stresses that language is usage-based, that meanings are constructs in contexts between speakers and interpreters, and that we should favor contextualism, maximalism, and pragmatism over the alternatives

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