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Episode 11 Transcript - James McElvenny

Hello and welcome to another episode of The HPS Podcast, where we talk all things history, philosophy, and social studies of science for a broad audience.

I am Samara Greenwood and today and I am talking with James McElvenny, historian and philosopher of linguistics, on the topic of language and science.

As well as working and teaching in this space, James runs his own very successful podcast - The History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences, or HiPhiLangSci for short, to which we’ve provided a link in the show notes.

As James points out in this episode, intersections between language, the language sciences and science are many and varied. For example, James introduces us to the ways in which the study of language and the study of science have interacted in history, in particular through famous figures in the philosophy of science such as Wittgenstein and Carnap.

James argues for reinvigorating language-science connections today, for example, by becoming more conscious about the ways in which English – as the dominate language of science today – embeds particular cultural assumptions into our descriptions of the natural world.

James also makes the important point that while there are many practical reasons to study language or science or HPS - there is also much to be said about studying them for their inherent interest and their value in making us better-developed people, or as they say in Germany: Gebildet.

Samara Greenwood: Hello to you James, and welcome to the podcast.

James McElvenny: Yeah, well thanks for having me.

Samara Greenwood: First of all, I wanted to know how did you come to be in the history of science area?

James McElvenny: This is a really good question, but I guess it presupposes that I have actually come to be in the history of science. So, when I'm writing grant applications, I say that I'm involved in exciting interdisciplinary research, but a more accurate description might be to say that I live in a disciplinary no man's land.

I started out as a linguist, but during my doctorate, I started getting more and more deeply involved in history and philosophy of science. I went through my rebellious phase rather late in life. I was actually a really well-behaved teenager, but in my mid-twenties I suddenly felt the need to question everything.

Within disciplinary linguistics, there is a lot of reflection on philosophical issues, and to a certain extent, some engagement with the history of the field. But when you're a grad student, you're supposed to stick with a neatly defined topic in a recognisable subfield of your discipline. But I really felt like this wasn't enough for me in my hot-headed phase. So, I started reading some radical critiques of linguistics and the human sciences more generally, and I wrote a dissertation that looked at the emergence of some key ideas in semantics and semiotics in the early 20th century.

There are tiny communities within disciplinary linguistics that do this kind of work, but it's not a good crowd for an impressionable young grad student to get involved with.

I'd like to think that I've since mellowed a bit and turned my impetuous and heedless impulses into something more constructive, and I've contributed a little bit of new scholarship on these topics.

This brings me back to the problematic presupposition that I've come to the history of science. So, I do publish in history of science journals and history of science adjacent journals, but my teaching and most of my academic patrons have remained in the general orbit of the language sciences.

And my current position is actually in a research centre in Germany dedicated to media studies. Now, German media studies is a very broad discipline made up, perhaps I could say predominantly of undisciplined misfits like me. And there's a lot of history and philosophy of science research that goes on inside German media studies often aligned with STS in particular.

So perhaps in that respect, I can claim to have come to the history and philosophy of science. But overall the answer to the question of what field I'm in is - if you're going to give me money, then I do ground-breaking into disciplinary research. But, if you are looking for career advice, then I can only say, do not do as I have done. Find yourself a nice, well-recognized disciplinary specialization, settle down with it and make lots of little papers.

Samara Greenwood: I love that. ‘Make lots of little papers’. I'm interested, you've got your own podcast and so can you tell us a little bit about that? How did it come to be and what do you focus on in that?

James McElvenny: I do indeed have my own podcast and it's called History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. We abbreviate it to HiPhiLangSci, and that's also the domain name, The original point of the podcast was precisely this idea to try and get some people interested in this tiny little subfield of the history of linguistics that I'd established myself in.

I wanted to bridge the gap between practicing linguists and intellectual historians and history and philosophy of science people. And also bring in people from other fields like anthropology, philosophy and so on.

I've also long had the ambition of doing a podcast of my own, of becoming a star of the headphone and earbud. I think that podcasts, when they're done well are a fantastic format for presenting intellectual and academic material in an easily digestible form.

My greatest inspiration has been Peter Adamson, who does The History of Philosophy without any Gaps podcast. He's been going for over 10 years now, I think, and has been putting out an episode every week. I really don’t know how he manages to do that, but the format of my own podcast is directly modelled on Peter Adamson's. Although, of course I can't hope to match the sheer breadth of his erudition or the pace of his production.

I could also mention that the opportunity finally came when the linguistics editor at Edinburgh University Press asked me if I wanted to write a textbook on the history of linguistics. And I thought, great, this is finally the opportunity. I can present the material as a podcast and then use those scripts to make the book and kill two birds with one stone. In the end, it's turned out that the book is actually quite different from the podcast, and it was a huge amount of work to convert the scripts into the book, but it's done now.

Samara Greenwood: Seemed like a good idea at the time.

James McElvenny: And it's still ongoing. The podcast hasn't finished yet, and there'll probably be a second volume of the book too.

Samara Greenwood: Wow. It's quite the opus.

James McElvenny: Well, maybe my funding will run out first. We'll see.

Samara Greenwood: So, let's get to the central question, which is, what is a topic from history and philosophy of science that you believe would be of interest and value to a broader audience?

James McElvenny: The topic that I think would be of interest and value to a broader audience is the place of the study of language in science. And by that, I mean the role that thought about language and the concrete study of languages and also linguistic means for representing things, by that I mean logical and mathematical formalisms. The role that all of these things have played in the history of modern science.

Just in the past 200 years or so, there've been several occasions on which language has taken on incomparable importance in science in various different ways. But I feel like at this particular historical moment that we're in now, that linguistic problems have retreated into the background.

On the one hand, I think there's a lack of awareness about the importance of language to scientific research and the communication of research. And on the other hand, I think there could be more engagement by people in such fields as linguistics with problems in other areas of science. To make that a little more concrete, let me offer a few examples of historical cases where language has been of importance to science more generally.

So, if we look at around the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a huge preoccupation of scientists with language standardisation and language reform. From this era, we have many schemes that are still with us today, such as the standardisation of international chemical terminology, that is, the names of chemical substances and the rules used for constructing names for compounds.

And this is of course also the era in which there were the first stirrings of what would become analytic philosophy. A core feature of the program of analytic philosophy was the linguistic term. From Frege to Russell, to Wittgenstein, to Carnap, there was this obsession with language. Initially, there was this idea that if we got our language right, so that it was a true mirror of reality, then we'll have solved basic philosophical problems. Wittgenstein, of course, famously realized that it can't be as simple as that and went on to engage in a whole lot of semiotic theorizing in his later work. And Carnap also developed very nuanced views. But still, analytic philosophy was built on an obsession with language. And bear in mind too that early analytic philosophy in say the work of the Vienna Circle has also played an outsized role in shaping the direction and underlying assumptions of much contemporary philosophy of science.

This obsession with language was not just an obsession with the abstract or pure technical language of philosophy and the specific sciences, but also with everyday language and the problems of international communication. This is the same era in which the International Language Movement was at its height. This is the movement that gave us constructed international languages like Esperanto or Ido. Now, today, we might think of these as something that's a little bit weird, maybe even the hobby of cranks, but in the early 20th century the problem of fashioning an international language was taken very seriously by many people. From statesmen to scientists, to philosophers.

Now, of course, people like Russell or Wittgenstein were critical of international language projects in various ways, but Carnap, for example, was himself an Esperantist. And there were numerous other scientists who were actively engaged in developing an international language. They often cast it as the outgrowth of their work on reforming scientific language. So, the goal wasn't only to produce a language that would break down the barriers of international communication, but also to create an improved language, more refined or logical, better suited to the needs of modern science and philosophy.

Now, today, the practical problem of the medium of international communication and science has been more or less solved by the hegemony of English. This is commented on in the subtitle of Michael Gordon's book, Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After English. But at the same time, I think the philosophical problems have faded into the background.

I think there's a lack of reflection these days on the role that language plays in the formation of our concepts and how the particular language we communicate in, guides the character of our interactions. I noticed this in particular in Germany where I've been working for almost a decade now. Many German scholars and scientists want their work to have an international reception, and this means developing their ideas and writing them up in English.

And while I have very many intelligent and insightful colleagues who are conscious of these problems that I've sketched, I do sometimes feel like there's an over-eagerness to adopt terminology and discourses emanating from the English speaking world, in particular the US. And just let them run riot here without reflecting on what cultural assumptions might be embedded in these discourses and how they might or might not be applicable to the German and European context.

And on the other side, among linguists, the scientists who study language, I sometimes feel like there could be greater philosophical and historical awareness of where the tools that we use come from. Core areas of disciplinary linguistics today are syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. If you major in linguistics at university, you'll most likely have to take courses with precisely these names, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, even if the content of what is actually taught in those courses might vary slightly depending on the theoretical commitments of your professors. But this division of language into syntax, semantics and pragmatics is a direct product of the view of language developed by the early analytic philosophers. So knowing something about this background would help young linguists raised in this tradition to understand why they're taught to look at language like this and would also help to relativize this perspective on language.

It's worth acknowledging that it is, in fact, just one tradition that is, in many respects, historically contingent. Things could have turned out differently, and we might have ended up looking at language in rather different ways today. And it's still within our powers to question the foundations of the field and perhaps develop it in radically new directions.

Linguistics as a field has historically had an immense impact on other sciences. Linguistics has often been seen as a model science. In the 19th century, methods of language classification were in a dialogue with biological fields concerned with the classification of organisms in taxonomies and evolutionary schemes. The dominant branch of linguistics in the 19th century was historical comparative linguistics, which is the subfield that identifies cognates in the vocabulary and grammatical forms of languages and uses these to trace so-called genealogical relations and to draw family trees tracing the descent of languages and to reconstruct ancestors.

So there was a continual back and forth between historical comparative linguistics and comparative anatomy, and in the second half of the century, with Darwinian evolution. Stephen G. Alter has written about this in his book, Darwinism and the Linguistic Image.

In terms of the development of grand theory in the human sciences, in the 20th century structuralism emerged within linguistics. This term was first used in this sense by Roman Jakobson in the context of the Prague Linguistic Circle. And the idea spread, not least of all, through the efforts of Jacobson himself, to many neighbouring human sciences. Claude Levi-Strauss imported it into anthropology, and from there structuralism became the sort of background to all the human sciences in mid-century France and internationally.

And it was critiques of structuralism that started postmodernism in all of its varieties. And as historians of science, we're in no small part, the heirs to these developments. The impact of Postmodernist scholarship on how history of science is done is incomparable, whether that's to adopt the Postmodernist discourses or react against them allergically.

So, language itself has been of great importance to science, and the study of language has also had a big influence on the conceptual foundations of other sciences and the history and philosophy of science as we do it today. But I feel like this could be appreciated more.

Samara Greenwood: Absolutely. Can you talk a little bit about how you see understanding language in science to be interesting and useful to scientists themselves? What can they get out of knowing a bit more about this?

James McElvenny: All of these historical problems that we've been talking about are still with us today. So, questions of how the concepts we work with and the different sciences are in some sense influenced by the language and discourses that we're a part of.

But I don't want to imply that there's a linguistic determinism, that the language somehow forces you to see the world in a certain way or think in a certain way. There's definitely a dialectic relationship between language and conceptual thought. But this influence between the language we use and the discourses we're in and how that shapes what we do and, how there's an interaction between the language and how we do things and how we think about them. I think that this is very apparent in the human sciences, but I think that most philosophically informed natural scientists would probably also sign up to that or some version of that. And on a purely practical level, the dynamics of scientific communication, especially in the international context are an important part of determining who gets to take part in science, what topics and approaches are considered serious, real science. And also on a rhetorical level, what's considered convincing.

And an awareness of the historical interplay between disciplinary linguistics and the language sciences is important for understanding the development and commitments of such diverse fields as biological classification and evolutionary theory. Because, as I mentioned, in the 19th century there was this back and forth between biology and linguistics. Darwin himself was a keen reader of linguistic literature and it influenced his ideas. And people like Ernst Haeckel, who was the main representative of Darwinism in Germany in the second half of the 19th century, e was also good friends with August Schleicher, who was the main Historical comparative linguist mid-century.

Samara Greenwood: So why do you think considering the use of language in science might be of value to a broader audience?

James McElvenny: Perhaps an appropriate counter question would be, what do you mean exactly by a broader audience?

If you mean, say, a lay public then I can think of some ways in which awareness of the use of language is immediately of value. To return to the question of scientific communication, but in this case communication between practicing scientists and the public, I think there's general agreement that we're in a difficult place at the moment.

We hear a lot about the problems of a lack of trust or suspicion of science driven by contentious debates where scientific expertise clashes with powerful social interests. And there's a broader issue that we talk about being in a post-truth age where alternative facts circulate, and your reality becomes a matter of faith and tribal allegiance.

Often these problems are framed as being the fault of the algorithms that keep us in our respective filter bubbles. But maybe knowledge of historical debates that drove a lot of thinking about language reform in the early 20th century could be informative here. So many of the early analytic philosophers and language reformers of the early 20th century saw their work as an applied project to overcome the distortions of propaganda that had become so apparent during the First World War.

And with the rise of totalitarian regimes in the interwar period, it was felt that if people were more conscious of language and how it works, they'd be less susceptible to the manipulations of propaganda. Reading a lot of these language critiques today, we might sometimes feel that what they said was a bit naïve and even that the problem of mind control through propaganda was a bit overblown, that there was a bit of a moral panic.

But maybe we shouldn't dismiss everything from that time with a condescending smirk. The language we use and the discourses in which our discussions are embedded undeniably play a role in shaping people's opinions and what they think is true and credible. I. And our contemporary problems are not just because the range of voices that we're exposed to is limited by filter bubbles and a fragmented media landscape. I'd contend that there's an element of linguistic obfuscation involved in post-truth demagoguery. There are politicians and other public figures who make an art out of incoherence. This is a manipulation of language or maybe a manipulative use of language.

But here I'd like to add a deflationary coder to this answer. I'm not sure that everything we do should necessarily have a utilitarian value. Intellectual history is inherently interesting and knowing about intellectual history and being aware of past ideas, debates, and so on is just part of being the Gebildet.

Of course, as academics, we're often obliged to face the question, what is the use of that? But maybe there's some scope to push back against this presupposition. And say that there's an inherent value in science, knowledge, and culture and that it should be available to everyone.

So perhaps we should strive to change the conversation or the discourse.

Samara Greenwood: Absolutely. I love that. Thank you for such a stimulating conversation, James. It has been great talking with you today.

James McElvenny: Well thanks for having me. It's been great to be on someone else's podcast at the other end of the interview.

Samara Greenwood: Thank you for listening to the first season of The HPS Podcast.

Next week we will release the final episode for Season 1. We will then take a short break, returning in late September to launch Season 2 with some fabulous guests already lined up.

For more information, check out our website at and keep up to date with our blog, twitter, facebook and insta accounts.

Finally, my co-host Indigo Keel, and I would like to thank the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne for their ongoing support of the podcast.

Thank you for joining us and we look forward to having you back again next time.


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