Most readers will have had at least some exposure to John Searle’s interview by Tim Crane, which was published earlier this week. It was then hotly debated in the philosophical blogosphere at large (in particular at the Leiter Reports). Together with Peter Unger’s interview published roughly around the same time, it seems that the ‘old guard’ is on a Quixotesque crusade to chastise the younger crowd for the allegedly misguided, sorrow state of current philosophy. Now, I do think there is some truth to be found in what Searle says about the role of formal modeling in the philosophy of language, but his objections do not seem to apply at least to a growing body of research in formal semantics/philosophy of language. Moreover, it is not clear whether his own preferred methodology (judging from his seminal work on speech acts etc.) in fact does justice to what he himself views as the primary goal of philosophical analyses of language.
Here are the crucial passages from the interview (all excerpts from the passage posted by Leiter), the main bits in bold:
Well, what has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight. My own conception is that the formal modeling by itself does not give us any insight into the function of language.
Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto the formal model, and people think that gives you an insight. …