Marcelo Dascal
Endangered Languages

An Epistemological Argument

Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, of the conditions under which we acquire knowledge, and under which knowledge grows.

Let us consider first the science of language -- Linguistics. The capacity to learn and use language -- what has been called in a recent book "the language instinct" is one of man`s most important assets. As scientists, we want to know as much as we can about it. Even if its underlying basis is universal and shared by all men, for determining its nature it is essential to possess data about as many languages as possible - otherwise our theorizing about the human linguistic capacity would remain speculative.

It stands to reason that the brilliant idea of the theory of evolution would not have occurred to Darwin if he had not collected evidence throughout the world, and especially if the Beagle had not hit upon the Galapagos Islands.

Is it reasonable to wait until languages disappear, leaving -- at best -- some "fossil record", in order to collect linguistic data? For the sake of the science of language, it is essential to address the task of collecting such data before more languages die, i.e. with the atmost urgency.

Let us consider now the interests of science in general, rather than of linguistics alone.

In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill defended freedom of speech on the grounds of fallibilism: our best theories - he argued - are only likely to be true; there is a chance - albeit small - that the truth lies elsewhere, in 'minority' or 'weird' views; they should, therefore, be granted the right to be expressed, for the benefit of human knowledge as a whole.

I am here arguing, analogously, for the freedom to preserve and express these presumably valuable 'other' views, in their own languages, of which they are in fact inseparable.

Other languages and cultures can be considered as "alternative theories" to those we are familiar with. They are thus a fruitful reservoir of ideas that may help us to overcome difficulties in our current theories.

As argued by many philosophers, beginning with Socrates, through Descartes and Kant, and up to Popper, the engine of intellectual progress is criticism.

Criticism means the ability and courage to argue against well-established conceptions, and to provide alternatives to it. It means also the courage and ability to defend one's view against the arguments of the 'opposition'.

The confrontation of opposed theories is, thus, the fertile ground for intellectual and scientific progress. It is through controversies that knowledge advances.

True, sometimes this fertile ground becomes a battleground, where quarrels replace reasoned argument, where imposing one's own view is all that matters.

But this need not be so.

'external intervention'
application of the 'balance of reason'
some established 'discussion procedures'

Between violent (verbal) disputes or quarrels, on the one hand, and those cases of confrontation - which I call discussions - where an accepted 'decision procedure' exists which can assign victory to one of the parties, there is room for controversies.

In controversies, though there is no conclusive 'decision procedure', appeal can be made to the relative weight of arguments pro and contra, leading to a provisional decision in favor of one of the contending views.

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