For over a year now the book Ontological Semantics has been sitting on my bookshelf. I finally started reading it recently after coming across a review by John F. Sowa (originally published in Computational Linguistics). Unfortunately, I wasn't very far into the book when I came across the following sentence:
"the science of language has been largely ignored by philosophers"
This statement blew my mind. It simply beggars belief. Incorrect statements about factual matters are one thing. But this is something different. It is a sweepingly broad statement that seems completely unaware of its own overreach. The authors of the book seem to acknowledge, at least tacitly, that the statement may need to be qualified, since they do footnote the sentence, noting:
Of course, language itself has not been ignored by philosophy: much of the philosophy of the twentieth century has been interested precisely in language. Under different historical circumstances, the philosophy of language would have probably come to be known as a strain of linguistics and/or logic rather than a movement in philosophy.
But it's hard to reconcile the strength of their claim with their footnote, since the footnote basically acknowledges that there is an extensive literature on the philosophy of language and on the philosophy of science, but seems to hold that there is little in the intersection of the two areas. This is simply untrue.
In the heyday of generative grammar, philosophers paid considerable attention to language and the science of meaning. For example, one of Chomsky's most famous works is a philosophically oriented review of Skinner's book Verbal Behavior (available here). And John Searle wrote about Chomsky's linguistic revolution in the New York Review of Books in 1972 (available here). There is no shortage of ink spilled on the topic of scientific revolutions and the development of generative grammar. For example, in 1976 Language published an analysis of the history of linguistics in Kuhnian terms by W. Keith Percival (available here).
Not too surprisingly, because the authors are unaware of this literature, they mistakenly imagine that they are making original contributions to the field, as John F. Sowa points out in his review. Concerning the four components of a scientific theory that they propose, he writes:
Under various names and with varying definitions, similar components are present in most theories about theories. The authors' claims of novelty in proposing them "surprisingly, for the first time in the philosophy of science" are overstated.
Paul Feyerabend, one of the more famous philosophers of science (if fame is a word that can be rightfully applied to academic philosophers), has written extensively on the relationship between science and philosophy, often taking a rather dim view of the contributions of the latter. In "Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem" (a locus classicus for eliminative materialism), Feyerabend advises against letting philosophical objections curtail the development of detailed scientific theories concerning phenomena of interest:
It occurs only too often that attempts to arrive at a coherent picture of the world are held up by philosophical bickering and are perhaps even given up before they can show their merits. It seems to me those who originate such attempts ought to be a little less afraid of difficulties; that they ought to look through the arguments which are presented against them; and that they ought to recognise their irrelevance. Having disregarded irrelevant objections they ought then to proceed to the much more rewarding task of developing their point of view in detail, to examine its fruitfulness and thereby to get fresh insight, not only into some generalities, but into very concrete and detailed processes. To encourage such development from the abstract to the concrete, to contribute to the invention of further ideas, this is the proper task of a philosophy which aspires to be more than a hindrance to progress.
The authors of Ontological Semantics would do well to heed Feyerband's advice. Although their excursion into philosophy is unrewarding, it is also fairly harmless. It can be largely ignored without materially affecting the remainder of the book. My advice to the authors is to fight the philosophical impulse and stick to the engineering. To again quote Sowa's review:
Despite the historical and philosophical inaccuracies, this is a valuable textbook on computational linguistics. Its greatest strength is its engineering contribution, and its greatest weakness is the constant bickering with linguists and logicians who study different aspects of the rich and complex subject of language. Humans and machines require both logical and lexical processing for language understanding, and the authors could better inform students by showing what their approach does best than by trying to limit the range of topics linguists are allowed to explore.