Edited by Tsuyoshi Ono, Ritva Laury and Ryoko Suzuki
[Benjamins Current Topics 114] 2021
► pp. 39–58
A theoretical discussion of units in linguistic theory would be, in a sense, incomplete without a discussion of the systems, whether overt or implied, that the units are associated with. This paper traces conceptualizations of units and their accompanying systems in several disciplines. We identify some important problems with rule-based accounts (Parsons 1937) of social action and discuss the transition to non-rule-based theory afforded by ethnomethodology (e.g. Garfinkel 1963, 1967; Heritage 1984, 2011). We draw direct parallels between these issues and analogous developments in mathematical logic (Gödel 1992) and philosophy of mind (Fodor 1968, 1983; Lucas 1961; Putnam 1960, 1967 etc.), and argue that these stem directly from fundamental properties of a class of all formal systems which permit self-reference. We argue that, since these issues are architectural in nature, linguistic theory which postulates that linguistic units are the outputs of a consistent, self-referential, rule-based formal systems (e.g. Hauser, Chomsky & Fitch 2002) will inevitably run into similar problems. This is further supported by examples from actual language use which, as a class, will elude any theoretical explanation grounded in such a system.