Disentangling the web of belief. Metatheoretical status and empirical testability of Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness

The aim of this paper is to take a metatheoretical look at Ferdinand de Saussure’s principle of arbitrariness. What is the status of this principle in the overall theory of language proposed by the Swiss linguist? This question is not just a plaything for historians and philosophers of linguistics, since the answer is intimately related to actual scientific practice, namely the degree of empirical testability of the principle and the degree of protection against falsifying evidence that the principle should receive. The question about the status of the principle of arbitrariness can be broken down into at least two more specific questions. The first one refers to the place of the principle within what Quine and Ullian would call “the web of belief” of Saussurean linguistics. Thus, the principle can be a “metaphysical model,” a part of the “hard core” of the research program, a regular empirical hypothesis, or an a posteriori summary of results from actual investigation of linguistic data. The second question concerns the degree of idealization involved in the principle. Is the principle more similar to what Cartwright calls a “phenomenological law,” i.e. a law about actual observable linguistic phenomena; or to a “theoretical law,” which describes an idealized model of the phenomenon under investigation, but does not always describe empirical data correctly.

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