Approaching the issue

The task of setting out (to use a neutral word) the goals of a human activity may be approached in a variety of ways depending on conditions such as who is involved in the activity and who has the power to determine the goals. In the case of the goals of a scientific discipline, the question may, in principle, be approached by established scientific methods:

The deductive approach suffers at least from the following shortcomings:

The inductive approach suffers at least from the following shortcomings:

Thus, if one at all wants a scientific approach to the problem of the goals of a discipline, one would have to combine – as usual – deductive and inductive methods, hoping that they will compensate for each other's shortcomings. It would certainly be reasonable to do this scientific work (from time to time). However, it has apparently not been done. I will therefore abide by taking a common-sense approach to the problem, informed both by some epistemology of linguistics and by some experience with linguistic work.


Like any human activity, linguistics has a place in a teleonomic hierarchy (see teleonomische Hierarchie) which is headed by its ultimate goals. Science is the pursuit of objective knowledge/understanding (Greek epistēmē, German Erkenntnis). The attainment of such knowledge is its ultimate goal. This goal is itself subordinate to the goal of human life, which is the improvement of the conditio humana.

It is in the nature of human cognition – as opposed to God's cognition –, that it can be fully achieved only in communication. To say that the goal is objective knowledge is therefore almost tantamount to saying that it is rational communication. This rephrasing also serves the purpose of avoiding a static conception of ‘objective knowledge’. In the more specific discussion below, the role of communication in the achievements of the goals of a science will come up again.

Understanding has two sides, a spiritual and a practical one.

Some sciences make a stronger contribution to the spiritual side, others make a stronger contribution to the practical side. This is the basis for the distinction between pure and applied science.

Linguistics is the study of human language. Understanding this object has a purely spiritual aspect, which constitutes what might be called “pure linguistics” and what is more commonly called general linguistics. It also has a practical aspect, which concerns the role of languages in human lives and societies and the possibilities of improving it. This epistemic interest constitutes applied linguistics.

Given the divergence in the epistemic interest of pure and applied science, there can be no universal schema by which the goals and tasks of a science should be systematized. As discussed elsewhere (see Wissenschaft), there is a basic distinction between logical, empirical and hermeneutic approaches. Linguistics shares components of all of them. Here we will focus on the tasks of linguistics as an empirical discipline. For such a discipline, the main tasks are:

  1. elaboration of a theory of its object
  2. documentation and description of its object
  3. elaboration of procedures for the solution of practical problems in the object area.

In what follows, the main goals of general and applied linguistics will be characterized, at a general level, according to this schema.

Theory: the nature of human language

The spiritual aspect of the human understanding of some object is realized in the elaboration of a theory of that object. In this respect, the task of linguistics consists in the elaboration of a theory of human language and its relation to the languages. Its most important aspects include

In characterizing the nature of human language, linguistic theory also delimits it against other kinds of semiosis, both synchronically in the comparison of spoken and written languages with sign languages, whistling languages and, furthermore, with animal languages, and diachronically in the comparison with primate semiotic systems from which human language may have evolved.

Empiry: documentation, description and comparison of languages

As recalled above, linguistics is (among other things) an empirical science. In such a discipline, there is a necessary interrelation between the elaboration of a theory of the object and the description of the object; one informs the other. Second, since speech and even languages are volatile, they have to be documented. Third, human language manifests itself only in the form of individual languages; but in none of these is its entire potential represented. The only empirical access to human language is therefore by comparing languages. The tasks of linguistics in this area may be systematized as follows:

  1. language documentation: recording, representation, analysis and archiving of speech events and texts that represent a certain language
  2. language description:
    1. the setting of the language
      • ethnographic
      • social/cultural
      • genealogical
    2. the language system:
      • semantic system: grammar, lexicon
      • expression systems: phonology, writing
  3. language comparison:
    1. typological comparison
    2. genetic comparison.

The documentation of a language must be such that people who do not have access to the language itself can use the documentation as a surrogate for as many purposes as possible. In particular, it should be possible to develop a description of a language on the basis of its documentation.

The description makes explicit the meanings that the language expresses and the functions it fulfils – what it codes and what it leaves uncoded –, and represents the structure of the expressions that afford this. It does all of this in the most systematic and comprehensive way possible. Such a description may be used for a variety of purposes, most of which are mentioned below in the section on applied linguistics.

Both documentation and description take the historical dimension of the object into account. That is, in the synchronic perspective, they are systematic, while in the diachronic perspective, they are historical.

Comparison and description of languages are in a relationship of mutual presupposition. On the one hand, a comparison of two languages presupposes that descriptions of them are available. On the other hand, these descriptions must have a form that renders them comparable, which means that they are informed by comparative linguistics.

Practice: application of linguistics

The daily use of language for communication and cognition is replete with all kinds of tasks and problems that require science for a proper solution. Some of them are:

The descriptions produced in “pure” linguistics – not only descriptive linguistics, but also socio-, psycho-, neuro-, ethno- etc. linguistics – are exploited for the formulation of technical procedures by which tasks arising in the fields enumerated may be solved. And contrariwise, the demands arising from those practical fields are taken as challenges by theoretical and descriptive linguistics to produce theories and descriptions that respond to them.

Methodology: epistemological reflection and working tools

The nature of the goal of science – objective knowledge – requires the elaboration and testing of methods by which (putative) knowledge may be attained, verified/falsified and applied in the solution of practical or interdisciplinary problems.

While a contribution from general epistemology may be expected for the epistemological side of linguistic methodology, its operational side is entirely the responsibility of the particular discipline. Its status as a scientific discipline crucially depends on its fulfillment of this task.

Cooperation: interdisciplinary fertilization

The articulation of science into disciplines is, first of all, a necessity of the division of labor. As observed above, a particular discipline is constituted by the combination of an object with an epistemic interest. The object is just a segment of the overall object area susceptible of scientific insight; the epistemic interest depends on all kinds of factors; and the combinations of these two elements are consequently manifold. In other words, no discipline is autonomous and self-contained. The contribution that it makes to human understanding can only be assessed if it is compared and combined with other disciplines.

The theories developed by a discipline must define their object in such a way that it becomes transparent where they leave off, i.e. where the interfaces for the combination of related theories are. And they must be formulated in such a way that non-specialists can understand them and relate them to the epistemic interest pursued by them. Thus, a linguistic theory has to make explicit what it purports to cover and what not – for instance, only the linguistic system, not its use –; and linguists should say what they think is required for taking care of the rest. Moreover, the products of linguistic description and documentation must be represented in such a way that non-linguists may use them. For instance, there must be

Finally, linguistics must be capable of and receptive in taking up insights and challenges from other disciplines. For instance,

Interdisciplinary cooperation is the touchstone of the communicative capacity of a scientific community. A discipline that can neither inspire other disciplines nor be inspired by them gets isolated and unnecessary.


Above, five areas of goals of linguistics have been identified:

  1. Theory: the nature of human language
  2. Empiry: documentation, description and comparison of languages
  3. Practice: application of linguistics
  4. Methodology: epistemological reflection and working tools
  5. Cooperation: interdisciplinary fertilization.

These goals do not belong to the same level. Goal #1, the elaboration of a theory of its object, is the highest goal of any science. As already mentioned, goal #1 is interdependent with goal #2, because a theory of an object area presupposes its proper description, and a proper description presupposes a theory on which it can be based. Furthermore, the production of documentations and descriptions is a service to the society. This is even more true of goal #3: The solution of daily-life tasks and problems is a practical contribution to the improvement of the conditio humana. It has to be done by someone, and if it is done by the discipline that has the relevant know-how, it is both better for the solution of the problem and better for the social standing of the discipline. Finally, the demands emerging from extra-scientific practice may feed back into the content and form of descriptions.

Goals #4 and #5 are more science-immanent. Neither the elaboration of a methodology nor interdisciplinary cooperation are anything that would be of direct relevance outside a scientific context. They are, however, preconditions for the attainment of goals #1 – #3. As said before, no serious theory can be developed, no adequate descriptions and documentations can be produced, and no practical problems can be solved, without an arsenal of pertinent methods and without a systematic interchange with disciplines that partly share the object area or the epistemic interest.

1 The word control must not be misunderstood. To control something does not mean ‘dominate, manipulate and destroy it’, but instead ‘be able to predict its behavior and thus interact with it in the most fruitful way’.