Reality in a soft science: the metaphonology of historical reconstruction

  • Roger Lass


All disciplines that deal with (apparent) recovery of objects from the past are faced by a fundamental question: what is the metaphysical status of these objects? Are they realia of some kind, or are they merely epistemic objects with no substance? This could be summed up from a debate still going on in quantum physics: do quantum systems have a real existence, or are they merely devices for calculation? In this paper I sum up the advantages of having an ontology, and the disadvantages of assuming that reconstructed linguistic objects are not real. I also discuss the uniformitarian position that makes this an unproblematic claim. I also deal with the neo-Saussurean claim that reconstructed items have no reality in themselves, but solely in terms of the systems they are in; and I suggest that this position (held by Meillet and Kuryłowicz among others), is fundamentally perverse.