REGINA PUSTET pustetrm at
Thu Jun 30 12:02:06 UTC 2005

Dear Funknetters,


The Knight quote is a nice bone of contention to throw to people, but before picking it up and slaughtering Chomsky – or maybe not – we should also consider the literature provided right after the quote in the Knight text, such as Kuhn 1970, because this indeed relatives the picture somewhat. In Kuhn 1970, the topic of paradigm shift in science is discussed at length, to the effect that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence for positing a difference between linguistics, or humanities in general, and natural science in this respect. Personally, as a linguist, I have never felt “threatened by science” or innovations, and neither do I feel that linguistics completely fails to “instill habits of honesty, creativity, and cooperation”. So arguing along Kuhnian lines, the fear of innovation, or lack thereof in individual cases, is as pronounced in natural sciences as it is in the humanities and other branches of science. This comes as no surprise because resistance to innovation is 
 a deeply
 human trait (probably evolutionarily based, if we want to discuss that).


In a way, however, I feel that there might be something to the statement that in the humanities, people are free to ignore each other and claim what they like. Here again, what I remember about Kuhn sheds some more light on the issue by saying that different disciplines are at different stages of maturity, in the sense that in classical and therefore older sciences like physics, mathemantics, and biology, people had more time to develop a consensus on what worthy objects of study are, on methods, terminology, and so on. The frameworks are so fixed that it is much harder to ignore others and claim what you like than in the humanities. Psychology, at least at Kuhn’s time, was not exactly in the category of mature sciences, and I’d say the same is definitely true of linguistics, even today. So the reason why linguists sometimes ignore each other and claim what they like might really be the fact that linguistics is a science that’s so young that it is still struggling with its
 foundations. Let’s be honest: there’s a whole bunch of different ways of doing linguistics. Some of you out there will probably dislike the idea of classifying linguistics as an less-than-mature science, but remember, everything’s relative, and we better keep the standards set by physics, biology, etc. in mind.


Regina Pustet

Tahir Wood <twood at> wrote:Another leftwing critique, this time of Chomsky and more substantial, very interesting on the relation of his linguistics to his anarchism. Sample:

The difference between the humanities and the sciences, for Chomsky, is that scientists must co-operate with one another across space and time and therefore be honest. In the humanities, by contrast * as in ordinary life * people are free to ignore one another and can claim whatever they please. In the humanities, scholars tend to feel threatened by science precisely because of its unrestrictedly co-operative nature. Equally, they feel threatened by ideas which are genuinely new. Such defects may also afflict disciplines within natural science. But at least 'the sciences do instil habits of honesty, creativity and co-operation', features considered 'dangerous from the point of view of society' (quoted in Rai 1995: 138). A student in a university physics department will hardly survive without being questioning; in the 'ideological disciplines', by contrast, originality is discouraged. Chomsky (1975: 219) complains that in the 'domain of social criticism the normal attitudes of
 scientist are feared and deplored as a form of subversion or as dangerous radicalism'. For Chomsky, the culture of science is the real 'counter-culture' to the reigning ideology (Rai 1995: 138). 



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