post from Dianne Patterson, U.Arizona

Mark P. Line mark at
Sun Oct 24 21:19:09 UTC 2010

With apologies for extracting a parenthetical and turning it into an
actual point:

Dick wrote: "(OK, you can all throw your bricks at me if you want, but I'm
not a Chomskyan; I just think it would be extraordinary if his work had
been ALL wrong.)"

I think that if Chomsky had been doing science -- i.e. grounding his work
in scientific method -- then we could ask the question about how much of
Chomsky's work produced scientifically valid statements about human
language. That's the question about "right" and "wrong" I'd like to be
able to ask.

Sadly, Chomsky eschewed scientific method, and explicitly so (to the point
of ridiculing his critics for expecting him to follow what he called
"naive falsificationism"). So if Chomsky did produce any statements about
human language that can now be held to be scientifically valid, it's
because he thought long and hard enough about language that he was
occasionally able to make statements that could be interpreted (by others)
as proper hypotheses. But it's not because Chomsky did the science.

The same would be true of, say, Wittgenstein, or of any other philosopher
of language.

So the question about Chomsky's work being "right" or "wrong" has the same
import as if we were asking about Wittgenstein or Kierkegaard. Work in
philosophy is seldom considered "right" unless a successful stream of
scientific discovery can be related back to it. Work in philosophy is
seldom considered "wrong" unless it is shown to be internally inconsistent
or else grossly incompatible with current scientific thinking.

So was all of Chomsky's work "wrong"? No, probably not -- any intelligent
philosopher of language is bound to be able to throw enough Jell-O at the
wall that something will eventually stick when seen through the lens of
scientific method.

But did Chomsky advance the science of human language? Well, if he did, it
was by accident.

So, as a recovering Chomsky-basher, I'd like to put him on a pedestal
right up there with all the great philosophers of language. Then I'd like
to see academic linguistics become self-aware about the way it does, or
should be doing, science.

-- Mark

Mark P. Line
Bartlesville, OK

Richard Hudson wrote:
> Dear Fritz and everyone else,
> All this is rather negative and depressing for linguists, isn't it?
> Which is a shame, because we've actually come a long way in the last 50
> years, partly thanks to Chomsky's insights. (OK, you can all throw your
> bricks at me if you want, but I'm not a Chomskyan; I just think it would
> be extraordinary if his work had been ALL wrong.) But maybe the question
> to ask isn't how good other disciplines think linguistics is, but
> whether anyone else is doing 'our job' better than us. Maybe our job is
> a particularly hard one? And maybe the extreme divisions we find in
> linguistics make it hard for outsiders to define a helpful concept
> 'linguist' on which they can pass judgements? E.g. we have plenty of
> colleagues who do corpus linguistics, text-based sociolinguistics or
> field linguistics, with a great deal of hard data and quantitative
> analysis, but psychologists and neuroscientists probably don't know
> about them.
> If the rest of the world wants to know about verb paradigms and relative
> clauses, they need a linguist. (Non-linguists sometimes think they can
> do better, but the examples that I've seen don't convince me.) The rest
> of the world may get frustrated by our attempts to analyse such things,
> and may wonder why we're taking such a long time to reach agreement; but
> we've been at it for (probably) four thousand years, and we really are
> trying hard. Maybe all that work has actually given us a depth of
> insight into our subject matter that younger disciplines haven't yet
> achieved? And none of them, incidentally, has to cope with 7,000
> completely different complex systems, all of which somehow have to be
> reconciled with theories developed more or less independently in a bunch
> of neighbouring disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience.
> I still think that linguistics is a fantastic area to work in, and I
> love it. I know its weaknesses as well as anyone does, but it has
> enormous strengths as well.
> Best wishes, Dick
> Richard Hudson
> On 22/10/2010 22:33, Tom Givon wrote:
>> Dianne Patterson has asked me to post this for her:
>> ====================
>> Dear All,
>> I'm afraid I can't quote anything of interest in the literature, but I
>> second Tom Givon's private experiences.  I have a BA in Philosophy, a
>> Masters in Linguistics, and a PhD in Psychology.
>> I've worked on language acquisition, animal-language issues, done
>> fieldwork in a remote region of Mexico, and spent the last 10 years
>> doing neuroimaging work.
>> I have found that academics in Psychology, Speech Sciences, Biology
>> and Anthropology think many linguists associated with the old School
>> Chomskian perspectives are out of touch with real data and out of
>> touch with how research is conducted.
>> This cultural divide is too bad, since I honestly believe linguists
>> might be able to contribute to these fields if they were a little more
>> willing to appreciate the perspectives, methods and hard work of
>> people in these fields.  Instead, linguists often leave behind them a
>> trail of offended scientists by making a variety of poor choices in
>> their approach:
>> -Asserting time and again the sort of quasi-religious dogma that
>> humans are "qualitatively different" than other creatures (this is NOT
>> a scientific hypothesis, it is not clear what it means, nor is it
>> obvious)
>> -Assuming that only linguists have any insights into language...and
>> never bothering to learn what other disciplines might have to offer
>> (e.g., well vetted tests in Speech Sciences).
>> -Suggesting time and again that real data from real people is of no
>> interest.
>> And, if linguists are interested in data:
>> -Assuming researchers who have worked long and hard and at great
>> expense to acquire data should just turn it over to the linguist who
>> has contributed nothing and/or offers VERY little (asking for a free
>> ride is not a good way to ingratiate yourself)
>> -Thinking of language disordered populations as resources to confirm
>> Chomsky's latests theories with (sorry, these are real people, not lab
>> rats. If you aren't interested in helping, then rethink your goals.)
>> I hope that training in linguistics and the attitudes that go with
>> that training can change, because otherwise other academics will just
>> avoid linguists, and that's too bad, because linguists have some
>> unique problem solving skills...and I the "True Believer" linguists
>> give the more reasonable linguists a bad reputation.
>> -Dianne

-- Mark

Mark P. Line
Bartlesville, OK

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