[Lingtyp] homeostatic property clusters
martin_haspelmath at eva.mpg.de
Sat Feb 6 14:31:10 UTC 2021
Erich Round mentions Spike's (2020) paper and suggests that Spike showed
that one need not distinguish descriptive categories and comparative
concepts – and here I would like to bring up the notion of "homeostatic
property concepts" that Dahl (2016) brought into the discussion.
Erich Round wrote:
> * You’re right I want to “have it both ways”, to treat languages as
> systems and compare them. This is a familiar red line that has
> separated your views from other typologists for a while now. I
> appreciate that you had an argument couched in philosophical terms
> that seemed to lead to your conclusion. Formulating such arguments
> is hard and valuable work, but in my view Spike (2020)
> demonstrates that the argument fails, predominantly because it’s
> based on premises that turn out to be false. This is fine;
> typology benefits from such debates: you raised some interesting
> problems; Spike engaged with them and showed them to be apparent,
> not real.
Spike's discussion is mostly at an abstract philosophical level that
many linguists will find hard to understand (see some reactions from me
here <https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2410> and here
<https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1963>), but he cites the concrete example of
Östen Dahl's work on tense-aspect categories. What was innovative about
is was that it was based on a parallel questionnaire and other parallel
texts, and Dahl found "gram clusters" such as "perfect grams",
"imperfective grams", "habitual grams".
According to Dahl (2016: 435), we can see these as similar to Boyd's
(1999) homeostatic property clusters (HPC):
"Accordingto HPC theory, a natural kind is a group of entities with
stable similarities, where there may however be no properties shared by
all and only the members of the group. The only condition is that the
similarities are stable enough to make better than chance predictions
and that there are maintained by “homeostatic causal mechanisms”. In the
case of biological species, these mechanisms are inheritance of shared
genetic material and environmental pressures."
So this is presented by Spike (2020) as an alternative to the
tripartition between descriptive (p-)categories, comparative
(g-)concepts, and innate natural-kind categories.
(i) Dahl and Spike do not really suggest that such "clusters" can serve
as language-particular descriptive categories (the English Perfect still
needs to be distinguished from the Spanish Perfect, because they don't
have exactly the same conditions of use)
(ii) HPC theory does not help us understand how generative grammar
operates (the main reason I introduced the notion of a "natural-kinds
programme" was that I wanted to explain why generative linguists are
doing what they are doing; e.g. here: https://dlc.hypotheses.org/1012)
(iii) Even though the Dahlian tense-aspect clusters are of course
extremely interesting typological generalizations, we do not understand
their "homeostatic causal mechanisms" well.
(iv) Clearly, in order to arrive at Dahlian clusters, one needs
comparative concepts of the token-based type, e.g. questionnaire
translations, or parallel texts. There is no counterpart to this in
biological HPCs – the "similarities" are not defined in the same
(semi-arbitrary) way as in linguistics.
(v) Spike argues that“Theutility of some kind does not require
clear-cut, exceptionless definitions, but rather a track record of being
used in successful inferences... Agronomists can tell you what to plant,
geologists have a good idea of where to look for oil...”
But while agronomists and geologists have had successes which are
evident from usesful applications, the same can hardly be said about
theoretical linguistics. So we don't have an independent way of
assessing how successful or concepts are.
So while Spike (2020) made some interesting contributions (just like
Round & Corbett 2020, on which see https://dlc.hypotheses.org/2415),
there's no reason to think that there is a problem with the usual way of
dealing with uniqueness <https://benjamins.com/catalog/alal.20032.has> –
but on the other hand, I also wish Erich a lot of success with his
attempts at having his cookies and eat them too :-) Maybe it will
eventually turn out that both (or all three) approaches are right, but
for different domains.
Boyd, Richard. 1999. Homeostasis, species, and higher taxa. In Wilson,
R. (ed.), /Species: New interdisciplinary essays/. Cambridge MA: MIT Pres.
Dahl, Östen. 2016. Thoughts on language-specific and crosslinguistic
entities. /Linguistic Typology/ 20(2). 427–437.
Round, Erich R. & Corbett, Greville G. 2020. Comparability and
measurement in typological science: The bright future for linguistics.
/Linguistic Typology/. De Gruyter Mouton 24(3). 489–525.
Spike, Matthew. 2020. Fifty shades of grue: Indeterminate categories and
induction in and out of the language sciences. /Linguistic Typology/. De
Gruyter Mouton 24(3). 465–488. (doi:10.1515/lingty-2020-2061
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Deutscher Platz 6
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