Saturday, November 15, 2014

Touring the Language Faculty: An Interview with Norbert Hornstein

did october happen? it seemed to careen right passed me into mid-november. despite this unforgivable betrayal by one of my favourite months of the year I did manage to pull off a mighty fun interview with syntactician, philosopher, and fellow-blogger, Norbert Hornstein.

I originally met this chap when I attended his syntax course at the LSA summer school some years back. listening to him speak on the topic, one is apt to get the feeling that generative grammar is building a cool mad max death truck out of scrap metal and wishes (to borrow a phrase from my flatmate). this is something that is often missing from the average lecture on the topic of generative syntax wherein one couldn't be faulted for getting the impression that the field is trying to do philology with both hands tied behind their back (methodologically and theoretically). Norbert is no philologist though, neither on his blog, the Faculty of Language, nor in this interview.

as usual, I'll take a quick dip into something raised in the interview that caught my attention.

during the latter half of the interview (about 48m) Norbert mentions the distinction between linguistics and philology. elsewhere in his writings, the distinction is made by appeal to such notions as explanation and description. I think that Norbert is right to point out that often enough the concerns motivating a programme of research aimed at a faithful description of a language are orthogonal to those motivating a programme of researched aimed at discovering the organizing principles which underlie language tout court. nevertheless, there can also be a palpable tension between the two. consider for instance, the levels of theoretical adequacy demarcated in Radford (1982):

"a grammar of a language is observationally adequate if it correctly predicts which sentences are (and are not) syntactically, semantically and phonologically well-formed in the language.

a grammar of a language is descriptively adequate if it correctly predicts which sentences are (and are not) syntactically, semantically and phonologically well-formed in the language, and also correctly describes the syntactic, semantic and phonological structure of the sentences in the language in such a way as to provide a principled account of the native speaker’s intuitions about this structure.

a grammar attains explanatory adequacy just in case it correctly predicts which sentences are and are not well-formed in the language, correctly described their structure, and also does so in terms of a highly restricted set of optimally simple, universal, maximally general principles of mental computation, and are ‘learnable’ by the child in a limited period of time, and given access to limited data."   

notice that there is a conflict of interest between descriptive adequacy and explanatory adequacy. the former is in a permanently taxonomic mood, and is primarily driven to record, sort, and occasionally predict particular language forms (and meanings); whereas the latter is in a mood to gloss, to provide the rules in virtue of which languages contain the forms and meanings that they do. and the specific pairings between form and meaning that they do.

the conflict arises when we try to map a chaotic, constantly changing world in which accidental and principled variation are observationally indistinguishable to the world of intelligible theory in which consistency and evaluability are supreme values. to my knowledge, the conflict between the two was first noticed by the ancients. for them, a crucial problem was how to relate the sophisticated geometrical and mathematical models of the time to the chaos of worldly phenomenon such as motion. Galileo was really the first (again, to my knowledge) to show the possibility of applying the concepts of geometry to the highly variable phenomenon of motion. relatedly, Bacon was the first to be recognized for proposing a mode of inquiry for, inter alia, discerning accidental variation from principled variation. namely, to carry out experiments which contrive experiences. the virtue of carrying out laboratory experiments is that it is possible to discover crucial discrepancies in theoretical prediction which can be used to hone in on the essential nature of a thing.

(returning to language & Radford's levels of adequacy)
feel free to substitute whatever variable that concerns you besides the syntactic, and whatever metric by which you'd like to evaluate well-formedness. but notice that the problems of marrying your descriptive analyses with your characterization of the abstract grammar doesn't go away (whether it be a grammar of gesture, or social relations, or morals). this is because psychological (to say nothing of theoretical) objects, grammars among them, are necessarily normative while the data is decidedly not. that is, grammars characterize a set of things which a given speaker (or speech community, if you really insist) will find well-formed with respect to form and meaning. so even a sociolect (a dialect in which linguistic varieties are correlated with sociological factors) is a kind of grammar in virtue of which speakers sort sociolinguistic forms and meanings into the well-formed and the ill-formed.

ultimately then I suppose it wouldn't be too off the mark to encapsulate the tension between linguistics and philology as a tension between accounting for forms (and meanings), which are quite varied and diverse, and accounting for the sense of well-formedness, which is largely stable and shared commonly amongst all humans.

caveat: the centrifugal force between philology and linguistics is, as any sensible researcher would acknowledge, quite often counter-balanced by a centripetal force between the two disciplines. specifically, philological projects set a baseline which any linguistic theory must meet if it is to be observationally and descriptively adequate. symmetrically, theoretical work provides the intellectual scaffolding by which philological work can proceed (think metrics of simplicity; criteria of sorting words into classes, languages into families, and the like; the very decisions about what is important to put in your taxonomy and what is not).

The End.

Notes, Admissions, Qualifications, and Apologies:
  1. Radford, Andrew. 1982. Transformational Syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  2. Apologies for the odd clicking that starts at about 35 minutes. we are working on making sure that stops happening. if you have any insight as to where this clicking is coming from or how to get rid of it we would be very grateful.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Science—Like The Shape of Bras—Changes Over Time

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to catch up with my good friend, and historian of science, Benjamin D. Mitchell. We have oft carried on lengthy arguments about the politics of science doing while he was working on his PhD at York University, and on this latest occasion I couldn’t resist making a brief transcription for the PB.

For some context: B.D. Mitchell is one of Canada’s foremost contemporary experts on Nietzsche and psychological controversies in the late nineteenth century; scholar of the periodical press & the popularization of science in the pre-WWII era; and lecturer at the University of King’s College (Halifax).He is also Editor-in-Chief of Beyond Borderlands, a critical journal of the weird, paranormal, and occult.

I think contemporary scholars of mind should be concerned with the history of the sciences not only because it offers us case studies about how and why progress & regression occur during the process of inquiry, but also because the political economy of science, which cannot be understood without a historical knowledge, is a monumental influence on our lives as brain-workers: from federal science policy, to the structure of our professional societies, down to the office politics that shape our teaching (and learning).

*Caveat for the Q/A: It is my perception that B.D. Mitchell’s perspective on science reflects the sensibilities of a historian, whereas my own sensibilities (and maybe yours) are that of a practitioner. In other words, Mitchell is often wont to bracket the truth/falseness of a particular belief system as part and parcel of his mode of historiography. This is all to the good within that domain. But the working linguist needs their "cheques" to cash at the end of the day, and if history can help make that happen, then good. If it’s not false, great; if its true, even better. (To put it in a less flowery way: the working scientist must un-bracket the truth/falseness of the belief systems that are available to them if they are to make progress in the sciences). This is often the cause of great tension between scientists and historians/philosophers of science, as you will likely experience in reading the Q/A below.

Embrace the tension; it will enrich you. happy reading:


most scientists-in-training aren't obligated to study the philosophy or history of the sciences. this has lead to a number of issues in science-doing that we've chatted about before. if you could give one piece of advice from the history or philosophy of science to the contemporary working scientist, what would it be?


Keep your doors open, physically and metaphorically. Recognize that there is a social element to your science. The best scientists have historically been those who were the best at listening in to the larger discussions going on around them, and seeing how their own specialties could be productively applied within these larger discussions. The “reclusive scientific genius”, from Galileo, to Newton, to Darwin, Tesla, and Einstein, is more of a rhetorical device that devotees use to surround their intellectual heroes with an air of worship than an actual condition of their thought and work. They were not alone, just as you are not alone. They do great things because they are greatly interested in the world, both in its most mundane sense, and in its most exalted. That is all.


how has scientific discourse changed over time?


I think that one of the biggest changes between the scientific discourse of the 19th and 20th centuries has been in terms of how the changing bureaucratic structure of financial rewards that scientists received for their work influenced the teaching, style, and intended audience of scientific writing.

The less prestige science had, and the more informal the teaching of science was, the more those proposing controversial scientific theories had to write well and for a mixed audience, appealing to both the specialists in their fields, and potentially high profile public backers and policy makers.

Thomas Henry Huxley wanted scientists to be both financially rewarded specialists and the new cultural elites capable of shaping public opinion. Yet arguably, the development of funding bodies and formalized teaching institutions throughout the nineteenth century led scientists to gain greater internal prestige and monetary incentives at the cost of sequestering themselves away from the very public that Huxley saw as the basis of securing the financial freedom and cultural importance of the scientist.

His victory was a partial one that would have profound implications for the relationship between science and the media. The varied interests of popular journals, newspapers, radio, and television has remained more or less steady, what changed was how the scientists themselves interacted with these forms of media.

While there were many important scientific popularisers in the 19th century, there were also plenty of practicing scientists whose professional writings were also targeted at a popular audience. It’s not that the popular media itself has changed, what changed was the reasons for scientists to actively participate in broader discussions about science, and the range of venues in which such discussions happened.


how has the scholarly/popular perspective about the relationship between language & thought changed over time?


I think that in the history of the study of language we see several interpenetrating traditions that circle around some fairly fundamental questions: do we create language or does language create us? Are the limits of language the limits of thought? How does language relate to the world? Where does language come from? What is common about language? Where are the differences?

I say that the various philosophical, religious, cultural, etc. traditions that have thought about language are interpenetrating because no society has ever just had one answer to these questions. They’re not dichotomies so much as they are continuums. Because of this there is no one arrow of change, but a web of interrelated changes.

Despite this, starting around the time of the modern research, university disciplinary trends seem to be increasingly set on turning these questions into dichotomies for the purposes of teaching them in a formalized manner that could be used to process an ever growing number of students. In this regard many of the problems facing the study of language are the problems of modern professionalisation more broadly. That makes it difficult to talk about how the discussions differ between scholarly and popular perspectives, for part of these discussions are what makes this dichotomy in the first place. Here I’ll refer readers to Tuska Benes' In Babel's Shadow: Language, Philology, and the Nation in Nineteenth-Century Germany and William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University.

One of the most important consequences of this is that questions of the relationship between language and thought are caught up in the problems that plague debates about the relationship between the subjective and objective more broadly in science and society. This is one particular point at which the study of language stands to gain the most from observing trends in the history and philosophy of science, which has been trying to wrestle with these issue for a very long time. See, for instance, Lorraine Daston's and Peter Galison's work Objectivity.


what ought to be the division of labour between metaphysics and epistemology in the study of mind?


I think that epistemology is what allows us to understand our limits, while metaphysics is how we act creatively within those limits. Anything deserving the name of knowledge requires both. The error, and the conflation of the two, comes from thinking that we can use epistemology to come to any one certain and specific answer about the structure of the world, or, in this instance, of the mind. What epistemology can do is bring us consistently to a place where we can realize the necessity of having a metaphysics, but not the content of those metaphysics.

We can lament and gnash our teeth at the uncertainties of our finite existence, or see ourselves as skilled and living artists capable of producing whole ecologies of knowledge and meaning. This needn’t lead us to the boogyman of an “anything goes” style relativism, but a more refined relativism that can show us how there are still many important and shared structures and forms of evaluating the world that are common to the human, even if we can never prove that they are transcendental absolutes. And this is a good thing, for the absolute is inimical to life; it’s incapable of motion or growth. Epistemically, an ecology of absolutes is a monocultural wasteland, and no ecology at all.


often in our conversations you invoke the voice of Nietzsche. what do you think it entails about the nature of our minds (language & thought) that it is possible to reliably adopt the style of reasoning and language of another person?


*laughs* I can’t claim that it’s ever reliable to adopt the style of reasoning and language of another person. Indeed, I would warn against thinking that, or of adopting any one other person’s ideas too completely, but it is productive to study some things, or people, deeply. You have to be aware though that what you study changes you. It can be incredibly enriching, but also limiting in its way. I think of it as a process much akin to aging, or at least aging well. Again, you’re finite, so you have to make choices, and those choices leave their mark, because you have a history.

I guess what I am trying to say is: be careful what you research!




The End.