LINGUIST List 12.1819

Sat Jul 14 2001

Disc: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. John Goldsmith, Nonobjects of Syntactic Study
  2. Kevin R. Gregg, Re: 12.1816, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Fri, 13 Jul 2001 19:51:36 -0700
From: John Goldsmith <>
Subject: Nonobjects of Syntactic Study


I'd like to add to the conversation which you began the other day
regarding the object of linguistic study. I would begin with an
observation -- partly historical, partly logical (or philosophical):
that scientific research has always been spread out along a continuum
between work that focuses on observations, and work that focuses on the
uncovering of unseen things lying behind the scenes. The side that puts
the premium on observations has at various times been elevated to a
philosophy of positivism -- first identified in our time by Auguste
Comte, again championed and refined by thinkers from JSMill, then later
(and very influentially) by the scientist and philosopher of science
Ernst Mach, and then the Vienna Circle (in the 1930s, and extending
virtually through the 1960s). This perspective was viewed in its heyday
as a liberating and exciting philosophy. Positivism said that what was
real were the observations; all the rest was convenient organization.
This was liberating in many ways, because it meant that new ideas were
welcome: the old metaphysics could be discarded, because it was only the
earlier generation's convenient format for summarizing observations.
Albert Einstein was very clear and explicit that his willingness to
chuck Newtonian notions of space and time derived directly from Mach's
powerful rejection of Newtonian metaphysics. (That is, Mach's argument
that space and time do not exist as such, but are only are means for
organizing observations.)
In the end, though, Mach's position was too strong for Einstein, and
others of Einstein's generation, to accept. Mach never accepted as
_true_ the hypothesis that atoms existed: for Mach, atoms were
convenient fictions, whereas Einstein became convinced that his work on
Brownian motion established the atom as something real, not just a
convenient way to summarize data. Ultimately, Einstein rejected the
strongest version of positivism, in favor of its opposite, a view that
is sometimes called scientific realism: the theoretical objects of a
true scientific theory truly exist. 

Positivism, for _my_ generation -- coming of age in the second half of
the 20th century -- has had a bad name, and is, as they say, in bad
odor. If for no other reason than that, it behooves us to consider
seriously how and why it has been a liberating philosophy in the past.
I've mentioned the well-known case of Einstein; another example, closer
to home, is the work of the brillian Belgian Bantuist, Albert Meeussen,
whose work on Bantu tone systems was the first outstanding work in its
field; and Meeussen was at times at pains to make it clear that he
allowed himself to consider outlandish hypotheses (that today would be
considered deep insights) precisely because he was only trying to
organize the data, not come up with a "true" account. Again, in this
way, Meeussen's positivism was deeply liberating.

When Chomsky came on the scene in the 1950s, positivism was the ruling
philosophy of science; Skinner was pushing an extreme form of it, and
Chomsky famously railed against it in 1955, and helped to establish a
new, and at the time highly liberating, scientific realism in the
context of what would later come to be known as the cognitive sciences.
But it must be understood -- really understood -- that philosophies of
these sorts come round first as liberation movements, they then stay as
new paradigms, and they eventually decay into ruling dogmas; at which
time, new ideas, often those from the opposite end of the spectrum, come
round to liberate again. Again, bear in mind that positivism and
behaviorism in psychology came in at the beginning of the 20th century
as a liberation movement, liberating psychologists from the
introspective style of Wundt and Tichenor. (I don't think you can
understand the rise of cognitive psychology in the 1960s unless you
understand that it is a liberation from a liberation: a sort of a
Yeatsian gyre in the intellectual realm.) 

Linguists of Z. Harris's and Hockett's generation were positivists, no
doubt about it, and they felt liberated by virtue of that. Read
Bloomfield's tract that he wrote for the International Encyclopedia of
Unified Science (the positivists' position papers), for example.
Remember, these brilliant guys from days gone by were just as brilliant
as we are, and none of them would willingly choose a framework that did
not allow them the intellectual liberation we all seek. But by Chomsky's
time, all Chomsky could see (so to speak; obviously I'm simplifying) was
an established linguistic method that could _never_ be tweaked to coming
round to generativism. 

So we're all scientific realists, now -- those of us living in the
shadow of revolutionary chomskianism. To such radical scientific
realists, positivism may seem a bit mad: what is it, after all? A
philosophy that says, what's real is the data, and we must never lose
track of the fact that our theoretical models are organizations of such
data. And we find various ways to confirm the validity of this judgment:
the most striking (well, outlandish, really) is the belief in the
"poverty of the stimulus". The very phrase is a rejection of the
fundamental value of the positivist, to be sure. 

There are many signs of a shift in commitment; for example, all of the
work on statistical natural language processing, and that of corpus
linguistics, is an embrace of positivism -- and, I would myself argue,
with some radically liberating and new ideas, though this is neither the
time nor place to go into that point.

Chomsky, today, continues to maintain much the same version scientific
realism that he has espoused since the early 1960s, as far as I can see,
though perhaps with greater brio; Mendivil, (Linguist, 12.1785) in
defending it, speaks of "some system of knowledge that uncontroversially
lives in our minds, in our brains. A 'grammar' is a theory (idealised as
all theories about something in nature) of that state of the
mind/brain." But that is doubly controversial: it is controversial that
that system of knowledge lives in our brains; and it is (even more)
controversial that linguistics is a scientific theory of something that
is in the brain. 

At risk of sounding just a bit too hegelian, I'd draw the conclusion
that the cognitive realist position in linguistics, especially when laid
out in its most uncompromising form, leads first to its starkest form,
more and more unpalatable, and eventually succeeds in convincing those
who were once attracted to it to take more seriously the alternatives to
it. I think that the alternative to the reigning scientific realism is a
positivism of the sort that is shared by statistical natural language
processing, corpus linguistics, and quantitative sociolinguistics, and
will be shared by other developing fields. Don't get me wrong! -- I like
theory, I like empty elements and long deductive chains of reasoning.
But I don't think that linguistics is, or should try to be, a theory of

No brief email can begin to do justice to any of these points, but it's
good that Linguist can get us to sound off about these issues that never
have and never will go away -- and we can appreciate how wide a range of
views are to be found.

John Goldsmith
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Message 2: Re: 12.1816, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Sat, 14 Jul 2001 14:18:00 +0900
From: Kevin R. Gregg <>
Subject: Re: 12.1816, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

At 2:12 AM 01.7.14 +0000, The LINGUIST List wrote:
>From: "Dan Everett" <>

>A couple of comments on a reply to my posting from:
> Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro <>
>> The object of study of what you have inadequately called
>> linguistics is a ***natural object***: i.e., a state, a property of the
>> mind/brain.
>Calling something beyond the senses, which can never be studied directly,
>and which is only an abstraction useful to a particular theory, a 'natural
>object' is a bit beyond my credulity threshhold. But I did that for long
>enough myself to understand the appeal.

****So, e.g., the interior of brown dwarfs, gravity, electricity, subatomic
particles, heritability, acidity, etc. etc. etc., are all outside the pale,
other than being abstractions useful to a particular theory? It's
disturbing to see a point missed that has been recognized for decades in 
the natural sciences and in the philosophy of science. *Nothing* of 
scientific interest is ever studied directly; what is studied directly is 
evidence--data--that with luck we hope to use to make valid inferences about 
what *is* in fact of interest. As Bogen & Woodward put it in a well-known 
article, 'scientific theories typically do not predict and explain facts 
about what we observe'. Again, Wesley Salmon: 'our efforts at finding 
causal relations and causal explanations often--if not always--take us 
beyond the realm of observable phenomena. ... There is no logical necessity 
in the fact that causal mechanisms involve unobservables; that is just the 
way our world happens to work.' Chalmers: '...descriptions of observable 
states of affairs are in general quite inappropriate for constituting the 
building blocks from which scientific knowledge is constructed...' 
One could go on, but the point is that there's no reason whatever to hold 
linguistics to some standard of evidence which *no* other empirical science 
is held to. The theory (or theories) of Universal Grammar may turn out, of 
course, to be totally off-base, but that's another question. The fact that 
we can't study UG 'directly' is of precisely as much force, i.e. none, as the 
fact that we can't study muons directly.

Bogen, J. & J. Woodward. 1988. Saving the phenomena. Philosophical Review
97:303-352. (p. 305)
Chalmers, A. 1990. Science and its fabrication. Milton Keynes, UK: Open
University Press (p.67)
Salmon, W. C. 1989. Four decades of scientific explanation. Minneapolis:
U of Minnesota Press (p.133)

Kevin R. Gregg
Momoyama Gakuin University
(St. Andrew's University)
1-1 Manabino, Izumi
Osaka 594-1198 Japan 0725-54-3131 (ext. 3622)
fax. 0725-54-3202
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