LINGUIST List 2.133

Friday, 12 Apr 1991

Disc: Structuralism

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  1. "Michael Kac", Structuralism, practice and preaching

Message 1: Structuralism, practice and preaching

Date: Wed, 10 Apr 91 20:21:37 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Structuralism, practice and preaching
Vicki Fromkin says (I think in response to my comment about Harris 
and 'discovery procedures'):

'The question is not whether the structuralists followed
what they preached. In fact all the years I was taught in that 
framework it was clear that they didn't. Rather -- it is the question 
of one's particular view of science. Empiricism 'at its roots' starts 
with the assumption that the only sure basis for knowledge is 
observation and experiment, that the scientist collects a large body of 
statements about particular events in the world or the laboratory, 
that by indcution, makes limited generalizations about classes of 
events, and proceeds to more general statements if above are 
verified, and evidence consists to a great extent to the methods used 
to obtain the generalizations. As Bloomfield stated: "The only useful 
generalizations about language are inductive generalizations" or 
Bloch & Trager "The linguist is a scientist whose task is to analyze 
and classify the facts of speech..." and Hocket: "Linguistics is a 
classificatory science whose objectives are to find (1) the universif of 

First of all, I don't think that what's at issue here is a hypocritical 
discrepancy between theory and practice -- at least in Harris's case. 
Let me draw what I think is an accurate analogy in essential 
respects. If you look at the way a mathematical logician defines 
'proof', the actual working practice of mathematicians doesn't come 
close to conforming to this definition. At best, what mathematicians 
give is proof sketches with many details omitted. But you could, in 
principle, give complete proofs if you wanted to -- what's standardly 
omitted is stuff that's so routine that anyone reading the proof is 
going to automatically fill in the gaps. One way of looking at Harris's 
*Methods* is as an attempt to secure the foundations of linguistic 
analysis in something like the same way -- providing the canons for 
rigor that, if not adhered to in actual practice for purely practical 
reasons, would nonetheless be the final arbiter of what was and 
wasn't a defensible analysis. Even that may have been too much to 
ask for, but it doesn't seem to me inherently unreasonable to want to 
give it a try. 

A couple of more general comments:

I think Vicki is right that the most influential structuralists had a 
certain view of science that we would now properly reject. Whether 
'empiricist' is quite the right word for it I'm not sure. Bloomfield 
tended to use the term 'mechanist' to describe his own mature 
philosophical outlook (where by 'mature' I mean 'subsequent to 
whenever exactly it was that he abandoned Wundtian psychology'). 
But I think that he in some ways gets an undeservedly bad rap for 
views that he formed in specific response to then prevalent ideas 
about language that we from our contemporary perspective would 
find just as unpalatable as he did. I wonder also if, at least in 
*Language* he might not have been in some ways deliberately 
overstating his case -- partly to provoke thought and perhaps partly 
pour epater les bourgeois. (Cf. Bob King's recent note on Joos.)

As long as I'm at it, let me add a note about classification. I certainly 
would not want to come down on the side that taxonomy is all there 
is to linguistics (or science generally). But I think that there's a 
tendency for some contemporary linguists to think that taxonomy 
itself is somehow necessarily trivial. I think that biologists would 
find that view very strange. For that matter, the first real triumphs 
of scientific linguistics -- by anyone's definition, I should think -- 
were in part of a taxonomic nature: the development of the notion (to 
which we all still subscribe) of a language family and of the secure 
methodological footing upon which this notion was placed in the 
nineteenth century seems as clear a case in point as one could 

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