Steve Anderson gave the presidential address at the LSA meeting this past weekend—a lovely talk, with a great set of slides (what software did he use to make them?, I found myself wondering). Elizabeth Zsiga from Georgetown asked from the floor what he thought about the speaker who had championed the view that linguists should not study the mind.
“Different strokes,” he shrugged.
Well, not really so different. I was the one Ms. Zsiga was referring to, and I had suggested that linguistics was not tailored made for studying brain functions; it was made to study language, and I tried to show that a coherent account could be offered that would buttress such an interpretation of what we as linguists do. I called this a new empiricism for linguistics. But I did say that I thought we were studying the mind as we did this; it was just the brain that we, as linguists, were not in a privileged position to know.
And I found myself in rough agreement with what Steve had argued in his address. Steve said this: he himself is a linguist, and he would like to believe that the object of study of linguistics is the mind’s cognitive faculty of language. Unfortunately, he is forced to the conclusion that linguistics’s methods, at the present time, are not capable of yielding clear answers to most interesting questions along those lines.
Well, yes—that’s the flip side of what I had been arguing; the only difference is that I am content with linguistics doing what it does, and I’m looking for a philosophical account of what it is. Steve knows what he wants linguistics to be, which isn’st what I think it actually is, and Steve has also come to the conclusion that at least for the time being, linguistics can’t be what he wants it to be.
I think the only real difference between us is that I want linguistics to continue to be what it’s always been. Well, I don’t mean that literally, but I do think we’re on the right track.