Trubezkoy and Karcevski’s response to the call for the First International Congress:
Every scientific description of the phonology of a language must above all include a characterization of its phonological system; i.e., a characterization of the repertory, pertinent to that language, of the distinctive contrasts among its acoustico-motor images.
I hold that what can be said of things that have quantity and quality is also true of any predicate whatever, and even of substances: in short, that everything can be measured, in so far as it belongs to a genus, by comparison with the simplest individual found in that genus. Therefore, when dealing with human actions, in so far as these can be allotted to different categories, we must be able to define a standard against which these too can be measured.
Lisa sent me this message (after trying to post a comment, and finding the blogomat wouldn’t let her post):
Thanks for the response to my question. This is exactly the sort of discussion/clarification I was hoping to elicit. My issue was really that Steve Anderson seemed to be talking past much of what John said.
I came away from John’s talk (as did others, I think, based on comments I’ve gotten on my comment) understanding that he was advocating shifting the focus of linguistic study away from what happens inside the head to the data that exists in the world. I think I see now that he’s saying that such a near-term shift in focus is compatible with a long-term goal of understanding the mind, right? But the idea of moving away from the mind/brain as an object of study came through much more forcefully in the talk.
I’m sympathetic to that view as a data-oriented person myself. But I was struck when one of Steve’s first points stated that it was uncontroversial that the proper object of linguistic study was human cognition. And certainly by the end of his talk, though it came across obliquely, Steve seemed to be saying that neurolinguistics was the wave of the future. And that does seem to be at odds with John’s view.
Anyway, on the surface at least, the two talks seemed to be advocating moving the field in very different directions, and I was really hoping for more clarification on the subject, so that we all could better understand the compatibilities and differences.
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.
I hope someone said this before me. Let me know if you can point out who did.
We educators think we should spend most of our time teaching the answers that brilliant minds have found. And that is surely right, and it is a great pleasure to both the teacher and the student to study these answers.
But we can’t understand the answer till we understand the question, and we’re not very good at explaining questions. We especially need to explain how to understand a question from a perspective that allows for many possible answers, not just the one that we think we have settled on as the right answer.
Advances come from overturning an idea; and that always means going back to the Question to which that idea was the Answer, and asking that Question again. It usually takes an especially brilliant (which is to say, Free) mind to do that. Why? Because we do not teach people to understand that we have not understood an idea till we understand the Question it answered. Once we see that, we will be set free to consider other Answers that just might be better from today’s point of view.
When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind. It may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.
From Morgan Sonderegger:
Google hits for “Thank God It’s..”