(Linguistic) facts are linguistic (facts)

Sorry, it’s late for a friday, unless it isn’t.

From Chomsky’s Revolution in Lingusitics by John Searle in the NYRB, 1972.

Throughout the history of the study of man there has been a fundamental opposition between those who believe that progress is to be made by a rigorous observation of man’s actual behavior and those who believe that such observations are interesting only in so far as they reveal to us hidden and possibly fairly mysterious underlying laws that only partially and in distorted form reveal themselves to us in behavior. Freud, for example, is in the latter class, most of American social science in the former.

Noam Chomsky is unashamedly with the searchers after hidden laws. Actual speech behavior, speech performance, for him is only the top of a large iceberg of linguistic competence distorted in its shape by many factors irrelevant to linguistics. Indeed he once remarked that the very expression “behavioral sciences” suggests a fundamental confusion between evidence and subject matter. Psychology, for example, he claims is the science of mind; to call psychology a behavioral science is like calling physics a science of meter readings. One uses human behavior as evidence for the laws of the operation of the mind, but to suppose that the laws must be laws of behavior is to suppose that the evidence must be the subject matter.

In this opposition between the methodology of confining research to observable facts and that of using the observable facts as clues to hidden and underlying laws, Chomsky’s revolution is doubly interesting: first, within the field of linguistics, it has precipitated a conflict which is an example of the wider conflict; and secondly, Chomsky has used his results about language to try to develop general anti-behaviorist and anti-empiricist conclusions about the nature of the human mind that go beyond the scope of linguistics.

His revolution followed fairly closely the general pattern described in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the accepted model or “paradigm” of linguistics was confronted, largely by Chomsky’s work, with increasing numbers of nagging counterexamples and recalcitrant data which the paradigm could not deal with. Eventually the counter-examples led Chomsky to break the old model altogether and to create a completely new one. Prior to the publication of his Syntactic Structures in 1957, many, probably most, American linguists regarded the aim of their discipline as being the classification of the elements of human languages. Linguistics was to be a sort of verbal botany. As Hockett wrote in 1942, “Linguistics is a classificatory science.”

Suppose, for example, that such a linguist is giving a description of a language, whether an exotic language like Cherokee or a familiar one like English. He proceeds by first collecting his “data,” he gathers a large number of utterances of the language, which he records on his tape recorder or in a phonetic script. This “corpus” of the language constitutes his subject matter. He then classifies the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: first he classifies the smallest significant functioning units of sound, the phonemes, then at the next level the phonemes unite into the minimally significant bearers of meaning, themorphemes (in English, for example, the word “cat” is a single morpheme made up of three phonemes; the word “uninteresting” is made up of three morphemes: “un,” “interest,” and “ing”), at the next higher level the morphemes join together to form words and word classes such as noun phrases and verb phrases, and at the highest level of all come sequences of word classes, the possible sentences andsentence types.

The aim of linguistic theory was to provide the linguist with a set of rigorous methods, a set of discovery procedures which he would use to extract from the “corpus” the phonemes, the morphemes, and so on. The study of the meanings of sentences or of the uses to which speakers of the language put the sentences had little place in this enterprise. Meanings, scientifically construed, were thought to be patterns of behavior determined by stimulus and response; they were properly speaking the subject matter of psychologists. Alternatively they might be some mysterious mental entities altogether outside the scope of a sober science or, worse yet, they might involve the speaker’s whole knowledge of the world around him and thus fall beyond the scope of a study restricted only to linguistic facts.

Mysterious mental entities… For a fun game at home, pick out your own favorite, random three words.

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