Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reading Group Notes

I’ve been meaning to write an update on my reading group but, as we’ve spent these first several weeks getting to know one another and working out what we want to do in a more structured way, we’ve also been reading a bit randomly and, in some weeks, more lightly than we plan to do once the term is over. I do have plans to write something more elaborate on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, but am currently in negotiation with another person who has not been able to attend the reading group (you know who you are… ;-P) about whether this could productively be written as an online discussion, rather than as one of my theoretical monologues. I’ll use this negotation (and my immense ignorance of Wittgenstein, of course) as an excuse not to preempt my discussion of that text.

Wittgenstein aside, the reading group has done a bit of a random tour through a few lighter texts of some relevance to linguistics – a very broad focus on which we’ve settled for the moment because one of our members is currently doing a PhD on the semantic web, and is interested in the intellectual history of some of the issues that arise in this research, while the rest of us feel a somewhat less targeted sense of guilt for not knowing more about the field… ;-P We took a very quick look at Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics – a text with which I think we were all relatively familiar and comfortable (also the text that seemed most enjoyable to my fellow passengers on the train during my commute, judging from the number of people who were evidently reading over my shoulder in transit – my guess is that they were looking at the pictures – which, given what the pictures are, suggests that most people must find train transport during peak hour remarkably dull…), and a few pieces from Whorf, which were also fairly straight-forward texts to discuss.

We then took a week out from our normal routine because I was away at the conference, and returned to have a special “dueling supervisors” session, since we each have supervisors who have written recent books on globalisation, and wanted to see how their works compared…

This week, we took a look at a couple of texts from Chomsky – chosen for their easy availability on short notice (we had a shorter than usual gap between meetings), rather than for their conceptual centrality to Chomsky’s linguistic theory. These included:

– a piece published in Language, vol 31, no 1, (Jan-Mar 1955), pp. 36-45, titled “Logical Syntax and Semantics: Their Linguistic Relevance“. To my very untrained eye, this piece followed a sort of navigating-scylla-and-charybdis strategy: fending off simplified artificial language approaches to linguistics, on the one hand, while also rejecting something like distributional empiricist approaches, on the other.

– a “Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior“, republished with a new intro in Jakobovits and Miron’s edited volume Readings in the Psychology of Language (1967). I enjoyed this piece much for the same reasons that I also enjoyed re-reading Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” with the group a few weeks back: because it offers some wonderful criticisms of forms of dubious academic argument that also trouble me when I occasionally run across them in other works. In this piece, Chomsky’s focus is on Skinner – but his critiques resonate more widely, cautioning all researchers to be very precise about how thoroughly their grand claims are grounded in underlying data. Among the dubious techniques Chomsky criticises are what he sees as Skinner’s tendency to conflate the very specific and well-defined meaning that terms might have within the context of a laboratory experiement, with the terms’ much broader and fuzzier commonsense meaning. This conflation can work to suggest a far wider scope and power for a theory than the underlying laboratory data actually support – a risk inherent, in Chomsky’s words, when “a term borrowed from the laboratory is used with the full vagueness of the ordinary vocabulary”. Chomsky also criticises another pet peave of mine: the tendency to declare a problem solved when, in fact, the theorist has simply given the old problem a new name – an approach that, Chomsky argues, merely “perpetuates the mystery under a new title”.

This doesn’t quite count as reading, but we also enjoyed the YouTube footage of the “Justice vs. Power” debate between Chomsky and Foucault in 1974. (Although, I have to admit, every time I read or see Foucault in an interview context, I’m always struck by the contrast between what he says about his work, and what he actually seems to do in his work. My fellow reading group members are arguing that I am not adequately appreciating the constraints of the sound bite format – and they may well have the correct view of the situation…) The YouTube footage can be found here:

Part One
Part Two

Having dabbled a bit with Chomsky, the group has now found a bit of a focus for itself over the next couple of weeks. We have a few questions we’re trying to answer – and are in search of some appropriate readings to move us in the right direction. We are currently looking for:

– more information about the contemporary consensus/contestation over Chomsky’s concepts, particularly relating to how Chomsky’s generative/transformative grammar concepts intersect with empirical research findings; and

– a series of readings that will give us some decent “touchstones” in the intellectual history of 20th century linguistics – we are thinking here about primary texts, but wouldn’t be averse to being pointed to some good secondary materials. We are particularly interested in getting a better sense of an “insider’s” view of the field – major schools of thought, contestations, consensus.

If anyone can offer suggestions, they would be most appreciated.

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