Sunday, August 1, 2010

Are We Busted, Irrevocably?

Cross-posted in two other places. Why? Because I can.
By we I mean students of the human sciences.

* * * * *

Sometime in the early 1970s I read an article in Linguistic Inquiry, the house organ of Chomskyian linguistics, lamenting the lost promise of the Chomsky revolution. As I recall, the lament went something like this: In the early days it seemed possible that a complete grammar of English, or French, or Russian, or Quechua, or any other language was right around the corner. Then the articles began to get narrower and narrower in scope until finally the cutting edge of research discussed mere fragments. And the prospect of a complete grammar for some language, any language? Forgotten.

Almost four decades have gone by, with perhaps as many major revisions in Chomsky’s views on language. I don’t know what the official line is on the state of the Chomsky revolution, but, as far as I can tell, the situation hasn’t changed. It’s not just that the Chomskyians have failed to deliver on early promises, but that linguistics itself remains many. Chomsky never carried the day completely and, while some of the holdouts just wanted to remain stuck with the old ways, just as many wanted to forge ahead, but not under the Chomsky banner. As far as I can tell linguistics is, say, a half-dozen or so competing and apparently mutually incompatible schools that, for the most part, simply ignore one another. Linguists hold no deep conception that is as significant to all of linguistics as evolution is to biology.

And that goes across the board to all the human sciences. The cognitive revolution went flat in the 1980s. The neuroscientists have frittered away two or three decades taking pretty pictures of the brain that benefit no one so much as the workers and stockholders of companies in the brain imaging business. Economists have been fiddling while the world economy burns and literary critics have been congratulating themselves on how revolutionary and counter-hegemonic they’ve been.

Up until recently I’ve believed this was the case because the problems are deep and compelling answers are hard to find. And, yes, that is true.

And, yes, I certainly have strong opinions on what approaches make sense, and which are garbage — not for the whole range of the human sciences, of course, but for those areas where I’ve been most active: literary studies, cognition and knowledge representation, cultural evolution. It’s not that I think all extant ideas and approaches are equally worthy. I don’t.

But I have thought that, after all, there is no other way to advance than to let 10,000 flowers bloom.

Perhaps I’ve been wrong. 1000 flowers? Sure, why not? 10,000? Really? Do we really need to sample the space of intellectual possibility at 10,000 points? Rather, are we really sampling the space at 10,000 points? Or are we only sampling the space at 1000 points, but pretending to sample it at 10,000 points by dressing up our ideas in funny but colorful costumes?

Are we bull-shitting ourselves about our intellectual productivity?

* * * * *

One of the standard ploys that curmudgeonly literary critics have deployed against newer ideas is that these new-fangled ideas with their technical terminology do not reflect any intellectual necessity. Rather, they are simply a response to institutional pressures for idea production. Institutions demand prestige, prestige requires publications, publications require new ideas, so let’s at least give them new terminology, which they’ll happily mistake for new ideas.

That’s the argument — it’s still alive and well. I’ve always resisted it despite the fact that, more often than not, it’s being deployed against ideas I don’t much care for myself. But, if those curmudgeons knew of my work, they’d deploy their argument against it as well, as I too employ abstract concepts and even a strange term or two.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether or not those curmudgeons have a point. Perhaps institutional pressures are bringing about needless over-production of useless ideas. It’s not that I’ve decided that our intellectual problems aren’t all that deep, after all. No, they’re deep. But these many ideas we’re tossing about aren’t plunging into the depths. They’re just padding out the CVs of the senior investigators.

What, then, can we do?

I wish I knew. As long as I can remember there has been calls for intellectual reconciliation and cooperation among disciplines. And those calls continue. E. O. Wilson has called for consilience. Herbert Gintis has called for the unification of the behavioral sciences around the idea of evolution. I’ve made a similar plea on behalf of cultural evolution.

But we are late-comers to this game. Calls for unification had become another genre of academic discourse long before we weighed in.

Can we do nothing? Nothing at all?

Come to think of it, doing nothing might give us a chance to chill out and do some real intellectual work.


  1. "One of the dirty secrets of economics is that there is no such thing as “economic theory.” There is simply no set of bedrock principles on which one can base calculations that illuminate real-world economic outcomes. We should bear in mind this constraint on economic knowledge as the global drive for fiscal austerity shifts into top gear." Brad DeLong

  2. As far as I can understand, economists know the dirty little secret but don't want to let it out. It certainly knocks a big hole in the public pretensions of economists and their claims to authority. It doesn't mean that econ is worthless, just that it's inconsistent and incomplete and cannot be counted on to give unique answers to questions, and effectively an art or craft rather than a Science the way people normally understand the word. (Or as I've said, given the crucial things econ always talks about,a form of skilled advocacy like law.)

    I've been arguing this kind of thing in various places for 5+ years, to the point that I became a bore and object of derision, but as far as I know I'm right. (DeLong himself has been quite friendly, though).

    There are two layers of institutionalization that make sure that econ will almost certainly never be reformed or reevaluated. The lesser is the institution of the profession itself within the university. The greater is the banking system and the Federal Reserve.

    The questions I've raised will never be dealt with as intellectual questions. Too much is at stake.

  3. Economics is a hard case, and, as you say, powerful people have strong interests in keeping it subordinated to this or that ideology. But who, with money and power, gives a crap about linguistics, for example?

  4. Only one level of institutionalization in that case, the profession itself. What's at stake is being an actual working linguist as opposed to someone in another field with a linguistics degree.

    Linguistics' relevance to AI and machine translation is presumably a positive influence, since things have to work. I'd suspect there's some tension between the AI people and the Chomskians.

  5. Evolutionary social science was proposed by Thorstein Veblen, and Charles Sanders Pierce developed an evolutionary metaphysics. Aroun 1940-50 a lot of people (Whitehead, Popper, Hayek) were working on emergence and contingency, but they were overwhelm by formalizers and systematizers aiming at perfect ahistorical truths.

  6. Linguistics' relevance to AI and machine translation is presumably a positive influence, since things have to work.

    And lots of stuff seems to work best without (hard cores) linguistics. Computational linguistics is a discipline unto itself, and came into being to solve a practical problem for the DOD, how to translate Russian documents into English. That was back in the late 50s and early 60s. It's a long and complicated story about which I know a thing or two as I was trained by one of the major actors in that story (David Hays). And there is now a distinction between computational linguistics and natural language processing. Chomskyian linguistics has, for the most part, been peripheral to computerization of language. In the early days, it was too computational intense for the computers they had. So they developed other formalisms. Once those other formalisms were developed, people stuck with them, though some work was done with transformational grammar.

  7. Never quite saw what the deal was with Pierce. I took a run at his semiotics stuff and decided that the level of detail exceeded the depth of insight by a large enough margin that plowing through that stuff was a losing game.

  8. His thing on Tychism is what I'm thinking of. It's popular style and not profound but he was moving in a new direction. There were lots of evolutionary philosophers but they tended strongly toward theories of stages and laws of evolution, whereas Pierce described real uncertainty and irreversible time.