broadsheets from the empirical underground

I’ve been corresponding with Zoltán Varjú, an enthusiastic proponent of what he describes as “rationalist” linguistics, and Melody Dye, who I would describe as a strongly “empirical” linguist — or rather, psychologist of language.  Also chiming in on that conversation has been Asad Sayeed, an old colleague of mine at the 2005 2003 JHU CLSP Summer School, chiming in in favor of rationalist approaches.

Or, in the form of a tag team match:

Team East: Rationalist linguists: Zoltán and Asad
Team West: Empiricist linguists: Jeremy and Melody

There’s not a lot at stake in these arguments — we each have places that we’re able to do the kind of linguistic research that we think is important, for the most part. But many words have been written. When a twitter-flood got overwhelming late last week, I asked Zoltán to take it to a longer-form medium, and I received a 1000-word info-bomb two hours later.  He didn’t want to blog it, so I won’t quote it here, but I’ll put instead an opening to a new conversation, inspired by a fragment of Zoltán’s info-bomb:

Zoltan writes:

I do not think that the two movements are talking about the same thing. Empiricism is similar to physics, and rationalism plays the role of logic and maths.

It occurred to me that this analogy is extraordinarily seductive, and yet — alas! — it tends to lead to vitriol and mutual contempt between the rationalist and the empiricist camps.  I think I’ve figured out part of why, too: there are actually two analogies packed in here.

Analogy 1: What I mean when I say “I know…”

Rationalist and empiricist linguists actually are talking about two different kinds of knowledge.  Let’s first look at empiricist linguists (and physicists!).  These scientists:

  • try to account for observable data in the universe
  • report their results using statistical measures of certainty (e.g., p values against the Null Hypothesis)
  • accept that there are sources of noise (or signal) beyond the control of the observer (they do not believe, or they have given up waiting for, Laplace’s Demon); these sources are treated as “random” in the Bayesian sense

By contrast, rationalist linguists (and mathematicians!):

  • try to account for philosophical properties of The Universe or The Mind
  • report their results using syllogistic argumentation (e.g.modus ponens and modus tollens)
  • accept that there are sources of noise (or variation) beyond the philosophical bounds of their argumentation; these sources are treated as “e-language” (as opposed to “i-language”) or — in mathematics — proof that a solution must exist is considered sufficient

I think the analogy works out okay here, but I’m not so sure that there’s a meaningful debate to be had: these two views simply talk past each other (over and over and over).

Analogy 2: how do we value our teachers?

However, there’s another domain packed into that simple analogy: the domain of how our culture of science has its valuation expressed in a community of learning (and outside that community).

Among the empirical linguists (and the physicists!), most:

  • work with machinery that costs a lot of money
  • are friendly with engineers, including industry contractors
  • get paid relatively well
  • find work outside the academy easily
  • are best rewarded when their research “just works

Many of the rationalist linguists, on the other hand:

  • work with blackboards and LaTeX
  • have their offices within Humanities colleges
  • get paid like literature professors
  • have difficulty finding work closely related to their studies outside of the academy
  • are best rewarded when their research publishes often

Morlock, trying to cut back on Eloi snacks

Let’s be clear: there’s a big difference in these two parallels. The first parallelism is distinguishing between what we mean when we say we know something; the second parallelism is really about how do we value our teachers and ourselves, and it’s often very easy to conflate the two.

I’m a little dismayed to find this second split, though, because it’s the split that hurts feelings and pride on both sides. I benefit tremendously from it, of course, because I work in the well-paid, grungy, engineering-oriented (“Morlock“) half, rather than the poorly-paid, pretty, theoretically-oriented (“Eloi“) half.

But that personal benefit doesn’t outweigh the risks of really alienating ourselves — all of us who care about learning about natural language — from each other. Intellectually, I’d be much more interested in whether the division in the first analogy can be resolved than in tackling the second one — resolving the second one seems like a far larger question than simple epistemology, since it cuts to the heart of what we think a liberal education should include.

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