Hi again, everybody! Thanks for the interest in skepticism about mainstream linguistics. I’ll continue!
In addition to sheer conservatism and the ascribing of undue status to works produced by the famous, there are also other factors which may make it more or less difficult to publish. At any given time, some viewpoints – currently, for instance, ‘multiculturalism’ and some aspects of postmodernism – are very ‘trendy’ and indeed ‘politically correct’; papers espousing the relevant views are liable to be favourably regarded. Indeed, in public presentations (at conferences and such) where one can be identified it often requires courage to speak in criticism of such an offering. This trend also means that papers endorsing views contrary to those in political or cultural favour may struggle to achieve publication, even if they (and their authors) are otherwise sound; or, if they do achieve it, they may then be subjected to withering and arguably biased criticism. None of this implies that intellectual ‘rebels’ within the mainstream are necessarily correct in opposing majority mainstream viewpoints; the issue is that of critics obtaining a fair hearing, especially when they are well qualified on the matters at hand. Where this becomes difficult, the need for skepticism about the academic mainstream will obviously increase.
In fact, some skeptics have actually become known mainly for critiquing mainstream – if often contested – positions rather than non-mainstream ideas. Negative comments of this kind can sometimes be partisan and overstated, but in other cases they can be legitimate or arguably so.
Skeptical comments on mainstream linguistics, specifically, can be directed at a range of arguably unwarranted mainstream assumptions/ideas. These include: Chomskyan ‘nativism’; bizarre analyses of data adopted under the influence of unproven and often unlikely theories which are apparently regarded by some linguists as virtually immune to criticism; undefended and inadequately/inappropriately grounded analyses of basic grammatical structures; support for dubious but ‘trendy’ or ‘politically correct’ sociolinguistic theories (sometimes under postmodernist influence); exaggerated postmodernist ideas more generally; etc. Some specific examples will follow in later posts.
As noted, some of the skeptical criticism which the linguistic mainstream receives is produced by linguists themselves, as illustrated last time by the case of Göran Hammarström. In addition to Hammarström, various other ‘insiders’, thoughtful linguists who have been more able than most to remain independent of the various ‘paradigms’, have written of these matters in an essentially skeptical way (while not necessarily identifying as skeptics). Perhaps the most prominent of these linguists is Geoffrey Sampson, who has antagonised some other prominent linguists by arguing very persuasively that their pet theories are empirically empty or obviously contradicted by inconvenient data (see later on this issue). Sampson, in fact, goes some way along the road taken more indiscriminately by Amorey Gethin and others (again, see later), suggesting that many of the unexplained facts (cross-linguistic and language-specific) and many of the theoretical issues debated by linguists may find their solutions in other domains such as psychology, and that – while there is a clear role for linguistic description and the necessary generalisations – a truly valid general linguistic theory would thus be minimal in scope.
Some of the linguists who critique the linguistic mainstream are skeptical linguists turning their skepticism on their own mainstream (as they are often urged to do by the non-mainstream thinkers whom they criticise). Obviously, I myself identify as a member of this group. I would argue, in fact, that mainstream linguistics is perhaps more in need of skeptical attention than some other mainstream disciplines. One reason for this is the relative lack of consensus or orthodoxy in linguistics, and how this is handled. Obviously, on many major issues involving language almost all linguists do in fact agree with each other, at least in general terms. However, one does not have to penetrate far into linguistics to find disagreement on basic points. There are many competing ‘schools’, ‘paradigms’ and ‘frameworks’ within many of the branches of linguistics, differing from each other on such fundamental and basic issues as, for instance, the ‘true’ or most insightful grammatical analysis of sentences as straightforward as ‘Mark drank his beer’ in a language as well-described as English (the largest issue is that of whether this sentence divides into two constituents or three). Of course, all fields display some differences of this kind, despite displaying substantial cores of shared ideas. In the case of linguistics, however, the degree of disagreement is so great that the need for skeptical attention would appear greater than in some other disciplines.
Professional linguists have not been conspicuously effective in dealing with this problem. Some, especially those influenced by postmodernism, seem to adopt a quasi-relativist view on which the issue is (perhaps) acknowledged but is not presented as truly problematic, even where the different ‘frameworks’ appear to be offering incompatible analyses of the very same aspects of the matters in question. One can make any set of ‘assumptions’ which is not self-confounding or refuted by obvious facts, and can then extrapolate massively from these ‘assumptions’, with little fear that anyone will actually attempt to disprove them. Limited interest is shown in the question of how far the ‘assumptions’ and ‘paradigms’ upheld by a given group of linguists might actually prove demonstrably preferable to alternative ideas. A further problem here lies in the fact that different ‘schools’ do not by any means always agree even on what is valid and relevant evidence in such cases, or at any rate upon the relative importance of different types of evidence (for instance, some linguists regard typological surveys across many languages as crucially important in resolving issues of analysis and theory, while others prefer to rely mainly upon close, abstract analyses of one language or a few languages).
One reason for this situation lies in the relative intractability of linguistic data. Linguistics is an essentially empirical subject; but, in the more abstract or speculative areas of such a domain, it is not always easy to adduce decisive reasons or evidence for preferring one account or analysis to another. However, it is surely preferable to seek to address this kind of issue with whatever decisive evidence may be found, rather than to forge ahead at great length with any one ‘paradigm’ in circumstances where there can be little confidence that it really is the ‘best’ available.
The training of academic linguists and the nature of many linguistics departments contribute (often inadvertently) to these problems. Some departments have a strong bias towards one ‘paradigm’ or another. Many of these ‘paradigms’ have now developed in such depth and detail that students must spend several years familiarising themselves with one ‘paradigm’ before their grasp of the material is at such a level that they can make fresh contributions at the ‘cutting edge’. Differences within the ‘paradigm’ are discussed, but its basics are often left unchallenged. Furthermore, many of the central concepts and issues within each ‘paradigm’ are intelligible only within that ‘paradigm’.
More next time, including some specific examples!