Thursday, February 9, 2017

A short note on instrumentalism in linguistics

This note is not mine, but one that Dan Milway sent me (here). He blogged about instrumentalism as the guiding philo of science position in linguistics and argues that adopting it fervently is misguided. I agree. I would actually go farther and question whether instrumentalism is ever a reasonable position to hold. I tend to be realist in my scientific convictions thinking that my theories aim to describe real natural objects and that the aim of data collection is to illuminate the structure of these real objects. I think that this is the default view in physics and IMO what's good enough for physicists is good enough for me (when I can aim that high) so it is my default view in ling.

Dan's view is more nuanced and I believe you will enjoy reacting to it (or not).


  1. I would say the state of affairs Dan Milway describes applies to 90% of theoretical linguistics (and not even just in syntax, of course). Those who do not care about the nature of language faculty (or don't believe in such a faculty) do it all the time. Their field is actually very old. But it's ok, their business is describe patterns in the data. For those who do, most of the time what we see is fine data-tuning, so that analysis X works for data Y, and therefore the latter can be seen as/has to be separated from phenomenon Z. Then someone else comes along and does the same, and again, ad infinitum. The understanding of the faculty itself remains unchanged by that work for the most part.

    1. The blurring of the line between analytical and theoretical work means that fine data-tuning does, in fact, negatively affect our progress in understanding the faculty. Analytical work tends to gravitate towards the fuzziest, least well-defined concepts in a theory.

      Witness, for instance, the history of Agree, which (at least in my reading of early minimalist papers) started as a placeholder to account for apparent long-distance dependencies, but has morphed into, in some cases, the workhorse of current "minimalist" analysis. It has become so central to the current analytical toolkit, that attempts to question its reality are frequently dismissed out of hand.

      I'm sure if you looked closely at the history of generative linguistics you could find plenty of other examples like that.