Discussion of Yngve Review

The LINGUIST List
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford
Sun, 12 Oct 1997 15:32:57


By the following remarks, I mean in no way to minimize Yngve's work; in fact, I intend to find and buy the book, thereby encouraging him to continue. His notion of science, however, is only an important HALF of what 20th Century science is, by his conveniently omitting the relativity and quantum insights which have transformed Newtonianism to just an important half of the whole picture, and only half of what linguistics is and has been guided toward by our most distinguished thinkers. Until the linguistic method became accepted, there was nothing that even pretended to the label 'science' that gave meaning its equal share. Now Yngve and others want us to dismiss meaning altogether and retrench into being a Newtonian science which abhors meaning--a mere half pretending to be the whole. For Yngve, there is no obvious place whatever for meaning in the four assumptions of science.

Retrenchment to Newtonian Scientism

I define scientism as that attitude based on an outmoded Newtonian science resting on materialism alone, which refuses to move toward a full recognition of the complementary balance of form and meaning that has been happening in physics--surely science par excellence--since the beginning of this century (meaning is currently allowed in quantum physics under the phrase "The X Interpretation," where facts assume different importance and scope, and therefore different meaning, depending on the Interpretation), and in linguistics for much longer. It is precisely the balance or harmony of form and meaning which suggests linguistics, the first to codify such interrelationships as equally true objects of study simultaneously, as a model of 21st Century Complementary Science, in which all sciences will have to allow form and meaning each its due, especially given that much of meaning resides in context/environment. The real physical world is a very important part of the total picture -- but so is meaning. The real world is not our total world, and frankly, as far as language is concerned, we live more in the meaning than the physical part (as when our consciousness blips over uhs, ums, false starts and other forms as we follow the stream of intended meaning).

Constructed Reality

> It was not reality but philosophy that the Stoics
> divided. This may reflect a confusion about reality,
> possibly stemming from confusions in the
> philosophical literature where 'reality' is
> sometimes unreal or in the social-science literature
> where 'reality' is sometimes 'constructed'.
I'm confused by this characterization of constructed reality and the difference implied for Yngve's own use of the term 'reality', which I take to be short for 'physical reality' (kind of the way linguists use 'language' as a shorthand term for 'human language,' the fallacy of which can be seen as the pomposity leaks out of the sentence "Language sets apart humans from the animals" when the so-called equivalent phrase "Human language" is substituted). Lets take three things that are very physical -- rainbows, overcoming our retinal blind spot, and color--all of which are constructed.

Unlike trees falling in the forest, rainbows do not exist unless someone is in exactly the right position with the sun to create them. Seeing a rainbow clearly is an act of constructed reality, as is our everyday wonder of seeing the world without a big blind spot in our field of vision (since the nerve does not pick up light falling on the part of the eye where it attaches) -- our brain constructs what we see, even filling in the blind spot; there is nothing causal about what frequencies come in to our eyes and therefore what we see. Here's a simple physical fact: molecules do not have color. Yet most of us see in joyous technicolor as our brain constructs colors from the frequency realities we are processing and projects them outward onto objects. So we construct the colors of the rainbow as well as the rainbow itself. Evidently, none of these facts are to be considered in proper science because it's just some social science 'construct'.

When 'A' Becomes 'The'

I'm very concerned when "there is A real world out there" becomes, in a kind of academic sleight of hand, "THE real world", implying that only it is worthy of study. Another sleight of hand is found in Yngve's use of legitimate to mean scientific in a Newtonian sense, as in If one wishes to claim that several different approaches to linguistics from different perspectives may be legitimate, each must adhere only to the standard criteria of science and accept only the standard assumptions of science, leaving only scientism as legitimate, since he takes that word to mean 'legitimate AS (Newtonian) SCIENCE' and allows for no other meaning, as if the 20th Century advances in his own discipline never happened.

No Place for Indigenous Science Either

Yngve makes a big deal out of natural sciences, but we must remember that ancient indigenous knowledge need not apply to this Old Boys Club. As physicist David Peat has written in his Lighting the Seventh Fire:

The point ... is not so much to criticize Western science for not measuring up to its abstract and rather grandiose ideals, but rather to drop our obsession with these ideals and comparisons and suggest that indigenous science presents a valid understanding of nature in its own right. (p248)
That is, perhaps there are analogous assumptions that must be balanced with the four in order to capture wider truths.

Using that terminology, then, I might say that the first assumption of indigenous science is that there is also a real world "in here" as well as "out there" that must be accounted for--a world linguists refer to as meaning, indigenous people call spirit (as we say the spirit of the law, not the letter), and most modern physicists call quantum. The second assumption is a chaos assumption, that the only constant is flux and any regularities are temporary illusion; you can't step in the same river twice, as Heraclitus said. The third assumption is that there is no universal human logic, that logic depends on the specific language you use, and each language grows its own logic; therefore proof in one language does not guarantee anything about reality, no matter what definition you use. And the fourth assumption is that everything is interconnected, points in a system, where meaning derives from relationships in part/whole structure, not mere entities and things. Here's the tricky part: neither Yngve's assumptions nor mine tell the whole story; each must be adhered to scrupulously in complementary fashion even though they seem contradictory. Western science is biased toward form as Indigenous science is biased toward meaning; together a meaning-full balance can be achieved which precludes neither (as being 'particle' no longer precludes being 'waves').

Whorf Bashing Explained

Yngve says "Science routinely casts doubt on any proposed additional assumptions. Efforts would be made to convert them into hypotheses and test them. If they did not survive the tests they would be given up. If they could not even be tested, they would not be accepted into science but, at best, placed in the realm of interesting speculation." This is an excellent description of exactly what the social sciences have done to Benjamin Whorf (their own hypotheses being mislabeled The Whorf Hypothesis) at the same time that hard scientists like David Bohm were taking Whorf seriously (read his Wholeness and the Implicate Order while keeping Whorf's "An American Indian Model of the Universe" in mind). Einstein already proved in relativity that the language you use (Euclidean vs. non-euclidean geometries) affects what you observe, which he got primarily from a Humboldtian-trained relativity linguist named Jost Winteler, and which Whorf was trying to reclaim for linguistics from physics. Does Einstein's insight have no place in Yngve's science?

Truth, Communication, and Models

The phrase "scientific truth" is a truly amazing phrase in print, since stress is not represented: I must assume that for Yngve it would be stressed as "scientific TRUTH", though for me it would be "scienTIFic truth", as in one of many truths instead of the only.

> ...the people who communicate, including their
> "noncommunicative" behavior. The new foundations
> can indeed make use of such "nonlinguistic"
> evidence.
I was quite thrown by the use of noncommunicative to mean non-linguistic as if they are equivalent. Moving the picture higher (Ys example) is quite clearly communicative although nonlinguistic. Since linguists generally use language to be shorthand for human language and call what animals do nonlinguistic communication, it's not fair to now take non-linguistic to mean noncommunicative as well. Nonlinguistic acts still communicate, for humans as well as animals.

If "Models in science are models of something in the real world (sic)", by which Yngve means the merely physical world, then what are quantum models models of? Or are they not important to physicists?

In conclusion, I like others in the Humboldtian (-Boasian-Sapirian-Whorfian) approach to linguistics insist on a new science that balances form and meaning, not a retrenchment to meaning-less Newtonianism. Then again, I havent yet read Yngve's book, only his reply; perhaps he treats adequately the quantum/meaning realm in his book and it just didnt come up in his reply. I can hope.

moonhawk