29 May 2008

Gibberish

If you want to read books about the human sciences (philosophy, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, etc.) you may find that many of them are written in a rather unintelligible way. You won't understand them unless you are a member of the elite of connoisseurs who can decipher them.

Let's take a more or less random example from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781; translated by Norman Kemp-Smith, 1929: p. 132):

"Every intuition contains in itself a manifold which can be represented as a manifold only in so far as the mind distinguishes the time in the sequence of one impression upon another; for each representation, in so far as it is contained in a single moment, can never be anything but absolute unity. In order that unity of intuition may arise out of this manifold (as is required in the representation of space) it must first be run through, and held together. This act I name the synthesis of apprehension, because it is directed immediately upon intuition, which does indeed offer a manifold, but a manifold which can never be represented as a manifold, and as contained in a single representation, save in virtue of such a synthesis."

What does this mean?

How many people are there in the world who can more or less understand it? Two hundred? Three hundred?

Philosophers like Kant, Hegel or Marx spent hours and hours in their offices trying to understand, classify and put in order the phenomena of the mind and the world, while at the same time the real world was going on outside, with its wars, famines, slavery and general imperfection. These philosophers are the prehistory of the human sciences. Their approach is based on generalizing theories that attempt to describe things (the mind, the world, perception) in a pure, theoretical way, detached from reality. But the world is a different thing altogether. Human affairs are difficult (or impossible) to organize in clear-cut concepts or structures.

The human sciences of today are, or should be, based on a multidisciplinary approach, that is, a dialogue between the various sciences. If a linguist cannot understand the writings of the archaeologist, then there is a communication failure: some important connection may be lost. This multidisciplinary approach is exemplified in Cognitive Science, and also in the Continuity Paradigm. The scientist is no longer seen as someone who masters his own discipline and the specialized jargon that is connected to it, but someone who carries out his own research and can compare its results with those obtained in other fields. This is the future of human sciences (including linguistics), especially if we want them to be useful, to provide solutions for real problems, to contribute to understand how society really works, and how the problems of the world, old and new, may be tackled appropriately. Otherwise, what is the point in science?

In future posts I’ll try to give examples of scientific gibberish in linguistics. I can assure you that they are not difficult to find.

Last edit: 18 July, 2008

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