January 12, 2004

The ant, the spider and the bee

Last Friday, at the 2004 LSA Annual Meeting, Morris Halle gave an invited plenary address "In Honor of the 80th Anniversary of the Founding of the Linguistic Society." His title was "Moving On."

Maggie Reynolds told me Friday afternoon that more than 1100 people had registered for the meeting at that point, and I think just about all of them were in the room. Morris -- who has given many speeches in his 80 years -- commented at the start of his talk that this was the largest audience he had ever addressed.

I'll have more to say about the content of his talk later on -- and also about some of the "state of the art" presentations, including Noam Chomsky's, as well as Ray Jackendoff's presidential address, and the special session on "Modeling Sociophonetic Variation", the special session on "Constructions", and perhaps a few other things. However, I'm very pressed for time this week, and these posts will require some thought and will take more time than I'm likely to have over the next few days.

So instead I'll start with a few personal anecdotes, which are easy and quick. The first story is especially easy because most of it is just a quote that I can cut and paste from the net.

I took courses in linguistics as an undergraduate, but then was I away from intellectual life entirely during three years in the army. When I showed up for graduate school in 1972, I felt like a fish out of water. Since I'd taken the basic courses as an undergraduate, Morris decided to start me out in the second-year program. However, the formalisms that I'd learned in 1968 were out of date, and I understood only vaguely what the new ideas were and how they had been motivated. Worse, I still had an undergraduate's instinctive sense of theory as a bit of God's truth revealed, and so it was disconcerting to find that the theory I'd been taught wasn't considered true anymore.

Morris explained to me, not for the last time, his view that theories and formalisms are best seen as tools for exploring nature, making it possible to ask and answer descriptive questions in a systematic and incrementally more revealing way. To make the point, he quoted a passage from Francis Bacon. I can still remember the content of the quote well enough, 32 years later, to find it on the web. It's Aphorism 95 from Bacon's 1620 work The New Organon, or True Directions Concerning the Interpretation of Nature:

Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

Or in the original Latin:

Qui tractaverunt scientias aut empirici aut dogmatici fuerunt. Empirici, formicae more, congerunt tantum, et utuntur: rationales, aranearum more, telas ex se conficiunt: apis vero ratio media est, quae materiam ex floribus horti et agri elicit; sed tamen eam propria facultate vertit et digerit. Neque absimile philosophiae verum opificium est; quod nec mentis viribus tantum aut praecipue nititur, neque ex historia naturali et mechanicis experimentis praebitam materiam, in memoria integram, sed in intellectu mutatam et subactam, reponit. Itaque ex harum facultatum (experimentalis scilicet et rationalis) arctiore et sanctiore foedere (quod adhuc factum non est) bene sperandum est.

It's hard to beat this as a recipe for rational inquiry. It also makes a good backdrop for my reactions to the Boston LSA meeting.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 12, 2004 07:21 PM