February 02, 2005

Are linguists natural-born Hayekians?

Geoff Pullum recently argued for a "third position" between the "two extremes: on the left, that all honest efforts at uttering sentences are ipso facto correct; and on the right, that rules of grammar have an authority that derives from something independent of what any users of the language actually do." Glen Whitman at Agoraphilia suggests that Geoff's position (which he says "strikes me as clearly correct with respect to language") is similar to Hayek's attempt to "find organic principles ... that we can use to understand what is 'right' or 'wrong'" in "spontaneous orders other than language, such as markets, etiquette, morality, and common law".

Glen writes:

What kinds of criticisms are valid in the context of spontaneous orders, if we accept Pullum’s argument? One interpretation is narrow: as scientists who wish to understand the social world, we are bound to accept internal principles of the systems we wish to explain as a positive matter. But as a normative matter, we are free to make external critiques as long as we’re honest about what we’re doing. Thus, a linguist might recognize a particular rule of English grammar as “valid” (inasmuch as it describes the language as it is), but then criticize that rule of grammar because it fails to satisfy some external criterion such as logical clarity.

Another interpretation is broader: only internal critiques are valid. In the context of the rules of just conduct, Hayek takes this position in The Mirage of Social Justice ...

Hayek’s argument hinges on two aspects of his thought – first, his severe doubts about the ability of human beings to fully comprehend the functionality of their social norms (an epistemological position); and second, his belief in an imperfect but usually beneficial process of cultural evolution. If one doubts either of these positions, external critique might seem more sensible.

My inclination, which I cannot fully justify here, is that both internal and external critiques can be valid and useful, but internal critiques are safer and more trustworthy, because they don’t require superhuman cognitive abilities.

I believe that most linguists agree with Geoff's "third position", and also tend to take the view that Glen attributes to Hayek, that the only valid critique of a "spontaneous order" such as language is "immanent criticism". Thus it seems fair to say that in their area of professional expertise, linguists have a natural affinity with the most important philosopher of the political right.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 2, 2005 08:45 AM