March 31, 2006

Does it matter what linguists think?

Of course it does, at least when the topic is language, but I'm having some trouble figuring out what Michael Kinsley means by raising the issue today in his musings on "The Twilight of Objectivity":

Would it be the end of the world if American newspapers abandoned the cult of objectivity? In intellectual fields other than journalism, the notion of an objective reality that words are capable of describing has been going ever more deeply out of fashion for decades. Maybe it doesn't matter what linguists think. But even within journalism, there are reassuring models of what a post-objective press might look like. [emphasis added]

Is Kinsley using linguistics to represent those fields where the notion of objective reality has become unfashionable? I hope not, because linguists' failure to embrace PoMo attitudes has left them sadly estranged from academic humanists. If anything, my colleagues are all too confident that objective reality not only exists, but is firmly in their grasp.

Or does Kinsley assume that the field of linguistics bears overall responsibility for judging the connections between words and things, so that the last slim thread tying journalists to the pretense of rationality is a concern for how linguists will judge their work? If true, this would certainly favor my campaign to ensure that every civilized person is taught the basic concepts and techniques of linguistic analysis -- but other disciplines also have a role to play in the game of truth and consequences, and I'm sure Kinsley knows that.

No, I'm afraid that I can't make any sense at all of the progression of ideas in the paragraph that I've quoted. This worries me, though perhaps it shouldn't. So if you think that you can reassure me by explaining what Kinsley was getting at, please let me know, and I'll tell the world.

[A web search does suggest that this is not the only case where Kinsley has drafted linguists into rhetorical service; for example:

(link) Linguists note that the question, "Who lied in George Bush's State of the Union speech" bears a certain resemblance to the famous conundrum, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" They speculate that the two questions may have parallel answers.

But that one I understand.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 31, 2006 08:50 PM