A New Kind of Science

Some sciences are not recognized for what they are. The sciences themselves are not new, but a proper understanding of them may be new to some of us, including myself.

Here I supplement, and thus update, my 2012 article, “Strunk and White.” There I took issue with a professional linguist’s attacks on William Strunk’s “little book” (53 pages), which was made slightly less little (71 pages) by E. B. White: The Elements of Style. In The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1842 pages), Geoffrey Pullum and Rodney Huddleston claim to present their subject descriptively; in an essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Pullum thinks Strunk and White fail to understand the standard description of English grammar, even as they give a prescriptive account of its use.

To approach a subject descriptively, I would say, is to engage in a natural science, like geology or chemistry. The prescriptive approach is that of a normative science, like medicine. In Latin, a norma is a carpenter’s square, which can be used to check whether an angle is right, or to make it right. Medicine establishes norms, rules, standards, for the health of the human body. The body itself does not tell us what health is and how to obtain it. A fever may be a clear sign of ill health; but should the fever be lowered with a febrifuge, or allowed to run its course? Opinions differ, because the body itself does not tell us the answer; we have to figure it out for ourselves.

A book like Turkish in Three Months (by Bengisu Rona; Hugo’s Language Books, 1989) is normative. If you don’t know Turkish, but want to learn, then the book tells you what you have to do, and you obey.

The business of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is to describe how English is used by people who already speak it. However, if we classify this business as a natural science, we miss a subtle point. Or perhaps it is not so subtle, but hiding in plain sight. As Huddleston and Pullum acknowledge (page 11),

The evidence we use comes from several sources: our own intuitions as native speakers of the language; the reactions of other native speakers we consult when we are in doubt; data from computer corpora (machine-readable bodies of naturally occurring text), and data presented in dictionaries and other scholarly work [sic] on grammar. We alternate between the different sources and cross-check them against each other, since intuitions can be misleading and texts can contain errors.

Texts can indeed contain errors; this is why I checked my transcription from the CGEL, to confirm that “work” was really singular in the original; the singular is not wrong, but “works” would seem more natural to me.

Huddleston and Pullum have a “Practical bias toward written English,” since, owing to the possibility of “slip-ups” (page 13),

what speakers actually come out with reflects only imperfectly the system that defines to spoken version of the language…word sequences that were actually due to slips might be wrongly taken to represent grammatical facts.

When we speak or write, we are trying to achieve something. We may fail. Linguists need to understand this, and they do so through being speakers and writers themselves.

This is not what a medical doctor does. A fever may be a body’s way of “trying” to recover from an infection; but we may judge the body’s attempt as misguided, and we may then intervene. Whether to do so is our judgment, not the body’s.

Linguistics is not a prescriptive or normative science; but neither is it a descriptive or natural science. It is criteriological. The term and meaning are Collingwood’s, introduced in The Principles of Art (1938; note on page 171) to describe logic and ethics; defined at greater length in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940; Chapter X, pages 108–11); applied also to aesthetics and economics in “The Principles of History” (page 84; this was written after An Essay on Metaphysics and published posthumously in 1999).

It may not be obvious that “normative” and “criteriological” are not intended as synonymous adjectives. The true synonym of “normative” would presumably be “criterial.” A normative science supplies norms, or criteria, for the maintenance and improvement of what it studies. A criteriological science supplies an account, a logos (λόγος), of the norms or criteria that are used by the objects of study themselves. These objects of study will be, ultimately, the thoughts of thinking beings, who are therefore kin to the scientists studying them.

My references to Collingwood’s use of the term “criteriological” are given also by the editors of Collingwood’s Principles of History and other Writings in the Philosophy of History (in note 81 on page xlvi). However, in what little secondary literature I have been able to consult, I have seen no mention that the idea of a criteriological science, if not the term itself, is seen in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), Chapter VI, “Philosophy As Categorical Thinking”:

Moral philosophy, by a different path, reaches the same goal. Like logic, it cannot be either merely descriptive or merely normative. Had it been merely descriptive, it would have contented itself with giving an account of the various ways in which people actually behave. This would have been a psychology or anthropology of conduct, in which no account could have been taken of moral ideals and the conformity, or lack of conformity, to them which action displays…

Had it been merely normative, it would have set aside all question how people actually behave, and endeavoured to answer the question how they ought to behave. But people do not need, and would not tolerate, such guidance from moral theorists…

It would be better, combining a normative with a descriptive conception, to define moral philosophy as giving an account of how people think they ought to behave…

It is desirable to recognize the criteriological sciences as such. This is especially true for linguistics, for grammar, because some schoolteachers use their own mis­under­standing of what it means to be a grammar rule to traumatize students; and some traumatized students grow up to give their political support to dictators, or to be dictators themselves.

“She found only two mistakes”: from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman (New York: The Penguin Press, 2005)

Corrected July 14, 2018

One Trackback

  1. By Strunk and White « Polytropy on July 10, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    […] The following is a lightly edited concatenation of some emails I wrote several years ago, in response to “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Geoffrey K. Pullum’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 17, 2009). [I returned to Strunk and White in March 2018; I supplemented the present post in July 2018.] […]

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