A New Kind of Science

Executive summary: There are sciences called descriptive, empirical, or natural; and there are sciences called prescriptive or normative. A third kind of science studies the criteria as such that a thinking being, such as one of us, imposes on itself as it tries to achieve success. Collingwood developed the concept and coined the term criteriological for such a science. Logic, ethics, aesthetics, and economics are Collingwood’s examples; I propose also linguistics as an example. Pirsig effectively works out rhetoric as an example. Getting these things straight may be of political use.


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 update “Strunk and White,” a post in which I took issue with a professional linguist’s attacks on The Elements of Style. This book was William Strunk’s “little book” (53 pages), made slightly less little (71 pages) by E. B. White. In an essay called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Geoffrey Pullum suggests that Strunk and White give a prescriptive account of English grammar, though they fail to understand it; in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (1842 pages), Pullum and Rodney Huddleston claim to present the same subject descriptively.

To approach a subject descriptively, I would say, is to engage in an empirical or 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, or how to obtain it. A fever may be a clear sign of ill health; but should the fever be lowered with a febrifuge or antipyretic, 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 such a 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, since it would better parallel “dictionaries.”

In empirical science, one’s experimental data may be in error, but the things that those data are supposed to measure are never in error; they just are.

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 the 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. They are:

  1. introduced in The Principles of Art (1938; note on page 171) to describe logic and ethics;
  2. defined at greater length in An Essay on Metaphysics (1940; Chapter X, pages 108–11);
  3. applied also to aesthetics and economics in “The Principles of History” (page 84; written after An Essay on Metaphysics and published posthumously in 1999).

We can derive an understanding of criteriological science from etymological considerations, as follows.

The terms “normal” and “orthogonal” are Latin and Greek, respectively. In mathematics at least, the terms describe things that somehow involve a right angle. Thus the terms are nearly synonyms; rather, in a particular situation, there is no strong reason to assign a particular meaning to one of the terms, rather than the other. The same goes for “circular” and “cyclic,” which describe things that somehow go around.

The terms “normative” and “criteriological” are not synonyms or near-synonyms. The true Greek version 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.

The three listed references to Collingwood’s use of the term “criteriological” are given also by W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen, quâ editors of Collingwood’s Principles of History and other Writings in the Philosophy of History (1999; note 81 on page xlvi).

Not the term itself, but the idea of a criteriological science is seen in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933), Chapter VI, called “Philosophy As Categorical Thinking.” Collingwood explains the idea as it applies to logic; then he passes to ethics as follows.

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 …

In a word, moral philosophy is the criteriological science of behavior; but Collingwood has not yet coined that term.

The conclusion in An Essay on Philosophical Method is that philosophical sciences like logic and ethics are categorical, in the sense of affirming the existence of their subject. Logic inevitably aims to be logical; ethics, ethical. Whether they are successful is irrelevant; to themselves, the ideals they study are real:

… Geometry can afford to be indifferent to the existence of its subject-matter; so long as it is free to suppose it, that is enough. But logic cannot share this indifference, because, by existing, it constitutes an actually existing subject-matter to itself …

Quite apart, then, from any argument which might be directed to showing, perhaps legitimately, that the moral philosopher in describing virtue must himself, in his work as a thinker, display some at least of the virtues he describes … it is clear that the moral ideal, which it is his business to conceive, cannot be conceived as a mere thought wholly divorced from existence. Here too the Ontological Proof holds good: the subject-matter of ethical thought must be conceived as something whose essence involves existence.

Before all of this, in a paper called “Aesthetic Theory and Artistic Practice,” published posthumously by editors David Boucher, Wendy James, and Philip Smallwood in The Philosophy of Enchantment (2005)—a paper that, according to Collingwood’s note, “was to be delivered, in abbreviated form, as a lecture before the British Institute of Philosophical Studies on March 17, 1931”—in this paper, Collingwood shows the inadequacy of the terms normative and descriptive to describe the philosophy of art. This pursuit is certainly not merely descriptive:

… Aesthetic is not a simple statement of what art actually is or has been. It is a statement of what art is, when it is really art; just as logic is a description not merely of how we actually think, but of how we think when we are really thinking. And this means that aesthetic tries to discover not merely what art is, but what art ought to be. This again is true of all philosophical sciences …

Neither can aesthetic be merely normative, in the sense of imposing ideals from outside. When you are making art, you know you are doing so; at least you will know, before you are done. This means you know, however dimly, what you are trying to do, or at least that there is something that you are trying to do. This means you have somewhat of a philosophy of art.

The theory of art cannot exist without art, not because it merely describes art, as entomology cannot exist without insects, but because it is an organic element within the process by which works of art come into being, and it cannot exist except as an element in that process.

Again in the word not yet coined, aesthetic is criteriological.

The unnamed concept of a criteriological science goes back, even to the first pages of Collingwood’s first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916). The sciences of physics and history are not asked to prove the existence of matter and documentary authorities; but philosophical sciences like theology are different.

And if theology is to be a merely empirical science, it has a corresponding right to make uncriticised assumptions. But the sting of the criticism lies in the fact that theology claims to be more than this … philosophy can take nothing for granted … a philosopher has no right to construct the nature of morality out of his inner consciousness, and end in the pious hope that the reality may correspond with his “ideal construction.” His business as a philosopher is to discover what actually are the ideals which govern conduct, and not to speak until he has something to tell us about them.

Collingwood will refer to related ideas in An Autobiography (1939):

And in Religion and Philosophy I attacked, not William James, but any and every psychological treatment of religion, in a passage of which the crucial words are ‘the mind, regarded in this way, ceases to be a mind at all’.

In the original, “this way” is “this external way,” described as follows:

When a man makes a statement about the nature of God (or anything else) he is interested, not in the fact that he is making that statement, but in the belief, or hope, or fancy that it is true. If then the psychologist merely makes a note of the statement and declines to join in the question whether it is true, he is cutting himself off from any kind of real sympathy or participation in the very thing he is studying—this man’s mental life and experiences.

When “the psychologist merely makes a note of the statement,” this is like the linguist’s transcribing a speech, without making sure that the transcription accurately reflects what the speaker intended to say.

Collingwood was writing during the First World War. In An Autobiography, he observes that the war was a triumph for empirical science:

Bacon had promised that knowledge would be power, and power it was: power to destroy the bodies and souls of men more rapidly than had ever been done by human agency before. This triumph paved the way to other triumphs: improvements in transport, in sanitation, in surgery, medicine, and psychiatry, in commerce and industry, and, above all, in preparations for the next war.

What is needed now is a science of human affairs. This will not be the empirical science of psychology, for the reasons described; it will be criteriological, again as described, even if not with that word.

Today it is desirable to recognize grammar and linguistics as being criteriological. Otherwise, through their own mis­under­standing of what it means to be a grammar rule, schoolteachers may traumatize their students; and traumatized students may grow up to give their political support to dictators, or to be dictators themselves.

Robert Pirsig seems to have been present at the beginning of such a process. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), he recalls having to teach rhetoric from a text that I would call normative, because its aim is like that of a medical text: to teach the student to produce certain effects, which have been determined as desirable by the authors.

The text started with the premise that if rhetoric is to be taught at all at a University level it should be taught as a branch of reason, not as a mystic art. Therefore it emphasized a mastery of the rational foundations of communication in order to understand rhetoric. Elementary logic was introduced, elementary stimulus-response theory was brought in, and from these a progression was made to an understanding of how to develop an essay.

It is not clear whether Pirsig is still describing this text when he continues a bit later; but he is still describing what he has to teach.

Another thing that depressed him was prescriptive rhetoric, which supposedly had been done away with but was still around. This was the old slap-on-the-fingers-if-your-modifiers-were-caught-dangling stuff. Correct spelling, correct punctuation, correct grammar. Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies. Gentlemen and ladies had good table manners and spoke and wrote grammatically. It was what identified one with the upper classes.

This was at Montana State College, where prescriptive rhetoric “didn’t have this effect at all. It identified one, instead, as a stuck-up Eastern ass.” According to Mark Richardson in Zen and Now (Knopf, 2008),

This was a fairly basic school, much less prestigious than the University of Montana; students called it Moo-Yoo, the udder university. “You’d ask a student why his face was all bloodied up,” Pirsig recalled years later, “and he’d reply, ‘This guy said a Chevy’s better than a Ford.’ ”

Montana is the state of Greg Gianforte, who, a day before being elected to Congress, assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, in an act praised by Donald Trump.

Pirsig did learn to consider his subject as criteriological. A classics teacher would tell him, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” He realized that he didn’t know what it was. He gave his students an assignment: “Write a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement?” The students could not do it.

“How are we supposed to know what quality is?” they said. “You’re supposed to tell us!”

Then he told them he couldn’t figure it out either and really wanted to know. He had assigned it in the hope that somebody would come up with a good answer.

That ignited it. A roar of indignation shook the room. Before the commotion had settled down another teacher had stuck his head in the door to see what the trouble was.

“It’s all right,” Phaedrus said. “We just accidentally stumbled over a genuine question, and the shock is hard to recover from.” Some students looked curious at this, and the noise simmered down.

Through having the students judge one another’s work, Pirsig convinced them that they already knew what quality in writing was. The question then became, “ How do we get it?”

Now, at last, the standard rhetoric texts came into their own. The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimates in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques—Quality. What had started out as a heresy from traditional rhetoric turned into a beautiful introduction to it.

“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)

See also the post called “Writing Rules,” where the idea is, “I have had enough of misrepresentation by experts of what other experts have to say about grammar.”

Corrected July 14, 2018. Edited September 7–15, 2018. Augmented with more references to Collingwood, and with references to Pirsig, October 27–29, 2018. My attention was drawn to Collingwood’s 1931 paper on aesthetic by its inclusion in a list of works by Collingwood excerpted and discussed by David Corfield

4 Trackbacks

  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.] […]

  2. […] in accord with Collingwood’s notion, stated first in The Principles of Art, that logic is a criteriological science. The research I do professionally is simply mathematics; but it is mathematics that comes out of […]

  3. […] in use of language is a mysterious thing (and is why, in my view, linguistics is properly a criteriological science, not a natural or descriptive […]

  4. By NL I: “Body and Mind” « Polytropy on September 23, 2018 at 7:43 pm

    […] some length in The Principles of Art (1938). There (in a note on page 171), he introduces the term criteriological to describe logic and ethics as sciences of thought, as opposed the empirical science of feeling, […]

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