It’s a long time since I’ve read Joe Heller’s Good As Gold, so I’m paraphrasing here, but there was one scene in particular that I remember. The titular professor is talking to a student disappointed that he enrolled in a course on “Monarchy and Monotheism from the Mediaeval to the Modern” but then finds himself reading Shakespeare’s history plays. The professor explains that anyone interested in literature should read Shakespeare, but the faculty are savvy enough to know that nobody will unless they call it something else. Hence the misleading course descriptions.
The student replies that he isn’t interested in literature but religion, and only enrolled in English because they seemed to be offering so many courses in mysticism and transcendent experiences. He asks whether he should transfer to Theology and Gold replies no, they’ll have you reading Weber and Durkheim. If you’re really interested in religion, he says, you should try Anthropology, but be quick or it’ll all be subsumed into Urban Studies and you’ll be reading Shakespeare’s history plays again.
Do you think this is an exaggeration of academic life? Consider the trouble that Philosophy departments, at least the analytically minded ones in the English-speaking world, have had with the anti-philosophers. Kierkegaard, they reckon, really belongs in Theology. Does Nietzsche belong to Philosophy or German, or something else? I don’t know how things are run now at Queens, but it used to be striking that Marx was palmed off on the Thomists in Scholastic Philosophy, basically because Jim Daly was keen to teach Marx and nobody in the Philosophy department was interested. Bergson, of course, is barely taught anywhere, but that’s another story.
This brings me back to Analytical Philosophy. At the risk of provoking Chris, it’s my somewhat jaundiced opinion that, except for maybe two areas, AP in the narrow sense (as opposed to a broader speech community identifying with the AP tradition) is more or less dead as a research paradigm. Most of its practitioners have given in to historicism to some degree or other. However, those two related areas – formal logic and meaning – are pretty damn big ones. In the area of meaning in particular, there is quite a rich tradition starting with Russell, Carnap and the early Wittgenstein (although not the later Wittgenstein) and carried on by Quine and Chomsky.
But hold on, you say. Isn’t Chomsky the leading figure in modern linguistics? Yes, but that just goes to show how difficult these academic categories are. Just about every practicing linguist at least pays lip service to the importance of Chomsky’s work, even if it has no relevance whatsoever to their own research. In that sense, we are all Chomskyans now. And very few people will put in a kind word for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though many practicing linguists will have at least a sneaking feeling that Sapir and Whorf were onto something.
The reason for this is that Chomsky’s work, though extremely important and valuable, is only marginally connected to areas like sociolinguistics that interest me. In fact Chomsky’s work is on such a level of abstraction that it’s perhaps more accurate to call him an analytical philosopher of mind rather than a linguist. And this isn’t merely a question of Chomsky’s admiration of Russell the man – there is a direct connection between the Chomskyan paradigm of language and mind, and the idea you find in Russell that language can be boiled down to something approaching mathematical logic.
This works for Chomsky, partly because Chomsky these days posits a fairly minimalist model of universal grammar, and partly because Chomsky, as I’ve said, works at an abstract level where linguistics overlaps with psychology and philosophy, and tends more to philosophy the more abstract it becomes. Chomskyan linguistics is to all intents and purposes a different subject from applied linguistics, and I tend more and more to the view that they should be formally separated.
This is not to say that Chomsky’s insights can’t be applied on a practical level. However, lots of people have tried to apply them in a mechanical way and have ended up looking like idiots. The basic reason for this is that, as the later Wittgenstein brilliantly demonstrates, and as any sociolinguistic fule kno, grammar isn’t logical. Language, as it exists in the real world, is not amenable to being bent into a logico-mathematical framework.
There is of course an alternative to a formal separation, and that’s to strengthen the practical aspect of linguistics. It is a long-running scandal that you can qualify in linguistics without ever doing any fieldwork, just by writing essays on deep structure. Since much of the most important work to be done in linguistics remains in the field of description, it’s my belief that every PhD candidate in linguistics should be required to do at least some fieldwork, even if their interests lie on the abstract level. And, who knows, some insights from this practical work may turn out to be of value in those more elevated registers.