Colin Phillips on the Theory/Experiment divide.

Over on his blog, Colin Phillips has taken up the age-old theory vs experiment debate. The position he seems to take is that the contrast between theory and experiment is illusory and, therefore, the debate itself is wrong-headed. Here he is making what seems to be his main point:

There’s a terminological point here that is straightforward. Nobody own [sic] the term “theory”. All flavors of linguist are using evidence and reasoning to build generalizable accounts of how the human language system works. We all use empirical evidence, and we all develop theories. The distinction between theoreticians and experimentalists is largely a myth. Sometimes our experiments are so easy that we’re embarrassed to label them as experiments (e.g., “Does that sentence sound better to me if I take out the complementizer?”). Sometimes the experiments take a long, long time, so we get to spend less time thinking about the theoretical questions. But it’s all basically the same thing.

“Theories all the way down” by Colin Phillips

This quote includes a few mistakes which tend to muddle the debate. The first is the focus on whether a person can be strictly a theoretician or an experimentalist. Phillips says “no” and I would tend to agree, because as humans we all contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman. It doesn’t follow from this, though, that theory and experiment are the same thing. Creators can be critics, and producers can be consumers, but this does not negate the contrasts between art and criticism, between production and consumption.

The second mistake, and this is a widespread mistake in linguistics, is that he seems to miscategorize the pen-and-paper empirical method of old-school linguistics as theoretical. Norbert Hornstein has posted about this error on his blog, a number of times, adopting from Robert Chametzky a three-way distinction between analytical, theoretical, and metatheoretical work. As Hornstein argues, most of what we call theoretical syntax, is better described as analytical—it applies theoretical constructs to data with the dual effect of testing the constructs and making sense of the data. To be sure this trichotomy takes for granted the data -gathering method, and it would be interesting to think about how that could be related to analysis. Are they independent of each other, or is the gathering a proper subpart of the analysis? Either way, I would agree with Phillips that “experimental” and “pen-and-paper” work ought to be grouped together, but I disagree that either is theoretical work.

Theoretical work is a a different beast that presents its own endemic challenges—difficulties that more analytical work does not have to address. Blurring the line between the two types of work, however, introduces additional hurdles. These hurdles usually take the form of conferences, journals, and job postings, which declare themselves to be “theoretical” but are in actuality mainly analytical. This ends up crowding out truly theoretical work which any science needs at least as much as experimental work in order to progress and flourish.

To close, why bother arguing about language use? Isn’t it fluid—always changing? I suppose it is, but I don’t particularly care what we call theory or analysis or experiment, but I do care that we recognize the distinctions between them. Please forgive the piety, but I’m a sucker for an aphorism: As Plato said, the goal of inquiry is to carve Nature at its joints, and as Confucius said “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.”