Hockett on open-mindedness in the language sciences

Hockett's design features (1960 version)Charles F. Hockett (1916-2000) is well-known for his work on the design features of language. Many linguists will know his 1960 article in Scientific American1 in which thirteen design features are nicely illustrated (though Hockett himself preferred the more developed 1968 version co-authored with Altmann).

Hockett worked in many areas of linguistics, from phonology to morphology and from linguistic anthropology to semantics. One of his later books — which I came across while doing research for our new book series Conceptual Foundations of Language Science — has the intriguing, slightly cumbersome title  “Refurbishing our Foundations: Elementary Linguistics from an Advanced Point of View”.

In this book, written towards the end of a long career, Hockett takes a birds’ eye view of the field of linguistics and presents his own perspective, which is often sensible, sometimes a bit idiosyncratic, and always interesting. The introduction is pleasantly constructive, in contrast to some other approaches (Hornstein, “Against open-mindedness” comes to mind). Hockett’s observations on the “eclipsing stance” are as relevant today as they were three decades ago. So here is Hockett on open-mindedness:

No one in any culture known to us denies the importance of language. Partly because it is important, partly just because, like Mount Everest, it is there, we should like to know how it works. To that end, people from time immemorial have examined it or speculated about it, trying to come up with cogent commentary.

What one sees of language, as of anything, depends on the angle of view, and different explorers approach from different directions. Unfortunately, sometimes they become so enamored of their particular approach that they incline to scoff at any other, so that instead of everybody being the richer for the variety, everybody loses. That attitude has been called the “eclipsing stance.”

The early followers of Noam Chomsky adopted this stance, but they were by no means the first: some of us post-Bloomfieldians came close to it in the 1940s (though Leonard Bloomfield himself never did), and so, apparently, did the Junggrammatiker in the late 1870s. But it is a wrong position to take, even toward those who have themselves assumed it. It is obviously impossible to see all of anything from a single vantage point. So it is never inappropriate to seek new perspectives, and always unseemly to derogate those favored by others. Or, to use a different figure: the blind man touching the tail has reason to say an elephant is like a rope, but no right to claim an elephant is not also like a wall or a tree-trunk or a snake.

I don’t mean we shouldn’t be critical. I do mean we should try to be most wary just of those propositions that we ourselves hold, or have held, closest to our hearts — above all, those we come to realize we have been taking for granted. Scientific hypotheses are formulated not to be protected but to be attacked. The good hypothesis defends itself, needing no help from enthusiastic partisans.

References

  • Hockett, Charles F. “The Origin of Speech.” Scientific American 203, no. 3 (1960): 89–96.
  • Hockett, Charles F., and Stuart A. Altmann. “A Note on Design Features.” In Animal Communication: Techniques of Study and Results of Research, edited by Thomas Sebeok, 61–72. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968.
  • Hockett, 1987, Refurbishing our Foundations. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Footnotes

  1. Shameless self-promotion alert: linguistics still makes its occasional appearance in the pages of SciAm — see our 2014 piece Universal social rules underlie language, Scientific American Mind, 25, 64-69 (PDF).

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