Talk, tradition, templates: a meta-note on building scientific arguments

Chartres cathedral (Gazette Des Beaux-Arts, 1869)

Reading Suchman’s classic Human-machine reconfigurations: plans and situated actions, I am impressed by what I’m reading on the performative and interactional achievement of the construction of gothic cathedrals, as studied by David Turnbull. In brief, the intriguing point is that no blueprints or technical drawings or even sketches are known to have existed for any of the early modern gothic cathedrals, like that of Chartres. Instead, Turnbull proposes, their construction was massively iterative and interactional, requiring —he says— three main ingredients: “talk, tradition, templates”. Each of these well-summarized by Suchman. This sounds like an account worth reading; indeed perhaps also worth emulating or building on. In the context of the language sciences, an analogue readily suggests itself. Aren’t languages rather like cathedrals — immense, cumulative, complex outcomes of iterative human practice?

Okay nice. At such a point you can go (at least) two ways. You can take the analogy and run with it, taking Turnbull’s nicely alliterative triad and asking, what are “talk, traditions, and templates” for the case of language? It would be a nice enough paper. The benefit would be that you make it recognizably similar and so if the earlier analysis made an impact, perhaps some of its success may rub off on yours. The risk is that you’re buying into a triadic structure devised for a particular rhetorical purpose in the context of one particular scientific project.

Going meta

The second way is to ‘go meta’ and ask, if this triad is a useful device to neatly and mnemonically explain something as complex as gothic cathedrals, what is the kind of rhetorical structure we need to make a point that is as compelling as this (in both form and content) for the domain we are interested in (say, language)? See, and I like that second move a lot more. Because you’ve learnt from someone else’s work, but on a fairly abstract level, without necessarily reifying the particular distinctions or terms they brought to bear on their phenomenon.

While writing these notes I realise that I in my reading and reviewing practice, I also tend to judge scientific work on these grounds (among others). Does it work with (‘apply’) reified distinctions in an unexamined way, or does it go a level up and truly build on others’ work? Does it treat citations perfunctorily and take frameworks as given, or does it reveal deep reading and critical engagement with the subject matter? The second approach, to me, is not only more interesting — it is also more likely to be novel, to hold water, to make a real contribution.

Spandrels

Spandrel: “a necessarily triangular space where a round dome meets two rounded arches at right angles” (from Gould 1997)

Sticking with architecture, let me draw attention to a case where the collateral effects of terminological choices have been quite visible. Gould and Lewontin’s (1979) original critique of the adaptationist programme leaned heavily on the notion of spandrel. The term itself was less crucial than the conceptual contribution they wanted to make, which was to highlight the need for biological science to enrich the default adaptationist paradigm by taking into account other possible sources of structuration. According to many measures, they succeeded in making this contribution. The Spandrels paper is a modern classic and has been hailed as a rhetorical masterpiece.

And yet a significant part of the literature in the wake of this very influential proposal did get hung up this terminological choice, asking questions like whether the San Marco pendentives do or do not qualify as spandrels in the architectural sense, and questioning the prominence or importance of spandrels in the first place (Gould 1997). This is especially ironic since this kind of rhetorical move was foreseen in the original piece:

In natural history, all possible things happen sometimes; you generally do not support your favoured phenomenon by declaring rivals impossible in theory. Rather, you acknowledge the rival, but circumscribe its domain of action so narrowly that it cannot have any importance in the affairs of nature. Then, you often congratulate yourself for being such an undogmatic and ecumenical chap [sic].

Folks building on the notion of spandrel, but also folks critiquing it, can do so either in superficial or in deep ways. Choice of terminology matters, but so does the conceptual use you’re making of other’s choices of terms and distinctions, and the good or bad faith you may be bringing to them. Bringing the argument full circle, perhaps what I’m saying is that in building and evaluating scientific arguments, it can be useful to make a distinction between the conceptual foundations and structural features that make up an argument, and the ‘terminological spandrels’ that may add to its general appeal, or detract from it as the case may be.

A final corrollary of this is that for productive scholarly discourse, especially across disciplinary boundaries, it is probably a good idea to try to not let oneself get carried away by terminological choices, and instead prioritize the structure and content of arguments — in one’s own work as well as in that of others.

References cited

  • Gould, S. J., & Lewontin, R. C. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B. Biological Sciences, 205(1161), 581–598. doi: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086
  • Gould, S. J. (1997). The exaptive excellence of spandrels as a term and prototype. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 94(20), 10750–10755. doi: 10.1073/pnas.94.20.10750
  • Suchman, L. A. (2007). Human-machine reconfigurations: Plans and situated actions (2nd ed). Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Turnbull, D. (1993). The Ad Hoc Collective Work of Building Gothic Cathedrals with Templates, String, and Geometry. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 18(3), 315–340. doi: 10.1177/016224399301800304

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