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 her description David Turnbull’s work on the construction of gothic cathedrals. 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”. 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.

Further reading

  • 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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