Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A note on philosophy of science and syntax

The structure of syntactic theory classes is interesting. (By the end of the term I will have taken two, so take an appropriately sized grain of salt with this post. For anyone interested, the books I have in mind are Syntactic Theory by Sag, Wasow, and Bender and Syntax by Carnie.) To my memory, most science classes start off in some accepted theory and get you more-or-less caught up with what that says. You'll start off with a bit of a simplified version, maybe, but you get up to speed as you go. Syntax classes seem to be different. You start off with an obviously toy theory. This will be something very simple, e.g. only rules for S, NP, VP, N, and V. As the class progresses, you look at certain phenomena and change the theory as you go. This sort of test indicates constituency patterns, so we need more structure. This sort of thing indicates a difference in verb arguments, so we need hierarchical structure. These things violate the theoretic neatness (of X-bar, for those that care), so we should add new categories. This sort of reflexive violates our binding principles. Etc. etc.

This is interesting because it seems to me to be an explicit instance of theory construction, including the things that motivated the changes; conjectures and refutations. After a few weeks/chapters, the theory with which you work is very different than the one with which you began. Not just expanded with new pieces. There are several underlying differences as well as expansion with new pieces. This approach illustrates the ideas about scientific theories and testing that Duhem, Kuhn, Popper, and the rest of that gang discussed. I rather enjoy it. The wildest ride of this sort I've been on comes in Syntactic Theory. About halfway through the book there is a large shift in the theory. Then, again, in the final chapters, the authors tell us that the brand of HPSG that we've been working with is insufficient for a few reasons and sketch a version of the then-state-of-the-art HPSG. The homework problems in the chapters gave you the sense that you were developing the theory as you went (in a couple of cases pretty explicitly), and then at the end, it is still inadequate. Pedagogically this is kind of fun. Philosophically it seems like an interesting approach. I don't know if there is any discussion of this in the literature in philosophy of science, but then, I am quite close to completely ignorant about philosophy of science. i wouldn't be terribly surprised if it wasn't in there some where, since philosophy of linguistics gets even less attention than linguistics itself (a travesty to be sure.)


Aidan said...

Urg, I really didn't like Carnie's book at all.

Shawn said...

Is that because it was crazy Chomskyan stuff or was there another reason?

Aidan said...

He just skimped on all the details. We were meant to use that as a course text, and at least once a week we ended up having to supplementing it constantly with Radford's 'Transformational Grammar', which is a great book, if a little out of date and so packed with details it's tricky to read. I found Carnie consistently disappotinting; set against the Radford, it just seemed utterly superficial.