October 15, 2004

Educational group public talks, I have found, can be divided into two general kinds: the Transmission of the Word On High, and the acknowledgement of the theoretical/discussion-oriented. Yesterday's, on the nativism theory of language acquisition, was unquestionably the first ... perhaps ironically, since it was presented as part of a lecture/discussion series on philosophy of language. It was an excellent overview of the major points of nativism: which at its broadest could be summarised as the theory that human beings are "hard-wired" with the concept and general structures of language, if not with the specifics. What it was not, really, was an open forum allowing any real questioning of the premises upon which the theory was built ... and upon which the behaviourist and tabula rasa theories had been (presented as) pre-rejected.

(As a sidenote, one of the quickest ways to kill discussion is to bring up the suggestion that a body of studies ought to be read before discussion can "really" begin: for those who will have read them can never be certain they have read all of those the speaker deems relevant, while others who have not read those studies at all will have been made to feel inadequate to the discussion. The weight of perceived embarrassment cannot be overestimated in such contexts. Stop everything while everyone reads everything? How could that ever be possible? How often would the discussion actually be picked up afterward? How would independent speculation ever advance?)

At first it seemed otherwise, ask the requests for clarification even during the talk itself, with discussion to occur afterward. However, when it became apparent afterward that the discussion questions being presented by various members of the listening audience were not going to blindly accept some of the implicit assumptions, an interesting case could have been made for full and accurate non-verbal communication as the body language of the professor in question became increasingly withdrawn, cocoon-ish, defensive. (Excellent speaker, comfortable in front of audiences, adaptable on his feet in the wake of technical difficulties, on the young side of middle-aged, male ... which I mention because most of the challenge seemed to come from the women in the audience: which might be directly an aspect of the direction of challenge, which in turn almost certainly played a role in the sudden blinding insight of the day.) By the middle point of the post-talk "discussion", even very basic questions such as whether heredity had been established in a particular instance by adoption studies, were being frozen out.

Around the same moment in time, I suddenly realised that in the social sciences, at least, there is no academic provision for a broader theory of which the earlier theory might be an approximation of accurate "special case". For example, the practical accuracy of Newtonian theories of motion would be a special case of the broader relativity theories, themselves a special case of various quantum extrapolations ...): none inaccurate in itself, but each becoming inaccurate at its extreme cases, and thus subsequently enveloped within a broader theory which incorporates the special theory as being fully applicable in one or another special case. But in the social sciences (as perhaps in all non strict sciences, and perhaps in an increasing number of sciences too): the new theory can never incorporate aspects of the previous theory and broaden it without the author of that theory being considered a disciple. Rather (Oedipally), the originator of the new theory must do their utmost to slay what went before. No standing on the living shoulders of giants here: modern theorists who wish to make a potent name for themselves become giant-killers.

So that is the primary new thing this talk gave to me: a sudden insight into what might possibly be a broader theory which envelopes each of the previous ones and widens the field of application far beyond "simple" linguistic learning. For now, I suggest only that human beings innately require structure, and that their learning consists rather of learning what things are deemed non-relevant than of learning what is genuinely new.

More on that later, though.

Hi, well be sensible, well-all described
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