Peripheral Vision – Science and the Prejudice Against Prejudice

It is usually said that the nineteenth century saw the birth of the scientific study of language in the western world. And this statement is true, if we give to the term ‘scientific’ the sense it generally bears today; it was in the course of the nineteenth century that facts of language came to be carefully and objectively investigated and then explained in terms of inductive hypotheses. It should not be forgotten, however, that this conception of science is of quite recent development. The speculative grammar of the scholastics and of their philosophical successors at Port Royal ..was scientific according to their understanding of what constituted sure knowledge.

-John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics (Cambridge University Press, 1971: p. 22; underlines mine)

This brings to mind my favorite class at Fuller – Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics (hermeneutic generally means ‘interpretive’ and derives from the Hermes, the Greek god of heraldry) with Merold Westphal.  We spoke of the ‘prejudice against prejudice’ to quite some extent.  I like that Lyons here provides a means to contextualize science as we understand it.  It ‘s too easy to assume that our way of scientific inquiry is surely the right method.  Like us, the medieval scholastics thought their manner of inquiry was scientific and the most rational means of approaching the study of language.

Lyons concludes:

The difference between this way of looking at linguistic questions and that which resulted in the immensely fruitful period of comparative philology was not so much that the latter was more respectful of the ‘facts’ and more careful in its observation and collection of them (this is effect, rather than cause), but by the end of the eighteenth century there had developed a general dissatisfaction with a priori and so-called ‘logical’ explanations and a preference for historical reasoning.  (Lyons, Theoretical Linguistics: pp. 22-23)

I do n’t mean to argue here that the methods of our day are more ‘scientific’ than previously, but rather; I mean to note that the concept denoted ‘scientific’ has shifted as the presuppositions of scientific inquiry have been replaced.  Having read a goodly sampling of medieval philosophy in general, I am consistently impressed by how thorough their thoughts are (this was more true once I learned of some of the nuances particular terms held).  By the measures of their methods, they were exhaustive and many of the preserved texts are brilliant within their discourse.  I mean to say that that which causes something to be characterized as ‘scientific’ has and continues to change, even as we are unaware of the flux.

So, my question is – when will our current methods of ‘scientific’ inquiry be deemed unscientific?  More interestingly, what will be the means by which our science is seen as inferior – what criteria do we foolishly violate?  Every discourse or method of philosophical inquiry has limits – each is a ‘seeing as’ and therefore something is inevitably lost on the periphery.  My question is therefore one of predictive peripheral vision in the context of the study of language.  Or, are there some prejudices in our science which ought to be preserved?


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