Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1

THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN LINGUISTICS

Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences-and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice. Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1996[1981]), pp.36-37.


1.

Introductory observations

Compared with the vast production of both descriptive and theoretical linguistic literature in North America, the scholarship devoted to the historical accounting for such work-and this observation does not apply to linguistics exclusively but to most subjects in the humanities as well as to the social and natural sciences-has been disappointingly small. This dearth of historiographical scholarship has, no doubt, its roots in American culture, which is forward-looking, traditionally optimistic and, by European standards, somewhat naïve. The belief that the most recent discovery or product is the best and supersedes previous ones seems almost constutional. It is therefore no accident that, more often than not, historical delineations of the path of linguistic thinking is produced either by authors who are European immigrants or by their students. The worship of the most recent publication and the belief that it renders previous publications obsolete is not part of European tradition. Indeed, a historical approach to a given subject seems to most Europeans to be the best way to gain an understanding of present commitments. To put it another way, it appears that Europeans and Americans have different approaches to the same subject. The European is more likely to ask how a particular outlook on matters linguistic has evolved; the American would more likely ask how this particular theory works and what it can produce. In other words, Americans tend to be utilitarian in outlook, Europeans are more likely to seek the bigger picture before delving into particulars. At least in linguistics, this difference also shows in the widespread lack of interest among Americans for discussing matters of methodology and epistemology that ought to the foundation of theory construction and debate.

-1-

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