Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview
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Opening the question

In a searching review article, significantly entitled "The Structure of Linguistic Revolutions", John E. Joseph (1995) critically analyzes recent scholarship in 20th-century historiography concerning American linguistics, in particular Harris (1993) and Murray (1994). Joseph suggests, furthermore-undoubtedly speaking against conservative historians of linguistics such as myself (e.g., Koerner 1989; cf. Joseph 1991)-that the concept of 'revolution' may not only have to be seen as central to linguistic history-writing but would also have to be taken as something which occurs much more frequently in the evolution of linguistic science than I would have assumed, though perhaps on a much more modest scale. As a result, there may be a variety of small-scale revolutions to be accounted for, 'counter-revolutions' against previous revolutions, even 'serial revolutions', as witnessed in Chomsky's work over the past forty or more years. Indeed, Joseph suggests that, in the understanding of the nature of linguistic revolutions, at least, there may well be four distinct stages in our assessment of such changes, namely, the Popperian type, the Kuhnian type, and the two exhibited to some degree in the two books he was reviewing, i.e., Murray ('sociology of science') and Harris ('rhetoric of science').

In this chapter, I shall say comparatively little about the concept of 'revolution' in terms of the various philosophies of science (Kuhnian, Popperian, etc.). Here, I shall consider, however, John Joseph's position that "[m]ost revolutions are essentially rhetorical, with the substantive change being one of personnel" (Joseph 1995:384n.5), while at the same time not ignoring Stephen Murray's 'three factors' defining what he believes to be all coherent scientific groups: good ideas, intellectual leadership, and organizational leadership (cf. Murray 1994:22-23). However, I will first offer some of my own thoughts on the issue of 'revolutions' in general and in linguistics in particular (Section 2) and also refer to a few points in 19th and 20th century history of linguistics for illustration (Section 3). The question of what kind(s) of 'revolution' Noam Chomsky's work has produced appears to be a complex one (see Section 4),


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