The intellectual jousting of scientists – let’s call it with Dr. Goldsmith „Battles in the Mind Fields“ – may certainly arouse some interest among curious bystanders as it reveals both the open horizon of scientific discourse and its obvious limits. Dr. John Goldsmith (Chicago University) and Dr. Gero Jenner (Philopedia University) seem both fully convinced of their respective intellectual capacity. With corresponding self-confidence, they entered the tournament of debate (as documented in „The Goldsmith Paper“ Nr. I and its present sequel). The outcome is somewhat intriguing. Why is it so extremely difficult even for rather open-minded scholars to reach agreement?
This seems to be due
first of all, to the difference of intentions. Nobody could possibly overlook that Jenner was all along trying to arouse his interlocutor’s interest in a linguistic work of his bearing the demanding title „Principles of Language“. This persistent intention is apparent from the start when, in the first „Goldsmith Paper“, he divides the argument into ten successive steps in order to explain his special approach to Universal Grammar. On the other hand, it can as easily be shown right from the beginning that Dr. Goldsmith does not really evince any interest in Jenner’s theses about Universal Grammar, but actually only distinguishes between statements that seem familiar to him and others that are not.
Of course, Jenner could not fail to notice
such a marked absence of interest. After Dr. Goldsmith suggested to him that he should read his book “Battles in the Mind Fields”, he therefore asked rather bluntly: „I would be very glad indeed to know your book… In exchange, I could, perhaps, raise your interest in my Principles revised? So far, you did not express even the slightest interest although such a highbrow title should certainly be reason enough to elicit curiosity. I am afraid that somebody has declared my work totally unworthy of attention… So far as opinions are concerned, even the most intelligent men tend to be herd animals following the trails of prejudice. But I am proud to say that I solved the problem concerning the relative position of verbs and the use of pre- versus postpositions (see p. 25 in Principles revised) together with a number of other questions concerning the basic principles of language.“
It is significant that Dr. Goldsmith
although otherwise carefully responding to every new item, simply ignores this passage. An explanation which would please Dr. Jenner could, however, justify such intentional silence. Supposed Dr. Goldsmith were just reading his „Principles“ – then he would, of course, react as he does since it takes some time to go through the book – it is not at all easy to read. He can’t be expected to express his opinion on the volume before being thoroughly acquainted with it.
It should be noted that Jenner himself does not seem to consider this hypothesis realistic
and for obvious reasons. One reason was already mentioned: Dr. Goldsmith consistently comments Jenner’s statements with critical remarks, without ever expressing a desire to learn more about his position. But there is another more cogent reason, which Jenner seems to accept as the decisive one. He had published the summary of the first debate in Academia.edu, where it (i.e. „The Goldsmith Paper“) immediately received more than two hundred and fifty hits – a breathtaking number since it lifted Jenner immediately up to the rank of the highest two percent of academics presently published on that platform. Jenner rightly considered this miracle hard to explain, especially since a subsequent paper, which he regards as much more important, was practically ignored. He felt so much surprised that he directly asked Dr. Goldsmith: „By the way, ‘The Goldsmith paper’, which relates our previous debate got 250 views in Academia.edu – obviously someone’s been stirring up the propaganda drum. But so far, my subsequent article ‘The Hallpike Paper’, which explores deeper waters got only three: a curious paradox. Do you know, how to explain the success of the first article?“
This question remaining unanswered like the previous one
Dr. Jenner arrived at the obvious conclusion that it had to be Dr. Goldsmith himself or some collaborator who presented the „Goldsmith Paper“ to a large audience – possibly to colleagues and to current and former students. But he didn’t do so with the intention to make Jenner’s “Principles” or point of view known to others – in this case his next and much more profound article „The Hallpike Paper“ would have gained at least as many hits -, but with the aim of providing illustrative material for the special point of view he expounds in his book “Battles in the Mind Fields”.
This, of course, raises the question
as to the point of view that Dr. Goldsmith is eager to make known to a larger audience? Jenner seems to be sure that he may answer this question with sufficient confidence even without having read Dr. Goldsmith’s book (but he asked for an author’s copy – with his high consumption of books he would have been financially ruined long ago if he had to pay the exorbitant prices for scientific publications). The first clue guiding him on what he considers the right trail he detected in the following sentence found in the first “Goldsmith Paper”: „… I take /thesis 5/ as an anti-positiviststatement.“
Definitely, Dr. Goldsmith too had his agenda in this Battle of the Mind
He is concerned with defending a point of view that lies beyond positivism. And he succinctly defines positivism in the following way: „People who look at history and philosophy of science call a certain point of view „positivist“ – the view that the substance of science is careful observation, and theories that we make that make true predictions and avoid false predictions.“
Seen in this light, the Goldsmith-Jenner debate
may produce the impression that both are engaged in a battle, where an enlightened anti-positivist (Goldsmith) argues with a stubborn positivist(Jenner). This impression is reinforced by the fact that Jenner himself justifies his approach in the „Principles of Language“ in a positivist sense. He expressly states that he wants to show the range of law in Universal Grammar as opposed to the range of the arbitrary (in the sense of de Saussure). That is why Jenner believes that Dr. Goldsmith may have recommended the summary of their debate to his colleagues and students in order to show that his own thought on the matter is definitely progressive while there exists somebody out there who still stubbornly defends a position which belongs to the past. Dr. Goldsmith may have recommended the paper to more than two hundred of his followers in order to guide them to victory in similar battles.
In fact, Jenner calls upon a famous arch-positivist as a crown witness
for his own point of view. In a mail following the “Goldsmith Paper”, he expresses his consent with the following statement by the great Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann: „It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that ultimately decides whether something is true or false, but action. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental; I consider them to be logical evidence. If we had not achieved these practical results, we would not know how to argue. Only such conclusions, which have practical success, are correct.“ And Jenner adds: „Apply that to any field of natural science – as for instance alchemy when compared to chemistry – and you will agree that Boltzmann is right.“
But Jenner was definitely mistaken
Dr. Goldsmith does by no means agree with Boltzmann’s statement, but rather believes that he must correct it. Though cautious and even evasive in his usual way, he expresses himself clearly enough when saying: “And yes, I agree with you and with Boltzmann; while Boltzmann was correct, it would be even more correct to say that „It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that ultimately decides whether something is true or false, but communities of scientists.“
Dr. Goldsmith does not seem to notice
that he is not improving on Boltzmann, but contradicting him as he turns the latter’s intention upside down. For Boltzmann could have argued in just the same vein: „It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics and not what scientists themselves believe that they do that ultimately decides whether something is true or false, but… practical results“ /that is theories that make true predictions and avoid false ones/.
What counts according to Boltzmann is the objective criterion of practical results, that may be verified and tested. Goldsmith, on the other hand, completely abolishes this imperative by replacing it again with meta-physics, namely with the prevailing scientific opinion. Taking away its confirmation by objective reality, science becomes a matter of sectarian belief (which, in the words of Thomas S. Kuhn, may induce some scientific community to defend the ruling paradigm with teeth and claws against any contradiction and even evidence).
It is strange to observe the meandering battle line
between the two by no means naïve thinkers Jenner and Goldsmith. The debate seems to be a re-edition of the conflict between Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas, which more than half a century ago so much poisoned the intellectual climate in Germany – apparently it has somewhat belatedly now reached the United States. Though Dr. Goldsmith is loath to express his opinions in an unequivocal way (“while Boltzmann was correct, it would be even more correct”), he clearly rejects the latter’s anchoring of science in objective results as the ultimate standard of truth. Maybe, the admission of such a standard would make him feel restricted in his freedom as a creative human being, so he wants to oppose it with what the scientific community thinks and wants.
But what about Dr. Jenner with his background in the humanities?
Let’s not forget that Mr. Goldsmith as a Computer scientist (besides being a linguist) is much nearer to the Natural Sciences. Why does Jenner make himself the defender of the traditional scientific position? Why doesn’t he simply follow Dr. Goldsmith’s lead? Didn’t he himself write his two books „Creative Reason“ and „Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History“ with the intent of rejecting the positivist view that the scientific world view suffices as a means to explain the world? Both these books (which he considers his best) maintain that science merely describes the realm of things or laws already existing but is quite unable to reach the realm of the new, which in the human sphere comes into existence by means of man’s creative reason. Of course, this is a stance that could hardly be more anti-positivist.
So, we may again ask ourselves
why is it so difficult even for intelligent men to overcome the dialogue of the deaf and reach mutual understanding? The difference in the two positions may perhaps be summarized in the following way. Dr. Jenner considers Boltzmann’s objective stance (clearly enough rejected by Goldsmith as positivist) to be incontestable in its specific area of application (he therefore holds inadmissible any attempt to replace objective results with the subjective view of scientific communities. In both fore-mentioned books he criticizes such attempts as relativism that erodes the very foundation of science). However, he very emphatically clings to the point of view that we are only grasping half of reality correctly when subjecting it to the method of science.
Dr. Goldsmith takes an altogether different view
He believes that the objectivity of scientific procedure must and can be changed from positivist to – say – mentalist. Even if he does not explicitly say so, this is evident from his “correction” of Boltzmann, since the last yardstick for him is not objective facts, but the subjective opinion of the scientific community – that is belief.
In this sense, he calls Chomsky’s method „silly“
„I no longer find Chomsky’s theories convincing as scientific theories, but my judgment on whether his practices in the long run are useful is mixed. I myself would never start doing Chomskian syntax (I think his ideas about derivations are silly – more silly than wrong).“ Here scientific judgement instead of being based on reason is shifted to feeling. While right and wrong are the basic categories of reason, communities tend to base their judgement on feeling and belief. They call a theory “silly” if for some reason they are opposed to it. The next and obvious step is to call the originator of silly methods himself a silly person. Apart from the unscientific nature of such an approach, one must have a good deal of conceit in order to disqualify a highly intelligent man like Noam Chomsky or his methods in such a manner. As for myself, I never criticized Chomsky’s use of basic categories like verbs and nouns as “silly”. What makes them unscientific is due to a much more basic objection: they are empirically wrong when applied to Universal Grammar.
The fact is that a man’s intelligence says absolutely nothing
about whether his statements are true or false. This is testified by the entire documented history of the mind, which through thousands of years consisted in the invention of religious and philosophical theories invented predominantly by educated, intelligent men. Many of them are hard to surpass in utter madness, but were accepted by the communities of their time as ultimate and incontestable truths. For example, the so-called Brahmana texts, which were written in the first pre-Christian centuries. In a mail to Dr. Goldsmith Jenner says: „Those people /the Brahmins/ believed to be absolutely right. Does anybody want to read them nowadays? No. They are entirely forgotten as they only produced crazy philosophy and metaphysics but nothing that changed reality.“
In a vain attempt to escape positivism
Dr. Goldsmith has replaced the right insights of Ludwig Boltzmann with his own erroneous ones. But his thoughts on the matter are, of course, by no means “silly” – Mr. Goldsmith rightly considers himself a very intelligent man. They are wrong as they undermine the very foundation of science replacing reason with mere opinion. Will Dr. Goldsmith retaliate by calling his opponent Dr. Jenner “silly” – or will he show greatness by getting his 250 followers read this article too? In this case, his “Battle in the Mind Fields” would finally be won by all participants.
Postscript (there is now an answer to the preceding question):
Initially, Dr. Goldsmith seemed very much to enjoy this “Battle in the Mind Fields”. As a seasoned fighter who strategically plans such intellectual jousting and is accustomed to victories, he passed Dr. Jenner’s summarized debate containing his previous mails (Goldsmith Paper No. 1) to more than 250 of his followers. Obviously, he wanted them to share in the delights of victory. But lo! The present article apparently did not quite fulfil his expectations, so he suddenly quarreled with Dr. Jenner accusing him of a breach of trust, because he continued to quote his mails and made the present article known to his colleagues. But why should such a procedure be legitimate in the first case, but not so in the second? And isn’t science about truth and transparency, isn’t it about some important subject matter instead of personal feelings of victory or defeat? Is Dr. Goldsmith right when he thinks that his colleagues – that is, the linguistic community – has no right to take part in this debate, which deals with nothing less than some basic questions of linguistics as a science?
Without salutation and greetings, Dr. Goldsmith sent the following message to his interlocutor:
Goldsmith (5.5.2019) „I am very concerned about your publishing our emails, as well as an email one of my colleagues received from you about me. I will not be sending you any additional emails for that reason. John Goldsmith“
This unexpected lamentation seems a little strange when we consider that in this battle David confronts nothing less than a most powerful, most self-confident Goliath, that is linguistic orthodoxy which for 30 years simply ignored Dr. Jenner’s „Principles„. Nor does Dr. Goldsmith make a secret of this highbrow stance. It does not occur to him to even discuss „The Hallpike Paper“ let alone to pass it on to his followers though, in this article, Dr. Jenner refutes one by one the logical postulates of orthodoxy. But Dr. Goldsmith is well aware that the orthodox fortress – the ruling paradigm – will still be defended so stubbornly that at most one of ten linguistic journals would be prepared to even take a look at Dr. Jenner’s objections.
How funny, that in spite of being Goliath, Dr. Goldsmith nevertheless complains about unfair treatment! Wouldn’t he rather have to ask himself who is really being wronged?