The limits of curiosity

Talmy Givón in “Beyond structuralism: Should we set a priori limits on our curiosity?” (Studies in Language 37.2, 2013, pp. 413-423), answers the rhetorical question of his subtitle with an emphatic ‘no’. In addition to a proponent, he is an avid practitioner of unrestrained curiosity, a curiosity that leads him to a curious presentation of intellectual history.

The rise of structuralism in the social sciences in the early 20th century, with its two towering figures, F. de Saussure and L. Bloomfield, owes its intellectual roots … to a radical brand of empiricism — Logical Positivism — that rose at the end of the 19th century … In the intellectual climate fostered by Logical Positivism, Saussure (1915) elaborated the three reigning dogmas of structuralism (Givón 2013: 415-417)

The normal practice of historians is to presuppose that causes are antecedent to their effects, this limitation to curiosity it seems is not necessary within Givón’s teleological Weltanschauung.

Ferdinand de Saussure died in 1913. Some 18 years later Blumberg and Feigl (1931) present Logical Positivism to anglophone readers as a new movement. The perspective of these two authors is confirmed in Wikipedia, the Encylopaedia Brittanica, and the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy, which all present Logical Positivism as a moment originating in Vienna during the 1920s and associated with thinkers such as Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and A. J. Ayer (1910-1989).

Givón’s contention that the Logical Positivists influenced de Saussure is thus interpretable in only one of two ways: 1. de Saussure was influenced by events that took place after his death. 2. de Saussure was influenced by those scholars living in his own day who later also inspired Logical Positivism. Many of de Sausurre’s arguments in the Cours de linguistique générale were already present in an unpublished manuscript ‘On the Double Essence’ that dates from 1891 (cf. Joseph 2012: 380-381), admittedly this manuscript was written after the publication of Frege’s Begriffschrift (1879), but it precedes considerably Russell’s interest in Frege (1903) and Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (1910-13). Thus, sticking to the assumption that knowledge of the past is more accessible than knowledge of the future, Givón’s view is only interpretable as a claim that Frege influenced de Saussure. During de Saussure’s life the writings of Frege were consumed only by a tiny number of professional mathematicians. The only mention of Frege in Joseph’s biography is “Saussure never entertains the distinction established by the analytic philosopher Gottlob Frege between Sinn and Bedeutung” (2012: 598), i.e. Joseph proposes no influence of Frege on de Saussure and indeed sees a dissimilarity in their approach to meaning. Whether or not Givón meant to assert the influence of Frege on de Sausurre, such an assertion is groundless.

Returning to the first option, perhaps the Logical Positivists influenced de Saussure in the way the teachings of Christ influenced the Cumaean Sibyl; if history has a telos, as Givón proposes, why should the future not influence the past? The peer-reviewers of Givón’s article had no gripe with his novel proposals in intellectual history, so perhaps this teleological view of history is widespread within Typological Linguistics. In approaching language with explicitly biological and telological metaphors (cf. Givón 2013: 420) such scholars seek to return the discipline to the era of Schleicher, before the Neo-Grammarians, when a Hegelian Volksgeist was felt a persuasive explanatory mechanism (cf. Jankowsky 1972: 99-107).

Despite many differences between the Structuralists and the Logical Positivists, Givón has isolated a heritage shared by the two schools, viz. a bottom-up approach. This shared heritage is due neither to the structuralists influencing the positivists nor to the positivists influencing the structuralists, but rather to both schools inheriting a tradition of empiricism. In contrast, Givón is committed to a Platonic top-down approach (2013: 240); for Platonists a name automatically names a thing. Had Givón read the Logical Positivists he would have known that Russell proved this perspective to lead to paradox. Instead, as Saussure tells us “les entités abstraites reposent toujours, en dernière analyse, sur les entités concrètes” (1919: 190). Russell’s ‘theory of types’ and Zermelo’s set theory are bottom-up in approach. In set theory, universally used as the foundation of contemporary mathematics, one posits a little bit of emptiness and the cloud-capped towers and the gorgeous palaces are built by putting this emptiness into more and more intricate boxes. How Givón proposes to avoid Russell’s paradox in his top-down approach he does not say, and this demurring he shares with those linguists who employ model theory in their approach to semantics.

Lazard (2012) suggests that by making theoretical and methodological assumptions explicit, linguistic claims become verifiable, even at the cost of abandoning some interesting seeming claims as meaningless. If one does not commit to the basic assumptions, the arbitrariness of the sign, the forward movement of time, etc. however insightful one’s writings are, they remain opinion pieces and not scientific demonstrations. Bloomfield similarly says of practitioners such as Givón that their objection to traditional methodology

is due neither to their having formulated a new linguistic method … nor to faults in the formulation of the present method, but rather to their underestimating the value of formulating one’s assumptions and to their desire to employ in linguistics a few terms of popular psychology whose vagueness will give us a teleologic lift across rough places (1932: 224)

Givón has succumb to the seductiveness of the teleologic lift and concomitantly abandons the precision of scientific discourse. His curiosity roams in curious and borderless lands.


Albert E. Blumberg and Herbert Feigl (1931) “Logical Positivism.” The Journal of Philosophy 28.11: 281-296.

Bloomfield, Leonard (1932). “Lautgesetz und Analogie by Eduard Hermann.” Language 8.3: 220-233.

Givón, Talmy (2013). “Beyond structuralism”. Studies in Language 37:2, 413–423.

Jankowsky, Kurt R. (1972). The neogrammarians. A re-evaluation of their place in the development of linguistic science. The Hague: Mouton.

Joseph, John E. (2012). Saussure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lazard, Gilbert (2012). “The case for pure linguistics.” Studies in Language 36.2: 241–259.

de Saussurre, Ferdinand (1919). Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Payot.

One thought on “The limits of curiosity

  1. You are indeed correct, as far as I can see, about the error in Givón’s claim concerning the intellectual influence of logical positivists on structuralists (or specifically of Frege on Saussure). Given, however, the garrulous derision with which you make your point, and the improbable conclusions on Givón’s opinions that you present as fact, it is difficult to prevent the image of a priest remonstrating his parishioners for their clever but ultimately saddening misinterpretations of important matters of doctrine.

    It would have been better, especially for the benefit of those who did not read the article you chose as the target of your wit (which is in fact my case), to discuss the actual problems that Givón’s position entails? If, as you (implicitly) claim, he is indeed abandoned traditional methodology without anything better to offer, would it not be better to show this explicitly, rather than simply presenting him as a sinners who sold his birthright for a plate of lentils? If, as you claim, Givón is indeed making himself implicitly guilty of Russellian paradoxes, would it not be clearer and, yes, more educational, to present an example of such a paradox, derived from the principles and opinions stated in his article? Would this not have more impact than spending several paragraphs demonstrating that a less-than-central claim concerning intellectual history is indeed erroneous, with a conclusion based on the seduction of evil (thus reinforcing my image of a priest saddened by the sins of his flock)? After all, selecting such a small detail from a paper that certainly had more important goals than discussing the minutiae of intellectual history creates the wrong impression — for example, that you may not be really familiar with linguistic typology in general, or Givón’s work in particular. Ubi non sumus, loquari non possumus…

    Fear not: empiricism is not on the way out. The barbarians are not at the gate, trying to destroy the walls erected with such diligent effort by the brotherly collaboration of structuralists and logical positivists. Precision is much loved, and rightfully so; but it should not be confused with its mere appearance, which some use to mask the lack of content, or to insist that reality is simpler than it actuallly is.

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