Saturday, May 19, 2007

Slashed by Occam's Razor

This morning, I had the privilege of hearing an international group of extremely good historians debating methods and theories. I was intrigued by how many of them were talking about using “narratology”, working on “identity construction” with authors of historical documents, and urging that historians rely more heavily on “literary theory”. Eventually, Foucault got mentioned. Someone asked a question about this, basically wondering how serious these folks actually took such things. They quoted this passage (reportedly from a journal called Poetics Today):
Literary analysis is much less predicated upon correctness or provability of findings or the incontrovertibility of evidence. Instead, its "success" relies on such parameters as originality, appropriateness, inventiveness, or "insight value": it may be measured by our degree of satisfaction with what is revealed or illuminated about a text.
Even (or especially) the people who were speaking most fervently for the postmodernist perspective rushed to distance themselves from the view in that quote. "This is where I have to draw a line", said one, "I am a historian." "We cannot abandon the truth criterion", said another. Whatever their goals and measures of success, they all expressly believe in correctness, provability, and the strength of evidence. It was kinda hip to flirt with that stuff, but when this concrete claim came up about what literary analysis aims to do, it was like somebody was screaming ‘fire’ in their crowded theater: Panic gripped the audience and they fled en masse.

It turns out, all these historians agree fundamentally about the value of working closely with primary materials (what some might call ‘data’) and taking seriously what they find there. They also seem to agree on the need to interpret that material carefully and critically and in principled ways, using tools appropriate to reaching the particular goal at hand (what some would call ‘methods, theories’).

On looking over that quote, though, I wonder if its author isn’t declaring literary analysis to be part of the arts, or some creative process divorced from research and scholarship — if you’ve abandoned “correctness or provability of findings or the incontrovertibility of evidence” as very high priorities, I find it hard to call it ‘scholarship’ any more.

But the issue of Occam’s Razor came up, where a social historian challenged a historian with more of a ‘cultural theory’ perspective. The latter, a very well-spoken person speaking in public in a formal setting opened his comments somewhat later by talking about …
the gash from which I’m still bleeding from.
Just in case you doubt the story about preposition doubling that appeared recently over on Language Log.


The Ridger, FCD said...

That's the kind of redoubled preposition I'm familiar with - someone pied pipes (? should that be "uses pied piping"?) the preposition along with the relative, but then replicates it after the verb. I don't see it in writing - less chat - much; I think it's a sort of learned error - people have been taught they have to say "from which I'm bleeding" but by the time they reach the end of the clause, "bleeding from" is too strong to be resisted and they've forgotten they already said "from which" ...

That might not be right, of course, but it seems plausible to me - not that I've studied it.

On the other hand, the examples I see at the Log which have different prepositions - e.g., ""I am one of those Liberals with which this publication has a somewhat unhealthy obsession towards." seem utterly strange and inexplicable.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Hmmm. Maybe "someone piedly pipes"?

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, this is the kind of learned mistake we get with overreaching, I think. The examples with two different prepositions over on Language Log are pretty wild. But they mostly don't sound THAT bad to me, really.

I use 'to pied pipe' fairly often, and hear it more often. I would have just assumed that it's out there in print, and it's out there on the web for sure.