Monday, January 31, 2005

Spontaneous Orders and Internal Critiques

Can a self-described linguistic descriptivist still criticize violations of standard English grammar, without being a hypocrite? Geoff Pullum cogently argues that the answer is “yes.” The key is understanding the distinction between endogenous and exogenous, or between indigenous and externally imposed, linguistic norms. Those are my words, not Pullum’s; here’s how he puts it:
Barbara Scholz and I have taken to using the term correctness conditions for whatever are the actual conditions on your expressions that make them the expressions of your language — and likewise for anyone else's language. … Which conditions are the relevant ones for you is an empirical question. Descriptive linguists try to lay out a statement of what the conditions are for particular languages. And it is very important to note that the linguist can go wrong. A linguist can make a mistake in formulating correctness conditions. How would anyone know? Through a back and forth comparison between what the condition statements entail and what patterns are regularly observed in the use of the language by qualified speakers under conditions when they can be taken to be using their language without many errors (e.g., when they are sober, not too tired, not suffering from brain damage, have had a chance to review and edit what they said or wrote, etc.).

Sometimes, though, one can formulate the relevant correctness condition exactly right, and then observe a sentence in the Philadelphia Inquirer that does not comply with it. This is because people do make mistakes in their own language, and some mistakes even get past newspaper copy editors.
In short, Pullum argues that there’s a healthy but subtle middle ground between the two insane extremes of “everything is correct” and “nothing is relevant.”

Here’s my question: What are the implications of Pullum’s point – which strikes me as clearly correct with regard to language – for spontaneous orders other than language, such as markets, etiquette, morality, and common law? Can we find organic principles of such orders that we can use to understand what is “right” or “wrong” in these contexts? Certainly that is what judges and legal scholars attempt to do when analyzing case law. Moral philosophers, on the other hand, often try to build moral systems “from the ground up,” rather than taking for granted any or all of our moral norms that have resulted from cultural evolution.

What kinds of criticisms are valid in the context of spontaneous orders, if we accept Pullum’s argument? One interpretation is narrow: as scientists who wish to understand the social world, we are bound to accept internal principles of the systems we wish to explain as a positive matter. But as a normative matter, we are free to make external critiques as long as we’re honest about what we’re doing. Thus, a linguist might recognize a particular rule of English grammar as “valid” (inasmuch as it describes the language as it is), but then criticize that rule of grammar because it fails to satisfy some external criterion such as logical clarity.

Another interpretation is broader: only internal critiques are valid. In the context of the rules of just conduct, Hayek takes this position in The Mirage of Social Justice (see here and here for related posts). Says Hayek:
If we are to make full use of all the experience which has been transmitted only in the form of traditional rules, all criticism and efforts at improvement of particular rules must proceed within a framework of given values which for the purpose in hand must be accepted as not requiring justification. We shall call ‘immanent criticism’ this sort of criticism that moves within a given system of rules and judges particular rules in terms of their consistency or compatibility with all other recognized rules in inducing the formation of a certain kind of order of actions.
Hayek’s argument hinges on two aspects of his thought – first, his severe doubts about the ability of human beings to fully comprehend the functionality of their social norms (an epistemological position); and second, his belief in an imperfect but usually beneficial process of cultural evolution. If one doubts either of these positions, external critique might seem more sensible.

My inclination, which I cannot fully justify here, is that both internal and external critiques can be valid and useful, but internal critiques are safer and more trustworthy, because they don’t require superhuman cognitive abilities. I have little confidence in the ability of humans to consciously devise a new language (like Esperanto) that successfully performs the functions that language has to perform. Similarly, I have little confidence in legal scholars to build a complete system of justice or moral philosophers to construct a comprehensive moral system ex nihilo. In practice, even those critiques that seem the most “external” take at least some organic principles as given; they differ from more clearly internal critiques because they take fewer of those principles for granted.

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