Sunday, February 05, 2006

How to Think -- A blog in which I Toot My Horn too much

At a linguistics conference at Georgetown University some years ago, a guy who had given a very nice talk came up to me after I had given my talk and fielded questions, and said something like, "I wish I could think like you MIT people." I was somewhat taken aback but the fact is that the MIT experience, at least for the first few groups that went through the program -- entering in '62-'66 or so -- and possibly later groups as well did give us an unusual opportunity to develop some pretty high powered intellectual skills, specifically the skill to create valid arguments (which may not lead to true conclusions, of course) and the skill to defend and critique arguments.

When I entered MIT there was almost no existing literature in linguistics deemed relevant to the development of Chomsky's radically different, mathematically based, scientific approach to the theory of language. It was argued, for instance, that the grammar of a language should consist of explicit, formalizable rules. Since traditional and structuralist grammarians did not have these goals, they did always or even often ask the kinds of questions that we wanted answered we didn't spend time reading but spent it instead on trying to create new knowledge. Given that there wasn't much such knowledge at the time, it wasn't too hard to come up with new proposals if you were resaonably imaginative.

So, we were asking new kinds of questions and had to develop new kinds of descriptions of languages. Fortunately, we graduate students were clustered together in several very large rooms with lots of desks and blackboards. A healthy, friendly competition developed to try to come up with new ideas (rules of English usually and properties of said rules as well as linguistic universals, i. e., rules and principles that apply across languages) . I don't know what others did but I frequently busted my butt at night to try come up with something new to contribute. The drill was to tell people you had this great new idea, go to a blackboard and write down the proposed generalization about language, or, more commonly, just some English rule or condition on the applicability of the rule, and defend it. The others would start firing objections and not infrequently one would be lead to change one's proposal. If it concerned just English, others might point out that the generalization did or did not apply to languages they knew or knew about. One had to become very critical of one's own ideas to survive the cross-examination without getting too bloodied.

So critically examining one's own ideas was essential to survival. Moreover, applying one's critical skills to the proposals of others, was necessary if one was to be a good citizen. I would advise anyone concerned about developing better critical skills to adopt an adversarial view towards one's own ideas as well as those of others. Don't believe anything anyone tells you unless you can confirm it yourself. This skeptical point of view doesn't amount to cynicism about knowledge since one ends up believing quite a lot of things to be true, at least tentatively. Skepticism requires sharply honed intellectual skills. Cynicism requires no intellectual skills at all.

Learning to defend positions one believes to be true is a very hard thing to do. There are two things that one ought to do. One is to carefully study good examples of arguments and try to emulate them. Another is to subject your arguments to criticism from others. This latter activity is particularly important, as important as submitting any creative writing you might do to experts for criticism.

Learning to be a critical thinker and learning to construct valid arguments in support of one's ideas are necessary conditions on intellectual success. They are not, however, sufficient conditions. One must also develop a capacity for imaginative thinking if one is to have ideas that are worth defending. So, how does one come up with new ideas? Here is my "recipe."

1. Every field will have one or more intellectual cliques, sets of people who share fundamental assumptions. Learn from these cliques but don't ever become a "true believer." Early on I was a Lone Ranger who worked inside one of the two main cliques and was able to make an impact by doing work that was inconsistent with one of the major assumptions of this clique in my work on English adverbial clauses. Interestingly, that work has survived some 36 years later, as a googling of my 1970 doctoral thesis shows. However, later on I went to the linguistic dark side for a theoretical linguist and wrote a book on TV advertising. This had a huge impact outside of theoretical linguistics (where is was totally ignored). (False) modesty prevents me from elaborating just how big an impact it had. In any event, if you go the safe route, question the basic assumptions of your clique to try to find their flaws. Its the best way to go about having an impact on the field. It is more exciting, however, to strike out on your own. I had to do it to keep my sanity. I hated the idea of doing just one kind of thing for 30 years.

2. Do not underestimate the value of ignorance. My doctoral thesis grew out of work I began my first semester at MIT when I wrote a paper in a course Noam Chomsky taught that violated one of Chomsky's basic assumptions, which, fortunately, he did not discuss that semester until after I had come up with an analysis that violated it. My paper changed people's minds about the assumption and I ended up with my first ever footnote a few months later in a 1964 book by Paul Postal and Jerrold Katz (in which my last name was misspelled!).. Pretty heady stuff for a beginner. But it does show that ignorance can lead to intellectual bliss.

I think that the widely accepted view that mathematicians do their best work when they are quite young may be because they are ignorant to some degree of conventional mathematical wisdom. I had a cousin in a graduate mathematical course in which the prof gave out ten prolems to solve over the weekend. My cousin solved none of them but on Sunday, he ran across a fellow student who said he had managed to solve three. It turns out that the prof had given them 10 "official" unsolved problems. My cousin's classmate didn't know they were genuinely difficult problems and managed to take a novel view of three of them that happened to work out. So, I advise you to work your butt off when you are young and ignorant.

I will confess that in most cases in my life, when I addressed a new problem, I did not read the literature on it until after I had given the problem a try. Afterwards, I did look at the literature to see if someone else had come up with my ideas on the matter, which rarely happened. I suggest you try this approach, at least provisionally. But don't tell anyone you do this since you are supposed to read the literature first. Unfortunately, reading the literature first can put you in that box we are told to think outside of if you aren't careful.

3. Read the literature in related disciplines. It may lead you to ideas that are of cross-disciplinary interest. Just for fun, I decided to Google my book ["Speech Acts and Conversational Interaction" philosophy] and found some citations in course syllabi in philosophy and several references in papers in Computer Science (Cognitive Science). I also found a reference to it in a paper on "axiology," a perspective the existence of which was totally unknown to me until now -- it is probably pretty nutty. There was also a reference in a course in anthropologyat Florida State. This saved me from doing a lot of separate searches. In fact, I majored in philosophy and worked closely with a philosopher at Ohio State who moved on to the University of North Carolina, worked with a very talented OSU colleague in communications at Ohio State and read some things in that field; read a lot in the area of Conversational Analysis in Sociology, worked with a computer Scientist at Ohio State and read some of the literature in artificial intelligence, and read in the area of psychology. I probably skipped a field or two. Unfortunately, while interdisciplinary research is often said to be a desideradum in academia, it is not often rewarded as my philosophic OSU and UNC colleague, Bill Lycan, and I discovered. MIT press was willing to publish a book we did on conditional sentences (propositions) but it was clear from the comments we were getting that we would be flamed by a lot of reviewers from both fields so we withdrew it. As I was retiring, Bill decided to revise it into a book of primarily philosophical interest and he published it as Real Conditionals. Philosophy tolerates mavericks much more than linguistics does. The book includes a joint paper we published in a journal, and gives me plenty of credit so he's happy and I'm happy. In any event, this paragraph demonstrates that if you step way out of the box and actually read relevant material in other fields some wild ass stuff may result, some being successful (my Cambridge Press book on speech acts and conversation and Bill's Oxford Press book on conditionals once it had been "purified" a bit) and some not successful (the aborted original version of the joint book Bill and I originally wrote). True interdisciplinary research is a crap shoot.

Okay, enough tooting of my horn. I tooted it to show how that a Lone Ranger can force Cliquists to acknowledge the quality and importance of their work even if they don't like it themselves. The work does have to be well-received by some highly regarded people even if they are in other fields. The fact is if you don't strike out on your own you will likely create easily forgettable work unless you focus on questioning the foundations of your field or becoming a true maverick. My conclusion is, then, that you try learn to think critically and learn to defend and critique ideas whether they are your ideas or the ideas of others, and try to stimulate your imagination by questioning the basic assumptions of your field (which can be very hard work even for advanced scholars), working on problems before you look at how others have treated them, and reading work in related fields and trying to see if it might impact on problems that interest you. I hope this was useful for some of you younger people. With some embarassment at my horn tooting I hereby launch this into the internet stream.

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Blogger The Language Guy said...

Aren't you a lawyer. That is, of course, a special case since the law is not rational in its development in the way sciences are. It makes inexplicable jags this way and that, as discussed, for instance, in one of my blogs on the Supremes in re "gun possession during a drug crime," in which they reverse themselves without actuall reversing the earlier incorrect decision. Trademark la is an intellectul mess if ever I saw one, in re the notion "confusingly similar" and in the concepts of "generic, descriptive, and suggestive" marks.

However lawyers have to be very rational. I have had great respect for every litigator I have worked with. One "got" my linguistic preparation for cross-examining a guy over lunch and the dude not only asked the right questions, he asked the right follow ups, which he did without any help from me. Very impressive.


12:33 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Law isn't rational in its development? Aside from legislation it should be, but of course Harry Blackmun might have disagreed (although not explicitly).

Anyway, good post. It's very interesting to learn more about a blogger that interests me in the first place.

2:04 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Interesting & long blog, so i'll look at it in peices (or what strikes me first) I seems to be about thinking things out for yourself i.e. using your own mind.

The idea of figuring it out then reading the 'book' struck me first, as that is what I've usally done. I see the 'book' as conventional wisdom, & as I see plenty wrong w/C.Wisdom. I use books to bounce my original ideas off of. Higher conscienceness is not gained by adhering to C.W.

This is one reason I like to paint. I am not bound by anything except my own imagination.

2:11 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Kelly, I'm surprised you see the law as in any way having had a rational development as measured by the standards of science. Basic terms are not defined clearly. It is a total mess at every level, the worst being the Supreme Court. There is no widely accepted set of principles for interpreting the constitution. Every judge seems to have his or her own way of going about it.

What really chaps my butt is how they use dictionaries in interpreting laws. They do so in a mindnumbingly stupid manner.

2:38 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Heh. Yes, it is mind-numbingly stupid.

I guess perhaps it's not rational as compared to science, but historically law has developed rationally from basic goals and concepts. It just takes a more sophisticated, abstract kind of reasoning to get there. Of course, you can usually come up with an equally sophisticated, rational argument against any particular rule of law, and I suppose the choice is largely arbitrary. The reason SCOTUS decisions as a whole are irrational is because the people on it are chosen because they are thought to be political by the President who chooses them, and because majorities swing back and forth.

3:18 PM

Blogger Mr K said...

Heh, it'd be pretty damn amazing to find a flaw in undergraduate mathematics at least, although new fields are always being discovered or developed upon- certain areas of mathematics are only 30 years or so old- at least their currrent form anyway. A very inspiring post.

4:20 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Unwashed masses;The field of the unwashed masses is the clay that the earth is made of. The potters clay...I think the washed masses & the unwashed masses need to understand they are products of the same dirt.

11:57 PM

Blogger Eric Dutton said...

On the subject of making good arguments:

I'm very skeptical of "fixes" for education that begin "if they only...," but there is one thing missing from education as I experienced it, and missing so pervasively, that I'm almost willing to buy into an "if they only..." fix. That thing is logic and critical thinking courses.
Not until I was in high school was there anything like a critical thinking course offered, and then it was only offered to the gifted students. I has several friends in the gifted program and they told me that the course taught you a few computer-based logic skills, and then left you to play computer games the rest of the semester.
When I finally took Logic and Critical Thinking in college, I could believe how simple it is in the begining and how liberating.
If they took one year of secondary education and dedicated it to teaching students how to recgnize the difference between good and bad reasoning, and how to generate the former, I suspect college would be much easier and productive for all.
Thanks for this provacative post. I'll adopt your techniques for generating new ideas if I ever end up in graduate school.

12:25 AM

Blogger Bird said...

I periodically check into your blog for a good read. I thoroughly enjoy the message you convey and the manner in which you convey it.

I tend to share some of the blogs I read with students. I teach developmental reading and writing, first-year comp and advanced composition/critical thinking at both the university and community college level in California.

May I have permission to print some of your posts, copy and distribute to my students?


1:21 AM

Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Good post, Mike. I remember those early days, also. There was some contagion passed from MIT to other institutions, including where I studied. Fortunately, for many years good linguistic argument formation continued to be taught. I suspect it's been somewhat in decline more recently, but all has not been lost. Critical thinking skills about language are, well, critical. I've seen far too much uncritical thinking about language and it saddens one.

1:26 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

'Critical examining of ones own ideas'. & stimulating your imagination by questioning the basic assumptions of your field.'

I did not know there was a term for all that. (critical thinking). I find it fascinating.

That shows you how uneducated I am. But, I realize I'm not stupid. :)

9:52 PM

Blogger AquaM said...

Hi Language Guy,(Sounds like a chat name that Tom Hanks uses to refer to Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail)

I blog hopped and I'm glad I did. Tooting off your horn is alright in your case because the here was not to brag about your achievement, but rather highlight instances where certain concepts or ideas have worked for you.
Enjoyed reading your post. I particularly liked the verbal exchange between u and Kelly on the question of law. While Courts and laws were created to bring harmony and safeguard citizen rights, it has infact worked the opposite way. Law is a sham, but without such rules in place, would our lives have been more chaotic than it is now?

5:25 AM

Blogger AquaM said...

missed out a word there *idea*

5:26 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thank you, aquamarine, for saying what you did about the tooting.

And, l>t, I am beginning to think that your "uneducated" state can easily be overcome by working the internet. I am beginning to think that there is nothing that one might want to learn that can't be learned on the internet. Learning to think critically is essential to internet learning because there is a lot that is wrong out there.

One thing I forgot to mention about how linguistics has sharpened people's minds is that the focus in the teaching of linguistcs early on was to highlight the arguments for analyses rather than the analyses themselves. We would start with analysis 1 and give arguments for it; then provide a crucial counterexample and give revised analysis 2; then provide a crucial counterexample and give ....

This focus on argumentation was what was so special. In one seminar in a field I was not really an expert, I gave an analysis of something. A grad student shot it down. I explained to everyone why it got shot down and came up with another analysis. He shot that down. We went through that several more times before we settled on something. He might have helped coming up with alternative analyses. Some students said it was the best seminar they had had because they were able to see the process of thinking in real time rather than in some canned lecture or book. So, what started out as a diasterous lecture ended up being a pedagogical success.

7:37 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Great story. It sounds like every meeting of my Con Law I class last semester, which was probably my favorite class of all time.

2:56 PM


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