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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/19064

Title: Private Knowledge, Public Tensions: Theory Commitment in Postwar American Linguistics
Authors: Nielsen, Janet
Advisor: Gillon, Brendan
Department: History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
Keywords: linguistics
history of science
Issue Date: 19-Feb-2010
Abstract: Propelled by a desire to understand natural language, American linguists of the postwar period brought the tools of the era to bear on the study of syntax: computer science, math- ematical graph theory, and even Cold War strategy. Three syntactic theories were enun- ciated, each trying to untangle the mysteries of our ability to form and use sentences. These theories interacted on a nearly daily basis, influencing and challenging each other through the s. By the end of the decade, one had established clear dominance: Noam Chomsky’s theory, developed at . Combining contemporary history of science tools with linguistics-specific concepts, this study explores the dynamics of the syntactic theory- choice debates from  to . I argue that these debates can only be fully understood through a confluence of four themes: explanation, pedagogy, knowledge transmission, and lay linguistics. Together, these themes explain how linguists selected and evaluated theories, how students were trained to think about and use syntax, how ideas and people spread across the United States, and how academic theories played out in peripheral disci- plines. They also resolve the central paradox running through this study: how did Noam Chomsky’s theory – a theory whose proponents valued the private transmission of un- derground knowledge and actively prevented outsiders from accessing research – spread across the country and gain a majority of supporters? By paying particular attention to the ideas and problems which mattered to the linguists of the time, this study presents a critical and novel history of postwar American linguistics. In doing so, it rectifies the lack of a balanced, historically-informed account of the discipline. What little literature exists on the history of syntax in America bears the imprint of Whig interpretations: it omits the rival syntactic theories which competed with Chomsky’s theory, the technical linguistics debates of the period, and pedagogy and the training of young linguists. Most impor- tantly, it cannot account for the paradox of private knowledge. This study contributes to our historical understanding by both providing the first history of science based investiga- tion of postwar American syntax and showcasing a powerful way of investigating theory development, theory choice, and theory change.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/19064
Appears in Collections:Doctoral
Institute for the History & Philosphy of Science & Technology - Doctoral theses

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