PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Can intuitions be empirical evidence: the case of generative lingusitics

Intuitions are not generally considered good (empirical) scientific evidence, which makes the seeming reliance on intuitions as the primary source of evidence for generative linguistics a philosophical puzzle. Of course, the evidential status of linguistic intuitions is contested, and linguists and philosophers have increasingly been turning to empirical methods to support or undermine the status of intuitions as evidence.
One argument in favor of linguistic intuitions runs as follows: the aim of linguistic research is to understand the language faculty. Intuitions are the product of the language faculty. Thus, intuitions are data relevant to the aim of linguistic research. The second premise, that intuitions are the product of the language faculty, is controversial, but recent work has attempted to provide empirical support for it by showing that the syntactic intuitions held by professional linguists are also held by lay native speakers (Sprouse and Almeida 2012; Sprouse et al. 2013).
I present two pieces of countervailing evidence. First, I show that the degree of convergence reported in the above studies is misleadingly high, because it relies on comparisons across subjects. If we analyze the level of variation between individuals, we see less convergent linguistic intuitions. This makes the studies a less convincing demonstration that syntactic intuitions are the product of the language faculty.
Second, I present my own preliminary experimental data on semantic intuitions. This data shows massive disagreement between speakers who presumably share a linguistic competence, which suggests that their intuitions are in large part produced by extraneous factors.
If this is correct, then linguistic intuitions are not, in fact, good scientific evidence, and the philosophical puzzle about how intuitions could be empirical evidence in linguistics is dissolved.
Sprouse, Jon, and Almeida, Diego. 2012. "Assessing the reliability of textbook data in syntax: Adger's Core Syntax." Journal of Linguistics 48: 609-652.
Sprouse, Jon, Carson T. Sch├╝tze, & Diogo Almeida. 2013. A comparison of informal and formal acceptability judgments using a random sample from Linguistic Inquiry 2001-2010. Lingua 134: 219-248.

Author Information:

Carlos Santana    
University of Utah


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