A Survey of Recent Trends in Philosophical Lexicography
by Jay Chough Starling
Professor of Applied Semantics,
University of California, Oxnard1
Lexicography is not a field with much sex appeal, literally or figuratively. Indeed, of all the fields of the humanities, it is perhaps the best contender for the title “wallflower with its finger stuck in its own button-hole mumbling to itself in the corner at the jubilee ball of the intellect,” despite strong competition from Victorian sewer and sanitation studies.2 Moreover, the field is not noted for overmuch intellectual sophistication. Consider: What does lexicography have to say about philosophy? “1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline. 2. Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods. 3. A system of thought based on or involving such inquiry.” What does philosophy have to say about lexicography? Apart from certain of the more misguided analytical philosophers with odd fixations, nothing at all.3 However, this survey will show that, like a thief in the night or a harmless estate agent gone to the bad, lexicography has broken into the temple of wisdom and done all sorts of cool things there. (Alternatively, one might say that philosophy, like a different thief in the night,4 has broken into the dictionary office at the print house and despoiled the place.) This, however, is merely one of the many fields being revolutionized by a contemporary outbreak of breaking and entering by philosophers trying to make ends meet in an abysmal job market.
The recent trend to sophistication in all sorts of fields not previously known for the same started, curiously, in applied ornithology—that is, ornithography, as absolutely no one before me has ever called it—the theory and practice of illustrated bird guides. There had long been a debate among birders over the respective values for beginners of photographic bird guides, like the Audubon guides, and bird guides with paintings of birds, like the Peterson guides. The argument in favor of the latter is that it shows beginners the essential features of birds unobscured by the accidental characteristics of particular birds. However, this argument was opposed by the New England Analytical Birding Philosophers Club, who pointed out that this is not the way humans acquire any other knowledge.
After a lengthy debate remarkable mostly for the intricacy of the abusive bird-based metaphors employed by partisans of both sides,5 the NEABPC commissioned a new bird guide based on sound principles of contemporary Anglo-American analytic theories of knowledge acquisition, the New Bird Guide Based on Sound Principles of Contemporary Anglo-American Analytic Theories of Knowledge Acquisition (Xerus & Ratufa, 2003). This book revolutionized bird-watching for several reasons: 1. Eschewing the Platonic idealism inherent in illustrating a bird with an essentialized painting and drawing on contemporary empiricist theory, each bird was illustrated by 175 color photographs taken from a number of angles under a variety of viewing conditions, requiring the novice birder to infer the distinguishing characteristics of each variety of bird in an epistemologically sound fashion. 2. The added bulk boosted the profits of publishers who grabbed the new trend and ran with it, especially once the NEABPC used its influence to make Introduction to Bird Watching a required course at most universities in the United States. 3. The increased bulk of the new bird guides made bird watching, formerly the preserve of not particularly athletic types, a new outdoor sport requiring stamina and vigor. 4. The increased bulk of the users of the new bird guides made disputes over ornithological principle increasingly strenuous and violent, which attracted a large attendance at birding meetings, not to mention a few late-night cable shows devoted to no-holds-barred ornithological disputes. 5. The publication of the manifesto of the NEABPC, Philosophy for the Birds (Xerus & Ratufa 2006), caused ornithology to trickle increasingly into contemporary academic philosophy, leading to an intricate system of criticism and heckling at annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association based on the calls of those species of birds deemed the favorites of the less philosophically astute, culminating in the flurry of desert wheatear chirps that drowned out the address to the association of the NEABPC’s most strident critic, Heron Crane Hawfinch, author of Philosophy by the Birdbrains (Xerus & Ratufa 2007).
After another couple of years in which the new trend in ornithology consolidated its position, it began to influence lexicography through the efforts of the New England Association of Birding Lexicographers. Capitalizing on the digital revolution, the NEABL created the first truly modern dictionary on philosophical principles, the Really Great New Dictionary of English for the Really Serious User (Xerus & Ratufa 2009). Eschewing print entirely, the dictionary gives neither indications of pronunciation nor definitions. Instead, when the user clicks on the entry for a given word, 350 recordings of the word, each read by a different speaker under a variety of recording conditions, are followed by an average of 150 example sentences sufficient to allow the user to infer the meaning of the word. (For words like ‘set’ and ‘at,’ the necessity of handling polysemy entails 2,453 and 3,642 example sentences, respectively.)
This time, however, the opponents of the new trend were not caught napping with their pants down. “It’s all right to poach on the bird reserve,” said Trole Muntsch-Snohschuh, author of Cudworthian Lexicography, “but don’t try to steal our words.” Pointing out that all human concepts are permeated by inherent and inborn knowledge, he called for a program of lexicography based on a close study of Cartesian principles of knowledge. After a short period of scratching of heads, rubbing of chins, rubbing of heads, and scratching of chins, a stampede of rationalist lexicographers leapt into the fray with a bewildering variety of proposals, most of which were gladly snapped up by publishers.6 Unfortunately, however, or fortunately, as the case may be, none of the different lexicographical programs was compatible with any other, all of them were based on one or another strain of contemporary theoretical linguistics, and while human knowledge might be inborn and inherent, knowledge of that inherent and inborn knowledge is neither inborn nor inherent. In other words, it was a free for all (except for the book purchaser), an extravaganza of theory and practice and the many and varied possibilities of connecting the two that can only excite the linguist or the book-market accountant with its many opportunities.
The ensuing flood of dictionaries can be classified by their treatment of the theoretical framework applied in each dictionary for each level of human language treated. On the level of pronunciation, for example, phonetic transcriptions were right out, but no two dictionaries agreed on the feature system adopted. (The convention followed by the Haskins Laboratory Dictionary of American English of indicating pronunciations with a string of numbers and coordinates indicating places of articulation, timings, and intersegmental phase angles that could be fed into a system of equations given in the introduction, was influential for about two minutes since it looked really cool and savored of more math than most lexicographers could handle. However, it was generally realized to be a surreptitious attempt to smuggle phonetics back into lexicography after rationalist lexicographers had just spent a year abolishing it.) Similarly, in place of lists of related word forms, a variety of morphological and morphosyntactic approaches were followed based for the most part on competing theories of morphology, and likewise those dictionaries that indicated verb government can be differentiated by their grounding in a particular variety of Valence Theory, Case Theory and the like.
The greatest profusion of striking shafts of theoretical brilliance competing in a holographic display of human ingenuity that blinds the observer, however, is in the sphere of word meanings. Realizing that the opportunity had finally presented itself of avoiding all those pesky disputes over how best to describe mutilated rabbits that uppity translators and their philosophical enablers had stunk up the joint with for so long,7 most of the rationalist lexicographers gleefully abandoned definitions couched in other words and substituted lists of symbols indicating the inherent categories for each word and a sufficient logical apparatus for deriving the meaning from the entry. Of course, little is more unsettled and provisional than contemporary logical modeling of semantics, so not only is each dictionary’s scheme of categories incompatible with those of all of the others, a new edition of each is required three to six months after publication as mimeographed errata sheets make the rounds and the reputations of lexicographers.
On the whole, therefore, lexicography has never seen such flush times—flush times that are the envy of students of Victorian sewers. The old-fashioned view of lexicography as a mature and well-bounded field alien to innovation has gone out the window. Emulating the healthful example of bird watching, the field has beheld the flight of the bird and been hit in the eye by the fruit thereof. A field once as hidebound and dusty as a dust-covered leather-bound dictionary is seething in the ferment of creative destruction, much like a sewage treatment plant churning raw materials8 into other raw materials.9 While this has been the subject of much caviling by threatened traditionalist or empiricist lexicographers (e.g., “By the time these tyros get their stories all lined up, the language will have changed so much they might as well not have even bothered,” in the words of noted empiricist lexicographer Lenny Blossomplot), a more sanguine view is that lexicography can best benefit by a healthy dose of competition in which all contributions are treated equally. Or, as Sir John Simon, Chief Medical Officer for Her Majesty’s Government (1855–76), put it, “Nowhere out of Laputa could there be serious thought of differentiating excremental performances into groups of diarrhoeal and healthy.”
1 The research for this monograph was supported by a grant from the School of the Humanities, UC Oxnard, over the vigorous opposition of the Program of Victorian Sewer and Sanitation Studies, whom I invite individually and collectively to do us all a favor and go do some lifelong fieldwork.
2 To those skeptical of this statement, I ask you: Have you ever actually read Charles Kingsley’s Yeast: A Problem? Of course you haven’t, because it’s dismal—even in short installments as bathroom reading—and it’s the best thing the field offers. QED. Indeed, I can offer my (self-)esteemed cloacal colleagues no greater encomium than that given either for or by Robert Southey, I forget which, of “sit[ting] in a sewer and add[ing] to it.”
3 Even taking typos into account.
4 One with a much better network for disposing of ill-gotten pelf.
5 The curious reader is referred to the detailed survey of the debate by Stonechat Redstart, “What greenshanks have to do with Spinoza, why Hegel resembles a sandgrouse more than a shrike, and other curiosities of contemporary philosophy of ornithology,” Speculative Ornithologist, Vol. MCCLXII No. 34, pp. 73–264 (2007).
6 Well, by Xerus & Ratufa, mostly, whose motto explains a lot: “Our bread is buttered on both sides!”
7 Have you ever smelled a two-week-dead mutilated rabbit? It’s even more pungent than a Victorian sewer. The usual response of those unfortunate enough to encounter it is “Gah!,” “Vah!,” or “Gie!” (a clipped form of “God!”).
8 Really raw materials.
9 Much less raw.