SV: On logic and fuzziness

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at ONLINE.NO
Sun Nov 8 13:24:08 UTC 1998

Artur Karp wrote:

I do not think the reluctance with which historical linguists reach for
mathematics-derived methods has anything to do with the "fuzziness" of
their discipline, or lack in logic, or the unwilingness to let themselves
tested against the presence of some <<"Aryan Racist Philosophy" of the 20th
century>> virus. It's rather - it seems - a question of the very basic
demands - testable quality and a proper size of series of objects (words)
being the most important of them.

Employing probability theory as neutral referee (<<It is math, and its
branch of probability theory is younger but is available for all those not
too pompous.>>) may be only warranted by the kind of material one has at
hand. Certainly, it is available - but not always helpful. (Although -
ultimately, it might help someone suddenly discover their ability to speak
in prose...)

There are times when one is clearly better off by sticking to good old
s(t)olid procedures.

Having written a thesis with a solid dose of statistics, I would like to second what Artur Karp is saying here. I often find that scientists/engineers have the attitude that what we do is "unscientific" because we don't use mathematics. This criticism is sometime relevant in cases where linguists / philologists actually give arguments made on the basis of numerical calculations. In my thesis, I have given an account of such attempts in Indology. However, today there is a special branch of linguistics/philology where advanced statistical methods are applied to numerical problems, so that the criticism is much less relevant than it would have been 30-40 years ago. 

I would like to remind the engineers/scientists  among us that linguists and philologists do not operate in a field where they have the good fortune of dealing with natural laws. Apart from sound laws, which are fairly consistent, everything we deal with is fundamentally chaotic. When we interpret the past, we are really into a kind of pattern recognition process where we often have to make interpretations on the basis of incomplete data sets. Historical processes may work according to statistical principles, but not in the way that dice throwing does. Historical trends can only be established on the basis of a large number of observed cases, which leaves us with a classificatory problem: how do we classify an historical event of some kind in such a manner that we can make a consistent and realistic statistical analysis of it? Here, philology and linguistics come back to bite the statistician in the tail. Countables have to be defined, and such definitions have to be made on philological and linguistic criteria. 

My assumption is that what goes for linguistics and philology also goes for archaeology (as testified by Karp) and other disciplines that have a certain "fuzziness". Consequently, all theories and explanations have to be based on available data sets, which have to be documented. To produce correct interpretations, you need complete data sets, but since data sets are rarely complete, you end up with situations where you get several competing interpretations, because incomplete data sets allow this, just like equations with more than one unknown factor allow for two or more solutions. 

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

Dr. art. Lars Martin Fosse
Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114,
0674 Oslo
Phone: +47 22 32 12 19
Fax:      +47 22 32 12 19
Email: lmfosse at

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