Back in February I was part of a panel at the Rice Linguistics Society meeting on linguistic theory and fieldwork and their relations. My talk was comparative in nature and focused on the contribution to the field of certain important figures; Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and Gregory House. Over the next few weeks I will be serialising this talk and expanding it.
My point was that we can learn from comparing problem solving and theoretical approaches to shed light on how different people view theory and practice. Everyone who’s received a newsletter from LaTrobe’s Research Centre for Linguistic Typology has seen the quotation from Sherlock Holmes about how it is a capital mistake (Watson) to theorise beyond one’s facts. But there is more to Holmes’ view than this.
Today, though, I’ll start with a great figure in linguistic fieldwork (if not in linguistic theory): Indiana Jones. Indy knows a bunch of stuff, not just his field narrowly, but random other information that often comes in handy. We learn in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, for example, that he picked up Quechua while being held for ransome. His problem-solving methods are highly focused and he is not detered by set-backs. However, it’s worth noting that his problem-solving strategies are only appropriate to a very narrow set of problems. How does Indy approach problems other than “getting the girl” and stopping the bad guys from getting the treasure first?
Indy’s theoretical orientation is not particularly nuanced, it must be admitted. His data are what they are; he never finds out that the object of his quest is something other than it appears, the bad guys are always bad (and so are half the good guys), and the girl is usually an irritatingly naive dipstick. Even more theoretically disturbing is the lack of uniformitarianism in the theoretical outlook; can’t solve the problem with the tools of this world? Never mind, there are always aliens.