Empiricism. Now that’s academic-speak if I’ve ever seen it. Yet the idea of empiricism – whether we know it’s name or not – is one of the strongest ideas of the 20th century, the century in which, by the way, what we now call “interpreting” and “Deaf studies” became viable fields of study. It is no small matter, therefore, to consider what this terms means and how it might effect us today.
In 1974, economic geographer David Harvey asked, “Why is it that so-called neutral studies of population and resources often end up with such conservative prescriptions?” The answer is one most people would accept today: science is never completely ethically neutral. But that only gives us an assumption to work from. It doesn’t answer our question.
Harvey suggests that part of the answer lies in the methods of 19th Century scholar Thomas Malthus, best known for his claim that (to put it simply) population growth will surpass resource growth. Harvey shows how Malthus’ relies on scientific empiricism to whitewash his own anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary bent.
Here’s how Harvey describes empiricism:
“Empiricism assumes that objects can be understood independently of observing subjects. Truth is therefore assumed to lie in a world external to the observer who job is to record and faithfully reflect the attributes of objects. This logical empiricism is a pragmatic version of that scientific method which goes under the name “logical positivism,” and is founded in a particular and very strict view of language and meaning.”
Skipping over a detailed argument about Ricardo and Marx, Harvey goes on in the conclusion to explain why this empiricism mattered:
“The political consequences that flow from these results can be serious. The projection of a neo-Malthusian view into the politics of the time appears to invite repression at home and neo-colonial policies abroad. The neo-Malthusian view [based on empiricism] often functions to legitimate such polices, and thereby, to preserve the position of the ruling elite.”
I can’t think of a more concise statement about empiricism and its potential consequences.
I point this out for two very simple reasons.
First, I think it is relevant to notice the fundamental relationship between empiricism and language. Interpreters are language professionals, and we cannot help be influenced by ideas about language, even those ideas we don’t know we have. It is worth pondering the relationship between empiricism in the century and the influence of this conceptual framework on the interpreting profession. (See article: Language, Power and Models of Interpreting.)
Second, if Harvey is right that empiricism often justifies repression, then it is important that we understand how our ideas about language and politics may have repressive effects. As Harvey indicates elsewhere, the role of thought in social change is to “formulate concepts and categories…which we can apply in the process of bringing about a humanizing social change.” (See article: All Interpreters are Philosophers.)
This year we celebrate 50 years of RID. We remember, as we should, so many important Deaf and hearing leaders in our history who have helped make this profession a viable — although far from perfect — way for providing language access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Alongside that celebration, it might not be a complete waste of time to think about the growth of the interpreting profession within it’s larger historical and conceptual context. (See article: What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?.)
Some questions for pondering:
- What ideas – recognized and unrecognized – did/do interpreters bring with them into the profession?
- Where do we see empiricism today, and does empiricism have the negative political effect that Harvey suggests?
- Which conceptual frameworks are dominant in research on interpreting and sign language?
- What positive and negative political effects has research had on the recognition (or repression) of the human rights of Deaf communities?
For my part, I tend to think about how contemporary literary theory and authors such as David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon provide at least some provocation for different ways of thinking about language. See article: The unGishable David Foster Wallace.