An Empirical Question?

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[Crossposted at OrangePhilosophy] My fellow OrangePhilosopher Dave Bzdak and I just had a conversation with Don Arentz, one of our colleagues in teaching at Le Moyne College, about what seems to be an empirical question but seems difficult to see how it might be empirical. How big is your vocabulary? It would seem that the question is indeed an empirical matter. Yet how would you go about empirically investigating it? Dave suggested maybe it would be in principle possible but only if you kept track of every single word you ever encountered to get a list of all the words that might be in your vocabulary, and then you investigated to see if they were still in your vocabulary at a given time. Could you do this, though? I'm not worrying about the possibility of coming up with a list of all the words you've ever encountered. Suppose you could do it. That's in principle possible, I would say, even if in practice it would be amazingly difficult to implement. Given that list, could you determine which of those words are in your vocabulary at any given time? It seems that, if you could, then you would know how big your vocabulary at the time was.

So suppose I want to know how many of those words are in my vocabulary right now. I could presumably go down the list to investigate which ones I know, right? I'm not sure it's so easy, though. I could recognize some words that I know. But wouldn't there be others that I know and don't recall the meaning of just by seeing the word in isolated form? There are some whose meaning I would remember if I saw it in the right sort of sentence that would trigger my memory. Of course, there would be others that I don't know but would get from context, in which case I've just added a word to my vocabulary. I shouldn't count those. I wanted to know how many were in it before I started the investigation. What if I'm not in a position to distinguish between the cases when the sentence triggers my memory of what a word means and cases when the context helps me add a new word to my vocabulary? It's not clear to me that I could tell the difference. If that's right, then the exact count of my vocabulary isn't really empirically discoverable after all. That's really weird. Does that mean the size of my vocabulary is not really an empirical question?

8 Comments

Sounds like another case of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to me

Suppose I wonder how many mountains there are in the United States. So I start to run around counting them. I put down a tally mark for Mount McKinley, for Mount Williams, for Gray's Peak. So far, so good. But then I get to some trickier cases. Here's something that's shaped just like a mountain, but it's not as tall as I usually think mountains have to be. Here's one that's tall enough, but it has awfully steep sides; maybe it's a mesa instead of a mountain? These cases confuse me, and I have to do some conceptual analysis on 'being a mountain' in order to decide how to count them. But this is no obstacle to my being engaged with an empirical question.

In general, the fact that there are cases that it's hard to tell about, or cases which require conceptual investigation, is perfectly consistent with its being an empirical question. (Note also that the question of how many mountains there are depends on a priori mathematical principles like counting. Again, no obstacle.)

Indeed, all questions are at least partially conceptual, since questions have conceptual contents. I don't see any reason to be especially worried about the case of the size of your vocabulary.

I don't think this is a vagueness problem, though. It seems more like a problem in distinguishing that doesn't involve degrees of being part of someone's vocabulary. This is a problem in knowing whether something is of a certain kind when it determinately is of that kind. With vagueness, it's not determinate whether it's of that kind.

I agree with Mark. This sounds like an uncertainty problem. That is to say, the attempt to measure can cause a change in what you are trying to measure.

However, that doesn't mean that it can't be empirical--after all, science is still empirical despite the uncertainty/indeterminacy principle. What it does mean is that you have an accuracy issue. You won't be able to measure your vocabulary down to the last word. But if you design your test appropriately (so it isn't exhaustive) and allow that the results won't be perfectly accurate, you can empirically measure your vocabulary.

I'm not depending on this being a vagueness issue (although it sounds to me like it might very well be one). We have these sorts of problems for empirical questions where vagueness is not an issue, as well. Choose your favorite philosophical concept that resists analysis. How 'bout knowledge? How many Americans know that p, for some p? This is an empirical question, but it's going to be hard to find out, and we're going to have to rely on some philosophical judgments as to what counts as knowing.

It seems to me that when we ask how big someone's vocabulary is, we're asking how many words they use, not, as you point out, how many they are able to define based on context.
I think this means that you can't test (definitively) how big someone's vocabulary is by seeing how many words they can understand when you give them sentences containing those words, because you're really measuring how many words they can define based on context, which is a separate question. It may give you some idea (someone with a smaller vocabulary will probably be able to define fewer words based on context) but it really isn't measuring what you want to measure.

It seems to me that in order to actually determine how big someone's vocabulary is, you can't do it by presenting them with sentences to interpret. You instead have to count how many words they use in sentences. You could imagine recording someone continuously over the course of several years, perhaps, and (with appropriate technology) going back and making a list of every word that they've used in a sentence during that time. It seems to me that that would be more of a measure of their actual vocabulary.

Volunteers, anyone?

I guess you could still object that someone may have words in their vocabulary that they don't ordinarily (or even over the space of several years) use in sentences. But then we really have to talk about what it means for them to have it in their vocabulary. If they don't use it and can't define it unless they have context to jog their memory (that is, if they can't define it just based on an entry on a list) is it really part of their vocabulary? It seems doubtful to me, but I suppose that all hinges on the definition of vocabulary that you use. I've always thought it had to do with words people use or understand (without being given a context).

Abednego: I was thinking of this as being about reading vocabulary. If you wanted to talk about speaking or writing vocabulary, I think it would be a different question, but even that isn't identical to the set of all words you do in fact use. It's what words you could use or maybe what words you'd be disposed to use under appropriate circumstances. I don't think you can measure that anywhere near as easily as measuring how many words they have in fact used.

Jonathan: My example wasn't anything like depending on some philosophical understanding like the correct conceptual analysis of a concept. What I couldn't do is distinguish between two different states that I'm in. It would be more like being able to determine whether I know something when I don't have access to why I know it. If reliabilism is correct about knowledge, then I can know something without being able to distinguish between whether I know it or whether I have a false belief because I'm a brain in a vat. Now that I've had to think about those cases in relation to this, it seems as if there's an empirical question that I can't investigate empirically. I'm not sure what to say beyond that, though.

I've been reading Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy this week (which I VERY highly recommend), and have been thinking a lot about language. I'm taking classes right now in teaching ESL.

Anyhow, the difference between written and spoken language is enormous, so you do need to specify that more clearly. I'll throw out that I think the only thing you could possibly measure in this area is how well someone could perform on a particular sort of test. So the question then is, what do you want to test for? Is it the idea that you recognize, visually (or aurally), a word? That you could match it with a definition? That you could write (or speak) a definition? If you used a matching test, how important is it to differentiate a word from other similar words? How much deviation would be allowed from a standard definition? What about the problem of the fact that different communities use different definitions of words? If the test is to use a word in a sample sentence, how do you insure that the user actually knows what it means rather than just plugging, say, a noun into a generic context?

Also, the definition of "word" can be problematic.

I'm sure there is some literature out there by linguists about the problems of measuring vocabulary, since that is something which they try to do occasionally. I have just suggested some of the difficulties which occurred to me.

One of the things I wanted to mention from Ong's book is that the problem becomes rather different is you are dealing with non-literate or oral people, since they typically do not think in abstracts and have difficulty separating words from a concrete context. I imagine that those folks weren't at the front of your mind in this discussion though.

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