On Parsimony

I’m writing my dissertation on Grice. This much I know. Exactly what on Grice—well, let me get back to you on that one.

Regardless, in narrowing down my topic, I came upon this article, which argues that Grice’s Razor—called by him the Modified Occam’s Razor (or MOR)—can be justified by empirical findings in the study of language acquisition. Now that’s fascinating to me, but more broadly interesting—that is, what I bet would be interesting to those not doing philosophy of language—are Bontly’s arguments about the problems in the favored bias towards parsimony as some sort of universally valuable standard for determining good or bad accounts.

On that line, then, I recommend this article for anyone in philosophy who’s ever appealed to Ockham’s Razor without considering why in heaven’s name we think parsimony is so all that—and whether we have any justifying bases or even should think it is so all that in such a sweepingly universal manner as is wont by philosophers.

Details:

Thomas D. Bontly. 2005: Modified Occam’s Razor: Parsimony, Pragmatics, and the Acquistion of Word Meaning. Mind & Language, 20, 288-312.

Abstract:

Advocates of linguistic pragmatics often appeal to a principle which Paul Grice called Modified Occam’s Razor: “Senses are not to be multiplied beyond necessity’. Superficially, Grice’s principle seems a routine application of the principle of parsimony (‘Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity‘). But parsimony arguments, though common in science, are notoriously problematic, and their use by Griceans faces numerous objections. This paper argues that Modified Occam’s Razor makes considerably more sense in light of certain assumptions about the processes involved in language acquisition, and it describes recent empirical findings that bear these assumptions out. The resulting account solves several difficulties that otherwise confront Grice’s principle, and it draws attention to problematic assumptions involved in using parsimony to argue for pragmatic accounts of linguistic phenomena.

If you have a university library account, you might have access to the article online here. (The link is to a non-subscriber TOC; you’d have to log in to your university library and then search the online journal through your university’s hyperlink network.)

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