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Forks and Hope: Pursuing Understanding in Different Ways

LEO VAN LIER


Monterey Institute of International Studies

This paper comments on an earlier issue of Applied Linguistics (14/3, September 1993) on the theme of theory construction in SLA. The points made here are intended to apply to general assumptions common in our field and reflected at various points in the contributions to that issue. A perspective on theory construction is introduced that is different from those addressed there, but that needs to be included for the sake of balance. In this perspective, some common views are examined critically: the natural sciences as a success story worthy of emulation; the merits of diversity and homogeneity; the relationships between theory and practice; the nature of explanation (and the role of experimentation and causality in this); and the evaluation of theories. Ways and purposes of theorizing are addressed that complement the views expressed in Volume 14/3. It is a critical perspective, characterized by the ethical foundations of theory construction (and scientific activity in general) and the grounding of theory in practical activity, and it requires a different approach to judging the quality of work in our field.
INTRODUCTION

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An earlier issue of Applied Linguistics (14/3) contains a series of thoughtprovoking papers on the theme of theory construction in SLA. These papers raise a number of questions which have been with us for a long time, but which usually simmer below the surface of theoretical debate in ourfield,as they tend to do in many other fields as well. We must therefore welcome the attempt to bring such perennial questions out into the open and to address them in a vigorous way. In this paper, I will discuss several common assumptions in SLA and applied linguistics. I see these assumptions as lying behind much of what is discussed in Volume 14/3, though in no way do I wish to imply that its contributors can be lumped together as representing one single view. In fact, I am sure that my points will be received quite differently by the different contributors (Beretta, Crookes, Gregg, Long, and Schumann), as they no doubt will be by others in the field. I hope simply to add a distinct perspective on theory construction, one that I feel is largely missing from Volume 14/3. Overall, I will have less to say about what is mcluded in that issue of Applied Linguistics, than what is excluded. Despite a great variety of approaches to research, there is a broad consensus of basic views in SLA on the nature and purpose of theorizing, and on the place of this activity and its producta theory or theories of SLAwithin the borders, however drawn or staked-out, of ourfield.I refer to views such as: regarding the
Applied Linguistics, Vol. 15, No. 3 Oxford University Press 1994

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natural sciences as a success story worthy of emulation; the merit of diversity or homogeneity; the nature of explanation (and the role of experimentation and causality in this); and the evaluation of theories. Below these issues, there is yet a deeper tacit consensus which raises a further layer of basic questions. These questions address such issues as: the definition of the field of SLA; the relations between theory and practice; the separateness of SLA theory from educational (or applied linguistic) theory; the nature of understanding; and, most of all, the axiological or moral foundations of scientific practice. In this paper, I will attempt to get at this second layer of underlying questions, and, in turning over the rock of consensus and exposing them, I will suggest ways and purposes of theorizing that receive little overt attention in the contributions to Volume 14/3. The title of my paper, 'Forks and Hope', refers to Lewis Carroll's poem The Hunting of the Snark (Carroll 1929) which, I suggest, should be read at frequent intervals by all of us engaged in the pursuit of understanding, whether by way of creating theory or by way of creating praxis. At the risk of stating the obvious, the metamessage of this choice of title is that our pursuit of understanding1 is inevitably a little like chasing something, but we don't know what, somewhere, though we don't know where, somehow, but we don't know how. The verse from which my title is taken goes as follows:
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care They pursued it with forks and hope; They threatened its life with a railway-share; They charmed it with smiles and soap. And they still could not find the Snark. 'For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.' ASSUMPTIONS, QUESTIONS, DEFINITIONS

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In this section, I will introduce the main questions sparked by reading Volume 14/3, before examining them in more detail and from various angles in subsequent sections. First, and perhaps most basic, is the question of what our 'field' is.2 Though this would seem uncontroversial at first blush (our field is Second Language Acquisition, what else?), the way we define ourfield,that is, where we situate it (vis-d-vis other fields), where we draw its borders, and what we regard as its most important attributions and contributions, is crucial to our work. For example, for some, the field of SLA is situated within linguistics, for others within education, or it is regarded as an independent field with connections to various others. For some, SLA includes a critical emancipatory dimension; for others it excludes such a dimension. For some, the most important goal of SLA is to lay bare the cognitive mechanisms of learning a second language; for others it is to improve pedagogy or promote cross-cultural understanding. For some, SLA is onefield,and applied linguistics is another (though I will not make such a split here: indeed, I will argue that it would be counterproductive to do so). There is, thus, a great deal of heterogeneity in our conceptualizations of the

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SLA field. We all draw a different field, because our purposes, skills, and discourse worlds (Kommunikationsgemeinschaft, Apel 1981, see below) are different. Given this variety, it is not surprising that there is a corresponding variety in ways and purposes of theorizing and practicing. Some might call this a weakness of SLA, a sign of 'immaturity' (in the vague sense in which the term 'mature' is used by Kuhn 1970): with such diversity of work and goals, we must surely be in a pre-paradigmatic phase (Kuhn 1970), impatiently knocking on the gates of paradigm. There is, however, an alternative view. There are many different kinds of work to be done, and all these kinds of work need theoretical and practical dimensions. If different purposes, etc., are legitimate (leaving aside, for the moment, the crucial question of who decides legitimacy), then a pluralistic view of the field is also legitimate, indeed, necessary. This means that the field of SLA cannot be limited to exclude practical affairs or pedagogical concerns. While some may (justifiably, perhaps) choose to ignore some aspects of the field, this is quite different from excluding those same aspects from the field (in the sense of denying their legitimacy). Related to this, theorists must accept the legitimacy of practitioners engaging in theorizing, and practitioners must welcome participation in practical affairs by theorists. In general, the field must come to realize that theorizing requires participation in practice, and practicing requires participation in theory. From this perspective, separating SLA from pedagogy along theory-practice lines would be a serious mistake. Secondly, we need to examine the meanings of, and relationships among, concepts like evidence and documentation, and description, explanation, and understanding. Such terms can mean many different things. When are anecdotes and stories adequate documentation? Under what circumstances are intuitive judgments (e.g. regarding grammaticality), entries in diaries, facial expressions, or hesitations in utterances, acceptable as evidence? How do we determine the relevance of observable or experienced phenomena? As I have pointed out in the past (van Lier 1988: 10-11), a distinction between description and explanation is never clear-cut: whenever we describe, we explain, and whenever we explain, we describe. This is because description implies interpretation, and interpretation is part of explanation. To make some kind of categorical distinction between descriptive and explanatory research is therefore misleading. Further, the process of explaining is not a homogeneous one. First of all, a distinction is to be made between various kinds of explanation. In Gilbert Ryle's (1949: 86) example of 'Why did the glass break?', we can give two answers to the question. We can answer 'Because a brick hit it', or 'Because it was brittle.' Both are explanations, though of a different sort. And then, of course, we may delve into the question of where the brick came from, which leads us into a whole other dimension of explanation, ending perhaps with the venerable dictum 'boys will be boys.' A second consideration is the relation between explanation and understanding. In Volume 14/3: 282, Gregg quotes Lipton as saying that explanation does not necessarily imply understanding. This works only if explanation is equated with causal attribution; but if we take the view that, unlike physical

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phenomena, human affairs are never adequately explained by pointing to causes, then explanation becomes impossible without understanding. Understanding and explanation are fundamentally different processes in the natural sciences and the human (social) sciences (Geistewissenschaften, see Gadamer 1975). 3 The concept of cause, so central in physics (though the advent of chaos and complexity theory (Gleick 1987; Waldrop 1992) has tempered its centrality somewhat), plays only a very minor, if not insignificant, role in social science. Understanding the process of learning a second language, for example, is not accomplished by saying (or even showing) that it is caused by exposure to comprehensible input, or by extensive practice, or by a process of grammaticalization, even though all these things may play a role. Reaching understanding (a socially constituted, dialogic activity, see Habermas 1984) in this context is a process of interpretation and reconstruction (Polkinghorne 1988), and therefore much more in line with Gadamer's (1975:158) definition of understanding: ... to understand means primarily for two people to understand one another. Understanding is primarily agreement or harmony with another person. This view of understanding as socially constituted echoes Peirce's notion of a community of interpreters, and Apel's related Kommunikationsgemeinschaft (1981: 7).4 Such a view of understanding (and, by extension, truth) requires a constant effort to promote openness of dialogue and clarity of purpose. It is different from and transcends ordinary, everyday agreement, in that it is a systematic, methodical examination of all relevant aspects of the activity under investigation (Smith 1989). To sum up, theorizing in SLA, to the extent that it means a principled and sustained attempt to come to an understanding of phenomena in the field, is less a matter of looking for causes, or positing laws, and more a question of listening, communicating, and coming to agreements. The third question is that of relativism which, in the view of many researchers, stands in the way of progress in SLA,5 and should be replaced by rationalism, which is supposed to be its alternative. There is no reason, however, to put relativism and rationalism into opposition with one another.6 Rationalism, as defined by Anthony Flew (1979) is a commitment to reason as opposed to faith, prejudice, habit, or any other source of conviction considered to be irrational. This, of course, leaves us to define reason, and to explain why Flew found it necessary to add a final circular clause to his definition (the rational is that which is opposed to the irrational), but 'a commitment to reason' is a broad characterization. Thus, unless rationalism is really just a 'tribal creed' (Feyerabend 1987: 301), it can, or at least rationality (Habermas 1984; Nozick 1993) can, include everyone who has a commitment to reason, whether relativist or universalist, or absolutist. A relativist, in other words, is not someone who regards scientific investigation as being on a par with voodoo, magic, or religion. On the other hand, a relativist might recognize a variety of types of scientific knowledge

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and procedures, and not assume, in scientistic arrogance, that scientific solutions (in the narrow, experimental sense)7 are always preferable to others. In particular, a relativist would be on guard for the sort of reductionism that would apply natural-scientific procedures to human and social issues, leading to a technologization of human affairs and experiences (the reductive fallacy already noted by Peirce, see Apel 1981: 199). To summarize, one can be a methodological relativist while believing in the value of reason and rationality, as that which 'can be defended against criticism' (Habermas 1984:16), as well as in the objective existence of the outside world. One can be convinced of the intimate connections between the context of work and the conduct of theory, without denying the importance of evaluating scientific work (theoretical and practical) in terms of its quality, i.e. its adequacy and value (I will return to the issue of quality below).8 We must take care not to load the relativist with more baggage than the poor chap is willing to carry. We should control our tendency to over-categorize, and might do well to remember that the Greek word kategorein meant 'to accuse in public'. Finally, related to the issues of field and diversity mentioned above, there is the matter of specialization. It is often assumed that a field becomes more mature the more its workers specialize in different activities: one practices, another theorizes, a third administrates, a fourth engineers, and so on. Up to a certain point, this is no doubt true. However, soon after that point (whatever that is) is reached, further specialization turns into fragmentation, and becomes counterproductive. As an example, a separation between SLA and applied linguistics would be counterproductive in this sense. In any field, a crucial role is played by the generalist who sees the overall picture and should therefore be recognized as the overseer (in a literal sense) and the consciousness of a field. A field without generalists is a field adrift, like a ship that has lost its moorings.9 To my knowledge, the role of generalism as a desirable or even viable professional stance is not generally acknowledged in our field.
SCIENTIFIC METHOD AND THEORY

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In view of the complex issues sketched above, it is not surprising that theory has been defined in a very large number of different ways. This in itself should warn anyone against proposals offering one way to construct it, or to evaluate its quality. In this sense, it is no different from music: you may listen to a piece by Mozart, or to a song by Bob Dylan, but it makes no sense to evaluate one in terms of the other. I keep returning to the memorable dictum of Woody Herman, who said 'There are only two kinds of music, good music, and bad music.'10 Views on method range from the extreme position that science is basically a question of 'correct' method (the ultimate orthodoxy) to an utter disdain for method. Even when both extremes are agreed to be untenable, the precise role of method is a question of great debate. For example, a quite common view is expressed by Long in Volume 14/3: scientists can reduce external threats and pressures of various kinds by working within 'conventionalized methodological

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traditions' (1993: 233). Method is thus a defense against the vicissitudes of the social system within which the scientist has to work. This view ignores the possibility that methodological traditions themselves are part of the social system, and may serve to force a false consensus (think, for example, of the psychometric tradition which led to massive abuses in intelligence testing). A method, to keep things simple, is basically a way of doing things. When related to theory, it means a way of obtaining increased knowledge about some phenomenon. As I will illustrate below, we find that many great scientists are rather blase about method, though one feels that they are scoffing at particular controlling or confining versions of 'official' method, or at prevalent 'methodolatries', to use Gordon Allport's word (see Bruner 1990: xi). There is little doubt that, in spite of a clear impatience with talk about method, all scientists would insist on carefully motivated, explicitly documented, and skillfully implemented procedures appropriate to the investigative matter at hand. Here is what some prominent scientists and philosophers have had to say about method:
The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by calling it a 'young science'; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings. (...) For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. (. . .) The existence of the experimental method makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us; though problem and method pass one another by. (Wittgenstein 1958: 232) As for my own methods of investigation, I do not really have any. The only method of investigation is to look hard at a serious problem and try to get some ideas as to what might be the explanation for it, meanwhile keeping an open mind about all sorts of other possibilities. Well, that is not a method. It is just being reasonable, and so far as I know, that is the only way to deal with any problem, whether it is a problem in your work as a quantum physicist or whatever. (Chomsky 1988:190) . . . quantitative science errs when it believes that research, which focuses increasingly on reductionism, can offer a genuine solution. (Lorenz 1990: 71)

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Pronouncements such as these, and one can find numerous other examples, show that one does not have to turn to radicals, mystics, or amateurs for skepticism on the preferred or codified methods of scientific research. In contrast to the massive disdain for any form of legislated 'proper' scientific conduct on the part of the most brilliant scientists, thefieldof SLA is dominated by fairly narrowly prescribed research methods, whether they fall in the quantitative or the qualitative camp (these camps themselves being, as Bourdieu has shown in his studies of taste (1984) and academic life (1988), unprofitable pigeon-holings of a variety of empirical and speculative activities which, if judiciously combined and juxtaposed, can illuminate a particular field of study much more than some canonized scientific procedure can do). If we cannot evaluate (or sanction, in both senses of the word) the quality of research efforts in terms of methods that bear the imprimatur of those who dominate the field," then does this mean that we, willy-nilly, open the

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floodgates to all sorts of dilettante and charlatan activities, promoting mediocrity and abdicating from any claim to standards of conduct at all? Can we be methodical (in the best sense of the word) without becoming methodolatrousi These are troubling questions, because it means that we need to define what we mean by quality without relying on institutionalized (or bureaucratized) norms and evaluation criteria (see also note 8 above). It is as if, in a job-interviewing process, we actually have to judge the candidate on his or her intrinsic knowledge and potential, rather than on the basis of pieces of paper and scores on tests. This is hard to do, though I would argue that it is the only right thing to do. Quality in scientific work, whether of a theorizing or practicing variety, should be discernible without having to resort to a check-list of predetermined criteria (compare: how does Woody Herman distinguish good from bad music?). It requires first of all a clear view of the ideals and principles of science, which, to quote Schutz (1970: 2) include 'the theoretical ideals of unity, simplicity, universality, and precision'. In addition to these basically esthetic principles, it requires, as I will argue below, a solid grounding in ethical principles, which are clearly articulated in terms of what constitutes positive value and human progress.
THE PURPOSE AND CONDUCT OF THEORY

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Many years ago, in his A Scientist's Credo, Konrad Lorenz (1963) pointed out that there are two basic purposes for theorizing: wanting to know, and wanting to help. Both are equally valuable, and can indeed be seen as complementary, though they can also lead to conflicts. A conflict can arise when a theorist, intent on finding better ways of knowing, is compelled to make practical connections and suggest useful applications every step along the way. Such a theorist naturally feels that these practical constraints do nothing but slow down the journey along the road to knowledge, or worse, force detours and layovers. Another conflict arises when a practitioner, in the course of solving a problem, feels the need to elaborate a theory that springs from the practical circumstances of his or her work. In this case, conflicts can come from two quarters: first, superiors or employers, as well as peers, may feel the practitioner's foray into theory is a waste of time or a faintly ridiculous delusion of grandeur (or both); and, secondly, theorists from academic quarters may feel that an unqualified outsider is meddling in complicated matters that are outside his or her proper domain. Note that these conflicts are social and institutional, not scientifically based ones. It seems to me that when Feyerabend (1975) utters his famed (or notorious) 'anything goes', or C. S. Peirce (Buchler 1955: 48) says that 'true science is distinctively the study of useless things', both are referring essentially to the freedom a scientist should be granted to pursue arguments wherever they may lead, employing whatever methods appear feasible. Peirce rightly considered himself a rare mind, and for a mind such as his to be employed on the study of 'useful things' was, he felt 'like running a steam engine by burning diamonds'. This remark must be seen in the context of Peirce's tragic life, in

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which he constantly sought after an academic position, only to find his efforts thwarted time and again by a combination of his own bad judgment and the machinations of powerful enemies (Brent 1993). The 'diamond' was forced all his life to 'run steam engines'. Unless we keep this personal and social context in mind, remarks such as these appear to contradict the essence of pragmatism (and its subsequent redefinition as pragmaticism), which was for Peirce the inseparable connection between rational cognition and rational purpose, and the growing conviction that all science should be grounded in ethics.12 From a historical perspective, one can clearly say that all theories and methods are flawed, but that does not mean they were or are useless, quite the contrary. As Schumann rightly points out in Volume 14/3, falsifiability is not an adequate guide to assessments of the value of theories. In fact, Popper's concept of falsification is not an improvement over its ancestor, Peirce's fallibilism: 'the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy' (Buchler 1955: 356). To give an example close to home, we might say that Krashen's input theory is useless because we cannot falsify it, since Krashen is rather good at defending it against would-be falsifiers. Regardless of its shortcomings, the usefulness of Krashen's work for others, whether theorists or practitioners, is quite another matter, largely unrelated to its ultimate survival as a theory. In short, attempts to rule out one approach or another because it does not fit in with some perceived view on evidence, conduct, or documentation, very easily degenerate into dogmatism or theoretical totalitarianism (after all, the antonym of relative is absolute). It is useful here to think of theorizing as a contingent process, and theory as a passing theory (Davidson 1986:442), a view of scientific discourse in which (as in language use) communication, agreement, and understanding derive from 'a convergence on passing theories' (ibid.: 445) rather than from an agreement on prior theory. Theorizing and practicing (and researching, as work undertaken to assist in theorizing and practicing) can be envisaged as unfolding in real time, connected to the past through accumulated knowledge and experience and connecting to the future by way of expectations and purposes. This process view contrasts to prior theory, which is the store of knowledge and predictions which the scientist or practitioner brings to the work. Prior theory is constantly revised in the light of passing theory.13 If this is the case, then how are we to judge scientific conduct? Ultimately, no doubt, by results. But how do we judge the results? By their usefulness. Useful to whom? For what? For how long? All these perplexing questions require that we are able to define what we mean by human progress. That is the only way in which we can profitably discuss if inventions such as atom bombs, assault rifles, abortion pills, gasoline engines, infomercials, electric chairs, and political action committees, are results of scientific progress or not. Certainly, the phenomenal success that is at times attributed to science, especially by workers in social science to the exact sciences, must be seen in perspective. Isaac Newton said that we are like little children picking up pretty pebbles on the beach while the whole ocean lies before us unexplored. C. S. Peirce added to this that this remains true

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even though 'we shovel up the pebbles by steam shovels and carry them off in carloads' (Biichler 1955: 53). Today, we might add that it is still true, even though we can now blast the pebbles into intergalactic orbit, show the event live on CNN, and then turn it into a virtual-reality video game. Ravetz (1971,1990) divides the history of science into three phases: traditional (academic); industrialized; critical. He assumes that, during the twentieth century, industrial concerns and purposes (note, particularly, the increasing importance of outside funding sources) gradually took over from academic purposes (the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the ivory-tower view of science). Right now, in Ravetz's interpretation, science is entering a phase in which critical issues (emancipation, equality, and justice) play an increasing role. Against this optimistic view, one might place the observation that apart from a critical tendency, there is now also a strong bureaucratic streak, with scientific decisions being increasingly influenced by narrow institutional and political concerns. One might find it rather impractical and somewhat anachronistic to see SLA theorists wanting to push towards their own academic phase, out of step with all of the rest of science (indeed, rowing mightily against the current, it would seem). The reasoning seems to be that in order to become respected it is necessary to do two things: become more like the natural sciences (see remarks to this effect by Chomsky, quoted by Beretta in Volume 14/3), and keep away from participation in practical affairs, such as education (Beretta and Crookes in Volume 14/3, particularly note 7). Here, theoretical linguistics, held up as a model to be emulated, serves as a powerful warning. According to Geoffrey Pullum (1991: 20-1) theoretical linguistics (at least in the US) is in such dire straits that a 'Fund for the Future of Linguistics' was recently set up. I would argue that the main reason for this plight is the very same aloofness from practical matters that some SLA theorists now appear to be seeking.14 A practical option is for SLA researchers to follow the rest of the sciences both physical and mentaland include a critical dimension in which wellarticulated moral principles influence the direction of the work that is to be done. The work that needs to be done in language use and language education is urgent and critical (in both senses of the word), so that linguists, both theoretical and applied, are needed to put their expertise and energy into the service of reallife concerns, and not just to pursue the Snark of academic respectability. To return to the idea of freedom, and in defense of theoretical diversity, the most mature situation is one in which all workers in a particular field are free to pursue theoretical and practical avenues of inquiry in accordance with their personal vision, strengths, and interests, based on well-articulated statements of purpose and human values, all the while maintaining an openness that encourages the sharing of ideas and communication. Within such a perspective, the pursuit of theory-for-the-sake-of-theory may be as valid (once the purpose
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of the theory has been made clear) as a practitioner's theory of practice, or an applied researcher's problem-solving approach. Indeed, in a mature and open spirit of enquiry, both theoretically and practically minded workers can work together as equal collaborators. One of the most immature things we can do is to set up a pecking order in which practice-less theory and theory-less practice battle for supremacy.
THE THEORY OF PRACTICE

One possible view in SLA, as elsewhere, is that research serves to construct theories, no more, and no less (see van Lier 1991 for more detailed discussion of this point). If a further purpose is admitted, it is to advise and provide guidance to practitioners. This assumes that there are two separate groups of people: theorists (scientists? SLA researchers?) and practitioners (teachers? applied linguists?), and the job of the former is either to ignore or to guide the latter. The job of the latter, presumably, is to get on with it and take advice when given. This view can be questioned. It is possible to envisage a way of working which breaks down the traditional boundaries between theory and practice. Above, I have in several places referred to both theorizing and practicing as scientific activities. This is different from the traditional view, in which science is associated with theorizing, rather than with practical work. When I did a small survey some time ago to see if graduate students and colleagues associated research with theory or with practice, they almost unanimously chose theory, usually as a matter of course. Yet, there is no reason why practice should not be the focus and source of an equal amount of research as theory. Further, to pursue theory for the sake of theory is ultimately futile, unless the theory is useful, i.e. furthers some human goal, or leads to progress in some tangible way.15 Most people will probably agree with this, so the real controversy lies elsewhere. In part it lies, I suggest, in the everyday tensions between theoretical and practical activities, where theorists may be required (against their will) to engage in menial tasks which they feel do not further their theoretical quest, and where practitioners are prevented, for a variety of reasons, from pursuing theoretical leads that arise from their work. I have alluded to this problem before, pointing out that it is a social/institutional, not a scientific one. It seems that in modern scientific history a separation has grown between practice and theory, so that they have come to be regarded as separate spheres of activity in one and the same field, carried out by different people for different purposes using different methods, answering to different institutions, located in different places, using different languages, and so on. This differentiation appears to be so deeply ingrained in our perceptions of scientific work, that we tend to regard it as natural and inevitable, yet perhaps in reality it should be neither. While it is clear that people ought to be allowed to pursue theory without being continually pressed to show immediate practical relevance, it should at the same time be acknowledged that practical activities are an enormous source

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of theoretically relevant data, particularly in the social sciences, and that practitioners themselves (for example, teachers), should be in an ideal position to construct theories out of their practices. The question is thus not only whether theory should be relevant to practical concerns (most people agree on this, at least in the social sciences), but whether practices should be relevant to theory. Going one final step further, however, the existence of two separate entities called practice and theory can be denied altogether. A critical scientific method uses participation in the practical affairs of thefieldto fuel theory, which then is put back into the service of progress in practical affairs, and so on in cyclical, reflexive ways. The theory of practice, then, creates theory out of practical activities (in other words, uses practical activities to create theory), and then uses theory to (re)create practical activities, as exemplified in Bourdieu's reflexive sociology (1992). Theory is not something that is constructed and subsequently applied to practice. Instead, it is nothing but a reflexive dimension of practice. In SLA, theorizing includes, for example, coming to an understanding of learning by participating in, observing, interpreting, and changing the teaching-learning encounter.16
EPISTEMOLOGY AND AXIOLOGY

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Applied Linguistics Volume 14/3 deals almost exclusively with the epistemological (and ontological, to some degree) concerns of our field, and the tacit assumption seems to be that one can engage in theory construction, that one can push the field forward, without explicitly grappling with ethical issues such as the articulation of moral principles. As I have pointed out, theory without purpose is useless. (One might, of course, also say that purpose without theory is equally useless, but I'd argue that the true substance of a field resides in purposeful activity, and in theory only insofar as this forms part of a larger sense of purpose.) SLA deals with issues of second language learning. The ultimate purpose is to understand how people learn a second language, and a range of benefits derive from such understanding. These include a better understanding of ourselves, of the nature of language, of the nature of learning, and, more practically, enhanced ways of learning and helping learning. This much, I assume, is uncontroversial, so what is all the fuss about? If we focus on theory for the sake of theory, on scientific procedures and their efficiency, on the epistemological foundations of our conceptual schemes, and on nothing else but these things, we will inevitably end up either in the clutches of dogmatism, or those of relativism. Relativism, in such a scenario, will slip easily into nihilism, and then one would have to agree with Long (Volume 14/3), Beretta (1991), and Laudan (1990), that it is hard to see why such a relativist would bother to do scientific work at all. Woody Herman, in an analogous situation, would be unable to distinguish music from cacophony. The only way out of this conundrum is to anchor our epistemological search for better theories, clearer concepts, truth, and so on, in something bigger and more basic, i.e. the axiological universals of our existence. In plain words, we

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have to put moral values and ethical principles central in our work (though not, I hasten to add, in the parochial sense of political or fundamentalist 'back to basics' campaigns). The basic principles which guide our work should not only be conceptually clear, but also morally transparent. Even Peirce, who staked his entire life's work on his having found a clear way of thinking, came to the conviction that all of science is grounded in ethics (and ethics, as I mentioned above, in esthetics). Such a way of doing science, embedded in participation, and grounded in a dual examination of epistemological (clear thinking) and axiological (clear purpose, and a commitment to humaneness, or humanization, see Freire 1970) principles, requires a larger theory to orient it, and this larger theory, in the words of Bertram Bruce,
should highlight the historical, social, political, institutional, and cultural dimensions of learning, in and out of classrooms. Starting from the whole does not mean never analyzing the parts. It does mean considering (the] role of practices such as sense-making, interpretation, value systems, rhetoric, communities, and power relationships. (Bruce 1991:19) 17

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A re-examination of scientific work in the field of SLA along these lines results in a shift in our professional stance, and it adds a critical dimension to the theoretical and practical debate in our field. As a result, the quality of work (theoretical, practical, and integrated) can be evaluated in terms of conduct, purpose, and results, without having to appeal to partisan criteria (see note 8).
AN ALTERNATIVE SLA?

To propose an alternative SLA might seem to imply that there is only one SLA and it is doing things wrong. This is not my intention, since it is hard to deny that the field (however defined) has made significant progress in the last three decades or so. However, there do seem to be a few insecurities and fears abroad, and these might be worth enumerating with a view to assessing their grounds. For those who work mainly in the area of research and theory, there are the following fears: 1. Fear of diversity (or proliferation). This fear is based on the idea that a single unifying theory of SLA may be both possible and beneficial. Some claim to be able to count literally dozens of theories (and may look around desperately for clubs to go culling undesirable ones), though I tend to agree with Gregg, who 'cannot go beyond the fingers of one hand' (Volume 14/3: 289). As I have argued in this paper, depending on how we define our field, and on the success of our Kommunikationsgemeinschaft, the answer may well be, the more the merrier. I doubt if the progress in SLA I mentioned above would have been as striking had it not been for the diversity that has characterized these last few decades. Would arigidadherence to one single dogmabehaviorist dogma, for examplehave given us as much progress? I suggest not, agreeing with

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Natsoulas (1990) (who makes a similar argument for psychology) that pluralism is to be preferred over eliminativism. And, rather than being afraid of contradictions and anomalies, we should instead nurture them as resources for future insights. 2. Fear ofpractice. As seen above, the theorist may feel hampered by demands to apply everything immediately. I believe this is justified, but this should not lead the theorist to assume that involvement in practical affairs is either superfluous or detrimental to scientific progress (even of the 'purest' kind, though I find 'purity' a rather empty concept in this context). Theories need to be constrained by ordinary everyday goings-on, or else they might fly off into the realm of absurdity. As Kant said, complaining of Plato's excessive idealism: The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space. (Kant 1934:29) Every theorist, especially in a socially embedded field like SLA, should be steeped in practice, while at the same time being able to pursue theoretical interests along open paths of enquiry. On the other hand, those who are on the practical side of the fence (a fence, I have tried to make clear, that should be demolished at once), are beset by other fears: 1. Fear of reflection (or research). Practitioners tend to be, to adapt a wonderful phrase of Lee Shulman (1987: 478), missing in action rather than lost in thought. The pressure to act fast and well, to 'perform' well-crafted lessonsor, in less happy circumstances, to go through routinized motions so as to reach the end of the day with the least amount of hasslecreates its own rhythm of movement, within which systematic reflection and teacher-research seem to find no place, except for the most restless and courageous souls. Moreover, as I indicated above, reflecting and researching teachers may meet with resistance or lack of comprehension, perhaps even ridicule and active sabotage, from peers and superiors, as well as from academics who feel their turf is being invaded by unauthorized trespassers. The recipe here is, of course, to promote teacher research, and genuinely collaborative research, as well as show, by results, how practice can grow theory. 2. Fear of theory. Practitioners are confronted with a barrage of theoretical literature that is hurled at them at an ever-faster and more furious pace from the rostrums of conferences and the pages of journals. Very often the professional literature is couched in technical jargon that seems intelligible only to the researcher's immediate clan of peers, and does not appear to wish to be understood by teachers. The practitioner's fear (or loathing) of theory is thus quite understandable. The twin solutions which I propose are, on the one hand, for teachers to grow their own theories, and, on the other hand, to consciously promote a cadre of generalists who are able to oversee (but not simplify!) the

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field and trace connections in a language that can be understood by all. These developments would assist also in the breakdown of the unhealthy barriers between theory and practice. Throughout this paper, I have made it clear that I would like to see the field of SLA anchored in education. Others, with no doubt equal justification, would like to see it allied with linguistics. Perhaps this gives SLA somewhat of an identity crisis. If this is so, let us put the blame both on education and on linguistics (it's always nice to have someone else to blame). Let me make myself clear. Education, which is conducted through language, depends on language, and stands or falls with language, is woefully and irresponsibly delinquent in its treatment of language, in the schools, but especially in the education colleges. Linguistics, which should be about something, since language is always about something, has separated itself increasingly from language-intensive fields such as education (and anthropology, sociology, and so on). So we have an education which does not know what to do with language, and we have a linguistics which does not know what to say about education (we even have an SLA which does not want to know about language education). The solution to this is to forge a new field, educational linguistics, and this would finally allow SLA to cure its classic schizophrenia.19
CONCLUSION

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Researchers in SLA often complain that there are too many theories: 'They should be eliminated!' they exclaim, adding softly 'except mine'. At the same time, this fear of diversity masks an enormous pool of toxic soup (see note 11), where crucial concepts float unexamined and taken for granted, perhaps occasionally rising to the surface on a bubble of perspicuous gas, only to sink again of their own weight. I have indicated a few of these concepts, though a thorough examination would involve much more time and effort. In overview, we would do well not to hitch our evaluation of the quality of our theorizing, consisting of conduct, purpose, and results, to the hazy star of a 'maturity' based on grand theory and homogeneity of aims and methods. We should not throw out the healthy baby of pluralism with the bath water of all that we detest in extreme relativism. Nor should we drown that baby in a tub of extreme rationalism. The consensus of the contributors to Applied Linguistics Volume 14/3 seems to be that SLA will be a better SLA when divorced from pedagogy, that maturity can only be achieved when all ties with pedagogy are severed. It is my view that in such a scenario SLA would either disappear into the thin air of absurdity, or else fall to earth with the dull thud of pomposity. SLA is about language learning. All around the world, billions of people are learning language, millions are teaching language, and they do so with effort, intelligence and ingenuity. These activities are the true data of SLA, they are the air that both constrains the dove of SLA, and keeps it aloft. In short, SLA and language pedagogy are interdependent pursuits. Furthermore, no academic who has carefully read the literature on the history

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and the philosophy of science can honestly claim that one method to carry the human (social) sciences forward has been found. Even in the physical sciences, causality has been put on trial by complexity theory (this was foreshadowed by writers as diverse as Russell (see Phillips 1987: 74) and Peirce (see Brent 1993)). Positivism, the search for causal laws, the iron-clad generalization, and the forced choice between either objectivity or subjectivity, have been left behind in the critical approaches to social science. Every scientific pursuit must be anchored in practical activity. For SLA, en bloc, to fly off on a quest of theory as the ultimate goal of research, abstracted from the social context, and disdainful of practical affairs, would seem, in the light of these considerations, unwise. Different, even contradictory perspectives must not only be tolerated, they must be nurtured. So long as there is open dialogue, they provide the best opportunities for improved understandings.
'It's a Snark!' was the sound that first came to their ears, And seemed almost too good to be true. Then followed a torrent of laughter and cheers: Then the ominous words 'It's a Boo-' Then silence. Some fancied they heard in the air A weary and wandering sigh That sounded like '-jum!' but the others declare It was only a breeze that went by.

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(Revised version received January 1994)


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

It may have been a reckless and foolish idea to embark on a discussion of science and theory construction without being a specialist in these areas. I am sure I am guilty of errors and nonsense, but I hope the message is worth the inaccuracies. I thank Kimmarie Cole, Rod Ellis, Paul Magnuson, and Applied Linguistics' anonymous readers, for tough questions and helpful comments. If some of their advice has not been followed, it probably means that it is beyond my ability at this time to do so. Or else perhaps I disagreed.
NOTES 1 Or truth: 'What I tell you three times is true', as the Bellman said in The Huntingofthe Snark; or 'Truth is a mobile army of metaphors', as Nietzsche said: see Rorty 1989:16. 2 Following Bourdieu (1990,1992) I define fields a s ' . . . historically constituted areas of activity with their specific institutions and their own laws of functioning.' 3 Although even in the physical sciences understanding is based upon language, if we believe Heisenberg: We know that any understanding must be based finally upon natural language, because it is only there we can be certain to touch reality. (Heisenberg 1965: 211, quoted in Rommetveit 1990:91) 4 Kuhn, in his 1969 Postscript, explains his notion of paradigm in terms of scientific community, including insightful discussion of group commitment, values, tacit knowledge, and incommensurability (Kuhn 1970: 174-210). Note particularly his final sentences:

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Scientific knowledge, like language, is intrinsically the common property of a group or else nothing at all. To understand it we shall need to know the special characteristics of the groups that create and use it. 5 Long, in Volume 14/3, says that it is not clear to him 'why relativists would bother to do research at all'. Such puzzlement is based on one particular view of (extreme) relativism, in which the relativist is turned into a caricature of him- (or her-) self. 1 doubt that Laudan's composite relativist, aptly named 'Quincy Rortabender' (Laudan 1990), adequately represents the variety of arguments generally labeled relativist. If there is one thing that characterizes all relativists, whether weak or strong, moderate or radical, it is perhaps the view that scientific concepts and judgments are influenced by a particular social context, world view, cultural framework, and so on. If some relativists change 'influenced by' to 'shaped by', or 'determined by', they may be right at times, and wrong at times. 6 Traditionally rationalism is opposed to empiricism, and relativism to realism (see Nola 1988; Smith 1989). Clearly, this whole area is a formidable Gordian knot of terminology. As Rorty (1989:44) advises, . . . the distinctions between absolutism and relativism, between rationality and irrationality, and between morality and expediency are obsolete and clumsy t o o l s remnants of a vocabulary we should try to replace. 7 It may be noted that I use science in two senses. I criticize the traditional, narrow sense, and advocate a wider sense which includes all systematic and sustained inquiry, including inquiry-in-practice. 8 These terms, replacing the narrow concepts of reliability and validity, are taken from Ravetz (1971,1990). Ravetz provides a detailed discussion of quality control in science. 9 Note how Howard Gardner (1989) also calls for the urgent need for generalists in the field of psychology, particularly educational psychology. I would say the need is no less urgent in linguistics, particularly educational linguistics, of which SLA forms a natural branch, given that it is concerned with learning language. '" Very interestingly, this can be read as both a relativist and a universalist position: a musical relativism within a universal esthetics. The implications for theory evaluation are clear: the crucial discussion about quality must go beyond partisan issues. 1 ' Perhaps we cannot point to a particular set of persons, rather we are dealing with doxa, or the universe of the undiscussed, fundamental presuppositions which are taken for granted and never questioned (Bourdieu 1992). To try and dig up and turn over the doxa may seem a profoundly subversive activity, but must nevertheless be done if we are to get ahead. 12 And ethics, in turn, on esthetics, which is where we can make the connection with Woody Herman's dictum. 13 The precise relationship between passing theory and prior theory, and particularly their applicability to social science research, are not at all well-understood. Suffice it to say, at this point, that we should beware of assuming that there is only the one kind of theory, prior theory, to reckon with. Otherwise, we would be like the tourist who only thinks that sights or restaurants are good if the guidebook says so. 14 I am not trying to put down theoretical linguistics (but, how homogeneous is it, anyway?); in fact, I am ready to join the fund raisers. But, as a linguist, I feel the field's robustness is damaged by insufficient connecting work both within academia and between the academic and the social world. Even so, there are many linguists who do pioneering work in specific areas, from bilingual education (Tucker 1986) to racial discrimination (Roberts, Davies, and Jupp 1992; van Dijk 1993) and critical theory

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(Fairclough 1989), but these, one feels, are not the theoretical linguists for whom the fund was established. 15 For a recent discussion of this issue in the context of Bourdieu's work, see Jenkins (1992), especially chapter 4. See also Davis's discussion of Peirce's views on this matter (Davis 1972: 139). Particularly interesting, from my perspective, is Davis's suggestion that 'as many "pure theoretical" discoveries are made in the pursuit of "practical" ends as would be made in direct pursuit of them, and this is plausible because it appears that any number of the most important of all scientific discoveries have been hit upon by accident, by men working (as often as not) on some practical problem' (ibid.: 140). This is not all that different from Feyerabend's (1987: 284) insistence that 'the knowledge we need to advance the sciences does not come from theories, it comes from participation'. 16 As an anonymous reviewer has rightly pointed out, Spinoza already argued that knowledge (understanding) can only be achieved through the study of entities engaged in activity. Studying learning, therefore, means studying people engaged in the activity of learning. As Bourdieu (1977: 96-7) says, 'only insofar as one does things is it possible to know about things'. 17 I am grateful to John Swales for bringing this paper to my attention. 18 We do not have to start from scratch here: teacher research is flourishing, and balanced generalist texts are being published (e.g. Ellis 1985,1994; Klein 1985; LarsenFreeman and Long 1991). What needs to change is a view of theory construction which, in an entire thematic issue, omits any mention of practice-driven research, except to see practical concerns as a 'distraction' (Beretta and Crookes Volume 14/3: 267). As a professional choice based on personal preference, one can understand and respect such a stance, but as a general recommendation, it sounds dogmatic and parochial. 19 For earlier, similar recommendations, see Spolsky (1978), Stubbs (1986). I believe that there is enough interest, commonality of purpose, and critical mass, to get this discipline off the ground, finally. Particularly promising is the work of Ron Carter and others on Language in the National Curriculum in Great Britain, e.g. Carter (1990). REFERENCES Apel, K-O. 1981. Charles S. Peirce: From Pragmatism to Pragmaticism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. Beretta, A. 1991. 'Theory construction in SLA: Complementarity and opposition.' Studies in Second Language Acquisition 13: 493-511. Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Bourdieu, P. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Bourdieu, P. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Bourdieu, P. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Brent, J. 1993. Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Bruce, B. 1991. 'The discourses of inquiry: Pedagogical challenges and responses.' Paper prepared for the conference: Literacy, Identity, and Mind, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, Oct. 3-5,1991. Bruner, J. 1990. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Buchler, J. (ed.) 1955. Philosophical Writings of Peirce. New York: Dover Publications. Carroll, L. 1929. 'The Hunting of the Snark' in J. F. McDermott (ed.): The collected verse of Lewis Carroll. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company.

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Carter, R. (ed.) 1990. Knowledge about Language and the Curriculum: The LINC Reader. London: Hodder and Stoughton. Chomsky, N. 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Davidson, D. 1986. 'A nice derangement of epitaphs' in E. LePore (ed.) 1986: Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson. Oxford: Black well. Davis, W. H. 1972. Pence's Epistemology. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. Ellis, R. 1985. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ellis, R. 1994. The Study of Second Language Acquisition.. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Fairclough, N. 1989. Language and Power. London: Longman. Feyerabend, P. 1975. Against Method. London: Verso. Feyerabend, P. 1987. Farewell to Reason. London: Verso. Flew, A. 1979. Dictionary of Philosophy. New York: St. Martin's Press. Freire, P. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder. Gadamer, H-G. 1975. Truth and Method. New York: The Seabury Press. Gardner, H. 1989. To Open Minds: Chinese Clues to the Dilemma of Contemporary Education. New York: Basic Books. Gleick, J. 1987. Chaos. New York: Penguin Books. Gregg, K. 1989. 'Second language acquisition theory: the case for a generative perspective' in S. M. Gass and J. Schachter (eds.) 1989. Linguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Habermas, J. 1984. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and The Rationalization of Society. Boston: Beacon Press. Heisenberg, W. 1965. 'The role of modern physics in the development of human thinking' in F. T. Severin (ed.) 1965: Humanistic Viewpoints in Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. Jenkins, R. 1992. Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge. Kant, I. 1934. (first published 1781). Critique of Pure Reason. London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd. Klein, W. 1985. Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kuhn, T. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Larsen-Freeman, D. and M. H. Long. 1991. An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research. London: Longman. Laudan, L. 1990. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Lorenz, K. 1963. 'A scientist's credo' reprinted in K. Lorenz 1971 Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour, Vol. II. London: Methuen. Lorenz, K. 1990. On Life and Living. New York: St. Martin's Press. Natsoulas, T. 1990. 'The pluralistic approach to the nature of feelings.' Journal of Mind

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and Behavior. 11/173-217.


Nola, R. (ed.) 1988. Relativism and Realism in Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Nozick, R. 1993. The Nature of Rationality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Phillips, D. C. 1987. Philosophy, Science, and Social Inquiry. Oxford: Pergamon. Polkinghome, D. E. 1988. Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. New York: SUNY Press.

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Pullum, G. 1991. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. Ravetz, J. 1971. Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Ravetz, J. 1990. The Merger of Knowledge and Power: Essays in Critical Science. London: Mansell Publishing Limited. Roberts, C , E. Davies, and T. Jupp. 1992. Language and Discrimination: A Study of Communication in Multi-ethnic Workplaces. London: Longman. Rommetveit, R. 1990. 'On axiomatic features of a dialogical approach to language and mind' in I. Markova and K. Foppa (eds.) 1990: The Dynamics of Dialogue. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. . Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ryle, G. 1949. The Concept of Mind. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Schutz, A. 1970. 'Concept and theory formation in the social sciences' in D. Emmet and A. Mclntyre (eds.) 1970: Sociological Theory and Philosophical Analysis. London: MacMillan. Shulman, L. 1987. 'Sounding an alarm: A reply to Sockett.' Harvard Educational Review 57/4:473-82. Smith, J. K. 1989. The nature of Social and Educational Inquiry: Empiricism versus Interpretation. Norwood, NJ: Ablex. Spolsky, B. 1978. Educational Linguistics. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Stubbs, M. 1986. Educational Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. Tucker, G. R. 1986. 'Developing a language-competent American society' in D. Tannen and J. E. Alatis (eds.) 1986: Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics 1985. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. van Dijk, T. 1993. Elite discourse and racism. Newbury Park, CA:. Sage Publications, van Lier, L. 1988. The Classroom and the Language Learner. London: Longman. van Lier, L. 1991. 'Doing applied linguistics: Towards a theory of practice.' Issues in Applied Linguistics 2/1: 78-81. Waldrop, M. M. 1992. Complexity. New York: Simon and Schuster. Wittgenstein, L. 1958. Philosophical Investigations. New York: MacMillan.

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A comment from some contributors to Volume 14, Issue 3


One expects that a reply to a paper in a learned journal will in fact be about that paper, and will contribute to the discussion in that paper. Van Lier's response to the papers in the Special Issue of Applied Linguistics published in September 1993 fails on all three counts. He explicitly states that he will discuss, not what was included in those papers, but rather what was excluded, and then takes the authors to task for not including it; in fact what he discusses was not the subject of the Special Issue. He attributes to us positions we have not taken and claims we have not made, here or elsewhere; he even criticizes our joint position when we do not have one. Needless to say, then, he makes no contribution to our discussion of theory construction in SLA. Thus this is not a piece that can be replied to, even if we thought it worth our while. We invite readers interested in our various positions to do what van Lier has not bothered to do: read what we have written. Alan Beretta, Graham Crookes, Kevin R. Gregg, Michael H. Long

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The Editors comment


In September 1993, we published a Special Issue of Applied Linguistics, guestedited by Alan Beretta, and titled 'Theory Construction in Second Language Acquisition'. We were delighted to have the opportunity to do so, as this group of papers constitutes a set of strong, coherent, and timely statements by key practitioners in the field, which merits wide discussion. While details in their positions differ, the authors of the Special Issue papers generally share the essentially rationalist epistemology which predominates in contemporary SLA/ applied linguistics. None the less, within ourfield,as in the social sciences more generally, alternative epistemologies exist and indeed are arousing increasing interest. In the hope of promoting constructive discussion on the key issues raised in the Special Issue therefore, across a variety of perspectives, we invited Leo van Lier to write a commentary on it, and are very pleased to be publishing the result here. Clearly, van Lier brings an alternative perspective to bear on major issues such as the nature of theory, explanation, and understanding, the theory/ practice relationship, and the role of ethics in scientific enquiry. Several of the Special Issue contributors have now made it clear that they have not found our attempt to promote discussion helpful on this occasion. We regret this, but remainfirmlycommitted to dialogue, and to the reflection in the pages of this journal of the widest possible range of applied linguistics viewpoints. The Editors