This is the concluding part of an interview with Albert Weideman part one appeared here. He has a blog here.
In your previous books Beyond expression: a systematic study of the foundations of linguistics, and A framework for the study of linguistics you developed a Dooyeweerdian (Reformational) perspective on what Dooyeweerd terms the linguistic aspect. How did you get to know about this perspective?
I suppose the major systematic influences were the examples of Strauss and Hommes. When Hommes’s book on the elementary concepts of jurisprudence came out, I was certain that my own field at that time, linguistics, deserved similar analytical treatment, and that was the stimulus for my first MA dissertation. I was helped along by a very lively discussion group at the University of the Free State that focussed on interdisciplinary work. Afterwards, I was encouraged by Danie Strauss and Kerry Hollingsworth to rework and publish it with Paideia Press as Beyond expression. One thing led to another, and I subsequently brought out a related introduction to linguistics for my undergraduate students, the Framework, negotiating with Kerry’s assistance a joint publication deal with a prominent South African publisher of academic textbooks, Van Schaik. But everything started when I followed in linguistics the footsteps of Hommes in jurisprudence, and emulated the work Hommes and Dooyeweerd had started in that field. So I’m really surprised when I read comments in journals like Beweging, and by people who should really know better, that the philosophy of the cosmonomic idea has done no work in the special sciences. I wonder: is that not where it started? And what about Stafleu’s work in physics, or Strauss’s work in mathematics, or De Witt’s and Diemer’s analyses in biology, or all the other work in aesthetics, ethics, history, and so on? And those are only a superficial few examples.
What do you feel are the strengths of the Dooyeweerdian approach?
Its non-reductionist ontology. In our time, Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, or Dynamic Systems Theory as it is sometimes called, has tried to achieve the same goal. It is highly significant that a Dooyeweerdian analysis reveals the potential reductionism of such anti-reductionist intentions. In this case the emergentism that characterizes CAST/DST is exposed in its attempt to reduce all manner of explanation to the organic or biotic mode of experience. So, while other approaches have tried, Dooyeweerd’s analyses are – thus far ‑ the only reliably non-reductionist perspective I have encountered in academic work.
And what are its weaknesses?
I said “thus far” just now, because it does remain possible, of course, that Dooyeweerd’s analyses may yet reveal some major reductionist flaw that we have simply just not thought about, or explored properly. That is the provisionality of the lived ‘reformational’ approach to science, and we should make our peace with that. But right now, that flaw has not yet been revealed. Danie Strauss has mentioned to me that in one interview, when asked about how long his work and influence would endure, Dooyeweerd seriously thought it would all be over about 15 or 20 years after his death. Today we know that he was thoroughly mistaken in that opinion, don’t we? Though one can see the datedness of Dooyeweerd’s thought – he was clearly operating in a post-Kantian, and even neo-Kantian period – it somehow remains relevant, once one allows for that historical relativity. Another instance of where he was clearly a child of his time we can find in his use of the term ‘meaning’ to describe reality. Even though reality, according to Dooyeweerd, does not so much have meaning, but rather is meaning, that term itself reveals how he was influenced by what is today called the very influential ‘linguistic’ or ‘interpretative’ turn in theory.
I suppose a weakness for me is the way in which even potentially simple distinctions that he introduced are misunderstood. But whether that is entirely preventable, or Dooyeweerd’s own fault, is another question. Take the temporal order of aspects, for example. Despite their author’s explanations, and the fact that they are not a hierarchy, but a sequence in time of ordered facets of creaturely life, people have interpreted them as such. So because the dimensions of love and faith are in terms of time the last in the temporal order, a hierarchical view quickly promotes them to the top (and most important part) of a hierarchy, adding insult to injury by imposing a kind of grace and nature split between them and the rest. Or the way that people appear to be unable to conceptualize phenomena in other than concrete terms. That means that aspects of experience get confused with actual things or objects with a typical structure. In my own field, the lingual dimension of experience, the experiential modality, is often confused with the object that we call ‘language’. Perhaps these misunderstandings could have been avoided, but it is easy to say such things in hindsight.
You have mentioned that you prefer the term ‘responsible’ to the term ‘Christian’ to describe Reformational work and action. Why is that? And what are the advantages of using ‘responsible’?
Indeed, and that choice of term is not something that I have yet spoken about publicly. Why do I choose to use the term ‘responsible’ (instead of ‘Christian’) to characterise and describe reformational work and action? Though that is a sensitive issue within Christianity, it goes back to my view of God’s Word: that it is something we discover in obedience. We discover it not only by listening to the pointers in Scripture that refer us to it, but also from the point of view that it is the Word that was in the beginning, as that Word of God which makes creaturely life possible (and sustains it in God’s son). My view is that our lives are structured by living in response to this Word; that that Word-response structure in fact characterises our being and life. I am always painfully aware that that is a view that is a few lightyears removed from a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, and therefore an embarrassment, even and acutely within the reformational community, for those who hold on to such a misunderstanding by looking at the collection of books that is the Bible as God’s only Word for us. Instead I believe that something that refers us to something else cannot at the same time be that entity. A signpost cannot be the destination.
And as to the term ‘responsible’, I suppose that English would be happier with ‘responsive’, but it is not an entirely inappropriate understanding of it to think that our human actions are done in response to principles, and that if we act in accordance with these principles, those conditions that we obey to complete our actions, then we are acting responsibly. In my case, as a language test designer, I can therefore respond to certain design principles by making an assessment instrument that is trustworthy, caring, accountable, aligned with language learning and policies, useful, yielding interpretable and meaningful results, defensible theoretically, attractive, differentiated, valid, reliable, of definable scope, and systematic. Surely it would be irresponsible to be satisfied with a test that is haphazard, unreliable, invalid, monotone, unattractive, has meaningless results, is useless, uncompassionate, and so forth? Thus ‘responsible’ seems to me to describe better the reformational intention to be obedient to God’s Word in all respects, everywhere. If some want to call that ‘Christian’, I’m happy with that, but for me ‘responsible’ just fits better, and is certainly more descriptive.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline?
There are in fact several. I am awaiting publication of a contribution I wrote for the 2017 Routledge World Yearbook in Education on the refinement of the idea of consequential validity in language assessment, and another in a special issue of Language and Communication that will commemorate the work of Alan Davies. That deals with the question of whether responsibility (as I define it) encompasses ethicality and accountability in language assessment, and I suppose from the above you can guess what my answer will be. But it is not so obvious to the uninitiated, or the unreflective amongst those who devise language assessments.
And then there is my ongoing collaboration with John Read in Auckland, and with colleagues from other continents as well, most of that relating to language testing.
Finally, I have been given the green light by Springer to put in a proposal for a book that will deal entirely with a topic that not enough applied linguists are yet interested in: the development of a theory of applied linguistics. I hope I’ll have the chance to start work on that in the last half of 2017.
What do you do for fun?
That’s easy! My wife and I love going to the movies, and we have very eclectic tastes, so it’s not only those films that are showing on the art circuit. Personally, I love being fit, and nothing pleases me more than a game of volleyball; at the gym I go to we play the young biokineticists in training every Friday at 07:00. By ‘we’ I mean a bunch of really senior people. At age 68, I’m the youngest member of the team, so you can imagine how pleased we are when we beat youngsters of not even 20 years of age. Playing volleyball on the beach when I eventually retire is something I yearn for. Oh! And squash. I play three to four times a week, and represent my province in the national tournament annually. I’ve been playing for 44 years, and it’s a wonderful game.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just read Kees de Bot’s A history of applied linguistics: 1980 to the present. And in fiction, I have just finished the remarkable story of a woman who got left for dead in a concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), but survived and became a psychotherapist who treated war victims afterwards. It’s called Kamphoer (Camp whore), and has probably been translated into other languages, but I read it in my first language, Afrikaans. Its author is one of my colleagues at the University of the Free State.
And finally, if you were on a desert island what two luxuries would you take with you?
That’s easier to answer than I thought when I first saw this question. First, I would take a huge bag of salt; I am informed that drying sea salt by evaporation leaves you with a substance that has too high a magnesium content for one’s stomach to deal with, and I just cannot eat without salt, I’m afraid. Second, I’d probably go for a magnifying glass, so that I can at least make a fire. That makes up my first two choices. If I had a third choice, that would have been for a really sturdy bow and arrows. I don’t think I’d be able to survive without protein.