European Society for Translation Studies

The liberal arts paradigm and the empirical science paradigm

The liberal arts paradigm and the empirical science paradigm
D. Gile, January 22, 2005

If my memory serves me right, the concept of “science” was never raised as an issue during my undergraduate and graduate studies in mathematics. Neither was the concept of “research methods”, which I encountered when I became a student of sociology. Many years later, when I migrated into TS, I found that both were central issues in the discipline.

Some TS scholars who come from established empirical disciplines such as psychology or neurophysiology tend to do research in compliance with the norms of the “scientific method”. I will refer to this type of research, sometimes mistakenly assumed to be characteristic of the natural sciences only, as the “Empirical Science Paradigm” (ESP). Other TS scholars come from a humanities background and tend to do research somewhat differently, in what I will refer to here as the “Liberal Arts Paradigm” (LAP). The Empirical Science Paradigm is demanding in terms of caution, of systematicity and of explicitness. By requiring individual authors to observe rigorously the 8 norms of the “scientific method”, it attempts to prevent authors from publishing claims without a relatively solid basis. The Liberal Arts Paradigm shares some of the norms, but allows authors to make claims that are not the only logical consequence of facts used to make the inference, to make them without informing the readers of the exact facts and methods used to make the inferences, and to make them without making sure that all relevant data have been used and point in the same direction.

I have found it sociologically counterproductive to try to determine which of the two is more “scientific” or which is more efficient to explore the world. Clearly, each has its advantages and its limitations: for instance, while ESP draws inferences more rigorously at the individual level, LAP can correct misperceptions through collective discussion, and gives scholars more freedom to express useful insights which cannot be tested through empirical methods.

The important fact to remember is that the two paradigms are distinct and may lead people with the same understanding of a situation to express their views differently. ESP scholars tend to only make claims which they can substantiate, while LAP scholars tend to also make claims based on what they feel intuitively. Misunderstandings in the literature can be explained by authors’ failure to take into account this inter-paradigmatic gap (see for instance Pöchhacker’s chapter 11 and Gile’s response in chapter 13 of Schäffner, Christina (ed). 2004. Translation Research and Interpreting ResearchClevedon, Buffalo, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.).