Bill Louw – I intend to revive logical positivism

My last two posts (Locating collocation and Thin word lists and fat concordances) have used the ideas of Bill Louw, who kindly agreed to talk about his work. (Note if you are reading this from a mobile device you may need to refresh a few times to get all the audio to load)

The title of this post indicates his overall goal to revive logical positivism 1 (Schlick refers to Moritz Schlick one of the founders of logical positivism):

Revive logical positivism

He describes how he is doing this by merging Firthian ideas with logical positivism via the shared idea of context of situation (semantic prosody is a type of contextual meaning):

Hand over to science

Louw claims that another of the founders of logical positivism Rudolf Carnap was prevented from continuing his work on induction and probability when Carnap moved to the USA. Apparently this is evident from letters between Carnap and American philosopher Willard VO Quine. The significance of induction was highlighted by Bertrand Russell who stated that we can’t have science without induction. A very common representation of induction is the “All swans are white” example or more generally “All A’s are B’s” however Moritz Schlick saw induction differently:

Schlick on induction

Louw goes on to add how Schlick describes the relation between thinking and reality:

Schlick on thinking

The above clip is important to understand how Louw critiques the idea of collostruction. Collostruction is a way to measure collocation as it relates to grammar and Louw points out the weakness in such an approach in terms of the “given” i.e. reality/experience (Gries refers to Stefan Th. Gries inventor of collostruction):

Collostruction and the given

Another way Louw illustrates his project to revive logical positivism is how he derives the idea of subtext from Bertrand Russell’s idea of a perfectly logical natural language:

Subtext 1

He then describes how Firthian collocation needs to be brought in to augment subtext if languages like Chinese are to be studied:

Subtext 2

For some reason until I started reading Louw I did not quite get the idea of progressive delexicalisation – that words have lots of meanings that differ from their literal meanings. Previously I was only thinking of delexicalisation with respect to verbs such as ‘make’ and ‘do’. And further that many words we may think have mostly literal meanings in fact have mostly delexical meanings. Louw & Milojkovic (2016: 6) give the example of ‘ripple’, where only one form in ten occurred with ‘water’ and ‘surface’ using the Birmingham University corpus.

Louw describes how John Sinclair described this as the blue-jeans principle:

Sinclair’s blue jeans

In the early 90’s Louw tested the idea of Sinclair’s that every word has at least two meanings:


The start of the 80’s recalls how Louw encountered the idea of a computer writing a dictionary:

Computer writing

Louw gives an example of how the computer can help using US presidents Trump & Biden:

Computer reassurance

Louw is keen to distinguish collocation from colligation:

Deceptive colligation

Louw admits his self-obsession on the idea of bringing together Firth and the Vienna school:

Firth & Vienna

Louw’s conviction of his project reflects the certainty of the logical positivists and despite that stream of thought no longer being the force it was Louw’s drive recalls Richard Rorty (without condoning the sexist language) as quoted in Goldsmith & Laks (2019: 443):

“The sort of optimistic faith which Russell and Carnap shared with Kant – that philosophy, its essence and right method discovered at last, had finally been placed upon the secure path of science – is not something to be mocked or deplored. Such optimism is possible only for men of high imagination and daring, the heroes of their times”

Thanks for reading & listening and many thanks to Bill Louw for taking time to chat with me.


  1. Wikipedia Logical Positivism


Goldsmith, J. A., & Laks, B. (2019). Battle in the mind fields. University of Chicago Press.

Louw, B., & Milojkovic, M. (2016). Corpus stylistics as contextual prosodic theory and subtext (Vol. 23). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Why the pineapple?

This post can be considered a follow on from the post Collocations need not be arbitrary.

One response that proponents of the lexical approach in language teaching could make to the issue of looking at meanings and collocations is simply to define collocation as one level of meaning. John Firth, as cited by Joseph (2003), put it thus:

“The statement of meaning by collocation and various collocabilities does not involve the definition of word meaning by means of further sentences in shifted terms. Meaning by collocation is an abstraction at the syntagmatic level and is not directly concerned with the conceptual or idea approach to the meaning of words. One of the meanings of night is its collocability with dark, and of dark, of course, collocation with night.”

Joseph, 2003: 130

Defining collocations as one level of meaning is reasonable but it does not provide an explanation that may be pedagogically useful. Cognitive linguistics claims to provide such a use.

Let’s take the question of the difference between choosing highest mountain and tallest mountain that arose in a class recently. One explanation is based on the distribution of what collocates with tall – that is living things (tall man, tall tree) and man made objects (tall building, tall pole). Tall tends not to collocate with natural objects such as mountains.

That is where a Firthian (and by consequence a lexical) approach stops. A cognitive analysis by Dirven and Taylor (1988) showed that general cognition (in the form of concepts) can explain further.

Highest mountain is preferred as the concept HIGH includes both a meaning of vertical position (positional meaning) as well as vertical length (extensional meaning) whereas the concept TALL only includes the meaning of vertical length. So although you can find tallest mountain people often think of being at the top of a mountain hence the vertical position is emphasised rather than vertical length (see figure below):

Figure 1. after Dirven & Taylor, 1988: 386

Thanks for reading. And do have a read of a less favourable view of cognitive linguistics at a recent Geoff Jordan blog Anybody seen a pineapple?


Marc Jones writes about cueing as a way to learn chunks Pinneapples?


Dirven, R., & Taylor, J. R. (1988). The conceptualisation of vertical space in English: The case of tall. In Topics in cognitive linguistics, B. Rudzka-Ostyn (ed), 379. John Benjamins.

Joseph, J. (2003). Rethinking linguistic creativity. In Rethinking Linguistics, H. Davis & T.J. Taylor (eds), 121–150. London: Routledge.