Chomsky in retrospect – 1

by pieterseuren

Now that Avram Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) is approaching his 85th birthday, it is perhaps fitting to look back at his unique career as a theoretical linguist and as a political writer and activist. The combination itself is at least extraordinary, if not unique. But what makes this man truly unique is the huge influence he has had in both fields. He dominated linguistics for four full decades, from 1960 till 2000 and since 2000 his influence has still been reverberating in many ways. As a political writer and, to some extent also, as an activist, he has gathered an enormous following, especially in anarchist circles. What is the secret behind all this?

Many will say that the secret lies in the fact that the man is a genius. That would indeed be an explanation, but I don’t think it is, not in this case. There are too many indications to the contrary. Geniuses, by the sheer force of their vision or ability in some specific area—intellectual, artistic or organizational—leave an imprint on future generations that will prove of lasting value to mankind as a whole or at least to a specific culture, science or form of art. To say of a person who is still alive that he or she is a genius is to draw a cheque on the future, and in Chomsky’s case, this cheque does not seem to be covered. His political activities have all been geared to events of the day. They are, if anything, critical journalistic commentaries on current events, not the expression of anything approaching a new vision, though clearly driven by a genuine indignation regarding the wickedness of the political powers that be and a genuine compassion with their victims—that is, in so far as the powers are American and the victims are not. In linguistics, it looks very much as if his influence is rapidly declining, and with good reason, because his theoretical approach has been shown to be flawed in too many ways by a large variety of critics. For all we know, his reputation may turn out, sub specie humanitatis, to have been a momentary flare.

He has always been, and still is, an extremely hard worker and a meticulous correspondent, so much so that some have wondered if this man ever sleeps (Geoff Pullum, ‘Does this man ever sleep?’, Nature, vol. 386, issue 6627, 1997, p. 776). During the 1950s, he engaged in hard, even feverish, work at a fairly elevated level of generality, though hardly at the level of empirical detail, which has never really interested him. He thought deep and hard about the implications of the concept of an algorithmic generative grammar for the theory of language, penning down his thoughts in the form of a voluminous manuscript, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, which he did not want to see published. (Chomsky has often asserted later that no publisher wanted it, but Mouton, for one, was keen on having it, after the success of Syntactic Structures, and he had even, as he wrote to Cornelis van Schooneveld and to Peter de Ridder, both of Mouton, signed a publication contract with North-Holland Amsterdam. But Chomsky backed out. The book was not published until 1975, by Plenum Press, with a great many unacknowledged post hoc omissions and modifications.) While at Harvard during the early 1950s, and later at the MIT department of machine translation, he engaged—as an amateur—in some intensive mathematical work regarding the formal properties of natural language grammars, whereby the notion that a natural language should be seen as a recursively definable infinite set of sentences took a central position. One notable and impressive result of this work was the so-called Chomsky hierarchy of algorithmic grammars, original work indeed, as far as we know, but which has now, unfortunately, lost all relevance (see Chapter 6 in my From Whorf to Montague, to appear this month with OUP).

One conspicuous feature of the work he did during the second half of the 1950s was his attempt to forge a break between his work and American structuralism, the brand of linguistics he had been brought up in, trying to show that his new approach opened totally novel and far-reaching perspectives which structuralism was unable to encompass, without ever admitting that his work was demonstrably less a break with than a natural sequel to structuralism, once this was placed in the context of the mathematics of the day—a direction taken earlier by his teacher Zellig Harris (1909–1992) in Philadelphia and inexorably leading to the notion of an algorithmic generative grammar. This was moderately revolutionary, as it placed American structuralist linguistics in a new, wider, perspective.

The most notable result of this period was the publication, in 1957, of the little book Syntactic Structures, number 3 in the series Janua Linguarum (Mouton, The Hague), a succinct and relatively non-technical statement of the new ideas. At the expense of other authors following the same lead, notably his teacher Zellig Harris, and with a little help from his friends Bernard Bloch, Morris Halle, Roman Jakobson and Robert Lees (who published a lengthy promotional review article in Language of September 1957), this booklet quickly acquired a well-nigh legendary status, conferring a halo of genius upon its author, and is now regarded as the starting point of a revolution in linguistics and adjacent disciplines.

Chomsky subsequently tried to reinterpret the notion of an algorithmic generative grammar in realist terms, that is, as a theory of how the human mind deals with language, and no longer in the purely instrumentalist terms current in the brand of structuralism that he had been taught and according to which all that counts is to provide a precise and concise statement of the facts of each language, regardless of how they are implemented in human brains. This move from instrumentalism to realism was brought about by his contacts with a small group of young Harvard psychologists, headed by Jerome Bruner and George Miller, who were in the process of creating the new cognitive science in opposition to behaviourism. The incorporation of the concept of a generative grammar into the new paradigm of cognitive science provided him with the opportunity of being part of a much more general and more profound revolution affecting the whole of society, the passing from ‘inhuman’ behaviourism to ‘human’ cognitive science and thus the reinstatement of human values in the modern world, giving impetus to a new and wide-ranging emancipatory movement.

In this context, Chomsky wrote his famous (1959) review article in Language of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (1957), where he subjected behaviourism to a fierce critique, which, however, was based on empirical arguments that were largely taken, without proper attribution, from the work of the American psychologist Karl Lashley, who died in 1958. Lashley had convincingly argued that humans, in displaying serial behaviour, as when pronouncing a sentence, do not follow behaviouristic principles according to which each new element in the series is restricted by the preceding elements, since experimental results show that humans anticipate elements that will occur later—an essential link in Chomsky’s chain of argument.

Since behaviourism was a direct offshoot of Anglo-Saxon empiricism and its extreme modern version known as (neo)positivism—which wants to reduce all reality to physical matter and all knowledge to sense data—he developed an overall aversion to this entire philosophical complex and took to what he saw as European rationalism, which posits innate ideas to help explain the content and form of human knowledge. Given this wider philosophical perspective, he developed an interest in history, hoping to find a pedigree. This made him land at the figure of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes, which resulted in his Cartesian Linguistics of 1966 (Harper & Row, New York) and other writings produced during that period. These historical excursions came to an abrupt end after the traumatic experience of being crushed by real historians, such as Hans Aarsleff, Vivian Salmon or Keith Percival, who exposed his abysmal lack of knowledge and expertise in matters historical. The only credit Chomsky got for his quasi-historical work was that he had at least given a new impetus to the study of the history of linguistics. In the final paragraph of his devastating article ‘On the non-existence of Cartesian linguistics’ (in R. J. Butler (ed.), Cartesian Studies, Blackwell, Oxford, 1972, pp. 137–45), Keith Percival wrote: “[I]t is greatly to Chomsky’s credit that he has boldly advanced historical hypotheses which more pedestrian scholars would not have had the courage to publish.” It does indeed take some courage to venture into history the way Chomsky did. … to be continued