Chomsky in retrospect — 4

by pieterseuren

Meanwhile, apart from the undeniable stimulating effect of his presence in the field of linguistics, which he dominated for four decades, Chomsky has also done untold damage to that field. Linguistics has suffered greatly through his claim to absolute monopoly, his refusal, or inability, to consider other people’s ideas with an open mind and his divisive tactics giving rise to deep sentiments of aversion. When he finally lost his grip, around 2000, linguistics fell into chaos and disarray, and hence into general academic disrepute, calling forth, by way of reaction, a number of, mostly antiformalist, trends, which all copied Chomsky’s recipe for monopoly but now for different, mostly inferior, theoretical positions. The result is that it is impossible, nowadays, to write a coherent general introduction to linguistics or to set up a ‘state of the art’ linguistics teaching programme. All one can do, if one does not want to conform to one particular school, is list the various schools, leaving it to the students to make their choice. It must be said, though, that at least half the guilt for this state of affairs lies with Chomsky’s gullible devotees, who followed his every twist and turn, always presented as an ‘extension’ or ‘further development’ of the theory, even if the new positions were the opposite of earlier positions taken. Had the followers been less docile, the field might have been spared the ruinous state it finds itself in at the moment. But, of course, they all remembered too well the treatment meted out to the dissident generative semanticists between 1968 and 1975—not at all in agreement with the ideas of freedom and self-realization of individuals endlessly propagated in the same man’s political writings.

Besides seeing him as a linguist, many also consider Chomsky to be a philosopher. He has indeed frequently trespassed on philosophical ground (notably in his Reflections on Language, Pantheon, New York, 1975), but on each such occasion one sees that he is out of his depth and fails to reach a well-argued position. During the early sixties, the methodological issue of realism versus instrumentalism was brought to the fore explicitly, in the context of Chomsky’s rejection of behaviourism. Despite his protestations to the contrary and the obfuscation of this fact in the doctored 1975 edition of his The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (see my Western Linguistics, Blackwell 1998, p. 253–5), Chomsky had implicitly been a positivist instrumentalist like everyone else in the tradition of structuralist linguistics he had been brought up in. The budding generative semanticists were pushing hard for realism: grammars should strive for a maximally realist description of linguistic competence as a machinery used during speech—a point of view Chomsky appeared to be sympathetic to for a while. But when it became clear that this would mean a considerable loss of academic power to Generative Semantics and to psycholinguistics, he backed off, yet was unable to define the position he wanted to hold. Since then he has always dithered on this basic issue, as amply documented by a variety of authors. His 1995 Minimalist Program is neither this nor that: sometimes instrumentalist, sometimes realist.

The philosophical notions of universal grammar and innatism he espoused were not his but were developed in earnest as from the 16th century by scholars such as Sanctius (1523–1600), Arnauld (1612–1694) and Lancelot (1615–1695) in their 1660 Port Royal Grammar, or Beauzée (1717–1789), and a multitude of others, as is recognized by Chomsky himself in Cartesian Linguistics pp. 52–59 (except for the crucial figure of Sanctius, who is not mentioned at all). It is fair to say that Chomsky’s contribution in this respect consists mainly in reviving the issue, after its neglect in structuralist linguistics, and in putting forward, or enabling others to put forward, proposals for actual language universals in the grammatical machinery of the languages of the world. The validity of the latter, of course, depends largely on the reliability of the theory in terms of which they are proposed, so that any doubt as regards the theory will be reflected on the proposed universals. Yet some of these proposals, in particular those to do with island constraints, seem to have survived despite any theory-related doubts, which may well signal real progress. Meanwhile a myth seems to have established itself to the effect that Chomsky himself was the originator of innatism. This myth is especially alive among non-specialists, who immediately associate innatism with the name Chomsky. It is unclear to what extent Chomsky himself is to be blamed for this, but what is clear is that since Cartesian Linguistics he has done very little to correct that false impression.

Other than that, the man has also, on occasion, ventured into general philosophy, often in public addresses or interviews subsequently published as articles or books (see, for example, the inane 1995 article ‘Language and Nature’ in Mind 104 (413), pp. 1–61, based on a couple of public lectures). In fact, however, he never elaborated or analysed a single philosophical question. But he did make a mockery of scientific methodology by declaring that an appeal to facts is illegitimate in science, one alleged reason being that all so-called facts are ‘idealised’—which, of course, gave him a free hand to ignore counterexamples. Not much of a philosopher, it would seem.

It has become clear over the years that his real passion lies in his political productions, which vastly outnumber his linguistic writings, numerous though these are by themselves. It started with ‘The responsibilty of intellectuals’ in The New York Review of Books of February 1967 (in later years, he has continually belied, by his own irresponsible behaviour, the admonition implicit in the title). Then came a number of books against the Vietnam war. This, one has to say, showed some courage, as he risked possibly severe reprisals from the US authorities. After that, what we find is a never ending tirade against the US as a superpower, supported by endless selective quotes, often taken out of context or even plainly misquoted, and always without even the remotest attempt at a balanced analysis or representation of the state of affairs. Had he been more objective and more modest, and less opinionated, partisan, prejudiced and publicity-driven, he might have made an honest name for himself as a political journalist.

In all this, he shows anarchist leanings but declines to define his exact political position, even when challenged by interviewers. Thus, in an interview of May 1995 with the prominent Irish journalist Kevin Doyle (see Chomsky, Language and Politics, AK Press, 2004, pp. 775–785), when politely but insistently asked about his definition of anarchism, he kept evading the question, falling back on terminological hairsplitting laced with irrelevant historical quotes. The closest he came to a clear statement is when he said, at the very beginning: “That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.” But if that is what anarchism amounts to, then the ultraconservative, antidemocratic Greek philosopher Plato was an anarchist in his Republic, which is one extended justification for an infernally totalitarian Gulag state, with rigidly fixed social classes and authority, control and punishment reaching into people’s most private moments. Plato’s justification, by the way, does not fall back on the behaviourist grounds that humans can be conditioned into any state of subservience but on the innatist grounds that humans are, by their very nature, ignorant, fickle, unruly and dangerous, and thus need to be restrained.

Then, the obvious questions of who is to decide whether the burden of proof has or has not been met and how “authority” should be “dismantled” if that burden of proof has not been met are not answered. In a talk “Containing the Threat of Democracy”, given in Glasgow in January 1990 (see Chomsky on Anarchism, selected and edited by Barry Pateman, AK Press, 2005, pp. 153–177), Chomsky explains why he refrains from discussing concrete action plans and stays on an abstract, philosophical or theoretical level (p. 173):

So it seems that I have two choices: to keep to the general issues of freedom and common sense […]; or to discuss specific questions of power, justice, and human rights. If I were to take the latter course, I’d have to keep to questions to which I’ve given some thought and study. Thus, in the case of national self-determination, I would feel able to discuss the question of Israel–Palestine, but not that of Northern Ireland. In the former case, what I have to say might be right or wrong, smart or stupid, but at least it would be based on inquiry and thought.

Here we really see the man at work. The whole talk was on the pernicious effects of US state and corporate power, not on questions of “national self-determination.” And, of course, Chomsky has given a great deal of “thought and study” to, and thus has detailed and explicit knowledge of, the intricacies of US state and corporate power, which he invariably denounces as criminal. So, by his own reasoning, he should be in an excellent position to hold forth on the practical issue of how to “dismantle” that system. Yet he refrains from doing so. Why? I think because he is short of ideas and also because he does not want to imperil his own private investments which depend directly on the very same criminal system he repudiates. What remains is a picture of a riotous agitator whose scoffing criticisms, though often justified in themselves, in no way contribute to any kind of constructive solution or repair. All we get is abstract ideological grandstanding without any practical or theoretical value and, in the end, a non-distinctive, bourgeois accommodation to the existing system within the progressive intellectual left as it exists in the US. … to be continued