Chomsky in retrospect — 5

by pieterseuren

Most people will agree that there are many controversial aspects to the person of Noam Chomsky, especially as regards the period after 1960. In my view, the most controversial aspect, as far as linguistics is concerned, is his destruction of Generative Semantics (GS) during the late 1960s and early 1970s—the period of the “linguistics wars”. Many have argued that it was not “his” destruction, but that GS destroyed itself. I disagree, with many others. In any case, to form an adequate idea of what happened, it is necessary to be familiar with three books. The first is Frederick Newmeyer, Linguistic Theory in America, (Academic Press, New York/London, 1980). (There is a second, revised, edition of 1986, which I have seen but which I don’t have at hand; so I will rely on the 1980 edition.) This book, especially the chapters 4 and 5, is, in my view, the best account available of the academic issues that played a role, even though, as Newmeyer himself candidly admits, he gives “an overly one-sided picture of the confrontation” (p. 133), favouring the Chomsky side. The other two books are Randy Harris, The Linguistics Wars (OUP, New York, 1993) and Geoffrey Huck and John Goldsmith, Ideology and Linguistic Theory. Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates (Routledge, London/New York, 1995). The latter two authors’ accounts are likewise a bit lopsided, as they favour the GS camp. They devote more space to the ‘external’—that is, the personal, emotional and social factors involved, though the academic aspects are not neglected. Academic purists may say that such ‘external’ aspects should be kept out of court and that only purely academic issues should be discussed, but if one does that one buries one’s head in the sand and will not understand what was going on. As Christina Behme pointed out in one of her comments, when one tries to understand the past, one has to take all causal factors into consideration. And, I might add, one has the right, in some cases, to express a moral judgement as well.

As far as the purely academic issues are concerned, I have to be brief, since a full discussion is not feasible here. Many issues were raised, most of them not essential to the GS research programme, such as prelexical syntax, the (non)existence of a deep structure level between the semantic representation and the surface structure, or the status of global rules. The essential tenet of GS, most of the time not identified as such and confused with the nonessential issues, was that every sentence S in a language L has an underlying semantic representation (SR) cast in terms of a formal logical language very much like the formal language used in modern predicate logic, and that the grammar of L consists in a top-down mapping system mediating between SRs and surface structures by transforming the former into the latter. During the years 1964 to 1966, Chomsky agreed with this view (still defended in his Cartesian Linguistics of 1966), but as from 1967 he proposed a different, more complex system, called Autonomous Syntax or Interpretive Semantics, where every S has an ‘autonomous’ syntactic deep structure (DS), converted by transformations into a surface structure (SS) and where both DSs and SSs are input to a system of ‘interpretive’ rules providing a SR in terms of the language of modern predicate logic. Academically speaking, the arguments to and fro were inconclusive, often fed, especially on the Chomsky side, by rhetoric, impressions, an inability to envision new horizons, and other subjective elements. It is fair to say that if the discussions had been allowed to be carried on in a normal way, they would most probably have crystallised into greater clarity and substantive new insights might well have been gained.

This, however, is not what happened. Right from the start, in early 1967, when Chomsky returned from his sabbatical leave at Berkeley, personal motives prevailed and academic reasoning became a mere fig leaf barely covering what it was really all about. And that was power, Chomsky’s power, to be sure. Chomsky was the one who rejected the new development of GS, of which he had himself been a part for a few years, but, notably, not the leading part. Let us suppose (I don’t believe it, but let’s suppose) that Chomsky had genuine intellectual qualms about the road to abstractness that the GS boys had taken. An orderly discussion would then have been the normal thing to engage in. Instead, to everybody’s “dreadful surprise” (Ray Jackendoff’s words quoted in Harris, 1993, p. 139), Chomsky immediately started a “counteroffensive” (Newmeyer, 1980, p. 114), in that he “launched a series of lectures that completely reversed the abstract syntax trend of deepening deep structure. […] Everyone immediately perceived them as an attack on generative semantics, a reactionary attempt to cut the abstract legs out from underneath the upstart model.” (Harris, ib.) It is clear from the sources, such as the correspondence between Chomsky and McCawley (Huck & Goldsmith, 1995, pp. 63–66), that, all of a sudden, while on leave for a few months at Berkeley, Chomsky had turned from a sympathetic listener into a deliberately obtuse block of resistance, unwilling to engage in constructive discussion. Harris writes (p. 285) that Lakoff, Ross and Chomsky “had only one meeting upon Chomsky’s return, which was interrupted by a call from the magazine [i.e. Time; PS] which took up most of the scheduled time; subsequent meetings were cancelled.” In short, it soon became clear that Chomsky was dead set on destroying Generative Semantics.

A well-known and very significant incident at the Texas Linguistics Conference held in the autumn of 1969 (Huck & Goldsmith pp. 115, 125, 134, 161–2) bears witness to this ugly turn of events. During discussion time after Chomsky’s lecture, Ross was about to present some counterexamples to Chomsky’s generalizations but Chomsky wouldn’t let him finish, interjecting that counterexamples were irrelevant, whereupon “Haj just turned around and walked away while Chomsky went on with his interruption” (Huck & Goldsmith p. 134). Postal’s comment, as given in Huck & Goldsmith (ib.), was: “Ross’s gesture signaled that this was a breakdown of communication, that he felt that Chomsky had broken the rules. Which I believe he had.” And he had indeed, in a major way. In a long footnote (p. 162), Postal adds: “One clear implication was that disagreeing with Chomsky, even then the most renowned and influential person in the field, would have a high price. A second was that the controversies which had arisen were not being treated by Chomsky as (only) technical matters to be resolved in normal scientific ways but as somehow sufficiently threatening to induce strong emotional responses and even clear violations of normal standards.” The matter thus became a question of ethics, more than of academic right or wrong. Chomsky had not only betrayed  himself and his generative semanticist followers and students but he had also broken the ethical code of academe. From then on, any rational exchange of ideas or arguments between the generative semanticists and Chomsky and his group became impossible: what remained was hostility. And, given the balance of power as it was, it was inevitable that Chomsky would win. But at what price…

I myself was only marginally involved, as I did not belong to the MIT tribe. But I had published my PhD-thesis Operators and Nucleus in 1968, and I had written a few articles, all in the GS spirit. Having met Chomsky personally in 1966 at Frits Staal’s home in Amsterdam, I met him again at MIT in early December 1970, at the start of a month-long visit, naïvely unaware of the change that had taken place. On that occasion, he treated me in the rudest possible manner, after which others quickly explained to me what was going on. I remember having a feeling of great disappointment, which, fuelled as it was by multiple later manifestations of academic impropriety, has deepened over the years into moral abhorrence.

In his old age, Chomsky is not doing well, morally speaking. After 2000, it became his habit to publish books and articles under his own name but without actually doing any writing. A large number of publications have appeared and are still appearing that consist merely of interviews, mostly servile adulation on the part of the interviewer and sloppy, offhand, self-indulgent and mendacious prattle on the part of the interviewee. Even respectable publishers have indulged in this practice—only, one presumes, because any book with the name “Chomsky” on its cover will automatically sell thousands of copies.

Does this man deserve a niche in the academic hall of fame? I doubt that very much. His thinking is certainly sharp, quick and broad in superficial extension, but it lacks depth, flexibility and above all vision. Nor is it really inquisitive, or at least it hasn’t been since the mid-sixties. From that period on, we see a man who digs in his intellectual heels and defends his fort, warding off ideas that might widen his perspective or make him look at things from a different, perhaps more promising, angle. We see a man who, having made a very promising start, rapidly began to abuse the enormous amount of social power he had acquired, eliminating dissidents while putting up an innocent face to the outside world. A man who professes high ideals of freedom and dignity in his political writings but practises the opposite in his academic activities. We see a compulsive prima donna, a clever manipulator of public opinion, a man who has consistently put his own person above the ideals that all unusually gifted persons occupying a leading position in any sphere of life have a special duty to pursue.