The pope and the Pentagon
How is it that Noam Chomsky's latest linguistic theories can acquire such a devoted following? Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group continues his examination of Chomsky's life and work
In 1966, Noam Chomsky (pictured) published his Cartesian linguistics. The book was a survey of rationalist conceptions of language and mind, focusing heavily on the French mathematician and philosopher, Réné Descartes (1596-1650). In his early years, Chomsky had been working within the structuralist tradition of Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Leonard Bloomfield and his own teacher, Zellig Harris. Chomsky wrote Cartesian linguistics in order to signal to the world his change of mind. His distinctively 'Cartesian' approach, he now clarified, was a rebellion against the entire 20th century tradition of structural linguistics.
By 'Cartesian', Chomsky meant 'scientific' in the natural science sense. Anything else - anything social or political - would be repugnant and politically dangerous. As he explains, referring to the atmosphere he encountered on arriving in Boston in 1951, "Computers, electronics, acoustics, mathematical theory of communication, cybernetics, all the technological approaches to human behaviour enjoyed an extraordinary vogue. The human sciences were being reconstructed on the basis of these concepts. It was all connected … Some people, myself included, were rather concerned about these developments, in part for political reasons, at least as far as my motivations were concerned … because this whole complex of ideas seemed linked to potentially quite dangerous political currents: manipulative, and connected with behaviourist concepts of human nature."
For linguistics to qualify as a genuine science, it would have to be 'Cartesian' - pure in the sense that mathematics is pure. Science should be completely free of reactionary politics and, indeed, free of political contamination of any kind.
It was this impulse which led Chomsky to celebrate Galileo and the scientific revolution of the 17th century. In principle, natural science should be pursued in complete freedom from political pressure. The secrets it uncovers are those of nature, not society. Unlike society or politics, the puzzles of nature promote intellectual honesty and cooperation. Natural science can embrace the study of language - realising the full promise of the 17th century 'cognitive revolution' - but only on one condition. The term 'language' must refer to nature, not culture. Chomsky redefined 'language' as an object in the head. Linguistics was redefined as the study of that object and nothing else.
The human soul, according to Descartes, has its "principal seat" in the pineal gland, buried in the centre of the brain. From here, it connects with the tongue and lips, as we express our thoughts. When we speak, thanks to this gland, we can proceed unaware of the complex tongue and lip movements involved:
"… when we speak, we think only of the meaning of what we want to say, and this makes us move our tongue and lips much more readily and effectively than if we thought of moving them in all the ways required for uttering the same words. For the habits acquired in learning to speak have made us join the action of the soul (which, by means of the gland, can move the tongue and lips) with the meaning of the words which follow upon these movements, rather than with the movements themselves."
Language depends, then, on that little gland through which the soul - spontaneously, efficiently and independently of conscious effort - activates the organs of speech. For Descartes, this doctrine was theologically required:
"For after the error of those who deny god … there is none that leads weak minds further from the straight path of virtue than that of imagining that the souls of beasts are of the same nature as ours, and hence that after this present life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than flies or ants. But, when we know how much the beasts differ from us, we understand much better the arguments which prove that our soul is of a nature entirely independent of the body, and consequently that it is not bound to die with it. And since we cannot see any other causes which destroy the soul, we are naturally led to conclude that it is immortal."
Since body and soul are so utterly distinct, they should be investigated in quite different ways: the body on the basis of experimentation and careful measurement; the soul on the basis of devout, but informed introspection.
What makes the soul so utterly different from the body? Descartes offers a thought experiment. Imagine mechanical dolls replicating the appearance and behaviour of various beasts. In principle, he says, they might be constructed so cleverly that no-one could tell that they were fakes. This is because animals really are just machines, their movements mere responses to stimuli from outside. But what of mechanical men?
No matter how cleverly these were designed, writes Descartes, "we should still have two very certain means of recognising that they were not real men. The first is that they could never use words, or put together other signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words which correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs (eg, if you touch it in one spot it asks you what you want of it; if you touch it in another it cries out that you are hurting it; and so on). But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do."
While a mechanical doll might be equipped to respond to specific situations, Descartes continued, none could be equipped with reason - defined as a universal instrument for responding appropriately to all possible situations. Unlike a machine, then, man is both linguistic and rational.
"Now in just these two ways," continues Descartes, "we can also know the difference between man and beast. For it is quite remarkable that there are no men so dull-witted or stupid - and this includes even madmen - that they are incapable of arranging various words together and forming an utterance from them in order to make their thoughts understood; whereas there is no other animal, however perfect and well-endowed it may be, that can do the like."
Are animals dumb merely because they lack the requisite external organs of speech? Do they have rational minds, lacking only the physical means to express them? Descartes considers this possibility, but dismisses it: magpies and parrots, after all, can imitate speech but evidently without actually thinking what they are saying. Meanwhile, physically impaired humans, deprived of the ability to hear or to produce speech sounds, can readily resort to manual signing in order to express themselves. "This shows," concludes Descartes, "not merely that the beasts have less reason then men, but that they have no reason at all." Animals show no trace of speech for the simple reason that they do not have a soul.
After much agonising, Réné Descartes concluded that the soul lies beyond the legitimate remit of science. Its complexities, he decided, should be left to the theologians. What exactly prompted this momentous conclusion, destined to shape the development of western intellectual life for three centuries? Let Descartes explain in his own words. In November 1633, he had been "quite determined" to send his friend, Mersenne, a copy of his latest Treatise on man:
"But I have to say that in the meantime I took the trouble to inquire in Leiden and Amsterdam whether Galileo's World system was available, for I thought I had heard that it was published in Italy last year. I was told that it had indeed been published, but that all copies had immediately been burnt at Rome, and that Galileo had been convicted and fined. I was so astonished at this that I almost decided to burn all my papers or at least to let no-one see them. For I could not imagine that he - an Italian and, as I understand, in the good graces of the pope - could have been made a criminal for any other reason that he tried, as he no doubt did, to establish that the earth moves."
If a moving earth was punishable heresy, the consequences for Descartes were frightening:
"I must admit that if the view is false, so too are the entire foundations of my philosophy, for it can be demonstrated from them quite clearly. And it is so closely interwoven in every part of my treatise that I could not remove it without rendering the whole work defective. But for all the world I did not want to publish a discourse in which a single word could be found that the church would have disapproved of; so I preferred to suppress it rather than to publish it in a mutilated form."
In any list of topics liable to get Descartes into trouble, independent thinking about the soul must have come close to the top. But he had no appetite for personal martyrdom. Excusing himself for reneging on his promise to send Mersenne his treatise, he wrote that if his views "cannot be approved of without controversy, I have no desire ever to publish them".
In the event, despite this, sections of Descartes' Treatise on man have come down to us. "First," announces the author at the outset, "I must describe the body on its own; then the soul, again on its own; and finally I must show how these two natures would have to be joined and united in order to constitute men who resemble us." But in the sections of the treatise to have survived, Descartes says almost nothing about the soul. In the light of what happened to Galileo, it is not difficult to understand why.
A second substance
Historians of science tend to view Descartes' invention of a 'second substance' as a transparently political manoeuvre. Was he not just offering the Vatican a face-saving formula? It smacked of a carve-up: he would allow them exclusive rights over man's soul, if only science could be left undisturbed with the body. The arrangement might work if the two were so utterly separate and unconnected as to render mutual interference unthinkable. Viewed from this perspective, Cartesian dualism makes good sense. As Descartes put it, "… the soul is of such a nature that it has no relation to extension, or to the dimensions or other properties of the matter of which the body is composed."
This is obvious, he continued, "from our inability to conceive of a half or a third of a soul, or of the extension which a soul occupies. Nor does the soul become any smaller if we cut off some part of the body, but it becomes completely separate from the body when we break up the assemblage of the body's organs."
Soul is not subject to bodily interference. It does not obey any of the laws of natural science. The bishops and cardinals should therefore stop worrying and relax.
In Cartesian linguistics, Chomsky celebrated Descartes' line of reasoning, while reformulating it in supposedly more up-to-date terms. The mind in its activities, Chomsky insisted, is 'stimulus-free' - autonomous with respect to bodily action and experience in the world. This is most strikingly evident in the case of language. Since grammar is autonomous with respect to other cognitive domains, it makes sense to restrict linguistics to the study of 'competence' - what the speaker knows - without having to complicate the picture by including the use of that knowledge in 'performance'.
This was presented as fidelity to Descartes and, in a sense, it was. More profoundly, though, Chomsky's was the fidelity of a camera obscura, turning the French philosopher upside-down. As a sympathetic biographer comments on Chomsky's book title, Cartesian linguistics, "The term 'Cartesian' is not used here according to its generally accepted definition; Chomsky extends that definition to encompass, as he puts it, 'a certain collection of ideas which were not expressed by Descartes, [were] rejected by followers of Descartes, and many first expressed by anti-Cartesians'."
When Chomsky tells us that 'competence' can be studied to the exclusion of 'performance', he is echoing Descartes' distinction between body and soul. But what for Descartes was a concession to the religious authorities becomes, for Chomsky, science itself. "Now I believe," as he explains, "and here I would differ a lot from my colleagues, that the move of Descartes to the postulation of a second substance was a very scientific move; it was not a metaphysical or an unscientific move." Descartes' 'second substance' idea, he continues, was 'scientific' in that it anticipated Newton:
"In fact, in many ways it was very much like Newton's intellectual move when he postulated action at a distance; he was moving into the domain of the occult, if you like. He was moving into the domain of something that went beyond well-established science, and was trying to integrate it with well-established science by developing a theory in which these notions could be properly clarified and explained."
In the event, Descartes spectacularly failed - a point which Chomsky concedes. "But then," he continues, "that poses for us, I think, the task of carrying on and developing this, if you like, mathematical theory of mind …"
In contrast to Chomsky, Descartes in his scientific role was a materialist. By assuming the body to be a machine, as he put it, we can explain "the digestion of food, the beating of the heart and arteries, the nourishment and growth of the limbs, respiration, waking and sleeping, the reception by the external sense organs of light, sounds, smells, tastes, heat and other such qualities, the imprinting of the ideas of these qualities in the organ of the 'common' sense and the imagination, the retention or stamping of these ideas in the memory, the internal movements of the appetites and passions, and finally the external movements of all the limbs …"
Previous scholars had sought to explain such things by invoking the soul. Descartes proudly announced that he did not need 'soul' at all. It is not necessary, he insisted, "to conceive of this machine as having any vegetative or sensitive soul or other principle of movement and life, apart from its blood and its spirits, which are agitated by the heat of the fire burning continuously in its heart - a fire which has the same nature as all the fires that occur in inanimate bodies".
The only thing Descartes could not explain in this way was man's soul. He could specify the pineal gland as the seat of this strange entity, but quite how it interacted or could possibly interact with the body remained - despite his efforts - an insoluble mystery.
Chomsky's audacity in reversing Descartes is breathtaking. He accuses the Frenchman of fabricating this 'mind-body' problem by assuming that the body exists. Once you realise the true significance of Newton's discovery of gravity - namely that it explodes materialist philosophy - the problem disappears:
"Newton demonstrated, to his dismay, that nothing in nature falls within the mechanical model of intelligibility that seemed to be the merest common sense to the creators of modern science. Newton regarded his discovery of action at a distance, in violation of the basic principles of the mechanical philosophy, as "so great an absurdity that I believe no man who has in philosophical matters a competent faculty of thinking can ever fall into it". Nonetheless, he was forced to conclude that the absurdity "does really exist".
Chomsky continues: "The implications for the theory of mind were immediate, and immediately recognised. Mind-body dualism is no longer tenable, because there is no notion of body. It is common in recent years to ridicule Descartes' 'ghost in the machine', and to speak of 'Descartes' error' in postulating a second substance: mind, distinct from body. It is true that Descartes was proven wrong, but not for those reasons. Newton exorcised the machine; he left the ghost intact. It was the first substance, extended matter, that dissolved into mysteries."
Or, to quote Chomsky again, "… it is important to recall that what collapsed was the Cartesian theory of matter; the theory of mind, such as it was, has undergone no fundamental critique."
In these words, Chomsky sums up his entire agenda. The Cartesian "theory of mind, such as it was", is the hallowed doctrine of the soul. Descartes decided to leave such mysteries to the theologians, meanwhile getting on with real science. Three centuries later, working in a laboratory funded by the Pentagon, Chomsky resolved to turn the clock back. Rewinding history, he would choose the opposite path. Torn between reason and caution, Descartes presented man as a machine driven by a ghost beyond the comprehension of science. For Chomsky, man's ghostly and mysterious body - a complex entity no scientist can claim to understand - is raised above the animal level by a scientifically comprehensible machine.
Rebranding the soul
The puzzle as to how a child can master a grammar is, for Chomsky, an instance of 'Plato's problem' - "the problem of explaining how we can know so much, given that we have such limited evidence".
"Plato's answer," says Chomsky, "was that the knowledge is 'remembered' from an earlier existence. The answer calls for a mechanism: perhaps the immortal soul. That may strike us as not very satisfactory, but it is worth bearing in mind that it is a more reasonable answer than those assumed as doctrine during the dark ages of Anglo-American empiricism and behavioural science - to put the matter tendentiously, but accurately."
So we should not associate the doctrine of the soul with the dark ages: on the contrary, it is the opponents of Plato's theory who are in the dark ages. But there is a problem: talk of man's 'immortal soul' sounds like antiquated language. For the doctrine to appear more acceptable, it needs to be rephrased:
"Pursuing this course, and rephrasing Plato's answer in terms more congenial to us today, we will say that the basic properties of cognitive systems are innate to the mind, part of human biological endowment … ."
Recruited by Chomsky to serve his special purposes, then, formulations such as "innate to the mind" or "part of human biological endowment" do not necessarily retain the meanings they might have in modern genetic science. Rather they have a specific job to do. Within linguistics, their task is to help render "more congenial" the doctrine that man's immortal soul needs no external help in getting transmitted from one generation to the next.
A perfect system
Nowhere is this clearer than in Chomsky's latest approach, the so-called "minimalist programme". To explain the underlying thinking, Chomsky presents us with a thought-experiment. Imagine "a divine architect" entrusted with the task of designing and installing language in the very first human brain. If you were god, how might you set about this task?
This is the mirror-image reverse of Descartes' thought experiment with mechanical dolls. Descartes put himself in the shoes of a human clockmaker, concluding that not even in principle could one construct a mechanical soul. Imagining himself in god's shoes, Chomsky reaches the opposite conclusion. A 'language machine' must be possible in principle. The question is: how would god design and install such a thing?
"Language," Chomsky reminds us, "is, at its core, a system that is both digital and infinite." Why language should be so different from other biological systems "is a problem, possibly even a mystery". Since "there is no other biological system with these properties", he continues, we are left "with the problem of how this capacity developed in humans and how a messy system such as the brain could have developed an infinite digital system in the first place". Echoing Descartes, Chomsky insists that the new system could not have evolved from the old: it must have been separately created. He suggests a genetic mutation triggered by a cosmic ray shower. However, this might have installed the new organ only to encounter a problem. If the old brain was analogue - "messy" - whereas the novel installation was digital, why should the old and new bits match up? Did the components on each side neatly snap into place? If so, how and why?
Scientists these days tend to follow Darwin rather than Plato, so questions of this kind do not normally arise. To explain his thinking, therefore, Chomsky must make a special effort. He invites us to imagine an ancestor of today's gorillas getting hit by just the right kind of cosmic ray shower - only to be equipped with a language organ which did not properly fit. What if the "legibility conditions" proved wrong? What if the mutant's old brain could not communicate with its newly installed component? Chomsky's axiomatic assumption was that the mutation must be a random event - an intervention from outer space, utterly unconnected with prior evolutionary developments on Earth. On statistical grounds, then, we would hardly expect a good fit - or indeed any fit:
"In fact it is conceivable, it is an empirical possibility, though extremely unlikely, that higher primates, say, gorillas or whatever, actually have something like a human language faculty, but they just have no access to it. So, too bad, the legibility conditions are not satisfied."
Given Chomsky's initial assumption - that the complete organ must be assembled and installed by a random event - it is the wild improbability of any fit at all which makes the human condition so surprising. In our own case, quite extraordinarily, he discerns not just a satisfactory fit, but a perfect one!
Among monkeys and apes, according to Chomsky, nothing remotely resembling language exists, "which means that the language faculty appears to be biologically isolated in a curious and unexpected sense".
He continues: "To tell a fairy story about it, it is almost as if there was some higher primate wandering around a long time ago and some random mutation took place - maybe after some strange cosmic ray shower - and it reorganised the brain, implanting a language organ in an otherwise primate brain."
Imagine a burst of radiation doing this to a wandering ape. While the mutant can now speak perfectly, no-one else can speak or comprehend a word. Is that not a problem for the theory? No, says Chomsky, the topic of communication is irrelevant:
"The reason is that ... language is not properly regarded as a system of communication. It is a system for expressing thought: something quite different. It can, of course, be used for communication, as can anything people do - manner of walking or style of clothes or hair, for example. But in any useful sense of the term, communication is not the function of language, and may even be of no unique significance for understanding the functions and nature of language."
Admittedly, the new organ must be "functional". But this just means functional for different parts of the same brain:
"The language faculty interfaces with other components of the mind/brain. The interface properties, imposed by the systems among which language is embedded, set constraints on what this faculty must be if it is to function within the mind/brain."
So, although the newly installed digital organ must interface properly with the rest of its owner's mind/brain, interfacing with other brains is not an issue at all. Language, after all, is primarily for talking to yourself:
"Actually you can use language even if you are the only person in the universe with language, and in fact it would even have adaptive advantage. If one person suddenly got the language faculty, that person would have great advantages: the person could think, could articulate to itself its thoughts, could plan, could sharpen and develop thinking, as we do in inner speech, which has a big effect on our lives. Inner speech is most of speech. Almost all the use of language is to oneself … So, if one organism just happens to gain a language capacity, it might have reproductive advantages - enormous ones. And if it happened to proliferate in a further generation, they all would have it."
In the light of all this, Chomsky asks just how useful the new organ is to the individual. In the following passage, the letter 'P' stands for "general properties of the systems with which language interacts at the interface":
"We can now ask a question that is not precise, but is not vacuous either. How good a solution is language to the conditions P? How perfectly does language satisfy the general conditions imposed at the interface? If a divine architect were faced with the problem of designing something to satisfy these conditions, would actual human language be one of the candidates, or close to it?"
Chomsky then announces his astounding conclusion. "Recent work," he informs us, "suggests that language is surprisingly 'perfect' in this sense ..." The formulation faithfully echoes Descartes: "The substance which we understand to be supremely perfect, and in which we conceive absolutely nothing that implies any defect or limitation in that perfection, is called god."
Language, it would seem, is the presence of god in man.
A brief round-up of Chomsky's most celebrated ideas will confirm that his point of departure is invariably the soul, with the corollary that this strange entity, being perfect, is autonomous with respect to man's intrinsically imperfect body.
Take Chomsky's admission that, superficially, language does not look perfect at all: "One massive case," he notes, "is the phonological system: the whole phonological system looks like a huge imperfection; it has every bad property you can think of." Phonology makes languages sound different. This is obviously anomalous: "strong minimalism", after all, would predict just one language spoken by everyone. Does this mean that the theory is falsified by the data? Not at all, claims Chomsky. Humans really do speak just one common language. Yes, he admits, they sound different. Variations exist in choice of sounds and also in arbitrary sound-meaning associations. "These," he says, "are straightforward and need not detain us."
More interesting is the fact that languages differ in inflectional systems. Take case systems, for example: "We find that these are fairly rich in Latin, even more so in Sanskrit or Finnish, but minimal in English and invisible in Chinese."
Chinese does not have a case system, unlike Sanskrit or Latin. But what if these and other languages across the world all have one and the same case system - a fact which no-one ever noticed before because none of it is audible at all?
Recent work, according to Chomsky, "indicates that these systems vary much less than the surface forms suggest. Chinese and English, for example, may have the same case system as Latin, but a different phonetic realisation, though the effects show up in other ways."
If the variations emerge only when speakers make audible sounds, then no kind of evidence can possibly disprove Chomsky's theory that silently all languages have exactly the same case system. Provided everyone keeps quiet, no-one will be able to tell the difference. The fact that languages sound different in various respects is, in short, an obvious imperfection. But as Chomsky reassuringly explains, "a large range of imperfections may have to do with the need to 'externalise' language. If we could communicate by telepathy, they would not arise."
Language, then, is perfect, universal and invariant - on the assumption that telepathy works.
Over the years, many of Chomsky's colleagues and former students have expressed increasing astonishment at his pursuit of such ideas. Why would anyone expect a biological organ to be "perfect"? Why does Chomsky compare language to the work of a "divine architect"? Why does he claim that it could not possibly have evolved - that it was installed in one step? Why does he insist that "digital" and "infinite" cognition is not "for" anything outside itself - that it has no communicative function? Finally, why does he pass over actual languages and their grammars in search of something only the mind can see - an inaudible language common to all humanity? At first sight, Chomsky's reasoning can seem very strange.
The mysteries clear once we respect and take seriously Chomsky's own claims of intellectual ancestry. His aim from the outset has been to "rephrase" Plato's formulations, treading in places where Descartes - out of fear of the Inquisition - feared to tread. Unlike the inevitably blemished body, man's soul is perfect. It transcends the laws of physics and materialist science. It occupies no position in space or time. It cannot be cut up or divided. You cannot imagine a fragment of soul. No baby can set out with a suggestion of soul and subsequently develop the rest: either it's got a soul or it hasn't.
Neither does it make sense to imagine the soul emerging incrementally during the evolution of Homo sapiens. If soul exists at all, it must exist in perfect form. Whether in ontogeny (the development of the individual) or phylogeny (the evolution of the species), the installation of immortality must be instantaneous. Nothing in the realm of Descartes' "corporeal substance" can prefigure it or give rise to it. Note also that immortality is not "for" anything. Being independent of physical substance, it has no bodily purpose. You cannot say that evolving humans gained a soul to enable, say, social communication or cooperation. Immortality is not like that. It is independent of any bodily function. Who installed it? When? How? Why? There can be no intelligible answer to such questions.
According to his supporters, Chomsky is "the world-renowned leader of an intellectual revolution in the field of linguistics". Almost single-handedly, he established linguistics on a scientific basis, triggering an intellectual earthquake - the "second cognitive revolution" - recalling the immense scientific revolution led by Galileo, Descartes and Newton three centuries earlier. Although Chomsky himself tends to be more modest, he does little to discourage such claims:
"The discovery of empty categories and the principles that govern them and that determine the nature of mental representations and computations in general may be compared with the discovery of waves, particles, genes and so on … The same is true of the principles of phrase structure, binding theory and other subsystems of universal grammar. We are beginning to see into the hidden nature of the mind and to understand how it works, really for the first time in history, though the topics have been studied for literally thousands of years, often intensively and productively. It is possible that in the study of the mind/brain we are approaching a situation that is comparable with the physical sciences in the 17th century, when the great scientific revolution took place that laid the basis for the extraordinary accomplishments of subsequent years and determined much of the course of civilisation since."
But, as it turned out, not a single one of Chomsky's earth-shattering discoveries has proved remotely on a par with "the discovery of waves, particles, genes and so on" in the physical sciences. Even the basic notion of "deep structure" was discarded long ago and is nowadays not mentioned. The Empty Category Principle (ECP), X-bar theory, binding theory and so on and so forth - virtually the entire corpus of Chomskyan technical concepts and terms - got thrown overboard a few years after the above passage was written. "Minimalism" meant exploring Chomsky's personal "intuition" that language is "perfect", which in turn meant calling into question just about everything:
"My own view is that almost everything is subject to question, especially if you look at it from a minimalist perspective; about everything you look at, the question is: why is it there? So, if you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said government is a unifying concept, X-bar theory is a unifying concept, the head parameter is an obvious parameter, ECP, etc, but now none of these looks obvious. X-bar theory, I think, is probably wrong, government maybe does not exist."
In an attempt to salvage his credibility, Chomsky argues that failure and self-repudiation on this scale is normal in science. When Einstein intervened, Newton's more limited conceptions were overthrown. But the difference - as Chomsky well knows - is that physics underwent a genuine scientific revolution, whereas linguistics did not. There is no evidence that Galileo kept changing his mind on fundamentals during his own lifetime, as Chomsky has done. The fact that no Chomskyan claim seems to survive more than a few years suggests that something is wrong.
Chomsky sometimes admits this: "… my own sense of the field is that, contrary to what is often said, it has not undergone any intellectual or conceptual revolution."
Or again, linguistics "has not even reached anything like a Galilean revolution". At best, according to Chomsky, his own work may have been "preliminary to a future conceptual revolution which I think we can begin to speculate the vague outlines of".
In a 1983 interview, the following exchange occurred:
How would you assess your own contribution to linguistics?
They seem sort of pre-Galilean.
Like physics before the scientific revolution in the 17th century?
Yes. In the pre-Galilean period, people were beginning to formulate problems in physics in the right way. The answers weren't there, but the problems were finally being framed in a way that in retrospect we can see was right.
How "pre-" do you mean? Are you saying that linguistics is about where physics was in the 16th century? Or are we going back still further, to Aristotle and to other Greek ideas about physics?
We don't know. It depends, you see, on when the breakthrough comes. But my feeling is that someday someone is going to come along and say, 'Look, you guys, you're on the right track, but you went wrong here. It should have been done this way.' Well, that will be it. Suddenly things will fall into place.
To be fair, this interview was recorded 10 years before Chomsky's announcement of his "minimalist programme". But not even his most ardent supporters would describe the "perfect organ" now supposed to have been discovered as remotely comparable to Galileo's moving earth or Newton's discovery of gravitational force.
Chomsky survives by keeping hope alive. His former student, Paul Postal, likens him to a charismatic preacher who promises the end of the world:
"Then the day would come, the world would not end, and one might figure that the movement would collapse, right? But no, quite the contrary. The fervour of the group members became even greater. They would go out and proselytise, passionately trying to get more members. A new date would be set. When that date would arrive, the prediction would again obviously be falsified and one would assume that the movement would this time surely collapse. No. Again, there was increased proselytising, increased fervour …"
Chomsky defends the doctrine which is currently his favourite with extraordinary conviction, equalled only by the conviction that his own former doctrines were erroneous. Since his most articulate opponents may well be followers of his former self or selves, he often seems excessively defensive.
"But on the other hand," Postal continues, "he has good reasons for being insecure because he cannot have failed to notice that he has few substantive results in the sense that these are understood in more serious fields, such as logic, mathematics, computer science or physics. And it is striking how elements of his position which were once considered to be profound contributions now have vanished or become enormously marginalised. Where are syntactic rule ordering, the principle of cyclic application, the A-over-A principle, etc? Many of the principles and accomplishments touted in recent years are almost embarrassing in their inadequacy and shoddiness."
Would a genuine science allow itself to be governed by the meanderings of a single individual who keeps changing his mind? "I don't think it is good," comments Steven Pinker:
"Because Chomsky has such an outsize influence in the field of linguistics, when he has an intuition as to what a theory ought to look like, an army of people go out and reanalyse everything to conform to that intuition. To have a whole field turn on its heels every time one person wakes up with a revelation can't be healthy. It leads to a lack of cumulativeness, and an unhealthy fractiousness. It's an Orwellian situation where today Oceania is the ally and Eurasia is the enemy, and tomorrow it's the other way around."
At one point, Chomsky is explaining how the meaning of a sentence is determined by its "deep structure"; shortly afterwards, he is denouncing those still committed to this view, explaining how "surface structure" is decisive in determining the meaning of a sentence. The underlying complaint, expressed by Pinker as by so many of Chomsky's former students and admirers, is that the spiritual leader apparently claims infallibility, his zigzags too often recalling those of a 17th century pope or 20th century Orwellian head of state.
But if the entire project was unworkable and misconceived, why did it gain such extraordinary institutional support? If Chomsky's aim was to work out the mathematical structure of the soul - failing to discover its secret because the project was doomed from the outset - why would corporate America have wanted to sponsor such nonsense?
Here is one possible explanation. The Pentagon is the Vatican of our times. It is a state-within-a-state, an apparatus wielding vast resources, shaping the sponsorship and funding of research projects in virtually every branch of science and technology, enforcing a regime of censorship and patronage sanctioned by loss of income or worse - and cloaking its self-serving activities under a veneer of piety and concern for the welfare of all. The following exchange is from an interview conducted in 1995:
"One of the questions you are often asked after your talks is the one about, How can you work at the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology, funded by the US military]? You've never had any interference with your work, have you?"
Quite the contrary. MIT has been very supportive. I don't know the figures now, but in 1969, when the only serious faculty/student inquiry was undertaken, into funding, there was a commission set up at the time of local ferment about military labs, and I was on it, and at that time MIT funding was almost entirely the Pentagon. About half the institute's budget was coming from two major military laboratories that they administered and of the rest, the academic side, it would have been something like 90% or so from the Pentagon. Something like that. Very high. So it was a Pentagon-based university. And I was at a military-funded lab."
"But," added Chomsky, "I never had the slightest interference with anything I did."
Chomsky's activist supporters invariably express bafflement at this. In fact, however, there is a simple explanation. Chomsky's freedom from "the slightest interference" indicates that his linguistics - unlike his politics - did not trouble the authorities at all. In the wider scheme of things, even his leftwing politics may not have seemed much of a problem. The contradiction is resolved when we remember that institutions like the Vatican require not only sinners, but also a sprinkling of saints. They need genuinely idealistic individuals to act as their public face - their displays of moral conscience and political dissidence striking a chord with key sectors of the public, which might otherwise lead revolts from below.
Behind the scenes, the string-pullers and fixers need real science - the Vatican's instruments of torture must actually work, its gunpowder properly explode - but equally they need stained glass windows and painted ceilings, comforting hymns and saintly myths. It is not enough merely to conceal the truth: the masses are more effectively duped when the secrets of power are reversed.
1. For previous parts of this study, see 'The Chomsky enigma' Weekly Worker January 11 2007; 'Chomsky's parallel lives', January 25 2007; and 'Extraordinary double act of Noam Chomsky' March 11 2010.
2. N Chomsky Language and politics Montreal 1988, p44.
3. R Descartes, 'The passions of the soul' (1649) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 1, pp328-404; the quotation is on p341.
4. Ibid p345.
5. R Descartes, 'Discourse on the method' (1637) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 1, pp111-51, p141.
6. Ibid pp139-40.
7. Ibid p140.
8. R Descartes, 'Letter to Mersenne' (1633) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch, A Kenny The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 3. The correspondence, pp40-41.
9. R Descartes, 'Treatise on man' (1633) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 1, pp99-108, p99.
10. R Descartes, 'The passions of the soul' (1649) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 1, pp328-404; the quotation is on pp339-40.
11. N Chomsky Cartesian linguistics: a chapter in the history of rationalist thought Boston 1966.
12. N Chomsky, letter, March 31 1995, in RF Barsky Noam Chomsky: a life of dissent Cambridge MA 1997, p106.
13. N Chomsky, 'Human nature: justice versus power' (debate with M Foucault) in AI Davidson (ed) Foucault and his interlocutors London 1997, pp107-45. The quotation is on pp112-13.
14. Ibid pp113-14.
15. Ibid p114.
16. R Descartes, 'Treatise on man' (1633) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 1, pp99-108, p108.
17. Ibid pp99-108, p108.
18. N Chomsky On nature and language Cambridge 2002, pp51-52.
19. Ibid p53.
20. N Chomsky Creation and culture (audiotape) Alternative Radio, recorded November 25 1992. Quoted in RF Barsky Noam Chomsky: a life of dissent Cambridge MA 1997, p108.
21. In 1955, Chomsky joined the 'Research Laboratory of Electronics' at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His work was funded by the US military.
22. N Chomsky Knowledge of language: its nature, origin and use Westport 1986, pxxv.
23. N Chomsky, 'Linguistics and adjacent fields: a personal view' in A Kasher (ed) The Chomskyan turn Oxford 1991, p15.
25. N Chomsky, 'Linguistics and cognitive science: problems and mysteries' in A Kasher (ed) The Chomskyan turn Oxford 1991, pp26-53; p50.
26. N Chomsky The architecture of language Oxford 200, p4.
27. Ibid p18.
28. Ibid p4.
29. N Chomsky On nature and language Cambridge 2002, p76.
30. N Chomsky Powers and prospects London 1999, p29.
31. N Chomsky On nature and language Cambridge 2002, p148.
32. N Chomsky Powers and prospects London 1999, p30.
33. R Descartes, 'Objections and replies' (1641) in J Cottingham, R Stoothoff, D Murdoch The philosophical writings of Descartes Cambridge 1985, Vol 2, pp65-383; p114.
34. N Chomsky On nature and language Cambridge 2002, p118.
35. N Chomsky Language and mind New York 1972, p398.
36. Ibid p398.
37. Ibid p405.
38. Editor's note to Noam Chomsky, 'Things no amount of learning can teach' (1983) in CP Otero (ed) Noam Chomsky: language and politics Montreal 1988, p406-19; p406.
39. N Chomsky Language and problems of knowledge: the Managua lectures Cambridge Ma 1988, pp91-92.
40. N Chomsky On nature and language Cambridge 2002, p151.
41. N Chomsky The generative enterprise Dordrecht 1982, p58.
42. Ibid p40.
43. Ibid p41.
44. Noam Chomsky, 'Things no amount of learning can teach' (1983) CP Otero (ed) Language and politics Montreal 1988, pp407-19; p418.
45. Conversation with Paul Postal, in G Huck, JA Goldsmith Ideology and linguistic theory London 1995, pp140-41.
46. C Kenneally The first word: the search for the origins of language London 2007, p271.
47. N Chomsky Class warfare: interviews with David Barsamian London 1996, p102.