Review: 'CHOMSKY & HIS CRITICS'
by D.W. Randal (Manchester Metropolitan University) published in Northern Voices No.2 in the Winter 2003/4 issue
We are republishing this old review from Northern Voices No.2 by the sociologist Dave Randal, because of the recent difficulties experienced by the linguist, Dr. Daniel Everett, and others doing controversial research among the Pirahã people in Brazil (see the 'Whatever Happened to Chomsky's Critics' posting below), which appears to undermine Chomsky's dominant theory of language. With a research team from M.I.T., led by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science scheduled to run a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel next month, we want to recall the trouble we had in examining Chomsky's ideas. In 2001, those of us who later became associated with Northern Voices were involved with some Manchester academics in the publishing of 'an Alternative Raven' dealing with the subject 'Chomsky & his Critics'. It had originally been intended that Freedom Press (the anarchist publishers)would bring this series of essays out in their publication The Raven. In the end this was not to be, and we brought it out independently. Later in 2002, a schoolmaster, Toby Crowe, took over the editorship of Freedom and he agreed to publish a review of 'Chomsky & his Critics' , if we could find someone who had not contributed to the original publication. Thus, Dave Randal from the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University, agreed to write the review below. But, before it was submitted Toby Crowe withdrew his offer to publish the review in Freedom and we were forced to publish it in Northern Voices No.2. The comments by Toby Crowe in the Canadian anarchist publication 'Any Time Now', accusing one of our leading contributors denouncing 'Chomsky's theory as unscientific' because 'it doesn't conform to the Stalin/ Lysenko doctrine that everything in biology is decided solely by the environment' is absurd and suggests that the writer, Mr Crowe, hadn't read a word of either Chomsky or Wittgenstein's linguistics.
READERS of the 'Alternative Raven' on 'Chomsky & His Critics' may well have asked themselves what the fuss was about when first Chomsky and then various others took exception to some of its contributions. As someone who was a more or less disinterested observer (although I know many of these contributors well and share their doubts about Chomsky's linguistic claims) I was taken aback when I read that the decision not to publish its contents was apparently taken because 'we were unimpressed by the quality of some of the material it contains, not to mention the political orientation behind it.' The main article, Toby Crowe (Editor of Freedom at that time) claims: 'denounces Chomsky's theory as unscientific, for example, on the grounds that it doesn't conform to the Stalin/ Lysenko doctrine that everything in biology is decided solely by the environment.'*
I would normally defend, like Toby Crowe, the rights of publishers to make publishing decisions but I would add a caveat. Publishing decisions, in my view, are best made from a position other than that of ignorance. It is easy to be unimpressed by something if you do not consider that it might be necessary to read and understand it before forming an opinion. To be sure, anyone with even the vaguest understanding of the discussion at hand would not mistake any of the participants as being involved in some peculiar attempt to recapitulate environmental determinism in biology. The issues have nothing to do with this at all. Stated simply, they are about a theory which lays out a particular causal connection between 'brain states' and behaviour, much as most cognitive science does. Objections to this kind of theory are usually along the lines of a contrasting view of behaviour which is that it is normally 'social', involves 'shared understanding' in some way and thus cannot be down to simple causal links between brain states and behaviour.
In the case of Chomsky specifically, the argument is about a 'language organ' and its relationship, if it exists at all, with our ability to speak and write.
Chomsky, without question, did the world a favour in demolishing the pretensions of behaviourism all those years ago. He was instrumental in providing the foundations for an alternative - cognitive science or cognitive psychology - for which we should be less grateful. There can be no doubt that cognitive science today holds a dominant position in intellectual life. It is committed to a view which holds that the human mind/ brain is computer-like. This has many complex ramifications, but include the idea that the mind/ brain is a piece of hardware, organised on modular lines and in which each part has a specific purpose or function. Contained in this is the view that the storage, recall and transformation of 'information' is what is going on in our heads, and thus that the human mind/ brain is engaged in something which we can term 'information processing'.
To believe Chomsky, you are more or less committed to a view of language which says that language is best understood as a form of information stored in our heads. This is not information about the meanings of words, but about their structuring. That is, Chomsky requires us to believe that we best understand language by analysing grammar/ syntax rather that semantics/ meaning; that the grammar in question is 'universal', or at some deep level the same across all languages, and that the acquisition of language is not, in important ways, learned but given genetically.
This bears repeating, for it implies that our ability to use a language is independent of our experience of the world. Two initial points, then. Firstly, the critics of Chomsky writing in the Alternative Raven are not offering and alternative biological viewpoint at all, but a sociological alternative (albeit a sociological alternative of a very specific kind). They are not suggesting that there cannot be a connection of some kind between brains and speech, no more than they would argue there is no connection between legs and walking. They are suggesting that Chomsky's specific causal model of language acquisition doesn't stack up precisely because it is a naive biological account.
Previous critics have emphasised the lack of empirical confirmation for his theories, noting that we have very little actual evidence to support the idea of 'deep structures'. Moreover, the actual grammatical structures of different world languages seem to vary most when they share least heritage, supporting the idea that something like history rather than biology is what drives their similarity. The contributors to the Alternative Raven (Chomsky & his Critics), however, are arguing that the problems go deeper, for they are based on a confusion between empirical and conceptual matters. Wil Coleman, in particular, is asking us to think carefully about what a language is and whether it is useful or right to think about languages as grammatical structures a la Chomsky at all. Whether one agrees with these authors or not, the force of their argument is clear. They are offering a competing account based on Wittgenstein's later philosophy, and in which it is argued that language is best understood in and through the way it is used rather than through any structure it might (putatively) have. They are, in other words, taking the debate about the plausibility of Chomsky's view of language a stage further.
Chomsky's political arguments have a different status, insofar as they are largely untheoretical polemics. There is no claim, in other words, that any science is being done. I would disagree with Rupert Read, another of Chomsky's critics here, where he claims to see connections between Chomsky's linguistic work and his political commitments, for I see none of any consequence. For what it is worth, Chomsky's political views (although he is evidently on the side of the angels) always seem to me to trade on a weak and unarticulated view of 'ideology'.
In this, the interests of Corporate America dominate police through its handmaiden, the media. Well, they almost certainly do, at least much of the time. Much better political theorists than Chomsky, however, have argued the link between capitalism and the State through interest theories of ideology. Althusser and Gramsci spring to mind. It never seems to me that Chomsky adds anything to this kind of argument apart from a certain passion.
Overall, the fact that Chomsky and others hold to an information-theoretic view of language and thinking has powerful consequences, and debates about their merits or otherwise very much need to take place. It seems to me that the dominant view has had, for instance, major ramifications in our education system, (see Roszak, 'The Cult of Information'). I discern no lack of quality
*Letter from Toby Crowe (Freedom's Editor in 2003/ 04) in the Canadian anarchist-decentralist newspaper 'Any Time Now'.