Objections to Chomsky
- Rules and Representations by Noam Chomsky
Blackwell, 299 pp, £7.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 631 12641 4
The first few pages of this book declare a general attitude, wholly admirable in combining the firmest commitment to rationality with intellectual humility, that contrasts not only with the widespread irrationalism of our day but with the equally repellent scientism usually opposed to it. The book is divided into two parts, the first a revision of a lecture course given in 1978 and again in 1979, and the second consisting of two single lectures, both previously published. Part I presents a continuous argument, while the two chapters of Part II restate the same position in slightly different ways. Part I, in particular, is to a large extent polemical: Chomsky cites a great many criticisms of his work, and other expressions of views contrary to his own, and replies to them. The polemical mode of philosophical writing is not his forte.
There are two worthwhile ways to write philosophical polemics, exemplified, at their best, by Wittgenstein and by Frege respectively. The first is to enter deep into the mind of your opponent, to bring out the full power of the motives prompting him to say what he does, to present his case better than he does himself, and then to explain why it has to be rejected. The second is to ignore what can be said in its favour, and concentrate upon delivering a crushing blow, a knock-down refutation from which it can never recover. To attempt the former method risks leaving the reader unconvinced that you have really disproved your opponent’s position: but to attempt the second risks his suspecting that you have missed the true point. Chomsky achieves success in neither of these ways. Though always courteous, he manifests little sympathy with the thought of those he is criticising: his rejoinders often boil down to saying that they have begged the question, or are appealing to prejudice rather than to rational grounds, without any recognition that there is a genuine force to their contentions or a genuine problem to be resolved. Yet his arguments, though never negligible, seldom amount to a decisive refutation; the reader is not left thinking, apropos of his critics: ‘Whatever may be the truth of the matter, it cannot be that.’
This is not to say that the book is not of value. Chomsky is surely right in thinking that there has been a persistent misunderstanding between himself and many of his critics, among whom are numbered linguists and psychologists as well as philosophers. If, in this book, he succeeds in understanding those critics no better than they have understood him, he has made explicit the substance of the disagreement and has brought out its far-reaching importance. Chomsky of course insists that his work in linguistics is an empirical, scientific enterprise. In the present book he is not concerned, save by way of illustration, to expound his linguistic theories or to argue for them against rival theories of the same kind, but to defend their scientific character and their coherence; these questions, though crucial for a scientist to be able to answer, are themselves philosophical ones.
There are two principal issues with which the book is concerned and to which its author repeatedly returns. One is his celebrated thesis that our mastery of language is to a high degree innate. This is not the mere truism that we have an innate capacity to learn language, as, for example, gorillas do not: it means that what we do, in acquiring language, is not exactly learning, as this is usually conceived. We are born with a propensity to speak one out of a restricted range of possible languages. Given that it has to be selected from this restricted range, our experience provides a sufficient basis for acquiring our mother tongue; it would not do so if it had to be selected from among all possible languages. This thesis is of philosophical interest, because of its bearing on the concept of learning: but it is in itself an evidently empirical thesis, with no very great philosophical consequences. As such, it is very much subordinate to the other thesis on which Chomsky lays great stress in this book: namely, that mastery of a language consists of unconscious knowledge. I will concentrate exclusively on this latter thesis.
Vol. 3 No. 18 · 1 October 1981
From Roy Harris
SIR: Professor Dummett (LRB, 3 September) demonstrates in some detail that Chomsky’s position on ‘linguistic knowledge’ is either vacuous or incoherent. But that is hardly news. What Professor Dummett’s brief as a philosopher perhaps inhibited him from adding is that even if Chomsky’s concept of ‘linguistic knowledge’ made more sense than it does, although that might make his position philosophically respectable, it would be an irrelevance to linguistics.
It in no way secures our grasp of the role of language in human affairs to engage in sterile debate about what ought or ought not, in the abstract, to be counted as ‘linguistic knowledge’. Language does not exist outside of an integrated complex of human activities and experiences which resists any simple compartmentalisation between ‘linguistic’ and ‘non-linguistic’.
An approach to language studies which tries to stand this truth on its head, and start off by isolating in advance something called ‘linguistic knowledge’, risks falling into the kind of intellectual mumbo-jumbo that the late J.L. Austin called ivresse des grandes profondeurs. Understanding language needs less of that (either of a Chomskian or any other variety), but more attention paid to analysis of the many different practical ways in which words serve day-to-day human communicational purposes and help us to make sense of the business of living.
Worcester College, Oxford
Vol. 3 No. 19 · 15 October 1981
From Michael Dummett
SIR: It always feels churlish to disagree with one who professes himself an ally: but, whether or not the effect of my review of Noam Chomsky’s Rules and Representations was, as Professor Harris maintains (Letters, 1 October), to demonstrate his view of the knowledge of a language to be ‘either vacuous or incoherent’, that was not my intention.
According to certain of Chomsky’s critics, his account of linguistic competence in terms of unconscious knowledge is allowable as a characterisation of such competence, but, like Kepler’s laws, serves only to systematise, not to explain, the observed facts. According to Chomsky himself, it is, on the contrary, an explanatory hypothesis, whose status is the same as that of any other well-supported explanatory scientific theory. I intended, in my review, to express disagreement with both parties.
Chomsky’s hypothesis is not, on my view, explanatory as it stands: to become so, it would have to be supplemented by a plausible account of how unconscious knowledge operates to affect conscious actions. I did not, however, as Professor Harris’s remarks suggest, condemn it as irremediably vacuous: I designedly left it open whether such supplementation was to be had. Nor did I side with Chomsky’s critics. If someone were to characterise an ability to ride a bicycle as implicit knowledge of certain propositions, the propositions he would have to cite could be very simply transformed into descriptions of what a cyclist actually does. This case is very different from that of mastery of a language. Philosophers of language, even when they think that competence in a language does not really involve knowing anything, are accustomed to specify it by framing a body of propositions such that, if someone knew them, he would be able to speak the language. No one has supplied an account of that in which a mastery of a language consists solely in terms of what a speaker actually says and does, without appeal to the concept of knowledge. Until that is done, Chomsky’s claim that knowledge of one’s mother tongue is a genuine instance of knowledge will remain unrefuted.
My own hunch is that Chomsky is right to make this claim, but that the true account of the matter will be found to involve the concept, not of unconscious, but of unverbalised, though conscious knowledge; this is not as yet much more than a hunch.
Chomsky tends to provoke both intemperate adulation and intemperate abuse. I tried, in my reivew, to emulate his own temperate tone in responding to his critics. I think that such a tone is best suited to fruitful discussion of the rather deep issues in question.
New College, Oxford
Vol. 3 No. 20 · 5 November 1981
From Roy Harris
SIR: I owe Professor Dummett a public apology if I have in any way misrepresented his views about Chomsky. But I don’t think I have. It would have been not only presumptuous of me but also – as I already knew – quite foolish to profess myself an ally of Professor Dummett on the basis of his ‘Objections to Chomsky’ (Letters, 1 October). I was rather careful not to make any such profession, either overtly or otherwise, for the very good reason that I do not share his view of the ‘deep issues’ of linguistic knowledge, about which he and some generativists are alike concerned. These are not, in my view, deep issues but bogus issues. (To say this implies no intellectual disrespect. I have great respect for Plato as a thinker: but that does not stop me from holding the view that he worried about far more bogus problems than Chomsky and Dummett put together.)
A reviewer who demands so much more of a theory than the theory manifestly has to offer, and then ‘designedly leaves it open whether such supplementation is to be had’, has no cause for complaint if his readers take him to be questioning whether indeed there is any likelihood that the supplementation demanded could be forthcoming.
Professor Dummett now says (LRB, 3 September) that his quarrel with Chomsky is just over whether linguistic knowledge is unconscious, as distinct from unverbalised. To me, this is like listening to two medieval theologians debating the correct interpretation of the nature of sin.
Worcester College, Oxford