Objections to Chomsky

Michael Dummett

  • 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.

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