Vol. 3 No. 19 · 15 October 1981

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Objections to Chomsky

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.

Michael Dummett
New College, Oxford

French Witches

SIR: Octave Mannoni (Letters, 20 August) appears to misunderstand my review of Jeanne Favret-Saada’s book. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. I had hoped I had made it clear that Mme Favret-Saada was indeed writing very much in the spirit of a sorcerer’s apprentice in the Bocage. Hence, of course, my comparison with Carlos Castaneda’s work. Unlike the latter, however, Mme Favret-Saada also makes frequent reference to the standard anthropological literature on witchcraft, and writes, so the blurb informs us, as a professional anthropologist teaching the subject at Nanterre. Much of my criticism was thus directed at the author’s unsatisfactory handling of this classic material, and at her apparent unfamiliarity with relevant research and concepts, which makes her Bocage data nothing like as ‘strange’ or exotic as she and Mannoni claim.

I am also a little puzzled by the claim to novelty made for an anthropological approach which treats the people whose culture the anthropologist studies as ‘strange but equal’. This seems old hat to me. The classic French ethnographic tradition, associated with the name of its great champion, Marcel Griaule, insisted on the anthropologist being ‘initiated’ (sometimes literally and physically) into the culture he or she was studying. Of course, the extent to which anthropologists of this or other schools actually succeed in ‘going native’ always remains an intriguing question. Mme Favret-Saada’s pretentious – and condescending – account of her experiences (for Mannoni an ‘adventure’) makes it fairly clear what she feels about the people of the Bocage. I would not wish to question the value of this as a sort of anthropologist’s personal testimony. But it would perhaps be of even greater interest to know what the people of the Bocage made of their anthropologist.

I.M. Lewis
London School of Economics

Trained Readers

SIR: ‘The trained reader of poetry will feel that Foot has left the poetry out, and the trained historian will be no more satisfied,’ writes Marilyn Butler (LRB, 17 September). So people may be trained in poetry-reading as they are trained in hairdressing or computer-programming. Fortunately, Paul Foot has a larger readership. He writes primarily for those who are not trained in anything but who enjoy reading interesting books.

Jeremy Stiles
London SW17

Ex Cathedra

SIR: In his review of David Carlton’s Anthony Eden (LRB, 17 September) Robert Blake writes: ‘It was characteristic that at Oxford he should have read Persian and Turkish, subjects demanding concentration, precision, hard work and meticulous accuracy, but not imagination or ideas.’ Perhaps the Peer of the Realm and the Provost of The Queen’s is too pontifical here. The attempt to understand values and norms of a different culture should provide the undergraduate with plenty of scope to use his imagination and empathy; and in a field uncluttered by 44 Essential Articles on Pope, there should be space enough for ideas and originality. Perhaps the reviewer had in mind a certain faculty at a certain time. In that case, as a no-nonsense, honest conservative historian with an eye for detail and a reputation for meticulous accuracy he should have said so.

Patrick Cross
Bampton, Oxon

Modern Spain

SIR: I sympathise with J.E.R. Little’s view (LRB, 16 July) that my article two issues earlier was unsatisfactory as a review of Raymond Carr’s Modern Spain; the criticism, I believe, goes to the heart of a wider reviewing tendency here and thus requires an explanation. The failure, however lamentable, was not gratuitous. It arose directly from my brief to write an essay on, not a review of, modern Spain. This I attempted to do. If I misinterpreted the brief I regret it: but other contributions on these pages do not lead me to believe it whole-heartedly, no more than does LRB’s excision of a paragraph in my essay praising Professor Carr’s excellent book.

Ronald Fraser
London NW5

The passage which had to be removed for reasons of space from Ronald Fraser’s 2,500 words consisted of the sentence: ‘It is appropriate to ask how history can help us understand the Spanish present, and particularly pleasing to have Raymond Carr’s excellent short history of Modern Spain to guide us through the labyrinth of the past hundred years.’ Mr Fraser was not asked, let alone ‘briefed’, to ignore the book in question: he was invited to say something on his own account, if he wished, about the recent history of Spain. He did not ignore the book: he refers to it with approval at various points. And if he felt he was being objectionably briefed, he could always have refused to act. We would be foolish to make a practice of ignoring the books we review, and we don’t.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Henry James and Romance

SIR: Barbara Everett’s interesting and original article (LRB, 18 June) invites us to consider Henry James, defending the ‘ongoing principle of life innate in natural things’, as a second St Francis of Assisi. She cites as evidence of his human qualities the fact that children and animals were drawn to him: but they could have been wrong; accounts from some young people give a different picture – as does the story of Grace Norton, cherished by James on the page but found wanting in the flesh.

Brian Carstairs

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