By Michael Corballis 26/02/2018

Me. But let’s press on regardless.

Noam Chomsky is a polarising figure in modern intellectual life. Best known in popular discourse for his radical criticism of US foreign policy, he has written countless best-selling book on this and related political topics. It is as a philosopher and linguist, though, that he is likely to be best remembered intellectually, leading some to claim him as the foremost intellectual of our time—on a par with, say, Aristotle or Descartes.

He had a major influence on psychology. For over half of the 20th century, psychology was dominated by behaviourism, the view that psychology was about what people actually do, rather than what is going on in their minds. In 1957 the behaviourist B.F. Skinner published his monumental book Verbal Behavior, a behavioural attempt to reach a psychological summit—the explanation of language.

In that same year, Chomsky published a slim volume called Syntactic Structures, based on his PhD thesis, claiming that language is not a matter of learned behaviour, but depends on innate rules. These rules were later called “universal grammar”, common to all humans but denied to all other creatures.

Both books, I think, are more or less unreadable, but they marked 1957 as a watershed year in the history of psychological science, and also set their mark on philosophy and linguistics.

Two years later Chomsky published a review—a demolition, one might say—of Skinner’s book. Behaviourism itself rapidly dwindled, replaced by what came to be called the “cognitive revolution.” Rats (and pigeons) dispersed from psychological laboratories, as though led away by a Pied Piper, and were replaced by undergraduate students. The mind itself was back.

The rise of the digital computer also played a part—a trend that continues with alarming speed. Even humans may disappear from the lab, and perhaps the workplace, replaced by intelligent machines. Chomsky himself, though, has remained aloof from the drift to cognitive science, and has persisted with sometimes incomprehensible attempts to explain how grammar works.

In 1982, the linguist James D. McCawley published a book with the jocular title Thirty Million Theories of Grammar. It’s become worse. Incomprehensible, or simply beyond the understanding of mere mortals? Does Chomsky’s immense intellectual reputation depend on the simple premise that if you can’t understand it, it must be profound? My sense is that if one does try to penetrate the thickets of Chomsky’s writing, it seems increasingly out of line with biological and psychological reality.

For a start, there is the question of the 6,000 or so languages of the world, each more or less impenetrable to the others. How can there be a “universal grammar” underlying all of them? Chomsky buries this issue by supposing that universal grammar, or what he also calls internal language, is not designed for communication at all. It is a uniquely human mode of thought, symbolic, recursive, and infinitely variable. Communicative language—or what Chomskyans call external language—simply represents the (to Chomsky) uninteresting ways in which people of different cultures externalise their thoughts.

Secondly, this internal language of thought appeared in single momentous step in a single human, whom Chomsky whimsically names Prometheus, within the past 100,000 years—well after our species itself emerged. That sounds Biblical rather than scientific.

It also makes no sense in terms of evolution. Big changes don’t happen in a single step. And one has to wonder how Prometheus himself (sic) would have coped. To whom would he have talked? What could be adaptive about communication, or even thought, when there is only one individual capable of it?
The question of how human language and thought evolved is one of the biological challenges of our time. Chomsky did have early insights on the nature of language, but we have moved on.

Featured Image: Chomsky speaking in support of the Occupy movement in 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

0 Responses to “Who’s afraid of Noam Chomsky?”

  • Interesting take on Chomsky….I was drawn to linguistics by learning about his theory but in time, I too moved on….still, I wonder whether being drawn to begin with is the most important thing, the initial pull…I remember reading somewhere that he is more cited than Shakespeare…

    • Yes, the initial pull was important–the problem is when to let go.

  • There is a certain amusing irony in “Both books, I think, are more or less unreadable …”! I think people interpret language in many ways, and an unreadable book of impressive looking nonsense would probably be interpreted as “greatness” and “insight” by at least some readers!

  • Rats and pigeons (and Skinner Boxes) were still being used in psychology classes in New Zealand in the 1990s, for the simple reason that they teach important lessons about animal behaviour. These lessons remain applicable to a wide range of human behaviours, including the education of children. As a young scientist back in the 1970s I found the Chomsky-Skinner dispute notable for the refusal by either party to acknowledge the contributions of the other. I think it’s fair to say now that the ‘black box’ explanation for language acquisition no longer contributes anything useful. Clearly humans have language abilities far exceeding those of the other surviving primates, and presumably these abilities are reflected in our inherited brain structures, but we still need to know much more about which structures, and how they function, as well as whatever we can deduce, from very limited fossil and archaeological evidence, about intermediary steps in evolving hominid populations over the last several million years. I doubt if AI studies will be of much help to us.

  • What a delight to find Chompsky still on your mind. Behaviourists everywhere cheer loudly in support, as loud as the dwindled can. Rather interestingly, this recent puff of computer technology risks reigniting some of Skinner’s, more mechanical, methods. A Phoenix from the ashes? Here’s hoping.