Late summer looks to be a rough time for Dr. Chomsky. Veteran journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe has a book coming out at the end of August. The Kingdom of Speech mounts a frontal assault on Chomsky the man. Unfortunately it also goes after Darwin, and Chomsky’s defenders can dismiss Wolfe’s well aimed shots by pointing out all the bad potshots aimed at “Charlie” Darwin.
Then, a month later, anthropologist Chris Knight publishes his Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. Knight has written the sounder book, though I suspect it will be lucky to get one-tenth of the publicity. Maybe Yale University Press can persuade Wolfe’s reviewers to include Knight in their discussion.
Both books nail Chomsky on his most glaring problem: He keeps changing his opinions His major point remains unshaken--knowledge of language is innate and universal--although the supporting evidence keeps changing.
Knight does the better job of destroying Chomsky’s story by showing a constant, failing effort to make the unshakeable idea work. Wolfe makes the tale more dramatic, but probably less convincing. And Wolfe hangs his drama on secondary issues. He badly misunderstands the whole matter of recursion, for example.
The story as Knight tells it begins with Chomsky becoming a major figure outside the intellectual world by promoting his idea of a deep structure. Unless you are my age or more, readers probably cannot imagine how enthusiastically middle-brow America greeted Chomsky and his “proof” for the existence of mind. Knight points out that this idea got Chomsky backward, but many magazines and newspapers ran stories of how Chomsky had shown that language has two forms—a surface structure (i.e., the words you read or hear) and a deep structure (what you really mean). The deep structure was said to be the mind.
The deep-structure idea hit the social-science world hard and for a brief time there was a search for similar structures in many fields. It was hoped, for example, that children’s language would demonstrate that children began by openly expressing deep structure and then learned how to put their deep idea in terms of a language’s particular surface structure. That hypothesis proved false and the study of language acquisition moved on. Chomsky too saw that the idea was unworkable—you need a separate deep structure for every possible meaning, and the possible meanings seem unbounded. So Chomsky announced he was rejecting the deep structure solution and looking elsewhere.
Many of Chomsky’s supporters point to his habit of changing his mind as a great virtue and proof of his intellectual integrity. Wolfe prefers the dramatic moment and gives Chomsky no credit for the many times he has conceded that an idea proved unworkable. Knight demonstrates what Wolfe asserts. The changes of mind ultimately show that Chomsky’s unshakeable premise is simply a doctrine of faith resting on no facts. The original argument was that the deep structure was universal, ergo, language was innate and (at bottom) universal. But when deep structure collapsed, the ergo part was allowed to remain. Now labeled the Universal Grammar, the task of linguists became identifying its properties.
Well, Galileo said we needed some explanation of gravity in order to understand the motions of the planets, and Schroedinger said we needed to understand genetic information before we understood the gene, so the history of science does include successful examples of putting the cart before the horse. But people spent many a long hour in quest of perpetual motion, the alchemical procedure for turning lead into gold, and the physical material of phlogiston, so carts ahead of horses does not always lead to good science. Was the universal grammar more like gravity or more like the universal elixir? With gravity we knew that things do fall to earth. What similar evidence was there for a universal grammar? Once deep structure failed, the whole premise rested on the fact that children do better at mastering language than the blank-slate theory of mind would have us believe.
Before Chomsky, the triumphant school of psychology was Learning Theory, also known as behaviorism. It said we come into this world knowing nothing and learn everything we know through a process of rewarding successes and/or penalizing failures. Knight does a fine job of contrasting this idea with the ethology work of Konrad Lorenz and his statement that, “Just a few minutes’ observation of a chick or duck freshly removed from the incubator is sufficiently to demonstrate conclusively the utter untenability of this hypothesis.” So it is reasonable to suppose that there is something inborn that lets us learn language pretty quickly. There is, however, no reason to suppose that that inborn something looks anything like the universal grammar conjured up by Chomsky’s crew.
And here is where Wolfe’s account fails its readers. It is beyond high time that popular readers got an update on Chomsky’s reputation. When last they heard, 50 years ago, his name and deep structure was soaring. But Wolfe is not only anti-Chomsky; he is down on Darwin and biology both. His thesis is that language is entirely cultural, which would be fine except that it leaves us back where I was at age 11, realizing that cultures had a beginning and wondering how language could possibly have emerged from such untutored conditions.
If Wolfe were content to stick it to Chomsky, he could include all the biological supports for language—our communalism, our joint-attention, our working memory, our ability to speak for long periods of time without getting giddy for lack of oxygen, our unusual tongue control, our lips, our white sclera, our FOXP2 gene, etc.—and still point out that Chomsky is more faith- than fact-based. Too bad he let his own prejudices get in the way of a great story.