Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chomsky rules?

When I was an undergraduate (at an institution where senior faculty warmly spoke of their former teacher and colleague, 'Noam') and a graduate student (where a class on philosophy of mind meant reading Jerry Fodor's unpublished manuscripts--I warmly recall debating whether 'DOORKNOB' is innate!) Chomsky ruled. (The upside of this is that the language of thought could be relied upon to make fun of Wittgensteinians.) But is this still the case? An article in my local newspaper referred me to a paper by Nicholas Evans and Stephen C. Levinson, "The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science," (Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2009), 32:429-448), which looks as if it contradicts most of Chomsky's claims about language. What's the state of play in philosophy of language/mind? Does Chomsky still rule?


  1. This isn't my area of expertise, but here is some secondhand evidence. I have several friends who are/were grad students in linguistics, and it would seem that from the point of view of those doing serious empirical work on languages (historical and modern), Chomsky's work is regarded as irrelevant. Likewise, folks I've known in cognitive science studying issues related to language think that his ideas are pretty much dead.

    Also, as a graduate student I had to read some of Chomsky's interchanges with Quine for a paper on philosophy of language; Chomsky's part of the debate was pretty impressively bad. Given that this was my only direct exposure to Chomsky, I've always been surprised that he ever ruled amongst philosophers.

  2. If you'd gone to grad school in San Diego, you would never have thought that Chomsky ruled.

  3. I'd be cautious about that Evans & Levinson paper. Go read the article itself, and then read the responses that were published with it. Then do some basic checking of your own about the languages that Evans & Levinson bring up. Just hunt down and read their cited sources, for example. Do they match what Evans and Levinson say?

    Then read something independent about the theories they are bashing, and compare it with their characterisation of those theories. Do they match up?

    I know this will take some time, but trust me, if you're interested in the topic, you do want to do this before accepting Evans & Levinson's conclusions as even worth pondering.

  4. Matthew,

    We surely do not hang out with the same psychologists and linguists. Most linguistics in the USA is of Chomskyan inspiration.


    Your question is too vague. What aspects of Chomsky's enormous work do you have in mind? His technical work on particular linguistic phenomena? His research programs in linguistics (Parameters and principles, minimalism...)? His general views about the nature of language (poverty of stimulus, language organ...)? His approach to cognitive science?

    I also agree with anonymous. Levinson's theoretical and empirical work is not always very impressive. His theoretical papers are often obscure, while Gleitman and colleagues' findings cast some serious doubts on some of his most well-known empirical results.

  5. @Edouard, fair enough ! I had Chomsky's research programs in mind. In particular, I was curious if his ideas about generative grammars and deep structure (and, yes, minimalism) were still widely accepted. I was also curious if the existing state of play in linguistics could still be used to support Fodor's claims about language of thought.

  6. I can't speak to his general views of language but I know in terms of evolutionary psychology he's still somewhat relevant. There's been an ongoing debate between him and a few who agree with Plinker and a few on his side over the orgins of language.

  7. Chomsky is still enormously influential (though not perhaps in San Diego) on innateness, universal grammar, and phonetics, though there have been huge changes in Chomskyan linguistic theory since say Syntactic Structures. The problem is his crazy influence: Fodor's latest rant against natural selection.

  8. I attend U of T and I am in my final year of my Bachelor's Program majoring in Linguistics. I can tell you that Chomsky certainly does rule at this school. Everything we learned was within the Chomskyan paradigm. His word was treated as truth throughout most of my degree. Only now in my final year are we actually assigned to read this Evans and Levinson paper, for example, and actually choose a side of the debate. But it is hard, because we've been indoctrinated with Chomskyan ideas since 2009.