Gaining perspective on Chomsky’s linguistics

Reasons for its success and its appeal must be viewed against the backdrop of deep-going, enduring and extremely widespread traditional doctrines and assumptions about language and humanity in western thought.

Peter Jones
8 November 2018

Location of Lagado in Balnibarbi (original map, Pt III, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels). Wikicommons. Public domain.

Though the discussion of Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theory has been conducted at an oblique angle, due to Chris Knight’s focus on the military funding of Chomsky’s early research, Knight’s contribution has provided a long overdue opportunity for public debate over the value of Chomsky’s linguistics and, perhaps, over the value of linguistics itself more broadly.

This is not to say that the funding issue is unimportant, but that it cannot bear the weight that Knight would like to place on it for an understanding of the sources, direction, significance and influence of Chomsky’s linguistic work.

While the ‘asocial’ nature of Chomsky’s view of language may appear otherwise incomprehensible to an anthropologist of Knight’s inclination, it is important to recognise that modern linguistics as a separate academic discipline was actually built on asocial assumptions and methods, peculiar to literate cultures, according to which ‘languages’ were self-contained systems which could be studied independently of communicational context and use.

And indeed, military funding aside, Chomsky’s own brand of asocial linguistics enjoyed support from the most socially committed quarters, including self-identifying Marxists like Frederick Newmeyer, Alexander Luria (see Jones, forthcoming), one of the most eminent of twentieth century ‘Marxist’ psychologists, and from the radically inclined philosophers of ‘critical realism’.

Considered explanation

Consequently, it is this – the credibility and sway, within both elite and popular culture, of a conception of language impervious to social, historical and cultural concerns and considerations – that should worry us and for which we should seek a considered explanation rather than a sinister motive.

In that connection, it is worth noting that Chomsky’s influence in the field of linguistic enquiry (along with certain branches of ‘cognitive science’) has persisted well beyond the shelf life of some of his own signature theoretical innovations. The current of so-called ‘Cognitive Linguistics’ or (‘Cognitive Grammar’), for instance, has no truck with Chomskyan ‘Universal Grammar’ or a ‘Language Acquisition Device’, but maintains a commitment to internal ‘mental grammars’ and considers a species-specific ‘mindreading’ ability to be necessary to crack the linguistic code.

And so if we accept that Chomsky’s ‘total decontextualisation of language’ is ‘unique in the Western tradition’ as Roy Harris argued in The Language Machine, reasons for its success and its appeal must be viewed against the backdrop of deep-going, enduring and extremely widespread traditional doctrines and assumptions about language and humanity in western thought which may have assumed eccentric shape in Chomsky but continue to haunt intellectual culture generally.

Perhaps the strongest and most stable factor is the general belief in human exceptionalism in the animal world and, more concretely, a view of language as our most distinctive and most important possession, if not the core of our humanity. For many, that our uniquely human linguistic attributes should be housed in their own dedicated ‘faculty’ (whether given by God or evolution) sounds more like a truism than a myth. But the morphing of this antique linguistic ideology into modern linguistic ‘science’ requires a few additional steps.

And while the connection between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics is a mind boggling enigma, at least for some, there are obvious clues to the puzzle in Chomsky’s own writing. Thus, Chomsky has presented his biologized ‘Cartesian linguistics’ as a counterweight to the ‘empiricist’ picture of people as ‘completely malleable and lacking in characteristics’ which he claims is used to justify techniques of manipulation and control of the masses by ‘ideological managers’. Similarly, Chomsky sees in his cognitive universalism a ‘modest conceptual barrier against racism’.

In other words, Chomsky’s linguistic innatism has a moral and ideological grounding in a commitment to universal human equality and freedom of thought (albeit along innately specified lines) in the face of rampant inequality, ignorance, exploitation and prejudice in the actual affairs of people. If the marked behaviourism of his North American linguistic predecessors continued (if crudely) an eighteenth century view of human beings as a product of their (woefully imperfect) environment, Chomsky threw out the baby of human sociality with the behaviourist bathwater, in the process reducing the scope of learning to the triggering of innate mechanisms. Only by its incarnation as an impersonal biological endowment could the gift of language, as a universal birth right, be made safe from mere mortals. Only by its incarnation as an impersonal biological endowment could the gift of language, as a universal birth right, be made safe from mere mortals.

A moral-ideological project?

Arguably, then, Chomsky’s linguistics is more a moral-ideological than a ‘scientific’ project. Consider, for example, Chomsky’s famous definition of linguistic theory as ‘concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly’. Linguistics so conceived is not an empirical endeavour at all, as Nigel Love points out. Nor is Chomsky’s formulation the kind of ‘idealization’ familiar from natural scientific endeavour, i.e. a pragmatic and revisable means of holding some empirical factors constant while others vary. But it is the projection, the invention, of a singular new ‘object’ for theoretical investigation.

Is the phrase ‘homogeneous speech community’, Love asks, not “prima facie a text-book example of a semantic anomaly, no more obviously perspicuous than square circle (not to mention ‘colourless green ideas)?” He goes on: “What, precisely, are we supposed to imagine that we are left with, once those aspects of the human condition which cause real speech communities to be unhomogeneous have been theoretically abstracted?” If ‘language’ is what remains when the last drops of our humanity have been drained, then we begin to see the problem.

In any case, Chomsky’s vision of a biologically ringfenced utopia would backfire if the argument for innate mental ‘modules’ were to be hitched to the less savoury, though no more credible, political and ideological agenda of, say, Stephen Pinker’s ‘evolutionary psychology’.

Other intellectual strands

The progress of Chomskyanism was also helped by its merging of two further intellectual strands. The first was a vulgar materialism (also descended from Cartesianism) given militant voice in La Mettrie’s L’homme machine of 1747. ‘A consistent materialist’, Chomsky tells us, must regard "the growth of language as analogous to the development of a bodily organ" ; the “mental world” can offer “no exception” to the laws of the “biological world”.

But the analogy was a simple category mistake. A physical organ will exhibit structures whose growth and composition afford a degree of analysis independently of live use, although it will be difficult to derive the rules of table tennis from any anatomical investigation. But in the case of a ‘language’ organ, we are stuck from the outset: nobody has found anything under the hood and that for a very good reason: the ‘products’ or ‘output’ of this putative organ – the spoken sounds you may hear, the signed gestures in the air, the written marks on paper – neither have nor could have any conceivable ‘linguistic’ properties at all when examined by any natural scientific procedure (physical, chemical or biological), in the same way that the value of a £20 note has no physical presence in the matter (paper or plastic) from which the note is made. To argue that such linguistic (or ‘cognitive’) properties are expressed in, or inhabit, some (as yet unidentified) brain ‘matter’ just puts beyond empirical reach the same category mistake: the brain can’t ask or answer questions, tell you about its day, greet you in the morning or promise not to wear that T-shirt in public.


The second intellectual strand rests on the traditional grammarian’s view of the (written) sentence as a combination or sequence – a syntax – of constitutive elements. As Roy Harris explains, this ‘engineering’ conception lent itself historically, for a variety of cultural and intellectual reasons, to attempts to capture observed syntactic regularities in terms of purely formal or mechanical operations or ‘rules’, a conception satirised in Jonathan Swift’s description of the Lagado academy in Gulliver’s Travels, continuing through to the electronic and computing metaphors of the 1970s and 1980s.

In the wake of Saussurean structuralism, it fell to the linguists of the North American tradition to finally make a religion of such syntagmatic relations in the form of ‘distributionalism’, a methodology of linguistic analysis which dispensed entirely with meaning altogether – a policy, Harris adds, ”in line with then fashionable behaviourist theories in psychology, and officially espoused by Bloomfield in the 1930s as the only ‘scientific’ basis for linguistics”.

Distributionalism, then, was not the result of a discovery, but a credo, a dogmatic set of prescriptions for purely self-contained linguistic analysis rather than a study of actual language use in social and cultural contexts. It is this particular ideological formation which essentially provided the foundation and rationale for Chomsky’s own version of the grammar machine.

The pull of this mechanical metalinguistic framework can be felt in Newmeyer’s own defence of Chomsky’s ‘autonomous linguistics’ on the grounds that “the form of language exists independently of its content”. Similarly, Alexander Luria, one of the founders of Vygotskian cultural-historical psychology, no less, paid tribute to the revolutionary impact of Chomsky’s “revolutionary findings” in syntax, comparing Chomsky favourably with Soviet scholars of the 1940, notably Lev Scherba, who “demonstrated the independence of grammatical form from content in Russian.”

Chomsky himself pushed the distributionalist credo of American descriptivism to unheard of extremes; he purged the methodology of all ‘empirical’ contaminants (i.e. anything to do with linguistic ‘behaviour’) and presented syntax as the domain of an autonomous mental device which he dignified by cloaking it, with confident materialist-mechanist sleight of hand, in the ancient and mystical doctrine of innate ideas.

Thereby, the asocial, apolitical, and acultural nature of language, and its immunity from human influence, was secured, though the formulation, promulgation and acceptance of the theory itself had far-reaching human consequences from which we still have a long way to recover.



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