Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Reading Group Sing-Along

In the somewhat unlikely event that anyone desires to follow along with the Reading Group from a distance, I thought I’d pass on the links to what we’ve been discussing. Between last week and this, we spent a bit too long reading somewhat anarchistically, each of us browsing in and around debates over Chomsky’s linguistic writings without settling on much in the way of a preferred common text. In the end, the common text therefore ended up being a fairly light read – a useful bit of intellectual history, embodied in a sprawling, time-delayed discussion between Searle, Gewirth, Lakoff and Chomsky published in the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.

The specific articles are available online:

Searle, John (1972) “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics” New York Review of Books vol. 18, no. 12, June 29.

Lakoff, George (1973) “Deep Language” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 1, February 8.

Gewirth, Alan (1973) “The Sleeping Chess Player” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 2, February 22.

Chomsky, Noam (1973) “Chomsky Replies” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 12, July 19.

Searle’s article provides a quite engaging and readable intellectual history, from the perspective of the early 1970s, of the revolution in linguistics that was sparked by Chomsky’s work. Searle summarises, in a fairly general way, what he presents as a Kuhnian revolution in linguistics, in which Chomsky mobilised accumulated empirical anomalies to undermine the credibility of structuralist and behaviourist approaches to linguistics, and to create a space for the new paradigm of generative and transformational grammar. In Searle’s account, however, this revolution has not ended with Chomsky triumphant: instead, Searle portrays Chomsky as sidelined by his own revolution, pushed to the edges by some of his own best and brightest students who, responding to further empirical anomalies, have displaced syntax from the pride of place Chomsky assigns to it, and moved toward a rapprochement with semantics.

Along the way, Searle contests Chomsky’s claim to be heir to an earlier rationalist philosophical tradition, questions Chomsky’s attempt to use his work on syntax to draw conclusions about any innate linguistic faculty or deep structure of the mind, and argues that Chomsky’s work represents an untenable attempt to analyse language severed from its function of facilitating purposive communication. Searle’s critical aim is thus to restrict the reach of Chomsky’s concepts – to argue that Chomsky’s revolution is confined to the study of syntax, and therefore leaves untouched issues of meaning and of language as a purposive, contextual, social practice – issues that Searle, given his own theoretical focus on speech act theory, finds more central.

The other contributions to this discussion are briefer, and less satisfying, but give a sense of some of the contested issues within Searle’s account. Lakoff’s piece makes sweeping, dramatic dismissals of Chomsky’s work – arguing that core elements have been disproven but, unfortunately for our inexperienced eyes, not pointing to some of the works that could substantiate this claim. (Searle’s original article, by contrast, provides a nice potted bibliography to guide a reader through the milestones in the intellectual history of the Chomsky revolution, and was thus quite useful.)

A large portion of the additional commentary revolves around debunking Chomsky’s claim to be heir to a long rationalist philosophical tradition – a critical focus that left at least a couple of the reading group members puzzled, not because we believe it is necessarily incorrect, but because it seems like the kind of claim that can easily be severed from Chomsky’s more analytically central arguments about syntax: Chomsky may think it important to establish himself as the latter-day Descartes but, to be honest, if I were intending to write a critique of Chomsky’s approach, I’d position this as more of a side issue, and focus on more analytically and empirically central claims. We similarly felt that much of the debate over innate linguistic faculties – although undoubtedly important to Chomsky, and certainly worth debating for its intrinsic interest – was nevertheless not as intrinsically bound as Chomsky might believe to his research into syntax.

Our goal for next week is to provide ourselves with a better basis for assessing these perhaps over-hasty reactions. We are reading the third edition of Chomsky’s Language and Mind, which is a collection of essays, the core of which were originally delivered as lectures in the late 1960s, recently republished with some material from 2004. We’ll also be looking at the chapter titled “Public Language” from Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology.

After our meeting next week, we’ll have a long hiatus, as one (two?) of our group members will spend some time travelling to more interesting places (although, if I might suggest, Chicago in the wintertime might not have been the best choice)… We have a general notion that we should use this long break to dive into some more complex material than we can usually cover in our weekly meetings. Whether we remain with our current linguistic focus or shift to other themes remains to be decided. Suggestions would be welcome…

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