If Noam Chomsky’s linguistics are problematic, can his politics be far behind?
May 21, 2011 - 12:55 am
Those who regard Noam Chomsky as one of the world’s premier thinkers might be advised to reconsider. It is, of course, mainly his political writings that have earned him his current reputation for crusading fearlessness, uncompromising candor, and lacerating intelligence. That they consist largely of cant and drivel erected on a foundation of dishonesty escapes his acolytes’ attention completely, likely because he speaks to their prejudices and because they have not done their homework. And possibly because they are influenced by the New York Times, which beatifies Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” But then, that’s the Times, for which the provision of evidence was never a desideratum.“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” to quote Christopher Hitchens’ aphorism on the beatification of Mother Teresa, whom he regards as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud” — epithets which would more aptly apply to Chomsky. I will, however, provide evidence for my dismissal of Chomsky as a world-class quack, as did Hitchens with Mother Teresa in his devil’s advocate volume on the saintly imposter.
As I’ve written before, Chomsky’s dishonesty is palpable. He rages furiously and sanctimoniously against the U.S. “war machine,” but as Peter Schweizer reveals in Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, Chomsky wrote his world-famous Syntactic Structures on grants from the American military establishment. America is, for Chomsky, “the land of Pentagon contracts, lucrative real estate holdings, stock market wealth, and a tax-sheltered trust for his children.” Yet, despite his fierce denunciations, he squats there like an orb spider, his web sagging with the weight of juicy flies. He makes disingenuous millionaire Michael Moore look like a small-time piker.
As for his political ravings, the sheer nonsense of most of his claims is outstripped only by the abyssal gullibility of his auditors and readers, who do not realize that Chomsky is a contaminated witness. “It would be easy to demonstrate,” writes David Horowitz in an article titled “The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky,” “how on every page of every book and in every statement that Chomsky has written, the facts are twisted, the political context is distorted (and often inverted) and the historical record is systematically traduced,” expressing “a pathological hatred of his own country.” A recent book has accomplished precisely such a demonstration. Chomsky’s doctoring of sources, dubious or obscure references, misquotations, convenient abridgments, significant omissions and gross misinterpretations have been abundantly documented in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, a volume which should be consulted by those who are still impressed by Chomsky’s glowing nimbus and public prominence as a “libertarian socialist.”
Noted jurist and author Richard Posner concurs with the book’s findings. In his Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Posner writes that Chomsky’s tone and one-sidedness is “all too typical” of his oeuvre. “Chomsky’s use of sources is uncritical, and his methodology unsatisfactory — it consists simply of changing the subject.” Nor does Chomsky feel obliged to defend his assertions no matter how outrageous or tendentious since “[h]e never acknowledges error.” Chomsky appears to regard himself as a political sage, perhaps even a prophet, whose insights cannot be questioned and whose pronouncements are infallible. One recalls his confident prediction to an MIT audience in a lecture of October 18, 2001, scarcely a month after 9/11, that the U.S. was preparing a “silent genocide” against Afghanistan, planning “to murder three or four million people.” This should tell us all we need to know about his powers of divination.
According to Thomas Sowell in Intellectuals and Society, Chomsky is one of those public intellectuals who has ranged “beyond the confines of his specialty” and made “inflammatory comments on things for which he had no qualifications.” But the shabby scholarship alone, evident both in the pulpiteering style and the abject referencing, as well as the apodictic claptrap he purveys, should have set off alarm bells for responsible readers and prompted them to do a bit of supplementary research. If they had, they would have realized that Chomsky is so far off the wall he makes Humpty Dumpty look like a paragon of stability.
It would be no less instructive to leave the politics aside for the nonce and go back to his earlier technical writings in the field of psycholinguistics that established his reputation in the first place. As Posner says, “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.” But it goes deeper than that. If Chomsky’s reasoning is flawed or tenuous or unprovable in his scholarly work, which was considered seminal and yielded whole university disciplines, then it may well be, by extrapolation, that his reasoning is equally suspect in his other endeavors. It won’t do to read only books like Hopes and Prospects, Failed States, or Hegemony or Survival, the latter praised by the ruthless despot Hugo Chavez. I have in mind books like Syntactic Structures, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, and his somewhat later The Minimalist Program, which loyal Chomskyites should look into if they really wish to honor their master and justify their professions of regard. They should read the “scholarship,” not the propaganda, to determine if their hero merits his acclaim.
I must apologize in advance for a brief and regrettably superficial excursion into the technical realm of linguistics. I don’t have the space here to hack my way any great distance into it and I don’t want to try my reader’s patience any more than I have to. There may be some consolation to be found in that I avoid the really turgid, off-putting stuff that can drive even the most dedicated student into the nether regions of terminal despair. But some peripheral remarks are in order if we are serious in trying to figure out how Chomsky’s mind works. Chomsky, as we will see, is essentially an intellectual tyrant. He does not give clear and indisputable evidence when developing a thesis; he dictates. And he subsequently expects us to believe.
Chomsky starts us off with his definition of a language: “Language is a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length, and constructed out of a finite set of elements.” The sentence itself comprises a noun phrase followed by a verb phrase. Perhaps he should have stopped there. For he goes on to elaborate a complex “phrase-structure grammar” which he diagrams as a tangled forest filled with inverted trees whose branches consist of various parts of speech fit for a tribe of swinging monkeys. The name of this jungle is “Transformational Grammar.” It purports to map what Chomsky calls the “deep structure,” “underlying strings,” and “recursive properties” common to all the world’s languages and innate to all the world’s speakers. These features are supposed to provide for an economy of grammatical rules that prescribe the convoluted operations by which coherent sentences are constructed. His wielding of Ockham’s Razor, however, seems to produce a lot of unnecessary bleeding and more stubble than is desired. As Judith Greene points out in Psycholinguistics: Chomsky and Psychology, the ramification of syntactic rules in the mind of the individual speaker would “start generating strings at random [and] would obviously be wildly uneconomical.”
Moreover, his theories keep changing — though one would assume reality does not. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax significantly emends the earlier Syntactic Structures. He later went on to revise his ideas even further, jettisoning deep structure and postulating a “universal grammar” deriving from “simple” computational laws — hence The Minimalist Program — which do nothing to pollard his earlier arboreal speculations. Indeed, deep structure keeps its place in the popular domain as Chomsky’s chief contribution to the psychology of language.
When he tells us that the branches of a phrase structure, unlike the links of a word-chain device, act like a kind of blueprint for the finished sentence, we have to take it on his authority. Similarly, what is called a “finite-state grammar,” to quote Steven Pinker in his explication of Chomsky in The Language Instinct, “is just one damn word after another, but with a phrase-structure grammar the connectedness of words in the tree reflects the relatedness of ideas in mentalese.” Really? A formulation of this nature is actually a dictum, and though a hierarchical tree diagram may seem convincing, the map is not the territory. It may not be that way in reality.
What we get in Chomsky is more like a description of what might be or should be the case, but not an explanation of what manifestly is the case. The diagrams function in a certain way; therefore the things they are diagrams of must also behave in the same way. Because the branches of his tree drawings describe arches and parabolas under which the various phrasal segments of a sentence are combined, it must follow that long-distance dependencies are plainly accounted for, that is, that the sentence “remembers” later what came before in the deep structure to produce grammatical agreement among its terms. It’s a nice idea and the term “deep structure” continues to resonate. (Ringing phrases can lead to the belief in entirely phony constructs — think of “Oedipus Complex” and “The dictatorship of the proletariat.”) The trouble is that the term refers exclusively to the idea; neither is confirmable by data gleaned from outside the magic circle. They indicate a hypothesis, not a fact.
In the same way, we are told that parts of speech are not a kind of meaning but, let’s say, they are like Lego pieces that fit one another in prefabricated ways. A given part of speech, for example, a noun, is simply like an item in a menu that must obey certain sequences. Similarly, certain verbs may enter a phrase structure lawfully only by conforming to modular rules or obeying certain formal parameters. But these operational procedures can surely be replaced by the meaning of the word itself (or what this school of thought rather pompously calls the “semantic component”). One can argue that a transitive verb requires an object or an embedded sentence, not because it is following a nexus of prior and invisible rules, but because the sense of the verb in itself requires that you complete the potential or specify the general meaning of the verb in its dictionary acceptation.
In Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, Chomsky tries to get around the dilemma by adding a new constellation of base rules, called a “lexicon,” that would somehow allot meanings to words and sentences. It simply won’t wash — one doesn’t repair a theoretical lesion by simply inventing a prosthesis and tacking it on. Syntax — the order of words — allows us to interpret the overall meaning of a sentence but it cannot output definitions, without which syntax is perfectly helpless and contentless. Analogously, in The Minimalist Program, Chomsky plucks out of thin air a faculty he labels a “parser,” which “assigns a percept to a signal” and which, mirabile dictu, “presumably incorporates the language and much else.” Such maneuvers are plainly illicit and imply, rather, that neither deep structures nor a universal grammar could possibly contain all the information necessary for the semantic interpretation of a sentence.
No less troubling, the notion of Universal Grammar may be correct in the trivial sense that every language has a grammar and is learnable, but whether Chomsky’s scaffolding of rules and “parameters” would apply to all the world’s languages, for instance, Mandarin or Hausa or Barikanchi or Hopi or Nootka (the latter, according to Benjamin Lee Whorf in Language, Thought and Reality, has no parts of speech), is another question entirely. Many scholars are profoundly skeptical whether Chomsky’s enunciations apply across the board even to English and some have furnished strong evidence that they do not. (See, for example, Peter Seuren’s Western Linguistics.)
As Raymond Tallis writes in Not Saussure: “Chomsky’s methodological tactic of treating language as primarily a syntactic structure has led linguistics to an impasse.” The central problem that Chomsky has failed to address is that a “context-based intuition of the speaker’s intentions is necessary not only to determine the meaning but also the grammatical structure of what has been said” (emphasis added). Tallis’ reasoning is at least as persuasive as Chomsky’s — but Tallis has not undertaken to found an academic discipline or create a dendritical pseudo-science.
Tallis’ allusion to “context-based intuition” strikes very much to the heart of the matter, especially when we consider that Chomsky does not adequately distinguish a sentence from an utterance. “The fundamental aim of the linguistic analysis of a language L,” he writes in Syntactic Structures, “is to separate the grammatical sequences which are the sentences of L from the ungrammatical sequences which are not sentences of L and to study the structure of the grammatical sequences.” Syntactic competence, he states, is reflected in “performance”; unfortunately, not all performances would satisfy the criteria he assembles.
Consequently, when he tells us in The Minimalist Program that language is “embedded in performance systems, which access the generative procedure,” he only muddies the waters. For the fact is that people do not speak in sentences and their verbal expressions are often quite perceptibly ungrammatical. Yet the strings of words, gaps, ill-formed sequences, missing suffixes, disheveled syntax, wrong auxiliaries, morphological aberrations, and improper formations in everyday speech are readily comprehensible. Context, and intuition gained from experience, appear to do the work. As former president of the American Psychological Association, the late Charles Osgood, commented in his Lectures on Language Performance, “the situational conditions to which [speakers] are responding are perceptual and cognitive rather than linguistic.” This at least makes sense.
I have merely skimmed the surface but readers who are unfamiliar with Chomsky’s modus operandi can plunge into his scholarly texts for themselves. What they will discover is that Transformational Grammar (no more than Universal Grammar) gives us not an explanation of how language works but a bundle of descriptions of formal and diagrammatic processes accompanied by a glossary of definitions and reams of alphabetic formulae. What is explained is the description, not the thing it is a description of. To use Chomsky’s own terminology, but in a manner he did not intend, his theories enjoy a kind of “descriptive adequacy,” which boomerang back on themselves; their “explanatory adequacy” applies to the description as — at best — a conceivable but not necessarily an actual mechanism for generating an infinite set of grammatical sentences.
In Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, for example, Chomsky lays it down that “a system of rules that in some explicit and well-defined way assigns structural descriptions to sentences” is grounded in “mental processes that are far beyond the level of actual or even potential consciousness.” And here is the predicament. Chomsky’s “system” is, in many respects, pretty well incoherent, but even if it happened to be coherent, there is still no way of determining that it would be valid or that these mental processes demonstrably exist. Put succinctly, Chomskyan psycholinguistics is not a science, but an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that mobilizes enormous resources to get very little done. Nevertheless, many of us are seduced by an intricately latticed diction and dazzled into submission by indomitable complexity.
Far more importantly — and the point of my reconnaissance — is that the mind that is at work postulating a theory of generative grammar is the same mind that is busy expounding an ideological program of anti-capitalist, anti-American, and anti-Israeli doctrine, that excuses the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan and is sympathetic to totalitarian North Korea, that supports Latin American and Islamic autocrats, that can defend a mass murderer like Pol Pot, a Holocaust denier like Robert Faurisson, and a terrorist like Hassan Nasrallah, and that can argue that George Bush’s “crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.” And it can do so because it is not bound by the rules of testability.
Thus, Chomsky’s linguistic theories violate Karl Popper’s famous rule that a scientific proposition — or in the present instance, categorical statements pretending to be scientific propositions — must be susceptible to falsifiability. The genuine scientist or researcher accepts this axiom as incontestable, but Chomsky does not. He is always right. Similarly, Chomsky gives us a thematic system of political denunciation of his chosen black sheep, rooted tree-like in his private mental processes and passed off as structurally well-founded, but devoid of rules, and certainly of the inclination, for testing its validity.
True, sociopolitics is not psycholinguistics in so far as “experimentation” is clearly possible in the former. No matter. The upshot is the same. The experiment that would be required to justify his political assertions is either not conducted or its results are pre-cooked. Chomsky is guilty of a variant of that intellectual defect Aristotle in the Metaphysics called apaideusis, the failure “to distinguish between that which requires demonstration or proof and that which does not” — i.e., from Chomsky’s perspective.
This is, so to speak, the nature of Chomsky’s “mentalese,” which does not explain anything in the real world but merely describes what Chomsky is already convinced must be the case, as if, in Robert Wargas’s pungent simile, his depositions are “like pulling the lever on a rigged slot machine.” Cloning his psycholinguistic procedures, what is “explained” is not the social, political, and economic world but Chomsky’s own fabulations, his “bizarro-world, fun-house, mirror version of reality,” as John Hawkins puts it. In short, the explanation is nothing but a description. Admittedly, the description is powerful and is obviously capable of “generating” assent. Yet this does not make it anything more than a portrayal of an apparently systematic way of observing language or the world, a vast tautology devoid of verifiable evidence to substantiate its presumably objective claims.
As Zachary Hughes writes in CAMERA, “Chomsky has used the influence granted him as a prominent linguist to support militant organizations and murderous dictatorships…while implicating those he perpetually paints as the guilty parties — the United States and Israel.” In doing so, Chomsky diverts us with a richly colored map but without the slightest proof that it corresponds to anything in the topography of the real world. It corresponds only to the template in Chomsky’s head. His “philosophy” can be tersely summarized as ipse dixit.
I would suggest, then, that his dogmatic approach to psycholinguistics is mirrored both in his tendency to issue “authoritative” political proclamations and in his defense of dictatorial personalities and regimes. Like to like. In other words, the thought process that underlies his political books and lectures derives from his theoretical writing, and both from a consistent habit of mind. It’s the same old Chomsky.
Reputable linguists Paul Postal and Robert Levine, contributors to The Anti-Chomsky Reader, take the same view. “[T]he two strands of Chomsky’s work manifest exactly the same key properties,” including “a deep disregard of, and contempt for, the truth, a monumental disdain for standards of inquiry, a relentless strain of self-promotion,” and a penchant for abusing others. Chomsky is an absolutist in his analytical specialty and naturally gravitates towards absolutists in the geopolitical world. Truth is what he determines it to be. Contradictory facts are inadmissible in whatever court he sees himself as presiding over. Evidence either does not count or may be tampered with if it serves his purposes. As Randy Harris, oddly enough a great admirer of Chomsky, writes in a review of Robert Barsky’s hagiographic Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, “But there’s this problem. Noam Chomsky lies.”
In conclusion, it is only fair to admit that Chomsky is, in his own warped fashion, undeniably brilliant — it takes brains to invent a complex and reticulated discipline and mesmerize generations of scholars. But brilliance alone, though necessary, is not sufficient to create a truly viable and enduring account of reality; other qualities, such as honesty, humility, self-doubt, an eye for error, and a fastidious attention to the smallest details, are obligatory. That is why Freud and Marx are no longer considered as oracles, but Einstein is. Chomsky may be a “great wit,” but we recall those famous lines from John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” Sadly, as often as not, the partitions come down and the “great wit” finds himself on the other side of the cognitive meridian. In Chomsky’s case, the diagnosis is inescapable. The man is seriously meshuggah.
Ultimately, there can be no rebutting that Chomsky, for all his weird, unanchored giftedness, is not only an intellectual tyrant; he is an intellectual charlatan, however compelling. He is, to go back to Hitchens, the Mother Teresa of the secular domain. And those who hang upon his words have sacrificed both their integrity and their understanding.