General Linguistics > FAQ Discussion

Is Chomsky utterly wrong?


I really think that this question, "Is Chomsky utterly wrong?" is one of the most frequently asked questions (i.e. FAQ) in Linguistics today. It seems a MUST question to ask if you are just landing in the Linguistics world, be it as a professional, as a dedicated amateur or, obviously, if you are an old hand Linguist who feels it must be shown that you  have surpassed Chomsky with your brilliant new theory. It seems mighty curious to me, that people don't have this demolishing urge against, say, Saussure, Halliday, Cosseriu, or any other important linguist of our times. (Of our times?).

I mention this because, although I am used to find that astounding trend in my fellow linguists, I have recently come across this text which mentions and criticises the nth example of this amazing mania. You may find it here.

In this case, a distasteful racist stand seems to be luring somewhere in the mind of the critic. I just wonder whether this is one of the hidden (very hidden, indeed!) motives behind this general anti-chomskyan attitude.

Och ... I do not ken!

There are several things to consider here:

1. Chomsky is certainly wrong. All scientists are. (This is from a technical perspective regarding the nature of hypothesis testing and constantly refining theories to better fit the data, not to say that scientists are useless or completely off-track.) So whether he is wrong isn't a very interesting question to ask. A better question to ask is whether, in general, he's helping us understand how language works and going in the right direction (or just some useful direction) overall.

2. If he is wrong, it's not for the reasons typically given. Sometimes this reflects a lack of understanding of the current research (easily saying "he's wrong" rather than really dealing with the issues) and other times (in more serious critiques) it seems to me that other researchers are really just asking different questions. Chomsky's theories aren't about a lot of things that other researchers are interested in. He might be "wrong" to not be interested in those things, but that's a non-scientific opinion. (But it is a practical issue-- if you're interested in doing Syntax research and don't follow his theories you'll have trouble publishing in some journals and getting a job in some places, not to mention issues of research funding.)

3. He is different from the other major linguists you mention because he really does seem to have a monopoly on directing how the theories go, along with the support from people who follow his work closely. That is, the main supporters of Minimalism these days, and those from earlier frameworks before. The others you mentioned contributed, but I don't know that they necessarily seemed to control the direction of research as much as Chomsky does, or at least as much as he is perceived to. Note that in other fields there isn't one person who is cited as much as Chomsky is in Linguistics, or who has made so many paradigm shifts as Chomsky has. Arguing against standard Generative Grammar (or its current iteration) is sort of like arguing against evolution in biology. And while arguing against evolution might not make a lot of sense, there is by no means as strong a consensus among scientists that Generative Grammar is as certain as evolution. And certainly there are other approaches out there and popular in some places, but how readily Chomsky's approach is accepted in some places is distinctly unscientific in a way, given that it is in fact still controversial.

4. Chomsky is hard to understand. Many people who argue against him haven't read much of his work (or in some cases any), and few have read everything. It could take a whole career in the field to really grasp all of the nuances of his work. This is partly helped and partly made more difficult by various secondary sources that interpret, extend and argue with his work. The result is odd, because it seems like there is a very difficult learning curve in linguistics in that sense.

5. Chomsky is very logical, but within a complex history of research and certain fundamental perspectives about both what kind of work in linguistics is important (e.g., competence rather than performance) and what basic assumptions we should make in starting the work. Personally I think there are some problems in the direction of current research, but they are not due to anything obvious. I think that more or less what has happened is the logical conclusion to the approach Chomsky has taken. He defends this well. But if we go back to some of the basic assumptions, I think there may be room for improvement. (For example, the assumption that memory is expensive for humans is not very convincing, and the arguments for Construction Grammar are convincing at least to some degree, so I think something less efficient than the most optimal system Chomsky wants to propose is reasonable, but perhaps in addition to some/most/all of what he is already proposing.)

6. The biggest issue may be how polarized the field is. Alternatives to Chomsky's approach are, from what I've seen, are usually more problematic. That doesn't mean that Chomsky is right, simply that the polarized field focuses on extremes. The solution, I think, is to find some reasonable middle ground. Current theories tend to answer some questions well and not others, and those questions tend to differ from theory to theory, including Chomsky's, but also most or all of the others. So mixing these theories and working out the insights from different perspectives should help. This polarization makes theories less extreme and less helpful. Rather than assuming different theories are (entirely) opposed, at least some of the time I think different insights are contributed, and the next theory should be one that takes the different perspectives into account. So few different theories (especially within a given domain, but even of things like morphology vs. syntax) are integrated well, and certainly not in a standard way!


--- Quote ---In this case, a distasteful racist stand seems to be luring somewhere in the mind of the critic. I just wonder whether this is one of the hidden (very hidden, indeed!) motives behind this general anti-chomskyan attitude.
--- End quote ---
I don't see any evidence for that being the general reason. The explanation for that is probably just that Chomsky is popular and well-known, so he's going to get lots of criticism of all kinds, for all reasons.

You make a lot of sense, as always, Daniel.

I have to agree with most of what you say.



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