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Book Review // Decoding Chomsky

Book Review // Decoding Chomsky

11:15 15 September in Latest


Decoding Chomsky

Chris Knight

Yale University Press

2016, pp. 304

By Robert F. Barsky

Chris Knight’s new book begins with the unpromising statement that he, in encountering Chomsky’s work, would have to “put aside” his “own cultural prejudices and assumptions” to “avoid dismissing every strange belief as incomprehensible nonsense.” The reader has to wonder where Knight has been for the past half-century to view Chomskian linguistic work as though it was a “previously unknown tribe,” and the reader familiar even slightly with Chomsky might be very concerned that Knight prejudges the “doctrines” encountered therein as “absurd”—unless of course Knight is a great expert on language research that has been undertaken for the past couple of thousand years. No such luck. He has had “no training in theoretical linguistics,” by his own admission, but is nonetheless confident enough in his lack of knowledge to talk about a “tribe” of military-funded linguists that “clustered around Chomsky in the formative period of his career.” What is he talking about? Would he say the same if he were to encounter, say, the “strange tribe” of physicists studying string theory, and then learn that physicists also receive lots of funding via the military from the U.S. government? He seems to be aware of his own biases, though, as he immediately claims to have no interest in conspiracy theories, and thus doesn’t believe for a moment that the “Pentagon’s initial funding of Chomsky’s ground-breaking work” was part of any “master plan.” This is a good thing, I presume, since the Pentagon’s funding of, say, aeronautical engineering, might otherwise fall under a master plan of, say, destroying the passenger train industry. But as it turns out, his arguments are even more fallacious.

This is a pity, because Knight had promised his readers that he’ll “fathom the time and place” in which Chomsky’s revolution occurred, something that has been of great interest to me for the past quarter century. This revolution recast the entire field of modern linguistics, leading to the creation of cognitive sciences and upending many of the established ideas of language research in every discipline from anthropology and computer sciences to education and neurobiology. We would assume, then, that Knight studied the milieus from which Chomsky emerged, the centuries of language research that inspired his approach, the towering figures who surrounded him—including his own father and his thesis director, Zellig Harris—the vicissitudes of language research in the 1940s and 1950s in light of the exaggerated promises of structuralism and the threats of the Cold War, the fascinating role that Jews have played in regards to American linguistics, and his reading of (Cartesian) historical works within a modern scientific framework. But, unfortunately, this is not the case.

Knight’s book could have made reference to Chomsky’s painstaking research, alongside of an international community of scholars, into the specialized internal language machinery that is part of our genetic endowment, and that makes language acquisition and production possible. He does briefly refer to this work, but does so without the detail that would be required to explain it, preferring instead to focus upon the “civil war” within Chomsky’s own “camp” that was the result of his denial of the “hidden level of shared meaning” that deep structure implied. Since he doesn’t reveal his own engagement with the details of this research, or the details of this war, Knight mush have consulted with someone who has written about both, and a quick glance into the acknowledgments leads us to the historian Randy Allen Harris, the author of The Linguistic Wars. He also thanks Christina Behme, David Golumbia, Rudolph Botha and “the Marxist semiologist Peter Jones.” That’s it? Given how much work has been undertaken in these areas, there are lots of people who could have provided input, from both sides of these debates; instead, Knight just offers a weak rehash of critiques from naysayers to Chomsky’s approach. He does thank some “admirers” of Chomsky, but his own contribution falls squarely into one of the so-called “camps” which, again, is a real pity, because he thereby fails in his own quest to avoid the “maze” and the fighting ring that he apparently so enjoyed reading about in the work of Rudolf Botha.

Serious research into this question of Cold War context for linguistics research has been undertaken, and had Knight consulted it, there would have been some valuable information about the backdrop against which linguists worked during Chomsky’s early career. Knight might have found great benefit in studying the U.S. government’s funding of decoding, discourse analysis and translation in the face of inadequacies revealed during World War II. Rather than viewing Chomsky as a pawn of the Pentagon, he would have seen that in fact, by 1943, the U.S. military was actively recruiting America’s linguists; of the 96 participants at the Linguistic Society of America’s 1944 annual meeting, approximately 80 were actively engaged in militarily crucial work. By ignoring the historical context, Knight tries to turn Chomsky into a pawn of the military, rather than exploring the eventual realization on the part of the National Science Foundation that the paradigm established by Chomsky’s teacher, Zellig Harris, wouldn’t produce the massive breakthrough in the field that so many had expected. As such, Knight writes off Chomsky’s realization that Harris’s work couldn’t satisfy the ambitions Harris had set for himself as the “puzzling repudiation of senior colleagues, notably Zellig Harris and Roman Jakobson—who had previously given him unstinting support.” This bizarre sentence may be the key to some of the mystery of Knight’s approach, because it suggests that scholars should properly defer to their superiors, even in the face of what they (and the towering figures of the period) perceive to be the flaws in Harris’s program. The fact is that Chomsky studies linguistics as a scientist, with stated presuppositions about the methodology and approach upon which it’s based; from that perspective, those who challenge Chomsky’s model do so according to their own set of presuppositions, which creates scientific debate. This book, regrettably, doesn’t aspire to such lofty heights, but instead works with a rather odd assemblage of observations and idées reçues that are closer to the religious metaphor that Knight derides, in reference to Paul Postal, Geoffrey Pullum, John Searle and Larry Trask as well as “two Oxford philosophers.” Huh? Why not name them in the body of the text, like all the others? And why is John Searle’s name also preceded by “Oxford philosopher”? Regrettably, as in the “repudiation” of Jakobson and Zellig Harris, this just looks more like strange deference power and prestige rather than serious engagement with the issues at hand.

It’s not that some of the questions raised herein aren’t interesting, or that possible answers can’t be debated on a range of different fronts: The problem is, the book contains no serious debate, just a whole lot of uninformed and half-baked assertions and some really strange conclusions derived from flimsy evidence. The “idealist” Chomsky worked with Victor Yngve in a research laboratory studying translation at MIT, so he was a dupe to those who were “overtly developing command and control systems for nuclear and other military purposes.” What? Machine Translation research is turned into a project dedicated to “command and control systems.” Really? And how did Chomsky contribute to that MT project? No word from Knight, and no mention of the linguistics work Chomsky was doing at that time in MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics. Instead, Knight manages to believe that Chomsky didn’t want to pursue academics, but did so to avoid being drafted into the Korean War. Really? Has he looked at Chomsky’s academic research, and his intellectual background? In fact, Chomsky was 1A, but was never called. And what evidence is there that Chomsky didn’t want to do academics (!)? Knight also claims that Carol and Noam Chomsky didn’t stay in Israel, where they’d hoped to live, because of the “difficulties of life in Israel.” Is that true? No. It was because the Kibbutz Artzi’s ideals were being undermined at that period, making Hazorea (a few miles from Mishmar Ha’Emek, where Zellig Harris and Bruria Kaufman often stayed) and other historically left-wing kibbutzim politically uncomfortable to them. The evolution away from those ideals in the years following 1948 is an important story, but its details aren’t important if the goal is just to rely on innuendo to tell what seems like a great story of collusion with the military and corporate America. Examples like these abound in this book, regrettably, and these are but a few that are indicative of the attitude that underwrites Knight’s approach. In the end, the question of how military funding influenced the field of linguistics is also never addressed, nor is there mention of how members of the Research Laboratory of Electronics participated in RESIST, with active resistance to U.S. war efforts.

Despite the impression one gets from reading this book, we don’t have to “take sides” on the basis of personalities, or whether or not the people mentioned are Oxford-trained, or whether U.S. government research was provided to fund the work. Instead, scholars need to carefully consider the fascinating culture, history and science of language, as has already been done by others more seriously engaged with the many complex questions this area of research raises.

Robert Barsky is the author of three books on Noam Chomsky. His most recent books are Undocumented Immigrants in an Era of Arbitrary Law (Routledge Law 2016) and a novel called Hatched (Sunbury Press 2016). He is a professor in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the Law School at Vanderbilt University.

  • Hellig Zarris 12:09h, 15 September Reply

    what a strange and bitter and partisan review this is. you overlook entirely the novel parts of Knight’s argument (which have to do with Chomsky’s overt hostility to Marxism, something you fail to mention at all, and how odd it is that a champion of the Left who overtly disavows Marxism should emerge in and become the leader of a field that had been closely allied to Marxism, at a University that has the closest ties to the US military of any school in the US and previously had almost no presence in the field at all), and give the impression that Knight has not done his research by citing a few people he thinks–omitting the fact that Knight actually thanks upwards of 40 people, from across the spectrum especially of Chomsky’s linguistic thought, making this an unusually widely-checked work. You fault Knight for not being a linguist (despite yourself not being a linguist), but misinterpret in what seems almost a willful manner his statement that he is not a “theoretical linguist”–the emphasis there being on “theoretical,” not “linguist,” since Knight is one of the best-known anthropological linguists in the UK, as well as being a Marxist activist with decades of political work and encounters with Chomsky’s anti-Marxism. The “balanced” book you request has been written many times and will no doubt be written again, but there is much in this book not found in any other study of Chomsky, and your review does it a great disservice.

    • Hep Ingham 18:32h, 16 October Reply

      Chomsky’s criticism is of Bolshevik Marxism or vanguard Marxists. He has stated that his views are in accord with left Marxists or democratic Marxists, similar to libertarian socialism.

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