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Chomsky and His Critics

Rules and Representations

by Noam Chomsky
Columbia University Press, 299 pp., $14.95

From time to time, ever since Plato, grammar has been more than the bane of schoolchildren or a topic for scholars. It owes its present prominence outside linguistics to some theses stated twenty-five years ago by Noam Chomsky. There is, he said, a universal grammar common to all human languages. Children are born with it: their inheritance explains the ease with which they pick up the language they hear around them. Universal grammar is like an organ of the body whose structure is genetically determined. It is a characteristic of the human mind and an essential part of the discontinuity between people and beasts.

That is quite an array of paradoxes. How could so arid a subject as grammar be part of the definition of our humanity? When hardly anyone can talk grammatically in more than two languages and when many are deficient in one, what is so universal? There is also a prejudice that Chomsky makes us a little ashamed to confess: grammar is just not the kind of thing one could inherit.

Paradoxes alone did not fuel Chomsky’s success. From the start he had a neat definition of grammar as a set of rules that can be mechanically applied to test whether a string of words forms a grammatical sentence. Then he obtained a negative result. Taking a natural and widespread approach to grammar, he cast that approach into a precise form and proved that it is necessarily incapable of providing an adequate grammar for English. This result was important not only for what it said but also because it suggested a new kind of thing to do—that sort of result had not been thought of before.

Then Chomsky did much positive work. He polished up a current idea of grammatical transformation and made it plausible as the main tool for doing grammar. He used an ear-catching phrase: “deep structure.” By this he meant that the sentences we use in thinking and speaking are the result of transformations on structures that underlie the surface arrangement of nouns, verbs, prepositions, and so forth. The speaker is not consciously aware of these structures or the operations upon them; they must be inferred from linguistic abilities. Deep structure added to the appeal of universal grammar, for the “universal” in grammar might be down there at the not-so-conscious level of deep structure, which is why we never noticed it before.

These proposals have since evolved, and Rules and Representations is a useful book with which to catch up on the state of the art. The book consists of four lectures (the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia also given as the Kant Lectures at Stanford) and two related pieces. There is nothing technical in the book but to read it you do need a relish for argument. The lectures might be called “Chomsky Against the Philosophers.” Philosophers have much admired him but have also criticized some features of his work. Here he examines their arguments. It is like watching the grand master play, blindfolded, thirtysix simultaneous chess matches against the local worthies. He almost always wins.

There is perhaps some general lesson about reason to be gleaned from this book. Chomsky must be one of the most reasoning of living men. I’ve heard him called Talmudic but there is nothing ethnic about this: to me he sounds like a Presbyterian preaching double predestinarianism. He runs through arguments again and again, so that some are repeated in the two papers tacked on to the lectures, and were also found in Reflections on Language (1975). Chomsky is sometimes a teacher saying, “You haven’t quite seen the point, come, let’s go over it again, here is the first premise….”

This passion for reason allows one to forgive what would, in another writer, be repetition. But I liked a remark in the second book under review, which derives from a symposium in France featuring a debate between Chomsky and Jean Piaget, the great Swiss pioneer of the genesis of concepts in the child.* The philosopher Hilary Putnam starts his contribution to the symposium by noting “the sense of great intellectual power” one gets on reading Chomsky, and then announces with exasperation, “Yet I want to claim that individual arguments are not good.” Putnam is Chomsky’s equal as reasoner, but many attentive readers will be unsure who wins this skirmish. Once argumentation has been pushed to this limit, reason alone will not settle much. What matters is the outcome of the research. All we can hope from arguments is the conviction that the research is well motivated—and that, in this case, we get in abundance.

Chomsky used to say that children have innate knowledge of universal grammar. Philosophers have queried whether this could properly be called “knowledge.” Irritated, Chomsky says call it something else; say children “cognize” grammar. What is important for him is that this cognition is a physiological state which will manifest itself in behavior but is not to be defined in terms of behavior. We should not think of cognitive abilities arising from one undifferentiated organ (the brain?) but we should expect a lot of units, or modules, that interact to perform various jobs. Even to produce a single grammatical sentence the brain will employ different modules which may have matured at different stages of development. An infant that has not yet begun to speak still “cognizes” grammar in the sense that it has the appropriate modules which can be triggered by various stimuli as it grows up. If it becomes a feral child growing up alone, it will never mature into speech, but this is just because the appropriate modules have not been triggered.

Such speculations leave untouched many philosophers’ questions about knowledge, but in my opinion they are well left untouched, at least here. There are metaphysical questions about knowledge and there are physiological ones. Even the “rules and representations” of Chomsky’s title turn into physiology. What he means by a rule is plain enough from his examples. There should be a rule for forming questions out of declarative sentences, say, take the verb that comes after the first noun phrase and move it up front. (“The man who wore black was ill” becomes “Was the man who wore black ill?”) Such a rule works on an analysis of the sentence—it does not say, move the first verb (“wore”) but, move the first verb after the noun phrase (“was.”)

Deep structure is no longer prominent in Chomsky’s work. The rules he examines now work close to the surface of the words we actually utter. I say “close to the surface” because the rules do not act only on the strings of words that we utter or hear, but also on something like echoes of other sentences. The rules involve unuttered “traces” of transformations, and so this development is called trace theory. For example, colloquial English can contract “want to” to “wanna”—“Who do you wanna meet?” But though this is a contraction of “Who do you want to meet?” we do not contract “Who do you want to meet Bill?” (“Who do you wanna meet Bill?” is odd). Chomsky explains the difference by saying that questions bear a trace of the declarative sentence. “You want to meet x” is a declarative form whose question is “Who do you want to meet t?” Here the trace t marks the place that the “who” came from. The declarative form “You want y to meet Bill” has the question “Who do you want t to meet Bill?” Here the unuttered trace t comes between “want” and “to,” and stops the contraction “wanna.” This representation of traces, of echoes just below the level of the uttered surface of words, is what Chomsky calls “S-level.”

A sentence may be represented by the words we utter; it may be represented at S-level; it may be represented at deeper levels of analysis. Rules operate on representations, at some level or other. In the above example, the rule operates at the S-level. Such representations are all themselves bits of language. Most grammarians want nothing more than an analysis stated in language. But Chomsky calls himself a psychological realist. For every item of psychology, such as a representation of a sentence, there is to be a corresponding bit of physiology. There must be a representation in the brain, to which a rule, in the brain, applies. Maybe a mechanical analogy will help to explain this.

Take a really old-fashioned calculator, a nineteenth-century difference machine made of brass and steel. Given a sequence of numbers it could calculate, say, the second differences, that is, the differences between the differences between the members of the sequence—not just the difference, for example, between numbers a and b but between their difference and the difference between c and d. (This was part of the trick of making tables of logarithms.) Set some numbers on the machine, turn the crank, and it prints out a sequence of second differences. We have a rule expressed in natural languages such as English (“print the sequence of second differences”) and output in English, the printout of numbers. But we also have a nonlinguistic version of the rule and the sequence, in the settings on brass and steel. The rule is made incarnate in brass and steel, and so is the sequence of numbers. As you crank it, the machine first arrives at and then operates on a “representation” of first differences in order to calculate the second differences; but there is nothing linguistic about this, it is just an arrangement of brass and steel.

In the same way, Chomsky thinks of representations made incarnate in flesh and blood, and the rules, themselves incarnate, act on these. Doubtless, he says, different modules are employed in connection with different levels of representation. The machine is a poor analogy with Chomsky’s thought because it ignores the creative aspect of language use. The difference machine is determined from its initial setting to its final printout while the mind has a lot of freedom. I use the machine to emphasize that representations of sentences need not be anything linguistic, although we can put each representation into a linguistic form: we can produce a blueprint of the first-difference stage of the machine’s operations, something linguistic corresponding to the nonlinguistic arrangement of brass and steel.

The idea of flesh-and-blood representations escapes an objection that derives from Wittgenstein and other philosophers. At the very beginning of the lectures Chomsky refers to “the myth of the museum”—the idea that our minds are like museums containing mental objects that we can inspect and that are called meanings. In explaining meanings, so goes the Wittgensteinian argument, it is no use postulating mental objects, like museum specimens, as what we intend. That would invite a regress, for how do we pick out the right mental object? Do we need a mental rule to do so? If we use a mental rule to apply a verbal rule, how do we apply the mental rule? As Chomsky says, if this objection were sound, it would seem to apply quite generally. Hence it would be a threat to the postulation of any mental entities to explain intentional behavior, including speech. Now the Wittgensteinian argument regards the mental entities as themselves language-like—that is how the “regress” is effected. Chomsky’s internal rules and representations, as I understand them, are not language-like at all, and so the regress is blocked. The flesh-and-blood rules can be described in language (e.g., by a grammarian) just as the brass-and-steel settings on the difference machine can be shown on a blueprint. But the blueprint is not what causes the machine to work, and the grammarian’s description of the rules and representations is not what we use, either consciously or unconsciously, in producing sentences. The grammarian’s description is part of an account of a flesh-and-blood module in the brain that we do use.

  1. *

    He died as this issue was going to press.

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