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Chomsky’s Revolution

To the Editors:

The title of John Searle’s article “End of the Revolution” [NYR, February 28], and much of what he writes in that article, are seriously misleading. Searle basically proclaims that Chomsky has been forced to abandon the core tenets of his earlier work in linguistics. That is simply not the case. The “Chomskian revolution” rested on three fundamental conjectures. The first was that the essential characteristics of each sentence of each natural language (mature human idiolect) can be represented by a derivation, that is, by a sequence of hierarchical structures. The second was that each hierarchical structure in such a sequence (derivation) is related to its predecessor by a mapping1 which satisfies specifiable (though by no means obvious) universal conditions. The third was that the universal conditions on the mappings (and on the order in which they are invoked in derivations) are determined by innate characteristics of the human mind/brain, or language capacity, or what he more recently, somewhat infelicitously, came to call “the human language organ,” and thus not by social factors, conventions, practical considerations, or other extrinsic contingencies.

These three conjectures were supplemented with some subsidiary ones; for instance, that each derivation breaks up into three parts, a syntactic part, a phonological part, and a semantic part, each calling for its own type of representational devices; that the phonological and semantic parts each have as initial elements an element from the syntactic part. And so on. These conjectures have shaped and continue to shape the empirical research of generative linguists. In other words, they, together with a massive amount of empirical data, are the presuppositions of the problems these linguists, Chomsky included, seek to solve. They are the core hypotheses confirmed by the many hard-earned and often surprising discoveries of generative linguistics. They are the conjectures about language that Chomsky’s predecessors in linguistics either never entertained or resisted most assiduously when first set forth, and which contemporary linguists who reject the Chomskian program seek to replace.

None of these “revolutionary” conjectures have been abandoned by Chomsky or by those who work within the framework that he created. Searle may think them wrongheaded, he may be right (though not for any reasons found in his article), but that is his view, not a view explicitly or implicitly stated in the book by Chomsky whose title decorates the head of the article, or by anything else written by Chomsky.

Sylvain Bromberger
Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

John Searle replies:

In my review of Noam Chomsky’s book I pointed out that the original goals of what I had thirty years ago described as a “revolution,” and the explanatory apparatus that was supposed to achieve those goals, have been abandoned. What were those goals and apparatus? The key explanatory device was the notion of rule, and in the earliest formulations there were supposed to be two kinds of syntactical rules: phrase structure rules and transformational rules. The goal of the theory was to state a set of such rules for each language that would, literally, generate all and only the sentences of that language. The notion that following rules is the essence of linguistic competence was crucial to the theory. Chomsky insisted that linguistic competence was not merely a matter of phenomena described by rules but phenomena guided by them. I know this for a fact because in several of his writings on this subject he was responding to criticisms made by me, and hence I paid close attention to the claims being made.

The claim that generative grammar was a matter of rules was behind Chomsky’s repeated claim that linguistics is a branch of psychology and that the subject provides a “window on the mind.” One of his favorite examples of the psychological insights that we get from linguistics is that the mind uses a special kind of rule, a structure-dependent rule.

I could fill an issue of The New York Review with quotations supporting the importance of rules in Chomsky’s theory, but here are two from his early work that illustrate the point:

I should like to return to the structure of grammar. I think that a grammar should contain several kinds of rules, each of which can be thought of as characterizing a particular linguistic level, since a special kind of structure is associated with each kind of rule. There are, first of all, transformational syntactic rules. Secondly, we have the phrase-structure rules, illustrated in my fragmentary phrase structure grammar.2

In the classic statement of the theory, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Chomsky writes:

Hence a generative grammar must be a system of rules that can iterate to generate an indefinitely large number of structures. [pp. 15–16]

The project to get such rules failed and Chomsky has now given up on that project. As I said in my review, something else may yet succeed, but the original project of a transformational generative grammar has been abandoned. Here is a typical statement of Chomsky’s current views:

This “Principles and Parameters” approach, as it has been called, reject[s] the concept of rule and grammatical construction entirely: There are no rules for forming relative clauses in Hindi, verb phrases in Swahili, passives in Japanese and so on.

When Bromberger tells us that the notion of a rule is unimportant because it has “too many irrelevant connotations” and that the meaning of any such notion is determined by the theory in which it is imbedded, I believe he is misrepresenting this history. In transformational generative grammar not just any old mapping was supposed to do the job, rather certain kinds of rules allegedly did the job. And the meaning of “rule” was the familiar notion that we all exemplify when we follow rules, not something internal only to the theory.

Bromberger in effect tells us that Chomsky has never abandoned his “core” conception of the subject matter of linguistics. I quite agree and I have said nothing to the contrary. I did make a number of criticisms of the way that this subject matter is currently pursued and Bromberger addresses none of them.

  1. 1

    I use “mapping” rather than “rule” because “rule” carries too many irrelevant connotations, as shown by Searle’s discussion. Others may prefer another term still. Whatever term we choose, its meaning will be determined by the theory in which it is embedded.

  2. 2

    Proceedings of the Third Texas Conference on Problems of Linguistic Analysis in English, May 9–12, 1958 (University of Texas Press, 1962), p. 170.

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