Zero Books #81: Decoding Chomsky

Aug 24th, 2016 | By | Category: Articles, Zero Squared

zeropod81Chris Knight is currently senior research fellow in the department of anthropology at University College, London, focusing his research on the evolutionary emergence of human language and symbolic culture. He lives in London. His book Decoding Chomsky is coming out from Yale University Press in September.

Here’s a description from the back jacket:

Occupying a pivotal position in postwar thought, Noam Chomsky is both the founder of modern linguistics and the world’s most prominent political dissident. Chris Knight adopts an anthropologist’s perspective on the twin output of this intellectual giant, acclaimed as much for his denunciations of US foreign policy as for his theories about language and mind. Knight explores the social and institutional context of Chomsky’s thinking, showing how the tension between military funding and his role as linchpin of the political left pressured him to establish a disconnect between science on the one hand and politics on the other, deepening a split between mind and body characteristic of Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. Provocative, fearless, and engaging, this remarkable study explains the enigma of one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.

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In this episode you’ll hear the voice of Noam Chomsky, an instrumental version of Pokemon, and the theme for

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5 Comments to “Zero Books #81: Decoding Chomsky”

  1. Zak says:

    I think what happened here is you guys conflated realism with materialism and assume that Chomsky’s skepticism of the latter makes him a skeptic of the former.

    Chomsky’s only critique of materialism/physicalism is that it’s basically meaningless from the perspective of how science is done. He sees science as finding the best intelligible theories of how phenomena works without referencing any prior hypothesis of how the universe works in general (ie Newton’s “I posit no hypotheses”). In this view, “materialism” is just an aggregation of naturalistic theories of how things work and thus pointless for Chomsky. Others of course disagree in that even this definition is useful for distinguishing materialism from other kinds of philosophies, but that’s the actual debate.

    What he is NOT saying, is that because materialism is meaningless that we need Kantian skepticism about the universe (or shifts in-and-out of this position). He is a realist, but he doesn’t see the utility in materialism as a descriptor.

    • Douglas Lain says:

      The separation of materialism and realism seems to be a Kantian one. That is, one can only hold that the objective quality of our perceptions is a synthetic apriori concept that can be considered as separate from our scientific concepts of “matter” after Kant’s Copernican revolution.

  2. Zak says:

    Knight can’t be serious when he says there’s no measurement, equations or experiments for linguistics…Right now there’s numerous MRI experiments to measure whether universal grammar (UG) exists by giving people fictional languages to solve and then measuring which parts of the brain are used to solve them (ie whether solving a fictional language using UG principles uses verbal parts of the brain and non-verbal parts for non-UG languages).

    And by the way, those UG principles are from decades trying to make “equations” for how all languages work.

    You can criticize Chomsky for being hypocritical in that he embraces the MRI studies when they suggest he’s right on UG versus his dislike of MRI studies in general, but it’s absurd to say the entire field of linguistics has been akin to unfalsifiable sophistry for the last half century.

  3. Zak says:

    My last post. No Chomsky was talking about the intrinsic ability to understand words in general, not specific words like “carburetor.” From the debate:

    “As for “carburetor” and “bureaucrat,” I have to say that my friend Jerry Fodor was a little offended by the fact that the statement you quoted was attributed to me in a recent article (actually it’s his)….His point was that we have to somehow account for the fact that terms like “carburetor” and “bureaucrat” we do understand, just as we understand “river,” and “tree,” and “person,” and very simple words, and we understand them on the basis of very limited evidence.

    What is it about the intrinsic nature of our minds that allows us to ACQUIRE (caps for emphasis) concepts like “river,” “person,” “tree,” “water,” “book,” “carburetor,” “bureaucrat,” even though we have very scattered experience. And that’s the problem of developmental biology.”

    Honestly, if these are the actual positions in the book, I feel somewhat worried for Knight’s reputation.

  4. Zak says:

    Alright, last, LAST post. For an actual discussion about UG, the field is pretty evenly split on it and it has to do with a lot of big splits among linguists:

    How to measure grammar – There’s a divide between functionalists and typologists for what counts as a grammatical feature, for instance do differences in subject-object order matter or does the fact that languages have subjects and objects more important? Likewise some languages will have very limited amounts of some feature so is it universal if all have it but it’s almost non-existent in some languages?

    Minimum of UG – Even though functionally some features are in every known language, some favored by UG theorists aren’t to which that it’s a set of tools not every language will have but don’t go into what the minimum of features ought to be.

    A priori evidence of UG – finally the most important debate is whether we have evidence of UG even if we don’t know all the features yet. Here there are is some compelling evidence: hypothetical languages that can or cannot exist, MRI scans of fictional languages suggesting that those using UG principals use the language parts of the brain etc.

    But ultimately the jury is still out until these differences can be reconciled and whether UG is a thing, but that aside, it’s clear Knight has no clue about the actual debate. Here’s a good debate among linguists:

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