LINGUIST List 10.659

Wed May 5 1999

Review: Barsky: A life of Dissent (2nd review)

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <carnielinguistlist.org>


What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at carnielinguistlist.org

Directory

  1. palma, Barsky: A life of Dissent (2nd review)

Message 1: Barsky: A life of Dissent (2nd review)

Date: Tue, 4 May 1999 13:29:56 -0400 (EDT)
From: palma <palmapoly.polytechnique.fr>
Subject: Barsky: A life of Dissent (2nd review)


Barsky R. (1998) Chomsky, A Life of Dissent, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,
 	Paperback edition: September 1, 1998, $14.00, 6x9, 245pp., 29 illus. 
	ISBN 0-262-52255-1 (cloth 1997)
 
Reviewed by Adriano Palma 
 
 
Barsky's book is disappointing for the professional linguist or for
readers who want to know about one of the prevailing trends of
research in the workings of that brain-mind of ours, a complex and
interesting device. Very little sense is given of how different
linguistics is after the Chomskyan turn. IMHO the puny " Chomsky for
beginners " (by John Maher and Judy Gross, Icon Books, Cambridge,
1996) is a far better introduction to Chomsky's linguistics.

For the professional linguist by now there are many books by and on
the subject of Barsky's book. The book however is generously sprinkled
by passages from letters Chomsky wrote the author, so it affords a
good view of the ways and means of Chomsky's mind. The tone at times
verges on the apologetic (some critical readers have even spoken of
this book as modeled along the lives of the saints of early religious
traditions.) However, I do not think the tone is too much of an
impediment. Barsky decided not to tell much about Chomsky as a
scientist of the mind. He decided to present instead a Bildungsroman
about Chomsky and Chomsky's milieu (subjective and objective
genitive.)

Chomsky has always had some serious reservations about focusing on
figures, leaders, and personalities, voicing a well-founded dread of
silly cultishness and sheer gossip. Nevertheless, Chomsky is a public
figure (possibly despite his own desire for privacy) in a wider
context than that of the cognitive science community. This is not
because of popularized publications but because of his political
views. This is the most informative part of the book.

The letters by Chomsky, mentioned above, provide much information
about his biography from his own recounting it. Chomsky's idea of the
good society has been stable throughout his life. It was formed by his
reflection on the anarchosyndacalist ideals. 

Barsky does an excellent job of showing how the environment Chomsky
grew up in shaped many of the his guiding ideas, e.g., a firm belief
in the possibility of improving the underdogs' lot in life, together
with a moral belief in the necessity of doing something concrete in
that direction.

Linguistics came to Chomsky by way of his family (his father wrote on
Hebrew grammar--see pp. 19-20--and was the author of " Hebrew, the
Eternal Language") though it was only one of many intellectual
interests. The political shape of Chomsky's education was mainly
influenced by libertarian leftism. Interestingly enough, and different
from many of his generation, he was not embroiled in the sectarian
disputes among the countless theological interpretations of
Marxism. This is a trait that remains present much later. Against the
endless pencil pushing of academic Marxism, Chomsky observes, "The
intellectuals around the Marxist tradition (Lukacs, Frankfurt school,
etc.) I read a bit but wasn't much interested in, frankly. The ideas
that seem useful also seem pretty simple, and I don't understand what
all the verbiage is for " (p. 25)

A second important strain is the Jewish environment Chomsky grew
in. The Diaspora in the 30's is teeming with the debates and projects
of the Zionist movements. Characteristically Chomsky was in a minority
position. His family was influenced by the writings of Asher Ginzburg
(known as Ahad Haam "one of the nation" or "one of the people" in
Hebrew.) Haam's is one of the dissident voices in the Zionist
debates. The Jewish component of Chomsky's culture had an important impact on
his scientific formation. The encounter with Zellig Sabbetai Harris
was essential. Harris was the founder of the first U.S. linguistics
department (at the University of Pennsylvania.) He was the founder of
structuralism in linguistics and he initiated Chomsky to the very idea
of moving linguistics away from vague and culture bound intuitionism,
toward an increasing rigor in its treatment. Chomskyan linguistics (it
seems to me) is best described as a move away from Harris' brand of
structuralism, but nevertheless one is often defined by theoretical
enemies as well as allies. I found somewhat out of place Barsky's
remarks (academically hedged by "I do not want to suggest a parallel
here . . .") that " Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels contributed to
linguistics through their explorations of the nature and essence of
language " (like Harris and Chomsky?? p.50)

It is indeed more interesting that Chomsky came to linguistics via
Harris but was attracted by his political position far more than by
his scientific work. This is the subject of the very interesting
chapter on Avukah (an association of Jewish students), whose positions
were closer to Chomsky's positions and deeply influenced by Harris.
As for linguistics proper, Chomsky struck a very original chord,
impressing one of his teachers (Nelson Goodman) as a madman, and
interesting scientifically for a while only Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (see
his Language and Information, Addison, Reading, 1964, for more on his
brand of linguistic analysis.)

There is little in Barsky's book about the actual shape of Chomskyan
linguistics, the closest we get is a cultural analysis of the
intellectual tradition it is part of. This is accomplished mostly in
chapter 3, devoted to Humboldt and the Cartesian tradition. The third
chapter is informative about some of the predecessors of Chomsky in
terms of history of ideas. To the readers of LINGUIST the ground will
be well known. The remote sources of Chomsky are in Plato and
Descartes. In more recent times the rationalist tradition (from the
Port Royal grammarians to Humboldt) is his mainspring of inspiration,
as opposed to the prevailing empiricism as spearheaded, e.g., by
Goodman and Quine.

If there is a way to summarize the antibehaviorist revolution Chomsky
started, it lies in the idea that minds are not opaque boxes, rather
they are sophisticated collections of organs, faculties, subsystems,
etc. whose activities are, at least in principle, legitimate objects
of inquiry as are the organs, functions, and so forth of the rest of
the body. The whole idea that in studying minds we have to resort to
utterly different canons of inquiry is probably one of the many
notions inherited from common sense according to which there is
something special about us as rational beings. Chomsky's own views are
probably best spelled out in his "Mind" paper of 1995 (titled
"Language and Nature.") I do not believe Barsky's text adds much to
what is known; if anything I find rather disturbing the constant
attempt to find deep connections between Chomsky's
scientific work and his political positions (that seems the drift of
the insertions of citations from the work of Ken Coates, someone who
offers a "context in which to negotiate the seemingly insurmountable
distance between, say Che Guevara and Theodor Adorno." p.148 ff.) I
find it disturbing primarily because of Chomsky's own view that in social and
political matters theories and academic lingo are mainly obfuscation.

The first part of Barsky's book contains, however, much that is useful
and interesting and it gives a good picture of the origins and sources
of Chomsky's intellectual radicalism. The second part of the book
("The Milieu that Chomsky helped to create ") is a collection of
topically chosen chapters. The character that emerges is the
uncompromising one many know. Not by coincidence Chomsky is known less
within his country than without. Barsky presents a fair story of the
history of censure and ignorance that much of the US based media
display when dealing with issues that are less than fashionable.

One of the funniest chapters of Barsky's book deals with Chomsky,
postmodernism, and French culture, quite apart from the Faurisson
debates. Barsky, maybe because of his background in literary studies,
sees much of value in the North American adoption of the weird forms
of "theory" that came out of France after the war. However, I have
always had the suspicion that much postmodernist theory (notice that
it is never said what the theory is a theory of . . . ) is an
elaborate academic fad based on a fashionable joke. In this kind of
skepticism, Chomsky was a forerunner. He writes, "For the post-modern
age, I await some indication that there is something beyond
trivialities or self-serving nonsense. I can perceive certain grains
of truth hidden in the vast structure of verbiage, but those are
simple indeed. Again, maybe I am missing something, perhaps a lot. If
so, I apologize for my simple-mindedness. Maybe I'm missing a gene. I
seem to be able to understand other difficult things, but virtually
nothing here. Furthermore, in other difficult areas, say, quantum
physics, friends and colleagues can explain to me what I want to know,
as do serious popularizations at a level I can understand, and I know
how to go on if I want to understand more, and have sometimes done
so. In these postmodernist areas, no one can explain anything to me,
and I have no idea of how to proceed. It could be that some entirely
new form of human intelligence has arisen, beyond those known before,
and those who lack the appropriate genes, evidently me, just can't see
it. Perhaps. As I said, I am open-minded. If there is another
explanation, I'd like to hear it. " (Chomsky, quoted by Barsky,
pp. 197-198.) 


In sum, Barsky provides a great canvas of the intellectual and
political forces that shaped Chomsky's thinking. However, I believe
there is a certain imbalance between consideration of his political
side and consideration of his scientific achievement. It would be
useful even for the general readership to have a better idea of what a
principles and parameter approach is and what the claim that the
language organ may be perfect is. I was
kindly informed by Neil Smith of London University that his own book
on Chomsky, while not being purely a technical linguistic treaty, will
go deeper into Chomsky the linguist and slightly less into
Chomsky, the dissident (the book by Smith is about to be published in
Cambridge.) 

As for Chomsky himself, the man has very impressive intellectual
powers and his personality is fascinating--quite the opposite of the
guru and the master since his only "lesson" is to start to think
critically. To be sure, there is an intellectual value in exposing
lies and deceptions, and here I think even those who disagree with
Chomsky should be grateful for his mining work. It shows an amazing
capacity for work and an unselfish commitment. Nevertheless, one may
still raise questions about the positive part of the political thought
of the master linguist. 
 
palma, ap
c.r.e.a.
1 rue descartes 
75005 paris
email: palmapoly.polytechnique.fr
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue