LINGUIST List 8.765

Wed May 21 1997

Disc: Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum, posting on Barsky

Message 1: posting on Barsky

Date: Wed, 21 May 97 12:51:31 PDT
From: Geoffrey K. Pullum <>
Subject: posting on Barsky

It is a standard response to critical reviewers to accuse them of not
reading or not understanding the book they reviewed. Predictably,
Robert Barsky says (LINGUIST 8.764) the reason I treated his book
["Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent"] as a biography of a linguist when
I reviewed it [Nature 386, 24 April 1997], and thus judged it harshly,
is that I made up my mind before I saw it and didn't even understand
what the book was about after I saw it. This is not the case. It
should be noted that the first two words of the dust-jacket blurb of
Barsky's book are: "This biography". I was asked by a science journal
to do a 900-word review of a book they took to be a biography of a
linguistic scientist. Barsky's book does not meet this description,
as I stated in the review, and as he now seems to agree.

I will not discuss Barsky's comments at length, but I will answer
one rhetorical question and address one point where Barsky has
sidestepped on a factual point that Paul Postal and I addressed
in our recent posting (LINGUIST 8.755).

The rhetorical question Barsky addressed to Postal and me was:

 why do you (both) wish to ignore his political work? Why
 are you so surprised by, and resistant to, the fact that
 I would concentrate more heavily upon his political approach
 and his values, rather than upon his academic work?

I will answer only for myself: if by "his political work" Barsky
means Chomsky's many books and articles addressing political themes,
the answer is that I have been reading them since 1968 and I am glad
for their existence; I think highly engaged left-wing political
writing is needed as a corrective to what Chomsky rightly sees as an
astonishingly right-wing culture served by an amazingly subservient
array of mainstream news media. I wish I could see as much merit
in some recent syntactic theory as I can see in libertarian socialist
ideals of a more equitable and humane society.

But it is very weird to raise this question in the context of the
LINGUIST list posting, which was purely about a factual issue in
the history of recent linguistics. To that factual issue I now
turn. Barsky states:

 Pullum seems to want to tell all of us what to do and how
 to think. For instance, he begins a paragraph with the
 cryptic statement that "Chomsky omits mention of Joan
 Bresnan -- a major opponent of GS who was hired during
 1974-75 with Chomsky's strong support". What does this
 mean? Chomsky never failed to mention her; on page 192 he
 is cited as recalling that "Joan Bresnan, who was brought
 in at my personal initiative, over lots of objections from
 younger faculty members who didn't agree), decided to
 leave for Stanford." What Pullum means is that Bresnan
 did not figure in Chomsky's discussion about GS.

Yes, the latter is exactly what I meant; and I said so in the review
in Nature, and not at all cryptically, and without telling anyone
what to do or how to think. The contrast between not mentioning
Bresnan in one place but not in another was precisely the point I
raised. Barsky's phrase "Chomsky never failed to mention her" is
very misleading. When writing to Barsky about how his role and
influence in the GS debates has been much overstated, Chomsky mentions
allegedly GS-connected figures who were hired in his department and
complains that no one of his own persuasion was hired; in that letter
(if Barsky quotes it fully) he does indeed fail to mention Bresnan --
and thus suppresses a highly relevant point. Then on a different
occasion the issue of whether Chomsky was in favor of hiring women
faculty comes up in the Barsky/Chomsky correspondence, and there he
mentions his successful support for Bresnan's hiring. Serious
misrepresentation is going on here. The truth is (as Postal and I
substantiate in our recent LINGUIST posting) that no one who had
already stated a belief that deep structures were identical with
logical structures was ever offered a position in MIT's department
during the GS dispute, and when the candidacy of one person who
definitely did not hold that view was supported by Chomsky, she was
duly hired. If Barsky intended to tell the life story of Noam
Chomsky, then such matters of fact are important.

If, on the other hand, Barsky wishes his book to be seen merely
as a survey of some background for looking at the emergence of
Chomsky's political thought, interspersed with unevaluated quotations
in which Chomsky gives his own unsubstantiated viewpoints and
opinions on various matters relating to his life, then I wish
him well with it. But the folks at MIT Press have made a bad
mistake with the dust jacket, because they are saying that it is
a biography.
 Geoffrey K. Pullum
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