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Date: Wed, 19 Feb 2003 09:52:20 +0100 From: Jonathan White Subject: On Nature and Language
Chomsky, Noam (2002) On Nature and Language. Cambridge University Press, x+206pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-81548-7, $60.00.
Jonathan White, Högskolan Dalarna, Sweden
CONTENTS This book evolved from a month's stay of Chomsky's at the University of Siena in November 1999. Chapters two, three and five are based on lectures given by Chomsky at the university; while the interview presented in chapter four was conducted by the editors of this volume, Belletti and Rizzi, with Chomsky during his stay. Chapters two and three are described as immediately accessible to the non-specialist. Chapter four is generally non-technical, but refers to recent history and theoretical concepts within generative syntax. The final chapter deals with Chomsky's views on politics.
Chapter 1: Editors' introduction: some concepts and issues in linguistic theory The introduction to this volume was written by Belletti and Rizzi as a theoretical and historical background to the chapters that follow. They start by placing generative linguistics within the study of the human mind, comparing Chomsky's views with those of Saussure that language is a social object. This leads to a discussion of the notion of Universal Grammar in its general sense as found in language acquisition, and in its technical implementation in the field of syntax, as a recursive procedure for generating sentences in a language (see Chomsky 1981, 1986 for discussion). The syntactic theory deriving from this idea, known as the Principles and Parameters framework, is presented with a number of examples of linguistic variation worked through to illustrate the power of the theory. Then the move to a minimalist view of language is discussed. The principle differences between the approaches are highlighted. For example, the new place assigned to economy conditions (Chomsky, 1991, 1993) and the use of morphological features as triggers for movement processes. More recent developments such as the idea of the phase (Chomsky 2000, 2001) are also covered.
This is not in any way meant to be a full exposition of the current state of the art in generative syntax, but as a summary it is well presented and technical enough for students of linguistics. I would not like to recommend it for those not on a course dealing with generative syntax since the authors do throw in technical terms when discussing syntactic theory without any further explanation - one such example is c-command. On the positive side seminal works on the various phenomena under discussion are given. Although the list is not complete enough for the research student, undergraduates would find this a valuable guide to important works in the field.
Chapter 2: Perspectives on language and mind Next Chomsky sets his views on language in an historical perspective taking the views of Galileo as a starting-point. Galileo was the first to see that language involves a finite means of expressing an infinite array of thought, an idea which became a central tenet of Port Royal grammar (Darwin noted some similar ideas through the study of evolution). Galileo argued that the mind was similar to a complex mechanical machine contra Descartes, who thought language was constrained by the body but was not caused by it. The other important point to come out is that categories in science do not necessarily have to conform to objects we intuitively "see" in reality. The function of science is to form a body of doctrine, not to map reality. In conclusion, Chomsky sees Galileo's contribution to the study of language as the realisation that scientific study of the mind is not impossible, although it has only really become possible in the 20th century. This chapter leads on nicely to the next one, on the possibility of unification of studies of the human brain. I will, therefore, comment on the two chapters together as a unit.
Chapter 3: Language and the brain Here Chomsky compares the study of the mind with studies in natural sciences like physics, chemistry and biology. There, he notes, unification has been possible to a much greater extent. He argues for the view that such unification is possible in the sciences of the mind as well. He begins by repeating much of the discussion from the previous chapter on Galileo - that is, that we should be seeking to devise intelligible theories, not to understand reality. Chomsky's point is that this was a debate that happened in the natural sciences prior to unification, so he sees the current debate in linguistics as a positive sign. The methodological position of ethologist Mark Hauser is looked at next. This is that language, as with other "communication" systems in the animal world, should be studied from four perspectives. The first two are that we should study the psychological mechanisms that implement the system, and the genetic and environmental factors that cause it. Chomsky points out that language is special from other communication systems, through properties such as duality, etc., and so factors pertaining to language may not apply to all forms of communication. However, these factors are both of primary concern to the linguist. The third factor we need to study, for Hauser, is the effect of language on survival. Chomsky's view is that this is too narrow for language, although it can be studied. The final factor is evolutionary history, which Chomsky argues seems a difficult area for study, and not one that language would advance. The final view covered here is that of C. R. Gallistel. He argues for a modular approach to language, the most similar to Chomsky's own views. Chomsky's overall position from these two chapters is a positive one, namely that unification is an attainable goal in the sciences of the mind, even if we cannot see how to do so at this moment.
It is these two chapters that were the most interesting for me as a linguist. Putting the study of language in the context of developments in science in general is an important and not often done task. The parallels between natural sciences and sciences of the mind are striking and give one a positive view of the future prospects for unification of these fields.
Chapter 4: An interview on minimalism The final chapter dealing with linguistic issues takes the form of an interview between the editors of the book, Belletti and Rizzi, and Chomsky. The major theme of the interview, following on from the chapters on Galileo and the study of the mind, is that linguistics is a developing field and that the questions we are asking have only become possible through changes in theoretical perspectives. Thus, the view prior to Chomsky's Pisa lectures was that language was construction-specific and rule-based. That view then radically changed and we referred instead to language-independent principles and language-specific parameters. The most recent change in theoretical machinery has seen economy conditions come to the fore. The question we mostly ask nowadays is whether language is "perfect". Chomsky points out that this question has only become possible with a well-formed theory of language itself - only then can we ask what it takes to have a "perfect" language. A major question Chomsky takes up is the fact that most of language actually appears to be imperfectly designed, such as Case and agreement systems and the displacement property. We have begun to realise, though, that such systems are actually well designed for use by the interpretative systems. Another consequence of changes in theory is that a lot of questions we used to ask are not so relevant now, such as the specifier/complement distinction, now redundant in the bare phrase structure system. A fact dealt with is whether this radical questioning of our theoretical beliefs is a sign of a healthy discipline. Chomsky's strong answer is yes. Without questioning our assumptions, we can never move forward, and the long-term goal of unification with the sciences of the mind will never be attained.
I believe that the earlier sections of this chapter would be the most interesting for students learning about the minimalist program. The change in research questions is well set out and clearly described. Later on, things get heavier. I am not certain what linguists would gain from the detailed descriptions of work that has gone on in the natural sciences. Despite these questions, the point this chapter, and indeed the whole book, makes is clear: that change in linguistic theory is healthy, and we are able to ask deeper questions now than we have ever been able to ask.
Chapter 5: The secular priesthood and the perils of democracy Chomsky turns his attention here to the so-called "secular priesthood", intellectuals who were apologists for the Communist regime and its actions. He believes that a similar group exists nowadays who defend the American government. Chomsky cites a number of cases of abuses of power abroad by America and the fact that such events are never discussed in intellectual circles. He also notes that foreign policy seems to be decided by commercial considerations. Chomsky refers in particular to the use of euphemism and other techniques of linguistic propaganda by the media as well.
GENERAL EVALUATION I would certainly recommend this book for postgraduates and researchers as a valuable discussion of scientific methodology as applied to syntax, and as an historical summary of changes in the field. For undergraduates, though, I would be more selective. Certainly, the first chapter and the first part of the last chapter would be relevant for students on introductory courses in minimalism. The presentation of the change in viewpoint from Principles and Parameters to minimalism is clear, and includes some very pertinent examples. The middle two chapters would be relevant for people interested in the history of science and thought, where the parallels in the development of linguistics and the natural sciences are particularly interesting. There are unfortunately places where Chomsky presents certain conclusions as self-evident, but the relevant argumentation would be beyond the students. Thus, my view is that this would be a good reference book for undergraduates wanting to get an idea of the "bigger picture". My overall evaluation is that this is an interesting and thought-provoking book, which presents a very hopeful view for the possibility of unification with other brain sciences.
REFERENCES Chomsky, Noam (1981) Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris Publications.
Chomsky, Noam (1986) Knowledge of language. New York: Praeger.
Chomsky, Noam (1991) Some notes on economy of derivation and representation. In The Minimalist Program. Chomsky (ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 129-166.
Chomsky, Noam (1993) A minimalist program for linguistic theory. In The view from Building 20. Hale and Keyser (eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 1-52.
Chomsky, Noam (2000) Minimalist inquiries: the framework. In Step by step: Essays in minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik. Martin, Micheals and Uriagereka (eds.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 89-155.
Chomsky, Noam (2001) Derivation by phase. ms. MIT.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER The reviewer's research interests include phrase structure, syntax and semantics of adverbials, interfaces between syntax and semantics and between syntax and morphology.