LINGUIST List 14.525

Fri Feb 21 2003

Review: General Linguistics: Chomsky (2002)

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  1. Jonathan White, On Nature and Language

Message 1: On Nature and Language

Date: Fri, 21 Feb 2003 10:00:14 +0000
From: Jonathan White <jwhdu.se>
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.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-2383.html


Jonathan White, H�gskolan 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

The reviewer's research interests include phrase structure, syntax and
semantics of adverbials, interfaces between syntax and semantics and
between syntax and morphology.
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