Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Home

A ‘Galilean’ science of language1

  • CHRISTINA BEHME (a1)

Abstract

The Science of Language, published in the sixth decade of Noam Chomsky's linguistic career, defends views that are visibly out of touch with recent research in formal linguistics, developmental child psychology, computational modeling of language acquisition, and language evolution. I argue that the poor quality of this volume is representative of the serious shortcomings of Chomsky's recent scholarship, especially of his criticism of and contribution to debates about language evolution. Chomsky creates the impression that he is quoting titbits of a massive body of scientific work he has conducted or is intimately familiar with. Yet his speculations reveal a lack of even basic understanding of biology, and an unwillingness to engage seriously with the relevant literature. At the same time, he ridicules the work of virtually all other theorists, without spelling out the views he disagrees with. A critical analysis of the ‘Galilean method’ demonstrates that Chomsky uses appeal to authority to insulate his own proposals against falsification by empirical counter-evidence. This form of discourse bears no serious relation to the way science proceeds.

Copyright

Corresponding author

Author's address: Department of Philosophy, Dalhousie University, 6135 University Avenue, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 4R2, CanadaChristina.Behme@dal.ca

Footnotes

Hide All
[1]

I am greatly indebted to Avery Andrews, Michael Arbib, Derek Bickerton, Paul Bloom, Rudie Botha, Ted Briscoe, Morten Christiansen, Patricia Churchland, Michael Corballis, Peter Culicover, Stanley Dubinsky, Shimon Edelman, Jeff Elman, Dan Everett, Dan Flage, Susan Fred Schmerling, Jim Hurford, Ray Jackendoff, David Johnson, Dan Lassiter, Robert Levine, Philip Lieberman, Brian MacWhinney, Robert Martin, Frederick Newmeyer, David Papineau, Paul Postal, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, Geoffrey Sampson, Pieter Seuren, Maggie Tallerman, Michael Tomasello, and Virginia Valian for very helpful replies to my inquiries and for commenting on earlier drafts. Further gratitude is owed to the editor Bob Borsley and three anonymous referees of Journal of Linguistics. All remaining errors are mine.

Footnotes

References

Hide All
Aarsleff, Hans. 1970. The history of linguistics and Professor Chomsky. Language 46, 570585.
Aarsleff, Hans. 1971. ‘Cartesian linguistics’: History or fantasy? Language Sciences 17, 112.
Adger, David. 2003. Core syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Arbib, Michael A. 2005. From monkey-like action recognition to human language: An evolutionary framework for neurolinguistics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 28, 105167.
Arbib, Michael A. 2008. From grasp to language: Embodied concepts and the challenge of abstraction. Journal of Physiology Paris 102, 420.
Arbib, Michael A. 2012. How the brain got language: The Mirror System Hypothesis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Atkinson, Martin & Al-Mutairi, Fahad. 2012. UG or not UG: Where is recursion? Iberia 4, 3560.
Bach, Emmon, Brown, Colin & Marslen-Wilson, William. 1986. Crossed and nested dependencies in German and Dutch: A psycholinguistic study. Language and Cognitive Processes 1, 249262.
Behme, Christina. 2009. Review of Cartesian linguistics. Metapsychology Online Reviews 13, http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=5110&cn=394 (accessed 14 March 2014).
Behme, Christina. 2013a. Review of Noam Chomsky, The science of language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Philosophy in Review XXXIII, 100103.
Behme, Christina. 2013b. Review of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka & Pello Salaburu (eds.), Of minds and language: A dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country. Journal of Linguistics 49, 499506.
Behme, Christina. 2014. Evaluating Cartesian linguistics: From historic antecedents to computational modeling. Potsdam: Peter Lang.
Bishop, Dorothy. 2012. What Chomsky doesn't get about child language. Review of Noam Chomsky, The science of language: Interviews with James McGilvray. http://deevybee.blogspot.ca/2012/09/what-chomsky-didnt-get-about-child.html (accessed 14 March 2014).
Boden, Margaret A. 2006. Mind as machine: A history of cognitive science, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boden, Margaret A. 2008. Odd man out: Reply to reviewers. Artificial Intelligence 172, 19441964.
Botha, Rudolph P. 1999. On Chomsky's “fable” of instantaneous language evolution. Language and Communication 19, 243257.
Bricmont, Jean & Franck, Julie (eds.). 2010. Chomsky notebook. New York: Columbia University Press. [First published in French, by L'herne, 2007.]
Bunge, Mario. 2002. Philosophy of science: From problem to theory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, Noam. 1962. A transformational approach to syntax. In Hill, Archibald (ed.), Third Texas Conference on Problems of Linguistic Analysis in English, 124169. Austin, TX: The University of Texas.
Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1966a. Cartesian linguistics. New York: Haper & Row. [Third edition published by Cambridge University Press, 2009.]
Chomsky, Noam. 1966b. Topics in the theory of generative grammar. The Hague: Mouton.
Chomsky, Noam. 1966c. Linguistic theory. In Maed, Robert (ed.), Language teaching: Broader contexts (North East Conference Reports), 4349. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Chomsky, Noam. 1968. Language and mind. New York: Hartcourt.
Chomsky, Noam. 1971. Human nature: Justice versus power. http://www.chomsky.info/debates/1971xxxx.htm (accessed 14 March 2014).
Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Some empirical issues in the theory of transformational grammar. In Peters, Stanley (ed.), Goals of linguistic theory, 63130. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Chomsky, Noam. 1975. Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon Books.
Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.
Chomsky, Noam. 1982a. Some concepts and consequences of the theory of government and binding. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1982b. Noam Chomsky on the generative enterprise: A discussion with Riny Huybregts and Henk van Riemsdijk. Dordrecht: Foris.
Robert, Noam. 1985. Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin and use. In Stainton, Robert (ed.), Perspectives in the philosophy of language, 344. Peterborough. ON: Broadview Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1986a. Knowledge of language. New York: Praeger Scientific.
Chomsky, Noam. 1986b. Barriers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 1997. Conhecimento da História e construção Teórica na Lingüística Moderna. Documentação de Estudos em Lingüística Teórica e Aplicada 13, 133155.
Chomsky, Noam. 2000a. The architecture of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2000b. New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2000c. Minimalist inquiries: The framework. In Martin, Roger, Michaels, David & Uriagerika, Juan (eds.), Step by step: Essays on Minimalist syntax in honor of Howard Lasnik, 89155. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2002. On nature and language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2005. Some simple evo devo theses: How true might they be for language? Presented at Alice V. and David H. Morris Symposium on Language and Communication, Stony Brook, SUNY, New York.
Chomsky, Noam. 2007. Symposium on Margaret Boden, Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science. Artificial Intelligence 171, 10941103.
Chomsky, Noam. 2008. Human nature and the origins of language. Radical Anthropology 2, 1923.
Chomsky, Noam. 2009a. Opening remarks. In Piattelli-Palmarini, et al. (eds.), 1343.
Chomsky, Noam. 2009b. Concluding remarks. In Piattelli-Palmarini, et al. (eds.), 379401.
Chomsky, Noam. 2011. Appendix: Interview with Noam Chomsky. In Ludlow, Peter (ed.), The philosophy of generative linguistics, 174191. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chomsky, Noam. 2012. Minimal recursion: Exploring the prospects. Ms., MIT. [To appear in Roeper, Tom & Speas, Margaret (eds.), Recursion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. The manuscript is available at http://www.letras.ufrj.br/poslinguistica/recursion/papers/2-noam-chomsky.pdf, accessed 14 March 2014.]
Chomsky, Noam. 2013. Problems of projection, Lingua 130, 3349.
Chomsky, Noam & Lasnik, Howard. 1977. Filters and control. Linguistic Inquiry 8, 425504.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Chater, Nick. 1999. Toward a connectionist model of recursion in human linguistic performance. Cognitive Science 23, 157205.
Christiansen, Morten H. & Chater, Nick. 2008. Language as shaped by the brain. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31, 489558.
Collins, Chris & Stabler, Edward P.. 2011. A formalization of minimalist syntax. http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001691 (accessed 14 March 2014).
Deacon, Terrence W. 1997. The symbolic species. New York: Norton.
Diamond, Jared. 1999. Guns, germs, and steel: The fate of human societies. New York: Norton.
Drummond, Alex & Hornstein, Norbert. 2011. Basquing in minimalism. Biolinguistics 5 331349.
Dummett, Michael. 1986. A nice derangement of epitaphs. In Lepore, Eric (ed.), Truth and interpretation, 459476. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dummett, Michael. 1991. The logical basis of metaphysics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Dummett, Michael. 1993. The seas of language. Oxford: Clarendon.
Elman, Jeffrey L. 1991. Distributed representations, simple recurrent networks, and grammatical structure. Machine Learning 7, 195224.
Everett, Daniel L. 1986. Pirahã. In Derbyshire, Desmond C. & Pullum, Geoffrey K. (eds.), Handbook of Amazonian languages, vol. 1, 200326. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Everett, Daniel L. 1987. A lìngua Pirahã e a teoria da sintaxe: Descrição, perspectivas e teoria. Campinas: Editora da Unicamp.
Everett, Daniel L. 2005a. Biology and language: A consideration of alternatives. Journal of Linguistics 41, 157175.
Everett, Daniel L. 2005b. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the design features of human language. Current Anthropology 46, 621646.
Fiengo, Robert. 2006. Review of Chomsky's minimalism by Pieter Seuren. Mind 115, 469472.
Fischer, Klaus. 1992. Die Wissenschaftstheorie Galileis – oder: Contra Feyerabend. Journal for General Philosophy of Science/Zeitschrift für allgemein Wissenschaftstheorie 23, 165197.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2010. The evolution of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fitch, W. Tecumseh, Hauser, Marc D. & Chomsky, Noam. 2005. The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition 97, 179210.
Freidin, Robert. 2009. A note on methodology in linguistics. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32.5, 454455.
Freidin, Robert & Vergnaud, Jean-Roger. 2001. Exquisite connections: Some remarks on the evolution of linguistic theory. Lingua 111, 639666.
Goodman, Nelson. 1968. The emperor's new ideas. In Hook, Sidney (ed.), Language and philosophy, 138142. New York: New York University Press.
Gould, Stephen Jay & Vrba, Elisabeth S.. 1982. Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology 8, 415.
Harman, Gilbert. 2001. Review of Noam Chomsky, New horizons in the study of language and mind. The Journal of Philosophy 98, 265269.
Hauser, Marc D., Chomsky, Noam & Fitch, W. Tecumseh. 2002. The faculty of language: What is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 15691579.
Hill, Jane. 2007. Obituary: William Oliver Bright. Language 83, 628641.
Hornstein, Norbert. 2014. More on recursion. Faculty of language. http://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.ca/2014/01/more-on-recursion.html (accessed 14 March 2014).
Hurford, James R. & Dediu, Dan. 2007. Diversity in languages, genes, and the language faculty. In Botha, Rudolph P. & Knight, Chris (eds.), The cradle of language (Studies in the Evolution of Language), 163185. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jackendoff, Ray. 2011. What is the human language faculty? Two views. Language 87, 586624.
Jackendoff, Ray & Pinker, Steven. 2005. The nature of the language faculty and its implications for evolution of language reply to Fitch, Hauser, and Chomsky. Cognition 97, 211225.
Kinsella, Anna. 2009. Language evolution and syntactic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kljajevic, Vanja. 2009. Review of Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, Juan Uriagereka & Pello Salaburu (eds.), Of minds and language: A dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country. Linguist List, http://linguistlist.org/pubs/reviews/get-review.cfm?SubID=4552884 (accessed 14 March 2014).
Lassiter, Daniel. 2008. Semantic externalism, language variation, and sociolinguistic accommodation. Mind and Language 23, 607633.
Lees, Robert. 1957. Review of Noam Chomsky, Syntactic structures. Language 33, 375408.
Legate, Julie A., Pesetsky, David & Yang, Charles. 2013. Recursive misrepresentations: A reply to Levinson. http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/001822 (accessed 14 March 2014).
Lieberman, Philip. 2006. Toward an evolutionary biology of language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lieberman, Philip. 2013. The unpredictable species. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lieberman, Philip. In press. Review of Noam Chomsky, The science of language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Modern Language Review.
Ludlow, Peter. 2011. The philosophy of generative grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacWhinney, Brian. 2004. A multiple process solution to the logical problem of language acquisition. Journal of Child Language 31, 883914.
MacWhinney, Brian. 2005. Language evolution and human development. In Bjorklund, David & Pellegrini, Anthony (eds.), Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary psychology and child development, 383410. New York: Guilford.
MacWhinney, Brian. 2010. Computational models of child language learning: An introduction. Journal of Child Language 37, 477485.
MacWhinney, Brian & Snow, Catherine. 1985. The Child Language Data Exchange System. Journal of Child Language 12, 271296.
McBrearty, Sally & Brooks, Alison. 2000. The revolution that wasn't: A new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution 39, 453563.
Mukherji, Nirmalangshu. 2010. Review of Jean Bricmont & Julie Franck (eds.), Chomsky notebook. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24494-chomsky-notebook/.
Nevins, Andrew, Pesetsky, David & Rodrigues, Cilene. 2009. Pirahã exceptionality: A reassessment. Language 85, 355404.
Özsoy, A. Sumru & Nakipoğlu, Mine (eds.). 2009. Noam Chomsky on language and cognition. Munich: LINCOM Europa.
Papineau, David. 2008. Review of Daniel [L.] Everett, Don't sleep there are snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian jungle. The Independent, 14 November 2008.
Pesetsky, David. 2009. Against taking linguistic diversity at ‘face value’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32, 464465.
Pesetsky, David. 2013. Что дѣлать? What is to be done? Presented at Linguistics Society of America Annual Meeting. Slides from plenary talk, 4 January 2013. http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/people/faculty/pesetsky/Pesetsky_LSA_plenary_talk_slides_2013.pdf (accessed 14 March 2014).
Piattelli-Palmarini, Massimo, Uriagereka, Juan & Salaburu, Pello (eds.). 2009. Of minds and language: A dialogue with Noam Chomsky in the Basque Country. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pinker, Steven & Bloom, Paul. 1990. Natural language and natural selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13, 707784.
Postal, Paul M. 2005. Foreword. In Sampson, Geoffrey (ed.), The ‘language instinct’ debate, revised edn., viixi. London: Continuum.
Postal, Paul M. 2012. Chomsky's foundational admission. http://ling.auf.net/lingBuzz/001569 (accessed 14 March 2014).
Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2011a. On the mathematical foundations of Syntactic structures. Journal of Logic, Language and Information 20, 277296.
Pullum, Geoff[rey K]. 2011b. Remarks by Noam Chomsky in London. Linguist List 22.4631, http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-4631.html (accessed 14 March 2014).
Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2012. Review of Noam Chomsky The science of language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Times Higher Education 2,044, 5 April 2012, page 51. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/419565.article.
Pullum, Geoffrey K. & Scholz, Barbara C.. 2002. Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. The Linguistic Review 19, 950.
Putnam, Hilary. 1967. The ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ and explanatory models in linguistics. Synthese 17, 1222.
Reiss, John. 2009. Not by design: Retiring Darwin's watchmaker. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sampson, Geoffrey. 2001. Empirical linguistics. London: Continuum.
Sampson, Geoffrey. 2002. Exploring the richness of the stimulus. The Linguistic Review 19, 73104.
Searle, John R. 1972. Chomsky's revolution in linguistics. The New York Review of Books, 29 June 1972, pages 16–24. http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/19720629.htm.
Seuren, Pieter A. M. 1998. Western linguistics: A historical introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Seuren, Pieter A. M. 2009. Concerning the roots of transformational generative grammar. Historiographia Linguistica 36, 97115.
Smith, Neil. 1999. Chomsky: Ideas and ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Studdert-Kennedy, Michael. 1998. The particulate origins of language generativity: From syllable to gesture. In Hurford, James R., Studdert-Kennedy, Michael & Knight, Chris (eds.), Approaches to the evolution of language, 202221. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tomalin, Marcus. 2011. Syntactic structures and recursive devices: A legacy of imprecision. The Journal of Logic, Language and Information 20, 297315.
Tomasello, Michael. 2003. Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tomasello, Michael. 2004. What kind of evidence could refute the UG hypothesis? Studies in Language 28, 642644.
Tomasello, Michael. 2008. Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Uriagereka, Juan. 2009. Discussion of concluding remarks. In Piattelli-Palmarini, et al. (eds.), 405409.
Watumull, Jeffrey, Hauser, Marc D., Roberts, Ian G. & Hornstein, Norbert. 2014. On recursion. Frontiers in Psychology 4, 17.
Weckerly, Jill & Elman, Jeffrey L.. 1992. A PDP approach to processing center-embedded sentences. The Fourteenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 139156. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Wright, Larry. 1976. Teleological explanations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Metrics

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed