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A ‘Galilean’ science of language1



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.


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Author's address: Department of Philosophy, Dalhousie University, 6135 University Avenue, Halifax, Nova Scotia, B3H 4R2,


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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.



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