Letter: Chomsky revisited
I WAS INTERESTED TO READ Jackie Walker’s review of Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky in last month’s Briefing. For me the key assertion in the review was: “Chomsky’s celebrated ‘cognitive revolution’ played a key role in overturning materialist philosophy and social science.” I do not believe this is correct, and I challenge the idea that Chomsky’s linguistic discoveries, whatever the institutional circumstances in which they emerged, contradict historical materialism.
But first let me sketch what Chomsky is saying in linguistics. Prior to Chomsky the dominant school in linguistics was the behaviourism of BF Skinner. Skinner defended the idea that language acquisition was an exclusively learned activity, based on copying others, reward for correct utterances and punishment for mistakes.
Chomsky pointed out that language is uniquely human, with all healthy humans having the ability to learn any language in childhood. On account of the grammatical complexity and variety of any natural language, copying, reward and punishment is an insufficient explanation. Instead Chomsky reasoned that humans have a LAD (Language Acquisition Device), containing a deep embedded grammar, which is capable of latching onto and enabling learning of any human language.
Marxism is a theory which posits that humans collectively make history by interacting with nature, so changing themselves and nature itself in the process. Nonetheless, large parts of nature, for instance stones, plants and the human body itself, remain mostly fixed over long periods of time and therefore have qualities which cannot be grasped by Marxian social concepts.
That means that Marxism has nothing to say about, and is compatible with, both behaviourism and Chomsky’s linguistics. For Chomsky, stating that humans possess a LAD is no more a threat to Marxism than saying that a human’s walking style is determined by the fact that he or she has two legs. But because a theory is compatible with Marxism doesn’t make it either true or false; we need further investigation outside the framework of Marxism. Marxist concepts cannot determine the truth or otherwise of all empirical and conceptual developments, and it is a dangerous dogma to try to make it do so.