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The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray

This isn't a book by Noam Chomsky, it isn't really composed of interviews, and it contains no "science of language".

Yes, 44 per cent of it contains transcribed conversations between James McGilvray and Chomsky, but this isn't interviewing. Interviewers probe. McGilvray just gently nudges Chomsky to deliver mini-lectures. The preface characterises their chats as "like discussions between friends", but this strange mix of hopeful stimuli and rambling responses is like no discussion between friends I ever heard.

"Merge - the basic computational principle: how far down does it go?" asks McGilvray.

Chomsky responds: "Whatever the lexical atoms are, they have to be put together, and the easiest way for them to be put together is for some process to just form the object that consists of them. That's Merge. If you need more than that, then ok, there's more - and anything more will be specific to language."

"So in principle," says McGilvray, "von Humboldt might have been right, that the lexicon is not this - I think his term was 'completed, inert mass'..."

Chomsky breaks in: "...but something created..." (the ellipsis dots are McGilvray's).

McGilvray accepts the prompt: "...something created and put together. But if it's put together, is it put together on an occasion, or is there some sort of storage involved?"

"It's got to be storage. We can make up new words, but it's peripheral to the language." (Here McGilvray amends Chomsky's "language" to "language [system's core computational operations]".)

It continues thus, jargon jostling with loose conjecture and dogmatic assertions. Chomsky avers that words never refer to anything in the world; that "the entire discussion of the last century or so" about relations between physics and chemistry "was crazy"; that Darwin was wrong and evolution by natural selection (like Skinnerian behaviourism) cannot work; that there was no "serious research" on morality before 2000; that the practice of debating "is a tribute to human irrationality"; etc.

Chomsky's musings are often familiar from other recent collections of transcribed dicta, e.g. in The Architecture of Language (2000) or Of Minds and Language (2009). For example, he claims that children have an innate grasp of the psychic continuity of persons, and his basis for the claim is that his grandchildren enjoy a story in which a baby donkey gets turned into a rock. It is surprising to see a point this feeble published even once, but Chomsky has now put it into print at least three times.

There is heavy internal repetition, too. Chomsky repeats thrice over that a conjectured mental operation called "Merge" popped into human brains 50,000 years ago via a "genetic modification" that "happened in a single person" and "rewired the brain slightly".

"Merge" is a posited binary operation that (as Chomsky puts it) "simply says, take two things, and construct a thing that is the set of the two things".

Instead of asking why we needed a brain mutation for something as elementary as the notion that two things can be put together to make a set of two things, McGilvray invites Chomsky to explain how "Merge" brought humanity the gift of arithmetic.

The attempted exposition is a train wreck. Chomsky confuses the empty set with zero, binary operations with unary ones, functions with the sets on which they are defined, the natural numbers with their set-theoretic construction, and both with the theory of arithmetic. McGilvray drinks it all in - and appends a commentary note that unfortunately elaborates the second of Paul Benacerraf's two celebrated non-equivalent set-theoretic reconstructions of the natural numbers, when Chomsky was struggling to outline the first. It is embarrassing - like overhearing a conversation between two undergraduates about a mathematics lecture that neither has understood.

Following the 141 pages of transcribed chunks of conversation are some lengthy appendices and commentary notes, mostly just pedestrian restatements of Chomsky's increasingly eccentric linguistic doctrines, and together with the glossary, bibliography and index making up 56 per cent of the whole book.

At least half a dozen "interview" volumes of Chomsky's unrehearsed musings have been published since Mitsou Ronat created the genre in 1977. This one is McGilvray's fourth book-length homage to Chomsky by my count. He is entitled to his view that anything Chomsky can be induced to say should be typed up and distributed. But why are university presses publishing stuff like this, devoid of carefully framed ideas, results or scientific data about language?

Presumably the guaranteed sales from having Chomsky's name on the cover are too tempting to resist. Buyers should beware.

The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray

By Noam Chomsky. Cambridge University Press. 328pp, £50.00 and £15.99. ISBN 9781107016378 and 602403. Published 15 March 2012

Readers' comments (5)

  • Sergio's over-the-top comment above accuses me of a "personal vendetta". I know little of vendettas, but I believe they involve repeated back-and-forth killings by two families locked in an endless spiral of vengeance against each other's blood relatives? It's an odd metaphor. Chomsky has done nothing unpleasant to me. I know his influential work better than most people do, and I remain awestruck by the originality and intellectual quality of some of his technical work from the 1960s. However, I was asked to write a 700-word review of a 2012 book in which none of that brilliance is on display. It turned out to be a book of vague chit-chat transcribed and heavily annotated by McGilvray, fluent and opinionated but empty and often rather arrogant. I don't think my brief observations on the low quality of this particular book justify an metaphor drawn from Sicilian revenge killings. And as for Sergio's demand that I should produce "an argument, a creative insight, a new empirical fact" every now and then: my publications are listed at www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/pubs.html, and I think you will find that items 201 and 239 contains serious arguments about recent themes from Chomsky's work, and item 227 has a novel creative insight (about why the "war or no war" construction is compatible with English being syntactically context-free), and items such as 64, 132, and 133, and 200 are rich in new empirical facts... But why are we talking about this? Sergio isn't going to read these works and change his mind. And I don't need them on my CV to be qualified to tell the readers of this magazine that this is not a good book. Take a look at page 15, for example, and compare its careless arm-waving with the philosophy of mathematics literature that it incompetently adumbrates (in particular, compare with Paul Benacerraf's elegant paper "What Numbers Could Not Be"). Decide for yourself whether you think CUP should be publishing verbatim transcripts of conversations as loose and irresponsible as one finds here. I don't think they should, so I said so. And I addressed just the book, not anybody's character or personal qualities. Sergio should be careful not to mistake reasoned criticism of a book for "venom" aimed at its distinguished author.

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  • Robert Levine writes: "OK, Amid. Now I suggest you specifically address the points Pullum raises in his response to you, just preceding you response to Maritimer." Robert Levine, when I composed my reply to Maritimer, Pullum's reply to me was not there, or I would have acknowledged it. I wouldn't have addressed any points, because there aren't any. Just a complaint that he misread the text, which is his problem, not mine, see below. Robert Levine continues: "Would you like to show, with some specifics, exactly how GKP has failed to identify a gross technical error in the way Chomsky talks about 'Wikipedia-level' operations on sets?" How exactly does one demonstrate that someone has failed to identify an error? Pullum expresses consternation that Chomsky's construction is not the "classic" construction based on the empty set. Truly nothing fancier than Wikipedia is needed to clear this confusion of Pullum's. "'0' simply means some object that when combined with an appropriate successor function, satisfies the Peano axioms" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_number#Peano_axioms). Pullum is wrong that "you don't start with something called zero and apply set formation to it; there is no zero". Zero can be identified with anything at all, so long as it is not in the range of the successor function. End of story. Robert Levine adds: "And maybe explain a bit more fully how pointing out this kind of basic error constitutes a vendetta?" Where did I write that Pullum's (probably faux) misunderstanding of Chomsky "constitutes" a vendetta? I said that it was "part" of a vendetta. More set-theoretic confusion? Robert Levine's closing words: "We're all ears." Ears that hear, but do not listen.

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  • Robert Levine: "Would you like to show, with some specifics, exactly how GKP has failed to identify a gross technical error in the way Chomsky talks about 'Wikipedia-level' operations on sets?" Pullum identifies no real problem beyond consternation that Chomsky's construction is not the "classic" construction. Truly nothing fancier than Wikipedia is needed to clear this confusion. "'0' simply means some object that when combined with an appropriate successor function, satisfies the Peano axioms" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_number#Peano_axioms). Pullum is wrong that "you don't start with something called zero and apply set formation to it; there is no zero". Zero can be identified with whatever we want, so long as it is not in the range of the successor function. Robert Levine: "And maybe explain a bit more fully how pointing out this kind of basic error constitutes a vendetta?" Where did I write that Pullum's faux misunderstanding of Chomsky "constitutes" a vendetta? I said that it was "part" of a vendetta. Martimer: "If he believes a work by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century (Noam Chomsky) should not advance the interested reader beyond wikipedia level we simply have different opinions about what valuable work is." And where did I write anything like this either? My reference to Wikipedia-level knowledge referred quite clearly to Pullum's confusion, not Chomsky's achievement. Robert Levine: "We're all ears." That hear but do not listen. You cannot argue carefully if you do not read carefully.

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  • Why are the attacks on my posts remaining, while my attempts to reply are removed? The following post was just removed (as was a predecessor): Robert Levine: "Would you like to show, with some specifics, exactly how GKP has failed to identify a gross technical error in the way Chomsky talks about 'Wikipedia-level' operations on sets?" Pullum identifies no real problem beyond consternation that Chomsky's construction is not the "classic" construction. Truly nothing fancier than Wikipedia is needed to clear this confusion. "'0' simply means some object that when combined with an appropriate successor function, satisfies the Peano axioms" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_number#Peano_axioms). Pullum is wrong that "you don't start with something called zero and apply set formation to it; there is no zero". Zero can be identified with whatever we want, so long as it is not in the range of the successor function. Robert Levine: "And maybe explain a bit more fully how pointing out this kind of basic error constitutes a vendetta?" Where did I write that Pullum's faux misunderstanding of Chomsky "constitutes" a vendetta? I said that it was "part" of a vendetta. Martimer: "If he believes a work by one of the greatest minds of the 20th century (Noam Chomsky) should not advance the interested reader beyond wikipedia level we simply have different opinions about what valuable work is." And where did I write anything like this either? My reference to Wikipedia-level knowledge referred quite clearly to Pullum's confusion, not Chomsky's achievement. Robert Levine: "We're all ears." That hear but do not listen. You cannot argue carefully if you do not read carefully.

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  • I recently posted a review of the book here: http://ling.auf.net/lingBuzz/001592 I would encourage anyone who has criticized Pullum's review to keep in mind that he reviewed a book, not the life-time contribution of Chomsky. In the book the description of set theory IS as confused as Pullum claims. His review is quite accurate and certainly far from being a personal vendetta. The countless malicious and ill-informed attacks by Chomsky and McGilvray that comprise a substantial part of 'The Science of Language' on the other hand...

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