Problems with Chomsky

Elizabeth Bates bates at CRL.UCSD.EDU
Sun Jan 9 01:53:06 UTC 2000

There is absolutely nothing in Hillary Clinton's quote below (as provided
by Talmy Givon) that is inconsistent with or any way incompatible with an
interactionist view.  She does not deny innate contributions, she merely
says that experience continues to contribute to the structure of the brain
after birth.  That is an ENTIRELY accurate statement from the point of view
of current evidence in developmental neurobiology.  The developing brain is
indeed a "work in progress", and experience plays a powerful role in
structuring the brain before and after birth (yes, before birth, when the
same mechanisms that are used for learning later on are used for brain
maturation, as the body "instructs" the brain in utero through activity
dependent processes).  Hillary Clinton's position as expressed below is not
in any way the same thing as a "tabula rasa", and it is CERTAINLY not
Stalinist in any way that I can see!  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,
and apparently "absolute extremism" and "intellectual Stalinism" are in the
eye of the beholder as well.

Donna Thal, Barbara Finlay, Barbara Clancy and I have just completed a
review chapter (an update of a 1992 chapter, extensively updated I should
add) called "Early language development and its neural correlates".  Our
coauthors Finlay and Clancy are development neurobiologists, and they are
the ones who extensively rewrote the section on brain development -- it is
very up to date, I'm proud to be associated with it, and would be happy to
send a copy of the chapter to anyone who is interested in a recent review
of the facts regarding early brain development and the contribution of
experience.  I would also recommend a recent "primer" on human brain
development by Mark Johnson (of Birkbeck College, London -- not the same
Mark Johnson who publishes with George Lakoff). And of course, Chapter 5 in
"Rethinking innateness".  The fact of the matter is that today's
neuroscience is very bad news for yesterday's nativists.  That doesn't mean
that "nothing is innate', it just means that it is interactions ALL THE WAY
DOWN, with experience playing a massive role at every level, to the point
where it is virtually impossible to decompose things into "innate" vs.
"learned".  The 1997 White House Conference underscored these facts.  To be
sure, the conference was a political event, designed to highlight findings
that the Clintons believe are compatible with their agenda.  But the facts
cited by the developmental neuroscientists at that conference are entirely
accurate.  -liz bates
>     "...Fifteen years ago, we thought that a baby's brain structure
>      was virtually complete at birth... Now we understand that it is
>      a work in progress, and that everything that we do with a child
>      has some kind of potential physical influence on the rapidly
>      forming brain. A child's earliest experiences--their relation-
>      ships with parents and caregivers, the sights and sounds and
>      smells and feelings they encounter, the challenges they meet--
>      determine how their brains are wired..."
>What struck me about this quote is the hopeless reductionism about child
>learning/development, the same reductionism that struck me on first
>reading Chomsky's (1959) review of Skinner's "Verbal Behavior": The
>absolute extremism -- or, if I may be forgiven, the *intellectual
>Stalinism* -- of it all: "You are either with me (and Descartes and
>Plato) in the Innate Ideas camp, or you are with Skinner (and Bloomfield
>and Hume and Aristotle) in the S-R camp. No room in the middle".
>The three books (and the more minor studies) that Gladwell reviews
>actually, all suggest that the action is right in the middle. That the
>child and its brain are *interactive* from the word 'go' and to a ripe
>old age; that innate biases & pre-wired structure interact with input,
>are pre-wired to seek input, to form hypotheses about the input, and to
>evaluate the empirical evidence that is or isn't compatible with the
>hypothese -- and in the latter case re-formulate and come up with new
>hypotheses (and then test them).
>So, maybe Chomsky's intemperedness is only alive and well as Hillary's
>Choice (oops, couldn't resist that 'n). But then I recalled the tenor of
>many of the contributions to the December FUNK-exchange, how
>reductionist they were, how they followed Chomsky's line of either/or
>reductionism but not -- God forbid -- the more complex, more realistic,
>more sophisticated *middle*. You are either a rabid functionalist
>("Grammars are not really really REALLY real"... Well, by the way,
>Chomsky also things that grammatical *constructions* are not real, as of
>1992, in case you are looking for company...), or you are a
>died-in-the-wool structuralist ("Functions are mushy speculations"). No
>room in the middle...
>And likewise with methodology: Either you do only "competence"
>sentences, (as Chomsky clearely insisted in 1965), or you do only "live"
>communication data (as many functionalists insist). But God forbid that
>you should try to be be multi-methodological (as most complex sciences
>So I wanted to ask a simple minded question: How can you be a
>functionalist without automatically also being a structuralist? The
>function of WHAT are you going to study? Because in all
>biologically-based systems (sorry guys, we're included, kicking or
>screaming...), functions are carried out by paired *structures*. Have
>you ever met a pulmonary physiologist who is NOT interested in the
>anatomy of the heart & lungs & circulatory system? Or a brain
>physiologist/cognitivist NOT interested in cerebral anatomy?
>In the rather disorienting context of some of the discussion, it also
>struck me that two people I have respected for many years in spite of
>severe local disagreements on occasion -- Fritz Newmeyer and Joan
>Bresnan -- have been making honest attempts to be just that,
>functionalist cum structuralists. So you may quibble with some of their
>specific conclusions, as I sometimes do; but you've got to respect their
>honest attemp to escape the stranglehold of *reductionism* that Chomsky
>has saddled us with.
>The correlate, of course, is that just because Chomsky was (and still
>is, alas) an extremist, we need not ignore the *many* things that we did
>learn from him. So I wanted to enumerate just a few, some of which I
>shared previously (and privately) with Wally Chafe & Brian MacWhinney.
>This business of all of us trying to find as many ways of saying either
>I love you, NC or I hate you, NC, sure reminds my of the funeral oration
>in Julius Caesar ("We have not come to praise you, NC, but to bury...").
>Sure, we all know the many ways in which NC made linguistics a rather
>miserable morass. But at least for my generation, he also saved us from
>the Bloomfieldians, who were in some ways just as bad, in others even
>deadlier and even more dogmatic about the irrelevance of meaning,
>function & mind.
>Perhaps it would also help to mention that NC, rather paradoxically,
>engineered our generation's return to functionalism: Aspects (1965)
>fairly reeked with semantics, both propositional & lexical. Sure, it is
>all couched in obfuscatory structuralist jargon, but it's still there.
>Sure, the 'format' was licenced by Fillmore (1962) and Katz & Postal
>(1964); nothing really original (but the jargon...).
>But still, NC embraced it, to his great eventual sorrow -- since Ross &
>Lakoff's paper (1967) "Is [syntactic!] deep structure necessary?"  was a
>direct consequence of the 'semanticism' of Aspects, simply drawing it to
>its ultimate conclusions & exposing its incompatibility with the rest of
>the structuralist machinery. I know that was the point that licensed me
>to bolt. And if I am not mistaken, Generative Semantics was directly
>licenced by it. And maybe even Wally's 1970 book "Meaning & the
>Structure of Language"? Though Wally was probably old enough by then to
>have harboured those ideas earlier... Sapir? Whorf? Common sense?
>Even the much-maligned notion of "deep structure" had its salutary
>consequences -- given its historical context. It focused attention on
>the semantic correlates of syntactic constructions. Those stock
>sentences -- "Sally is easy/eager to please" and "Flying planes can be
>dangerous", etc. etc. -- played an important role in demonstrating that
>syntax had semantic correlates. And in fact, many of NC's (and Pstal's)
>arguments agains the IC analysis prevalent at the time actually hinged
>on semantics (even if he didn't say so), as did R.B. Lees' arguments in
>"The grammar of English nominalizations", even if he didn't say so
>And, for that matter, even Harris's original 1956 paper ("Co-occurrence
>and transformations..."), where semantics was hiding under the
>forbidding, empiricist/structuralist moniker "co-occurrences".
>Which brings me to *transformations*: One of Noel Rude's contributions
>misrepresented what I think/said/thought about this issue, so here is
>the real thing: True, transformations obfuscated a lot of issues. But if
>you read Aspects carefully (which I do, with my grad students, once a
>year), a curious thing may strike you: As a "process" T-rules surely
>*are* a mess. But as RELATIONS between structures they are most
>revealing: The very same propositional-semantic contents persists, as
>leitmotif, through multiple syntactic structures ("transforms"). With NC
>reminding us (following Fillmore's 1962 paper in WORD...) that
>"transformations don't change meanings". But -- we asked ourselves in
>the late 1960s, if they don't change meaning, what do we use them for?
>What is their FUNCTION? And the obvious answer was (with some help from
>Joe Emond's dissertation, another structuralist classic that contributed
>to my development as a functionalist... and with some help from a
>WONDERFUL paper by Joan Hooper/Bybee and Sandy Thompson with supplied a
>functionalist interpretation of Emonds) -- they must be there to code
>discourse-pragmatic (communicative, interactional, etc.) function.
>And so, I am almost tempted to say, NC licensed semantics quite in spite
>himself, to his own eventual sorrow. Which brings to (the wandering)
>mind the Pythia's warning to Xenophon (when he tried to cheat on going
>to join the rebellion of Cyrus against the Persian empire):
>      "Invoked ot uninvoked, the God will be there".
>Finally, there is one more area that NC should get (grudgin) credit for
>-- the more sophisticated notion of *syntactic constructions*.
>syntax was a veritable mess, mostly morphology and non-hierarchic IC.
>The notion of constructions, with constituency AND hierarchy AND
>embedding -- clearly isomorphic to what I see as grammar-coded
>*functional domains* (communicative pragmatics) -- was really not easy
>to derive from from Bloomfieldian IC analysis. It is, in my  humble
>estimate, NC's pairing of deep structures with propositional-semantic
>interpretations that licensed the next move by *functionalists*; or at
>least by functionalists who grew up in NC's incubator...
>It is of course ironic that by 1992 NC denounced this very notion, for
>which SS (1957) and Aspects (1965) were largely responsible, in effect
>calling constructions figments of our methodological imagination. To
>     "...The notion of grammatical construction is eliminated, and with
>      construction-particular rules. Constructions such as verb-phrase,
>      relative clause, passive, etc. are taken to be *taxonomic
>      collections of phenomena explained through the interaction of
>      of principles of UG, with the values of parameters fixed..."
>      ("A minimalist program for linguistic theory" (1992), p. 3;
>       emphases added)
>This is truly bizare, granted, me coming to the rescue of  REAL
>*structure* from NC, who has decided to finally dump them, 'cause they
>kept sticking in his craw, couldn't swallow them, couldn't spit them
>out. Major bummer dude.
>But still, have a heart, y'guys: For those of us who believe that
>grammar is cognitively real, (and neurologically real, if you don't
>mind, Liz & George...); and that it involves not only morphology; for
>us, Aspects was never a total waste of time. At the very least, it gave
>us something to work from, build on, transcend, bounce off (as George &
>Haj did in 1967), eventually escape from (boy, those strictures...).
>Well, actually, there was one giant around, and we could have learned
>from him about REAL grammar -- Otto Jespersen. But nobody told us about
>him, and Bloomfield dismissed him together with his (and B.'s) teacher
>Herman Paul, as speculative philosophers, not *real* scientists. And
>yes, Dwight Bolinger was around, but we didn't know he existed (most of
>us found him in the 1970s). So who else was round (in the US) to teach
>us about the semantic/pragmatic correlates of grammar? Perversely, we
>got it from Chomsky, tho we had to escape his strictures to get it
>straight. But I don't see how we could have gotten it without Aspects. I
>do go back every so often to the high shelf, in the left corner, and
>pull out & re-read the Joost collection (1962), as a refresher, just to
>remind myself how truly deadly, indeed suffocating, and above all smug,
>the atmosphere was in US linguistics in 1956...
>I apologize for taking so much of your time.
>Happy New Millenium, y'all, Brave New World! TG

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