Fall 1996 - Volume 4 Number 1
The Language Instinct
New York: William Morrow, 1994
In the Chicago Tribune of 25 May, 1916, Henry Ford said famously: "History is more or less bunk." Contemporary deconstructionists might agree, especially when they, too, forget the historical lessons and ironies that a consideration of Mr. Ford could teach. He prominently displayed a picture of Adolph Hitler in his office long before his motor car company sponsored the first television broadcast of Schindler's List. The "Model T" was, in effect, America's "Volkswagen."
History may be ambiguous, its rendering being the stuff of essential contests among human beings with competing claims to philosophical, political and empirical validity; however, in the end it is Henry Ford's aphorism that is bunk. History is important. To understand squabbles today, we must be enabled to put them in context. We must be enabled to tell ourselves persuasive stories based on as much credible evidence and insightful interpretation as we can muster. All else is solipsism, the idiotic epistemology of the specious present.
Philosophical disputes, as much as technological transformations, theological reformations and wars, must be understood in their historical contexts. Reading some of the seminal works of Noam Chomsky and others may not yet pass for history (they are only about 30 years old); they do, however, establish the adversarial setting in which contemporary talk about human talk is raised. A reconstruction in our understanding of language has been in the making for those 30 years. What a great tussle it has been and, in some quarters, remains. The central theoretician in the matter remains Chomsky. His arguments in favor of an innate human capacity for language seem now mainly to have triumphed over those of the Watsonian and Skinnerian behaviorists (who were in the late 1950s and 1960s his principal adversaries), despite having long suffered for several reasons at least two of which are political.
To the right wing, Chomsky's leftist views on capitalism and imperialism rendered his ideas on other matters suspect. An inveterate foe of imperial wars and a constant critic of the mass media's collusion in them, Chomsky has marginalized himself in terms of official public discourse. The article which brought him to broad academic attention and subsequent official opprobrium was "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," a call to academics "to speak the truth and expose lies." His concern was with the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and with the escalation of the Vietnam conflict. He said then (23 February, 1967) that "the deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam is now so familiar that it has lost its power to shock." Chomsky's appeal was published in The New York Review of Books, which is itself a liberal establishment gatekeeper that cannot, for example, abide the likes of Kurt Vonnegut. That article, however, was enough to ensure that, like diverse dissenters from folk singer Phil Ochs in the 1960s to Harper's editor Louis Lapham in the 1990s, Chomsky would win North American television time mostly on such government-owned networks as the CBC and TVOntario, both in Canada.
To the left wing, his opinions about the genetic basis of grammar and his unfortunate attachment to the name of Ren? Descartes have separated him from many of his natural political allies. Cartesian dualism has long been anathema to holistic theorists of just about anything, and it was therefore unsurprising that David Cooper (R. D. Laing's co-translator of Sartre's Reason and Violence and editor of the slim, 1968 radical classic The Dialectics of Liberation) should have been among the most strident critics of Chomsky's theory of innate language structure.
There is, after all, a pervasive preference on the left for notions that humanity can change for the better. Malleability is thought preferable to original sin. So, hope lies with cultural relativism, the social construction of knowledge, and sometimes even a romantic connection with the dregs of Lamarckian evolutionary theory that even the insanity of Lysenko's Stalinist biology has not quite extinguished. Curiously, Chomsky's Cartesian rationalism sometimes suggests a more finely argued hostility to a Darwinian explanation of the genetic evolution of language than that available from the fundamentalist right; it has therefore further divided him from progressive, materialist thinkers. Some think him a "crypto-creationist." Steven Pinker is clear on this point. Chomsky is wrong on some specific issues; the creationists are simply wrong.
It is hard for liberal minds to admit that much more than hair color and the human capacity to make two kidneys rests in our genes. Explicitly racist "research" and even such well-intended work as attempts to display the heritability of aggressive, anti-social and criminal behavior have made it difficult to speak openly of things in our genes. Malleability is certainly politically preferable to the guff of eugenics. Chomsky's assertion of an immutable and innate capacity for language challenged that easy opinion a generation ago, and Steven Pinker has delivered to the current generation a splendid book that rescues the best of Chomsky's insights while adding not a few of his own. "Chomsky's writings," he says, "are 'classics' in Mark Twain's sense: something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." This implies no disrespect for any "classic," nor certainly for Chomsky. In fact, having finished Pinker, I spent a long while rereading Chomsky and (in the words of the Kellogg breakfast cereal commercial) learning to "taste" what he had to say "again, for the first time."
But Pinker is no mere popularizer, much less a hagiographer. He locates humanity's capacity for language firmly in evolutionary theory and fact. The biological premise upon which the innateness hypothesis stands is available to any among the intelligent laity. It is this: human infants are extraordinarily paradoxical creatures. We take longer than any other animal to develop basic motor skills, to acquire economic self-sufficiency, and to become capable of reproduction. Start anywhere: the ability to catch a ball, the ability to tie shoe-laces (a competency now technologically delayed by the invention of VelcroTM), and the ability to win dinner in the wild are all quite beyond the average human until an age when many other mammals are approaching or surpassing middle age. Yet, though we are quite helpless at 12 months, barely mobile at 24 months, and minimally physically competent after years of pre-adolescent practice, members of Homo sapiens nonetheless display the basics of language very early in our lives.
How do we explain our ability to understand words spoken to us even before we can speak? How can we formulate simple sentences well before we have achieved elementary hand-eye coordination? How can we decode grammar that uniquely separates us not only from other animals but also from our closest chimpanzee relatives at a time when those close relatives are already able to live unaided in the wilderness but never will acquire our linguistic facility?
The answer seems plainly to be that our species is singularly equipped with the capacity for language. It is not something we learn but something with which we are born.
Our general inherited capacity (our "universal grammar") has, of course, little to do with our many particular tongues, the numerous collections of noises and, later, the written symbols that we make to capture thoughts. Some languages (Latin) place the verb at the end of a sentence while others (Italian) normally place it somewhere near the middle. Still, all have verbs. Some written languages (English) seem almost anarchic in spelling and pronunciation. G. B. Shaw, for instance, once explained that, in its written form, the word "fish" might as easily be spelled "ghoti" ("gh" as in tough, "o" as in women, and "ti" as in nation). Still, all have conventions.
More deeply, Chomsky showed us (in his only citation in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations) that even grammatically correct language can be nonsensical, as in: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Yet, it is surely a part of our peculiar linguistic facility not only that we can talk, but that we can talk nonsense. Sometimes, as when Ella Fitzgerald sang "scat," nonsense can become art. Moreover, as participants in one of the many available human civilizations, we have even evolved to the point where we can talk about absolutely nothing. So, though Julius Caesar may have had M, D, C, V, I and combinations thereof to worry about, he had no Roman numeral for zero; but we can say: "I've got plenty of nothing," "Nothing does it like 7-up," and "Nothing matters anymore." Yes, what wonderful intellectual tricks we are able to play with our words! Why, we can even talk about less than nothing. The temperature today is -3 degrees C; the current government budget is -$19 billion. And so on.
Pinker's accomplishments in The Language Instinct are several. They include: (a) a thorough demolition of the claims that chimpanzees and gorillas have ever been taught American Sign Language and a gentle reproach to the late Carl Sagan, Penthouse, People, Psychology Today, National Geographic Magazine, and television programs such as 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the former Tonight Show with Johnnie Carson for being overly credulous; (b) a credible case for language among early Homo sapiens and even among Homo habilis as many as 2.5 million years ago; (c) the maintenance of a cheerful disposition and a healthy sense of humor throughout discussions of matters as various as syndromes of aphasia resulting from injury to Wernicke's area of the brain and the mindlessness of many introductory psychology curricula; and (d) while resisting the "anti-speciesist" arguments about a linguistic continuum and holding to the notion that language is a genuinely unique human trait, Pinker acknowledges that, compared to modern mall-dwellers, "'stone age' hunter-gatherers were erudite botanists and zoologists [possessing] copious knowledge of [plant and animal] life cycles, ecology, and behavior, allowing them to make subtle and sophisticated inferences." The implications of this last point? Why, nothing less than a universalist conception of humankind, for while he says that parts of his book: "will provide the final proof that I have lost my mind," the truth is that he may have found it and ours in this well-written and deeply humane treatment of intuitive understanding and innate ideas.
Penultimately, Pinker does us all a service in his extensive and very serious discussion of the logic of Darwin's theory of natural selection and its role in the development of language. Despite Chomsky's own efforts to avoid the naturalistic (as opposed to the rationalistic) foundations of a genetically transmitted universal grammar, Steven Pinker helps Chomskians climb out of an unnecessary pit of Chomsky's own digging. Darwin, we should recall, was hopelessly committed to the idea that evolution was an almost unendurably slow process. The rule, natura non facit saltum (nature doesn't make leaps) was attributed to the Swedish taxonomist Karl von Linn? [Linnaeus] (1707-1778), endorsed by primary geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), and accepted by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His great advocate and friend, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) thought otherwise and warned Darwin away. Huxley was right but Darwin's name is supreme. I don't know if an analogy is appropriate. Chomsky may not be Darwin and Pinker may have more to say than Huxley, but it seems to me that Pinker has done Chomsky a similar favor.
Finally, let me offer a tiny reservation. Steven Pinker, like me, John Kenneth Galbraith, Marshall McLuhan, my mom and my dad, Mary Pickford, Walter Pidgeon, Glenn Ford, Lorne Greene, William Shatner, k. d. lang, Alanis Morisette, Shania Twain, news anchors Robert McNeill and Peter Jennings, Howie Mandel, the late John Candy and the many survivors of SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, and what sometimes seems to be half the cast of Saturday Night Live speak or spoke - for very good reasons - "Canadian English." What Pinker fails to do on page 175, despite lots of clever talk about "gliding diphthongs," is explain (so even a Canadian can understand it) is exactly what the heck this means.For Further Reading
Chomsky, N. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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