Smith, Neil (1999), Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. Paperback GBP 12.95.
Reviewed by Pius ten Hacken (Universit�t Basel)
Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential personalities in 20th
century linguistics. His influence ranges from syntactic theory to
the nature of the human mind and extends well into psychology and
philosophy in general. In addition he is well known as a political
activist. In this book, Neil Smith attempts to give an overview of
all of these aspects and to show the coherence between Chomsky's
views in the different areas.
The text is divided into an introduction and five chapters. The
introduction is an intuitive evaluation of Chomsky's general
intellectual achievement in terms of a comparison with other famous
people, Descartes, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Picasso. The five
chapters each discuss one aspect of Chomsky's thought.
Chapter 1 is devoted to the nature of language and its relationship
to the human mind. Chomsky's contribution in this respect can be
summarized as creating the conditions for establishing linguistics as
a science. In order to study language in a scientific way, the aim
must be an explanatory account rather than an exhaustive description.
Certain idealizations and departures from commonsense notions have to
be made, but this is no different from what happens in physics.
Language is the knowledge component of the individual speaker rather
than a corpus of utterances or a collection of grammatical sentences.
Language can also be studied at species level in terms of the
universal human ability for language acquisition.
Chapter 2 deals with the development of Chomsky's linguistic theory.
Originally, he distinguished surface structure and deep structure.
Formulating rules for generating deep structure and transformations
for deriving surface structure is not enough for an explanatory
account, however. Therefore, Chomsky started looking for more general
principles from an early date. The historical development towards
Government and Binding, Principles and Parameters, and Minimalism
shows a gradual increase in explanatory power.
Chapter 3 discusses Chomsky's influence on psychology. The
psychological reality of a linguistic theory should be interpreted in
such a way that the entire body of available evidence is considered
in order to produce a theory and this theory is then taken to be
psychologically real. Evidence includes data from language
processing, language acquisition, and language pathology. Essential
for explanation is the concept of causation, a concept which is
inherently non-observable. Connectionist approaches, which model the
mind as a neural network, fail to account for the difference in type
between the knowledge involved in language and in chess.
Chapter 4 deals with the reception of Chomsky's ideas in philosophy.
The philosophical tradition with its emphasis on truth conditions and
public language rejects many of the key notions of Chomskyan
linguistics. It considers language as a set of sentences used by a
speech community for communication. Chomsky considers it an
individual property and a species property, but not one that can be
attributed to a community. Moreover, for Chomsky communication always
depends on inferences and is not the primary function of language.
The use of the label "realism" in this context is confusing, because
it is claimed both by Chomsky and by his opponents (Quine, Montague).
Chapter 5 summarizes some of the more general trends in Chomsky's
political positions. Drawing his inspiration from a type of anarchism
which rejects power as an argument to maintain the political
situation as it is, Chomsky fiercely criticizes American foreign
policy, e.g. in Vietnam and East Timor, American domestic policy, and
manipulation of information in the media. His argumentation is always
based on extensive documentary evidence. His radical rejection of
authority also implies that he refuses to give advice on political
The influence and controversial nature of Chomsky's positions in
different areas has generated a substantial body of secondary
literature on Chomsky. While explicitly distinguishing his enterprise
from Barsky's (1997) biography, Smith presents us with a book which
shares at least one essential property with biographies, namely that
the link holding the chapters together is that they are all on the
same person. One could call this book a thematically ordered,
It is well known that the genre of biography is prone to degenerate
into hagiography. By identifying with the subject of their biography,
authors run the risk of indulging in uncritical admiration, the more
so because sympathetic interest or admiration is likely to play a
role in the choice of their subject in the first place. If, then,
Smith (p. ix) states about Chomsky "It has been a privilege to work
in his shadow" and thanks him for, among other things, sending him
"some sixty pages of comments and suggestions" in reply to the
pre-final version of the manuscript, we can hardly expect a critical
account of Chomsky's ideas. This expectation is borne out.
Given the controversial nature of Chomsky's ideas, it is difficult to
find works which convey them in the sense intended by Chomsky while
keeping a certain critical distance. Most of the books with purely
negative criticism of Chomsky's work are based on severe
misunderstandings which make them unsuitable for gaining a general
impression of his ideas. Conversely, Smith tends to focus so much on
the description of Chomsky's ideas that the role of controversial
discussion in their growth and development remains underrated. Thus
in chapter 2 one almost gets the impression that the whole
development of Chomskyan linguistics was brought about by Chomsky
single-handedly. In chapter 4 it is sometimes difficult to form an
idea of Chomsky's opponents as having a coherent system, because
their objections are waived rather casually.
Perhaps the most useful evaluation of a book such as Smith's is a
comparison with a number of other books which are intended to fulfil
similar purposes. There are not so many books which combine overviews
of Chomsky's scientific and political ideas. Salkie (1990) offers
more detail in the latter, but considerably less on the former and is
of course slightly dated. One could also look at a collection such as
Chomsky (1997) which includes articles in both of these areas, but it
is not a systematic overview.
The strength of Smith's book is rather in his systematic exposition
of Chomsky's scientific ideas than in the summary of his political
ideas. As such it competes for instance with Botha (1989). Botha's
book is more limited in scope in the sense that it concentrates on
the underlying view of language and the human mind, while leaving out
references to the actual theory. As a consequence it does not become
outdated so quickly, because Chomsky's meta-theory is much more
constant. A more recent competing book is Uriagereka (1998). This
introduces both the metatheory and the current theory of Chomsky's
Minimalist Programme. In this case, a major difference between the
two is the length, Uriagereka's book being approximately three times
as long as Smith's.
A comparison of the three books shows two disadvantages of Smith's
book. First, it does not give such a good impression of the
controversy triggered by Chomsky's positions. A remarkable feature of
both Botha's and Uriagereka's books is that they introduce a special
presentation technique in order to create a context of discussion.
Smith uses plain academic prose which gives the impression of a
soliloquy rather than a discussion. By taking the objections more
seriously, Botha and Uriagereka actually reinforce the impression of
the coherence of Chomskyan ideas more than Smith does. As a second
disadvantage, Smith is far less systematic in his presentation. In
fact, it is difficult to get an overview of the structure of his
book. Below the level of the chapters (roughly forty pages each),
there are only unnumbered subheadings in two fonts which are not
consistently used. In chapter 1, some of the subheadings occur in the
table of contents, others which look the same in the text do not. In
chapter 4 the heading "Controversies" is followed by nine lines of
text and a heading of exactly the same type font. Apparently, some of
the subsequent headings are meant to introduce further subsections of
"Controversies", but it is not clear how many.
Obviously, Smith did not intend to give an overview of Chomskyan
linguistic theory. Thus it would not be fair to compare the relevant
sections in chapter 2 with a textbook or with historical overviews
such as Newmeyer (1986). In order to give an impression of what the
theory is like, Smith apparently tries to strike a balance between
clarity of presentation, brevity of expression, and giving a real
sense of the discussion. A typical example of the resulting type of
presentation is found on p. 53ff., where Smith first introduces a
number of sentences and contrastive sentence pairs used by Chomsky to
illustrate his points and then explains their relevance. While this
may still be seen as a creative technique to approximate the solution
to an unsolvable problem, this can hardly be said of the presentation
of the binding theory on p. 69f. Two pages are reserved for the
binding theory and most of it is devoted to picture-nouns and similar
problem cases. I strongly suspect that few readers will learn
anything from these pages: either they already know or they do not
understand. For a general impression of Chomskyan theory, some of his
own writings are probably more suitable.
Given the academic style of Smith's book, it is obvious that it is
not meant for the same readership as such popular presentations as
Pinker (1994) and Jackendoff (1993). It also has a much broader
scope. However, if the style of Smith's book is considered, the
question arises, why not read the original accounts such as Chomsky
(1986) right away. Although Chomsky's scientific works have the
reputation of being inaccessible, Smith hardly does anything to make
the ideas easier to understand. The only concession to non-academic
style seems to be the lack of footnote markers in the text. Instead,
notes are given at the end of the book listed by page and with
references to topics and quotes.
Finally, this book is an interesting example of British and American
English mixed. Written by a British author in a British academic
style, it uses American spelling throughout. The British and American
perspectives of the author and the subject are also mixed in examples
and chapter 5 has a subsection "The critique of (American) foreign
policy" followed by "The critique of domestic policy".
This book gives a brief overview of Chomsky's ideas in the areas in
which they are influential. It was written by an admirer. For general
readers used to an academic style it might give a sense of Chomsky's
reasoning and theorizing, but it is probably hard to understand much
about the details given. Readers who tend to disagree with Chomsky
will hardly be convinced by this book, because the author's attitude
towards his subject is not just sympathetic but rather uncritical.
Barsky, Robert F. (1997), Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, Cambridge
(Mass.): MIT Press.
Botha, Rudolf P. (1989), Challenging Chomsky: The Generative Garden
Game, Oxford: Blackwell.
Chomsky, Noam (1986), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and
Use, Westport (Conn.): Praeger.
Chomsky, Noam (1997), Perspectives on Power: Reflections on Human
Nature and the Social Order, Montr�al: Black Rose.
Jackendoff, Ray S. (1993), Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human
Nature, New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. (1986), The Politics of Linguistics, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Pinker, Steven (1994), The Language Instinct, New York: Morrow.
Salkie, Raphael (1990), The Chomsky Update: Linguistics and Politics,
London: Unwin Hyman.
Uriagereka, Juan (1998), Rhyme and Reason: An Introduction to
Minimalist Syntax, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.
About the reviewer
PD Dr. Pius ten Hacken completed his Ph.D. in English linguistics and
his Habilitationsschrift in general linguistics at the Universit�t
Basel (Switzerland). His research covers philosophy and history of
20th century linguistics, morphology, translation, and computational