Smith, Neil (1999). Chomsky: Ideas and ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press. Paperback GBP 12.95.
Reviewed by Christiane Bongartz, University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
The title of Neil Smith's book is the best possible summary of what the
author sets out to do, namely to explore Noam Chomsky's intellectual and
ideological contributions to contemporary linguistics, politics, and
philosophy. Focusing on Chomsky's public thought and writing, not personal
circumstance, Smith gives an overview of a life devoted to radical thought.
Smith first introduces aspects of Chomsky's linguistic theory and then
proceeds to present his political ideas. The linguistic and the political
aspects of Chomsky's thinking, Smith argues, are inextricably linked and
together represent a coherent framework for interpreting both human nature
and the world. In short, ideas and ideals merge to form a new whole,
After a brief assessment in the introduction of Chomsky's importance in the
20th century - which is compared to that of Darwin and Descartes - Smith
devotes five chapters to providing evidence for this claim. While the first
three chapters focus narrowly on linguistics, the fourth links linguistics
and philosophy, laying the foundation for a comparison of Chomsky's language
philosophy and his political convictions and activism in the fifth and final
Chapter 1 "The mirror of the mind" introduces the reader to Chomsky's
conceptualization of language as a species-defining genetically inherited
phenomenon. Linguistics is thus part of the scientific investigation of
human nature, an investigation that must go beyond linguistic description
and explain how we know language. In other words, linguistic explanation
reveals how our mind works with respect to individual psychological
disposition, making grammar a part of our mental organization.
Chapter 2 "The linguistic foundation" lays out the stages in the development
of Chomsky's linguistic theory since its inception in the 1950s. Smith
shows how the theory moved from grammar as a mere sentence-making mechanism
to levels of syntactic representation (deep structure and surface structure)
and then further to just a few minimal abstract principles governing
syntactic movement. Increase in explanatory adequacy emerges as the
motivating factor behind each new incarnation of the theory.
Chapter 3 "Psychological reality" explores the link between language and
psychology and cognition. Grammar and language rules can best be captured
as biological facts that take the form of mental representations in the
language module of our brain. Smith offers supporting evidence from
language processing, first language acquisition, and studies of language
pathology. Modular representational models are superior to connectionist
models of linguistic knowledge, he claims, in that they do justice to
language-specific principles such as structure-dependency.
Chapter 4 "Philosophical realism: commitments and controversies" relates
Chomsky's linguistic theory to the underlying philosophy of realism and the
evaluative device of radical empiricism. Outlining some of the major
controversies surrounding Chomskyan thought, Smith points to perceived
misconceptions and misunderstandings that fuel(ed) such controversies.
Chomsky's concept of language as part of individual psychology often remains
unappreciated by those that view language as an external communication
device. Smith argues that Chomskyan ideas have not been convincingly
refuted in terms of big-picture considerations (the adequacy of a realism)
nor in terms of small picture ones (banning semantics and pragmatics from
the core of linguistic inquiry).
Chapter 5 "Language and freedom" extends the scope of discussion to relate
Chomsky's relentless political activism to the philosophical ideals
prevalent in his academic work. Reviewing the many issues to which Chomsky
has taken a public stance, Smith argues for a coherence of thought that
movitates both his conceptualization of human nature and his depiction of
what it takes for human nature to unfold optimally within the given
Smith's book differs from others reviewing Chomsky's oeuvre in that it
embraces both the linguistic ideas (cf. Newmeyer, 1986) and political ideals
(cf. Barsky, 1995) motivating his many writings.
This dual orientation makes the book both original and somewhat unusual,
leaving it to the reader to agree or disagree with the coherence that Smith
has uncovered in the two areas of Chomsky's activities.
Although the author writes accessibly and in everyday language, his
presentation of the linguistic theory developed by Chomsky over the years
can best be digested with some previous knowledge of syntactic theory. It
is Smith's accomplishment to take apart the theory and present it according
to lines of controversy in the field. Thus he separates theory development
(chapters 1 and 2) from the issue of psychological reality (chapter 3),
which allows him to draw on empirical evidence that illustrates how
linguistic concepts are represented in the human psyche.
Data from language acquisition and language impairment serve to defend
Chomky's theoretical concepts (chapter 3, chapter 4, and chapter 5) - and
explicating and defending the Chomskyan perspective is a goal Smith has very
obviously set for himself. It is thus not surprising that the reader gets
carefully equipped in the linguistics chapters for the discussion of the
philosophical concepts underlying Chomsky's linguistic theory in chapter 4.
Chapter 4 is perhaps the most ambitious of all. Although there are some
problems with the overall structure (the division into subheadings seems
somewhat arbitrary and is never explained), Smith does a fine job in
highlighting the major lines of controversy concerning the embodiment of
linguistic structure and the nature of language as a psychological
phenomenon. Especially the discussion of language and the community as
opposed to language in the individual is one worthwhile reading for those
not familiar with this longstanding debate. Readers looking for an in-depth
refutation of Chomsky's opponents, however, might be disappointed - because
of the broad scope of the chapter, more room has been given to Chomsky's
ideas than to those questioning them.
The most interesting chapter of the book and the most original one is
certainly Chapter 5. It is here where Smith makes the case that the ideas
of a modular brain with constraint-based representations can be extended
from linguistic knowledge to human nature as such. Chomsky's political
anarchism, then, requires the exertion of free will within the limits of a
so-constrained human organism. Although the author admits that Chomsky
himself does not perceive of his political and linguistic ideas as being so
linked, Smith's argument is intriguing, especially in the light of other
contemporary attempts to replace fragmented postmodernism with coherent
models of explanation (cf. Johnson & Lakoff, 1999). Political anarchism, on
this view, is to an innate module of moral disposition what linguistics is
to the innate language faculty. While one must be careful not to attribute
this claim to Chomsky, it is a plausible extension of his suggestions - one
that might well attract more attention as the 21st century unfolds.
Smith's book is both informative and thought-provoking. Those interested in
an overview of Chomsky's work will find what they are looking for if they
are willing to go with the pro-Chomskyan attitude that Smith has adopted and
does not seek to conceal. The book's major strength is its big-picture
perspective - an intriguing combination of problems of linguistic knowledge,
philosophy, and politics. In this sense, ideas and ideals unite to form an
ideology that both builds on and transcends other models of human nature.
Barsky, R. (1997) Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent. Cambridge: MIT Press:
Chomsky, N. (1995) The minimalist program. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Harris, R. (1995). The linguistic wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind
and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.
Newmeyer, F. (1986). Linguistic theory in America. San Diego/London:
About the reviewer:
Chris Bongartz is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North
Carolina, Charlotte. She received her PhD in English language and
linguistics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research
interests include generative grammar and problems of second language
acquisition, especially those related to the syntax-morphology interface.
Her book on noun combination typology in interlanguage will appear in the
fall with Niemeyer, Tuebingen.