Roger Scruton Knows What to Appreciate – And What Not To

Noam Chomsky is rather despicable. But I’ve always had mixed feelings when his name came up: one of my first classes at U.T. was in transformational grammar, taught by one of hisi students, fresh out of grad school himself. I remember it with great pleasure for a personal and trivial reason (I met my husband) but also as just a great class. Our teacher, young & fresh faced, would become visibly excited, walk back and forth in front of the room, motioning to the chalkboard and its diagrams of syntax & sense. I can still see him, leaning against the wall and intently looking at the board. He’d hold the chalk against his lips, then suddenly move across and move an element, point to a connection. We were there, we were being taught, but for a moment, he’d forgotten us, absorbed in the idea in front of him. We were watching thought – engaged, cheerful thought – in motion. It was electric – that was man thinking, drawing us into his world, Chomsky’s world. We loved Chomsky’s famous debate with Skinner. We were, of course, on Chomsky’s side.

And in that way, we still are. His analysis that blends nurture and nature leads us to understand language & human nature. The sense of universality that lies beneath these sentences informs my thinking to this day. I never studied trans gram again; that teacher, energizing as he was, didn’t get tenure. Yes, much has fallen by the way. But today, Roger Scruton discusses Chomsky by noting that electricity as well as how far Chomsky has fallen in his ability to connect ideas, to selflessly lose himself in thought. Scruton’s first paragraph is clear: “Noam Chomsky’s popularity owes little or nothing to the eminent place that he occupies in the world of ideas. That place was won many years ago in the science of linguistics, and no expert in the subject would, I think, dispute Prof. Chomsky’s title to it.” But if Chomsky thinking – like my old teacher – could be a beautiful sight, Chomsky feeling is less attractive. At one time, he lost himself in ideas; now, as Scruton concludes: “he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America’s enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America–unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included–is prepared to listen to. “

Whittier, in his description of the compromised Daniel Webster of 1850, matches Scruton’s assessment in subject and tone. Sadly, propped up by the rage of his “admirers”, Chomsky has little sense of how far he has fallen. For Ichabod, the poet tells us

All else is gone; from those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!
Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame!

  1. Forgive me if I rain on your parade a bit, but there are whole schools in linguistics who don’t think much of Chomsky, starting with deep structures themselves, and going on to his dismissal of everything above the sentence level as of no interest. The discourse folks, anybody interesting in field linguistics, on and on…

    Bah, humbug! :-)

  2. I don’t know anything about linguistics, but I asked one of my professors (who once mentioned in class he got his first degree in that area) about Chomsky. He said that Chomsky was a giant in the field for decades and had a lot of great ideas but ultimately none of it really panned out.

  3. I will allow that Chomsky’s definition of the push-down stack has proved to be a powerful tool for computer science, however, I think that his influence on linguistics has been baleful.

    First, his transformational grammar was nothing more than the old Platonic forms in new bottles. They were no more productive in his incarnation than they were previously.

    Second, before Chomsky, linguists went to South America and lived with obscure Amazonian tribes, where they learned the native language which they wrote down.

    That was dirty, dangerous, uncomfortable and meant you were out of town during budget meetings.

    After Chomsky, linguists could spend their time in air-conditioned offices writing papers about non-sense sentences, playing college politics and seducing undergraduates. Some Amazonian languages disappeared forever, while linguists debated whether green ideas sleep furiously.

  4. After Chomsky, linguists could spend their time in air-conditioned offices writing papers about non-sense sentences, playing college politics and seducing undergraduates.

    Man. You say that like it’s a bad thing. What up with that?

  5. I’m not impressed by people that are very smart, but so unwise. I consider it a waste. I just thank God Chomsky didn’t have more charisma or practical skill or he could have really done some damage.

    All he’ll ever be is an effete academic that hates America. That isn’t a very exclusive club anymore.

  6. Ginny-

    I appreciate your point. It is truly a great and special thing to be in the presence of great thinking that is striving towards truth. Your thoughts sparked memories of my graduate school day.

    Chomsky is truly among those who cut a deep path. It saddens me to see that he traded thinking for feeling.

    Great Post!

  7. Bee – he never traded thinking for feeling, because he was never thinking (as a scientist terms it) in the first place. His “linguistics” amounts to little more than trivial assertions and untestable theories. His path was cut deeply, as was Stanley Fish’s, more by his political maneuvering in the Academy than by the force of his ideas. This is a good place to start in figuring out why scientists have such a problem with his methods. (I was a Slavic Linguistics minor, and I think that to hold Chomsky up above people such as Townsend, Jackobsen, and Lipson is a crime).

    Mark Miyake also blogs at Abode of Amritas if you want more of his scientific views of the problems with Chomskian Linguistics.

    My main problem with him, like one of Mark’s criticisms, is that his deep structures look an awful lot like English and Chinese (SVO languages), but don’t do a good job of describing topic based languages such as ASL or hybrids such as Japanese, and don’t really hold up in highly inflected languages such as Russian and Finnish where the multiple case endings allow you to play with word order quite a bit more than in English and French. Looking at Chomsky’s output, I tend to wonder how many foreign languages he knows. That used to be one of the definitions of a linguist, but as Robert Schwartz pointed out, after Chomsky, not so much.

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