METAPHILOSOPHY

Vol. 4, No. 3, July 1973

MINDS AND LEARNING: THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION*

HARRY M. BRACKEN
It is by now a common-place that linguistics has been revolutionized by the work of Noam Chomsky. For those who have doubts, a glance at the work of the counter-revolutionaries should settle matters. Chomsky’s work in linguistics’ is under heavy and constant attack-but both the issues and the entire theoretical framework of the discussions would be unthinkable without his contributions. I think that a case could be made that those who are now his most vocal opponents, the proponents of “generative semantics”, are anti-chomsky for reasons rooted in political and philosophical disagreement. This possibility should not surprise us. Since language plays a central role in human activities, a revolution in linguistics has repercussions throughout the Republic of Letters. Rather than examining the revolution strictly within linguistics, I shall examine the Copernican style revolution Chomsky proposes for our thinking about minds as well as some of the implications for other disciplines and for social policy. My remarks deal with the general question under three headings : first, the anti-behaviorist, and second, the empiricistrationalist themes in Chornsky’s thought. In each theme, a theoretical dimension in linguistics is associated with a second dimension related to matters of social policy. Third, a sceptical crisis theme-less obviously rooted in linguistics, but more frightening in its implications. It would be unfair to Chomsky as well as to other critics to suggest that his ideas, and his alone have had social consequences. But he deserves to be singled out because he is a masterful conceptual analyst and because his social comments are related, albeit in varying degrees, to his theoretical work in linguistics. The first and most obvious effect Chomsky’s work is already having derives less from his positive contributions to linguistics than from his devastating critique of the social sciences. In brief,
*A revised version of a paper delivered at the LSA’s Linguistic Institute 71,SUNYBuffalo, July 13, 1971. Some of the research used in its preparation was supported by a grant from the Canada Council. ‘For an excellent general introduction to Chomsky’s major work, see John Lyons, Chomsky, in the Fontana Modern Masters Series (1970).

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L. In an introduction to a 1967 reprinting of the review Chomsky writes : if the conclusions I attempted to substantiate in the review are correct. stimulus. Thus while a unit of behavior within a given experiment may be “defined as a recorded peck or bar-press”. etc. I do not . BRACKEN Chomsky’s attack on behaviorism has threatened the social scientists. The unit of verbal behavior-the verbal operant-is defined as a class of responses of identifiable form functionally related to one or more controlling variables. A. university educational policy as well as practice. or the absence of a plausible alternative. was that the general point of view is largely mythology. in effect. persuasive reasoning. Nor is any attempt made to specify how much or what kind of similarity in form or ‘control’ is required for two physical events to be con2The original review appeared in Language. . No method is suggested for determining in a particular instance what are the controlling variables. ed. i. 1967). and philosophy. My page references are to the text that appears in Readings in the Psychology of Language. M..J. by discussing these speculations in their most explicit and detailed form. how many such units have occurred. p. That in turn has begun to affect the university institutionalization of the social sciences-and hence. N. constitutes an attack on the extension of psychological learning theory to linguistic behavior.230 HARRY M. psychology. and Miron. . it is not so simple in the case of language. (Englewood Cliffs. more generally. . . or. Jakobvits. While these terms may have some sense in precisely defined contexts. and that its widespread acceptance is not the result of empirical support. The attack on behaviorism. reinforcement. response. their “analogic extrapolation” to linguistic behavior leaves the key concepts of Skinner’s account of verbal behavior vacuous. . in a perfectly direct way. see any way in which his proposals can be substantially improved within the general framework of behaviorist or neo-behaviorist. first formulated in the famous 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.e. Chomsky attacks Skinner for his extended use of the nomenclature of animal experimenta1 research. The conclusion that I hoped to establish in the review. then Skinner’s work can be regarded as..: Prentice-Hall. S . a reductio ad absurdurn of behaviorist assumptions . or where their boundaries are in the total response.’ In the review proper. 142. empiricist ideas that has dominated much of modern linguistics. as I believe they are.

A real defense of the legitimacy of the application of the behaviorist framework to language ought to take language. X I 1 1 (19701. and the “unit of verbal behavior” seriously. reinforcement. if the predictive power is hardly awe-inspiring. ~LOC. cit. MacCorquodale writes : The hypothesis of VerbaE Behavior is simply that the facts of verbal behavior are in the domain of the facts from which the system has been constructed. 4“On Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior”.’ Yet MacCorquodale’s defense of Skinner fails to deal with the fundamental issue just cited. response. Journal of the Experimental Anafysis of Behavior. It ought to show that the framework has not merely been extended to linguistic behavior by the magic of “analogic extrapolation”. and if the whole thing is merely an hypothesis which is not to be rejected because. The non-psychologist bystander can be forgiven. 8 5 . 86). and motivation.’ The review is by now a classic. 83-99. I hope. 83. and as Kenneth MacCorquodale remarked in his 1970 counter-attack. C f . Instead. They have also been shown to be ‘surprisingly free of species restriction . In short. given infinite time. And it may. If the key terms are vacuous.’ ” 6 He concludes that “we do not yet know if verbal behavior is within the domain of Skinner’s system and whether the technical terms stimulus. “no behaviorist escaped untouched”. it may be confirmed:lIbid. no answers are suggested for the most elementary questions that must be asked of anyone proposing a method for description of behavior. for wondering what could conceivably count against MacCorquodale’s definition of hypothesis.. SIbid..MINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 231 sidered instances of the same operant. reinforcement are literally applicable to verbal behavior and correctly parse it into its functional parts of speech” (p. ~ One saves behaviorism by treating it as an hypothesis. but our antecedent confidence in its correctness is a t least enhanced by the fact that the basic laws which it invokes have become very sophisticated and impressively well researched. . 150. response. The relevance of these laws and their component variables for the verbal events is hypothesized only. “prove to be wrong. it is not dogmatically ~ l a i m e d . . p. Skinner’s stratagem is to find plausible referents in the speech episode for the laws and terms in his explanatory system : stimulus. The inner quote is from Skinner. . p. writes MacCorquodale.

232 HARRY M. of cognition. This faith is now in doubt. Dec. by interconnection with issues involving the Vietnam War. the learning theorists. The assertion of the status of genuine science made by political scientists. I shall return to that point in a moment. rather. Failing to understand this. since a rich and detailed terminology is replaced by a few terms that are divorced entirely from the setting in which they have some precision). once errors are eliminated. “want”. on behalf of their respective fields.” In “Psychology and Ideologv”. largely on faith. I think there is no question but that the Chomskian revolution has been one occasion for these reconsiderations. sociologists. 18 f. and I notice that some of my colleagues who once spoke of being in ‘political science’ are now in ‘politics’. exactly my point. “enjoy”. (with a loss of accuracy in transition. MacCorquodale “defends” Skinner by showing that quite often it is possible to give a vacuous interpretation to his pronouncements.g. of course. However. 11-46. See also h”I’ Review of Books. No more than in the case of the Greeks is today’s version scientific. etc. by its attack at the theoretical level-second. they are false on the face of it (MacCorquodale discusses none of these examples accurately) or else quite vacuous (e. Thus far I have discussed Chomsky’s attack on behaviorism primarily as it bears on psychology. historians. BRACKEN then nothing but the boredom of psychologists is likely to effect a change. But in fact the only widely accepted contender at the level of theory has been behavioristic psychology.. it has been around a long while. many people in the social sciences outside of psychology have been profoundly shaken in their convictions. The Greek atomist took his theory to be a way of looking at things in order to help preserve one from the fears induced by the parasitic priests of the society. 1971. I (1972). in revealing the bankruptcy of the operant conditioning approach to the study of verbal behavior. As a theory of man. The tables seem now to have been turned. was to demonstrate that when Skinner’s assertions are taken literally. and of meaning. when we say that the response “Mozart” is under the control of a subtle stimulus. pp. The article is useful. First. . In North America one now hears the phrase ‘behavioral science’ less frequently. Many of those who work in the social sciences have taken over the theoretical core from the “real” scientists. pp. and that many of his false statements can be converted into uninteresting truths by employing such terms as “reinforce” with the full imprecision of “like”.. But my point. and he points out that I present no data to disprove them. He has challenged the role of social scientists in the formulating TChomsky writes : “MacCorquodale assumes that I was attempting to disprove Skinner’s theses. rests on the theoretical core of each discipline.‘ The metaphysical theory hiding behind the behaviorist model is as old as Greek atomism. Cognition. of learning. Chomsky has not only sought to provide a theoretical challenge to behaviorist theory applied to language acquisition. etc. 30.

One of its greatest advantages comes from its claims to being a genuine and objective science.’ Ancient Greek atomism was intended to be a buckler against the power of the priests. of course. 1967). well-tested. as Chomsky has argued. and the ideological analysis of the uses of expertise in the construction of America’s power base has already contributed to a number of changes beyond those already mentioned.Y. its existence has been kept a well-guarded secret”. First. Third. . If War Crimes trials were held. for example in American Power and the New Mandarins and At War with Asia. professionalism has been challenged. as Chomsky has noted. ‘subjective’. Chomsky has discussed issues of this sort in his non-linguistic work. 19691. : Cornell University Press. because the critic is automatically branded as ‘unscientific’. From policy planning to counter-insurgency warfare. A reduced professionalism is evident in such institutional SAmerican Power and the N e w Mandarins (New York : Pantheon. But. “If there is a body of theory. ed. But they are not differences marked off by those which possess a rich explanatory theory versus those which do not. it is clear that prima facie cases could be established against many distinguished academics at America’s (and not only America’s) universities. from student disorders to ghetto discontent-social scientists have analysed the problems and proffered solutions. differences among the several humanities and social scietlces as academic disciplines. “Politics and the Morality of Scholarship”. gconor Cruise O’Brien. academics have become more sensitive to the question of the politicization of their institutions. But the combination of the technical attack on the theoretical core of social science. and the standards of Niirnberg employed. Even. pp. or ‘ideologicallymotivated’. This has made it extraordinarily difficult to challenge either its goals or methods. These scholars moved into positions of power on the basis of their claims to expertise. the inheritors of most of the atomistic ideas have used them to forge a new and powerful ideology. in The Morality of Scholarship. Today. and verified. Max Black (Ithaca. but particularly American policy i n South East Asia.MINDS AND LEARNING: THE CHOMSKXAN REVOLUTION 233 and executing of military policies generally. 342-3. There are. N. that applies to the conduct of foreign affairs or the resolution of domestic or international conflict. what Conor Cruise O’Brien9 has called the “counterrevolutionary subordination of scholarship” has become increasingly evident. in a matter as relatively remote from cold-war problems as the Spanish Civil War. Second.

and moral issues.. . is the rationalism /empiricism theme. While I am not claiming that Chomsky has been the only causal agent. that how we learn a concept is the final court of appeal in the process of clarification-these views have been closely tied to the S-R account of language learning. 149. So closely tied that one often hears the S-R account defended by an appeal to referential meaning. and in our understanding of ourselves and of our world. in terms of methodology in learning theory. These mark profound changes in our institutions.. as affecting a range of philosophical. Chomsky’s comments in the review of Skinner. It too can be seen under two headings: first. The thesis that the meaning of a word is its reference. political. Fourth. and vice versa. of transformational grammar. Obviously establishing the gross inadequacies of the S-R model of language acquisition does not of itself establish the soundness of Chomsky’s own positive account. But it should again be noted that the attack is largely independent of his own doctrines. in our ways of looking at the conceptual frameworks we employ. cit. second. I have briefly discussed that attack and suggested that it can usefully be understood as operating first. In Cartesian Linguistics and in Language and ’OCf. I described Chomsky’s attack on behaviorism as a component. he has played a major role in the continuing debates both at the technical and the more traditionally political levels. A second area discussed by Chomsky-and mentioned as early as the review of Skinner. however fruitful it may be. op.g. BRACKEN forms as the growth of interdisciplinary courses and even departments. that ostensive definition is the ultimate philosophical weapon. p. I should add that philosophers have been seriously disturbed by Chomsky’s attacks on behaviorism. e. a theme which is more rooted in Chomsky’s positive doctrines. educational. and second.” But the attack on behaviorism. as part of a broad assault on the political role of the social sciences and the cult of the expert. and the increased willingness (relatively !) to consider new ideas and new methods in the social sciences. an element in the elaboration of his account of linguistics.234 HARRY M. is only one element. The walls we erected in order to have something left to say-by really having nothing to say-are being dismembered both from within and without philosophy. as an extension of technical methodological questions. even philosophers appear to be less complacent about the antiseptic nature of their professional inquiries.

of course. in fact in principle continuous. the system consists of a finite number of signals. pp. May 15. 1969. 1966) and Language and Mind (New York: Harcourt Brace. .12 Chomsky has expanded upon Descartes’ position that man’s speech reflects a uniquely creative capacity which cannot be explained in terms of the mechanica1 model he considered satisfactory for dealing with bodies. in the face of the apparent deadend the behaviorists had reached. We have spent untold millions of dollars and countless man-hours attempting to provide a model of man’s linguistic competence without having recourse to the mind. with no feeling of unfamiliarity or strangeness-and. . human communications systems do not appear to be extensions of animal systems. or the free and creative use of language takes place. . 1968).g. . I think correctly. no possibility of “introspecting” into the processes by which the interpretation of these utterances. each produced under a fixed range of stimulus conditions. that we might give serious consideration to a fresh examination of the seventeenth-century philosophers of the Cartesian tradition. discrete set of sentences . . set of signals as output in response to a continuous range of stimuli--[whereas human language is a] system that is available for the free expression of thought precisely because it is not under direct stimulus control. The Cartesians were aware of llCartesian Linguistics (New York: Harper and Row. and does not signal “points” on non-linguistic “dimensions”. Chomsky put it this way in his 1969 John Locke Lectures at Oxford : In short. . If this is correct. 523-5. [and] can instantaneously interpret an indefinitely large range of utterances.” Chomsky argued. . . an animal can operate on the principle of the speedometer-producing a potentially infinite. and the obviously primitive state of neurophysiology. . . A person who knows a language has mastered a set of rules and principles that determine an infinite. that our commitment to empiricism was getting in the way of our understanding of reality. 12Times Literary Supplement. then it is quite pointless to speculate about the “evolution” of human language from animal communication systems. that is. Chomsky suggested. e. to take Descartes’ insights seriously. or else a principle of strict finiteness.. . .MINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 235 Mind. Every animal communication system that is known operates on one of two principles: either the principle of the speedometer . And he meant to take mind seriously. D MPH . .

Chomsky came to believe that the sorts of grammatical rules which appeared to be necessarily present in order to make possible our use of language.236 HARRY M. one could study languages. while alive down through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. were deemed unpromising. so much the worse for minds. however suggestive. pp. the Port Royal dream. But. Malebranchians accepted the uniqueness of human minds but saw no clues from which a genuinely explanatory theory could be elaborated. Journal of the History VIII (1970). 181-192. In the seventeenth century. and the tradition. 13See my “Chomsky’s Variations on a Theme by Descartes”. The Port Royal wing did try to find in grammar the elements of a comprehensive theory of mind. . but also that it would take too much trouble to come up with another one. One could tally occurrences. it seems that knowledge of a language-a grammar-can be acquired only by an organism that is “preset” with a severe restriction on the form of grammar. In abstracto. Cartesians themselves were divided roughly into two groups. Besides. such options having been fruitless for two millennia. one could describe what one saw and heard. But Malebranche was not confused into thinking that such studies constituted a theory. of Philosophy. David Hume seems to have felt the theory was grossly inadequate on mind. our regular use of language. This innate restriction is a precondition. and our observations of children. for linguistic experience. by definition empiricism pays close heed to human experience. pp. Dialogue J X (1970). ’ ~ As a result of his own early work in syntax. However. in the Kantian sense. Chomsky suggests. A generative grammer would “make known’’ mind as geometry did body. they were understood to run counter to our daily conscious experience. remained unfulfilled. 236-247. because the powerful mathematical ideas of recursion theory were unavailable. was never again a major f o r ~ e . if it articulates theories which make it impossible to talk about minds. and “Chomsky’s Language and Mind”. BRACKEN the methodological options provided by the empiricists of the day-and not very different from those still being employed. If it eschews the domain of the mental. one would expect that these common features of experience could hardly be discounted. simply could not be accounted for if one accepted the blank tablet picture of mind (with or without vacuous appeals to linguistic dispositions) that accompanies behaviorism and empiricism. Hence Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis : what is innate is a set of rules of “universal grammar” because.

The truth of eternal “truths” cannot rest upon things in the sense-world of flux. Some Cartesians tried via grammar to give content to their mind doctrine. After all. For one of the few useful criticisms of Chomsky‘s innateness hypothesis. 111. While the immaterializer hypothesis may strike us as more intellectually honest than the recommendations of Locke or Hume. the mind had no innate ideasit merely had an innate capacity to immaterialize material things. 78. Malebranche did not approve of the efforts to provide a model of mind precisely because he did not consider that the Cartesians who made that attempt had been successful in giving content to their talk about ‘*Language and Mind. p. Vesey. the rationalist model of man provides a more compatible foundation than the empiricist one. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures. in Knowledge and Necessity. Grammar would reveal the essence of mind as geometry reveals the essence of body. for such marks can be changed or erased. their arguments for innateness are bound up with those against seventeenth-century versions of S-R or other referential empiricist theories of meaning.l~ If one takes transformational generative grammar to be a t least a partial representation of man’s linguistic competence. ed. That is. innate ideas have a long and respected tradition within so-called Western philosophy. Vol. For centuries other philosophers sought to avoid incorporating anything into the mind which could not be philosophically interpreted as ultimately abstracted from the data of our senses. On the Thomist model. . philosophers usually opted for innateness when dealing with ideas or “truths” which it seemed unreasonable to suppose had been derived from experience. Briefly and crudely. 1968/69. for example. “Two and two are four” is not about marks on the blackboard. if one asks about the entity in which one’s model might be instantiated. But the Cartesians aIso understood the logic of their innateness hypothesis to require a sharp rejection of abstractionism as a doctrine of concept acquisition. see Roy Edgley. Admittedly the sorts of universal constraints on grammars which Chomsky might treat as reflecting innate structures do not seem formally to resemble Cartesian innate principles.MINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 237 and it appears to be the critical factor in determining the course and result of language 1earni11g. “Innate Ideas”. Current discussions of innateness sometimes ignore this innateness /anti-abstractionism connection both for the Cartesians and for Chomsky. the Cartesians had no qualms about innate ideas. G .

we should remember that variations of this debate are as old as recorded history. A point Miss Anscombe made more than a decade ago in that extra- .. and his efforts to provide. When empiricist I rationalist debates occur outside the context of academic philosophy. but it is noteworthy that the mere effort proves to be such an offense. Is a human infinitely conditionable? Is a human indefinitely manipulatable? It may seem that we are dealing with a straightforward factual issue. a child can be said to learn it. The fact /value distinction. in acquiring a language.e. the philosopher’s tools are suspect. often beloved by both philosophers and social scientists as a justification for their so-called value-free inquiries. but is qualitatively different from anything else in the animal kingdom. Of course part of the issue hinges on understanding whether. Or to put the point in explanatory terms. If we think of the debate between Locke and the defenders of innate ideas as simply a fight over the nature of learning in children. in the tradition of Port Royal. But it is the very stuff of which a mind/body category distinction can be made. as an ideological weapon. But the empiricist/ rationalist debates of the seventeenth century and of today are debates between different value systems or ideologies. First. as they often have in the past. a formal characterization of linguistic universals may fail. Second. or be taught it. BRACKEN mental dispositions. Nor are we dealing with the sort of linguistic confusion a philosopher can dispell. This may seem reasonable enough. was used by Hume and used by him successfully. That does not commit one to Cartesian substances. I suggest that philosophers should make an effort to understand just how value laden their purportedly “neutral” methods really are. The assumption that the bird-nest building ability of certain birds is innate does not upset us. i. although how this is transmitted genetically or recorded neurally remains largely mysterious. one can expect that the nub of the argument will be conflicting images of man. an emergent entity. an explanation of this device will require the introduction of features which are not definitionally reducible to the basic terms used to describe our world. we will miss the point. Perhaps the anxiety producing issue is the suggestion that man’s communication system reflects a device which is not merely more complex. but it does run counter to views regarded seriously by our culture. although we are not. Hence the heat which characterizes these discussions. Chomsky may not have given us the correct model for our innate linguistic capacity.238 HARRY M.

The assumption. On the contrary. 1972.Q. . 1957. With the best of will. to social science. the conclusion is obvious. been prepared to take as a serious “scientific” issue “the relation between mean I.239 ordinary paper : “Is Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupting the Youth? ”I5 Historically. . p.. . As to social importance. .. a correlation between race and mean I. An elite which for more than two centuries has. 26.I6 Even more curious is that thinking of people as conditionable reserves a place for those who must bear the “awesome” task of conditioning. then the dilemma vanishes. February 14. “We are granting too much to the contemporary investigator [of race and intelligence] when we see him faced with a conflict of values: scientific curiosity versus social consequences. Tests : Building Blocks for the New Class System”.Q. .Q. but as a representative of this category. say. the evidence suggests that both rationalists and empiricists have been among our culture heroes as well as villains. . p. There is “room” for an elite-an 6lite which possesses special knowledge of people. 17Ibid. for example. That is not the immediate issue. In the present state of scientific understanding. An 6lite whose power base is the claim. “A possible correlation between mean I. that behavior is motivated only by deprivation and external reward finds eager acceptance within an ideology based on material rewards-a point not lost on another of Chomsky’s targets--Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein. with no further discussion. . glossed as a scientific claim. given the likely social consequences. the investigator of race and intelligence might do well to explain the intellectual significance of the topic he is studying. i t is difficult t o avoid questioning the good faith of those who deplore the alleged “anti. Given the virtual certainty that even the undertaking of the inquiry will reinforce some of the most despicable features of our society. Even if the scientific significance were immense. to special knowledge. .ntellectualism” of the critics of scientifically trivial and socially malicious investigations. . how they interact.Q. It does not take much theory to operate on the principle that the best way to eliminate a certain idea is to kill the people who hold it. and skin color is of no greater scientific interest than a correlation between any two other arbitrarily selected traits. . advocates of light as well as of darkness. certified with a variety of degrees and university courses. of their natures. 30.” The kind of elite we are acquainted with in liberal democratic societies. etc. . July/August. . we should certainly question the seriousness of the dilemma. . But if the scientific interest of any possible finding is slight. and race”. the authenticity of the presumed moral dilemma depends critically on the scientific significance of the issue that he is choosing to investigate. there would appear to bt: little interest in the discovery that one partly heritable trait correlates (or does not) with another partly heritable trait . .” ‘“The 16“I. If he perceives none. and thus enlighten us as to the moral dilemma he perceives. . Notice that this sort of 6lite only makes sense given certain presupMINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION Listener. (were this shown to exist) entails no social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned t o a racial category and (dealt with not as in individual in his own right. mean height and color of eyes. Ramparts.

The Orwellian categories we use in talking about such issues as war. In raising anew the rationalism issue. One of Chomsky’s longest essays. etc. 1971. Chomsky said. So long as interpreting the world constitutes one’s power base. . they are a profound threat to one’s claim to special knowledge. To tamper with empiricism is to tamper with the ideology and to offend those whose role in our power dlites is conditional upon the retention of that ideology. those presuppositions we associate with Locke and Hume and which we label “empiricist”. sound liberal scholarship is when it comes to dealing with social and political forms which are indigenously rooted. BRACKEN positions about persons. are threats not only to governmental bureaucrats-they are threats to liberal scholars as well. and others who have conceived “of the ‘species character’ of man as ‘free conscious activity’ and ‘productive life’ .B. 1 . Wilhelm von Humboldt. lsIn American Power and the New Mandarins. There are also elements of a positive and rationalistically rooted social doctrine suggesting the directions Chomsky would have us explore and the ideals he advocates. not to establish new forms of authority”.” and have sought “to conceive of social forms that will encourage the truly human action that grows from inner impulses. civil strife. their own forms of religious expression). January. Behaviorism and empiricism are central to the liberal ideology not because of any logical necessity but because those are the terms in which the liberal ideology has been formulated. “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship”. Chomsky is tampering with the portion of that web which we use in talking about persons. And this larger framework rests upon what are taken to be sound empirical bases. so long as people and events are considered understandable only through one’s categories. 1972). He goes on to cite approvingly comments by Russell. . In his Russell Lectures. ‘anarchistic’ is taken to mean ‘irrational’). 9Delivered at Trinity College. Cambridge.18 is devoted in large part to showing how biased good. who develop their own educational forms. to wit. See Problems of Knowledge and Freedom Wew York: Pantheon. People who organize themselves..240 HARRY M. social actions not fitting one’s theories are not only “irrational” (N. in liberal talk. socialism is primarily about “the liberation of the creative impulse and the reconstruction of society to this end”. or racism are part of a complex web of concepts. “The radical reconstruction of society must search for ways to liberate the creative impulse. their own political or economic relations (or to recall the example of another age.”’s For Russell and for Chomsky.

Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development.” 2o“Language and Freedom”. For Russell and for Chomsky workers must control the long run ideal is anarchistic-the their own management.20 In “Linguistics and Politics”” Chomsky is quoted as saying “I think that anyone’s political ideas or their ideas of social organization must be rooted ultimately in some concept of human nature and human needs. the technocrat. pp. This ideal has not. completely plastic being. North and South. 57. And the educational system. 21-34. A point fully recognized by seventeenth century rationalists. 31. is obviously ever more concentrated in the hands of bureaucrats. the corporate manager. Abruxus. .MINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 241 rather than being fundamentally about the distribution of wealth and the allocation of resources. Now my own feeling is that the fundamental human capacity is the capacity and the need for creative selfexpression. . Control of industrial societies. in which Russell placed cautious faith. and participation in a free community. The radical extirpation of mind is of crucial ideological importance. Presumably the humanistic conception of human nature-that it is the nature of man “to inquire and create”-is an ideal compatible with empiricism or rationalism. If. But empiricism has in fact been associated with a different ideal: the ideal of control. East and West. I (1970). for free control of all aspects of one’s life and thought.Cf. with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character. cultural achievement. Upper and Lower.See p . however. man is an indefinitely malleable. . 2 1“Linguistics . 1969. In “Language and Freedom” Chomsky writes : A vision of a future social order is in turn based on a concept of human nature. 9-24. or the central committee.-Oct. Sept. No. pp. in fact. The growth of moral consciousness. won the day. a n article-interview in New Left Review. 22. To control what is “written” on the “blank tablet” is to control the man. and Politics”. has emerged as the technique for social streaming and solidifying class levels-with the fantastic advantage over other methods that it seems to reflect equality of opportunity and hence to make the man at the bottom feel that he really deserves to be there. then he is a fit subject for the “shaping of behavior” by the State authority. p.

24Most critics have missed a key point to Chomsky’s work on Cartesian linguistics. as with the behaviorism issue. conceptually.” Out of the empiricist /rationalist theme within Chomsky’s thought.”“ It is his contention that we should extend this revolution of thought. education. politics. . its development through interaction with the environment. at least. sustains the larger doctrine of human nature. Conceivably.~~ Chomsky is calling for a complete reversal of our present picture of language acquisition. its organization. . But the Cartesians combined a radical rethinking of man’s nature.242 He also writes : HARRY M. be studied in a similar way. in principle. of the mind’s contributions to knowledge. I say “sustains” because the connection is. to the investigation of behavior. we might in this way develop a social science based on empirically well-founded propositions concerning human nature. with a linguistic theory as a vehicle for the exploration of mind. z3“Linguistics and Politics”. Of course there were earlier and perhaps equally suggestive grammarians. I think that we know what Chomsky is talking about in asking us to reflect on ways in which we might build a new society in which men could learn and develop in accordance with humanistic ideals. that we should rethink the questions of the social sciences. reflect intrinsic properties of human mental organization. As long as we restrict ourselves. Thus the language acquisition device. 25. This means seeking to locate the ‘‘innate structures of mind” which make us human-those structures which provide the bases for our functioning as free and creative agents. and of social policy generally. p. ‘‘tenuo~s’’. Other aspects of human psychology and culture might. . p. the competence model Chomsky envisions to be in part innately grounded. as Chomsky has put it. 31. we are bound to miss these characteristics of language and mind. BRACKEN I think that the study of language can provide some glimmerings of understanding of rule-governed behavior and the possibilities for free and creative action within the framework of a system of rules that in part. . I think that we can comprehend the vision of a social order which aims for what he has called consistent 22“Language and Freedom”. on the analogue of linguistics. that a specialized and technical discussion of language and mind in terms of transformational generative grammar emerges into a doctrine of human nature. we find.

“Of National Character”. But there are other inquiries to be pursued. we must try to understand why our culture canonized Locke. Chomsky has explored the history of linguistic theory as source for ideas as well as for clues as to where we “went wrong” in linguistics. Oct. Aarsleffs paper shows that the stakes in this debate are high. Examination of the roots of racism and elitism within the liberal-empiricist tradition is very much in order. 17. this claim is incredible. 22. David Hume. for example. that “the grand passion that illuminates all Locke’s work [is] his desire for toleration”.MINDS AND LEARNING : THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 243 anarchism. who ranks with Locke as a liberal-empiricist saint also deserves new scrutiny. 28A Section of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies has begun some of these inquiries.“ Given Locke’s views on Catholics. forthcoming in Hermtithena. We do not need to have Chomsky provide us with a blueprint for change before we can ask what is to be done. pp. If nothing else. rooted as they are in the empiricist doctrine of human nature.We ~ ~ can comprehend it if only because we have reason to believe that the goals for our sciences of man. See p. Popkin. why liberalism canonized as the father of religious toleration a man who so plainly expressed his fear of religious freedom. 1972. No. He has explored the history of the cold war seeking its roots. psychology. Accordingly. 27See his Note to the Essay. trenchantly stated. pp. and Race”. CLVI (1970). in Hans Aarsleffs defenses of Locke against Chomsky. or libertarian s o ~ i a l i s r n . Free inquiry into the concrete problems of specific communities does not first require a masterplan. Has liberalism always had the elitist bias. See also his ‘‘ ‘Cartesian Linguistics’: History or Fantasy?” LUlZgVQge Sciences. “The Philosophical Basis of Eighl eenth Century Racism”.” His white-supremacist views are unambiguously. Accident. 1-12. 570-85. We are told. See the forthcoming paper by Richard H. pp. and my “Chomsky’s Cartesianism”. Inquiries into the liberal-empirical tradition: John Locke. . the anti-libertarian element that now is obvious? These are perfectly intelligible questions. and philosophy. 1971. Language Sciences. 11-17. 1970). No.” 2sSee also Chomsky’s Introduction t o Daniel GuCrin’s Anarchism (New York : Monthly Review Press. even if the attempts to answer them may prove threatening to us. the fear of human freedom. Especially since master-plans have a way of establishing that slavery is freedom. in Proceedings of the Anzericun Society for Etghteenth Century Studies (1972). 581. Oct. We can see where present ideas are taking us. Language. See also my “Essence. are to enable us to treat men as commodities in accordance with principles which are “free of species restrictions” so that they may be efficiently controlled and merchandized. 26“The History of Linguistics and Professor Chomsky”.

the task of locating first principles has become almost impossible. I took to be more closely tied to Chomsky’s major theoretical contributions. George Orwell must count as an exception because he. History of Scepticism from Erasmus to Descartes. hold on to that!” (chapter vii) And yet. although it is fashionable to write this off as left-wing paranoia. “American Power and the New Mandarins. One may wish to say that Chomsky merely reveals the critical intellect. The kind of crisis which was generated by the Protestant Reformation and to which Descartes so earnestly addressed himself in his Meditations?’ Philosophers have never taken kindly to a serious sceptical challenge. I propose now to discuss briefly what I consider to be one of Chomsky’s most interesting and perplexing contributions. presented us with a fictional account of a world manipulated by political demonic forces. IV (1972). (New York: Harper Torchbooks. Given the role that intellectuals have played in creating and maintaining conditions of social hysteria. W e e my “Descartes-Orwell-Chomsky. 3OCf. the probing mind. 1968). The posing of such “insoluble” problems has seldom found much favor in philosophy-and in the twentieth century. Popkin. “Truisms are true. But reading his social and political commentary from “Responsibility of intellectual^"^^ onward. there is a profound scepticism within Chomsky’s work.” Not when university intellectuals have such ready access to government posts as virtually to possess interchangeable identity cards. Three Philosophers of the Demonic”. But the second and closely related theme.” Chomsky has for a number of years been alerting us to the Orwellian reality. empiricismIrationalism. as with the empiricist /rationalist 29Reprinted in American Power and the New Mandarins. the truism that it is “the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies [is] not at all obvious”. as Chomsky has observed. pp. 325. Richard H. the suggestion that we might be universally and systematically misled by demonic forces is routinely disposed of in first-year philosophy courses. The Human Context. But as Orwell’s Winston says early in 1984. BRACKEN Thus far I have discussed the issue of behaviorism and the effect the wider discussion is currently having on social scientists. That issue I considered to be independent of Chomsky’s own positive doctrines. Perhaps because theoretical work in linguistics has not advanced to the point where an experimenturn crucis could help resolve doubts. The kind of crisis which grips a civilization. p. 523-36. of course. . As with the behaviorist theme. one comes to appreciate that Chomsky sees us facing a complete sceptical crisis.244 HARRY M.

His own monumental efforts constitute important steps towards achieving them. plus its corollary. Orwell’s Winston was destroyed.MINDS AND LEARNING: THE CHOMSKIAN REVOLUTION 245 theme.. Descartes escaped a demonic world via God. If. as it used to be put. It is an absurdity academics in Nazi Germany lived with successfully. what it is to think. Descartes’ own efforts to probe some of these questions were found so unsettling that his teachings were banned in both Catholic and Calvinist universities. and political questions Chomsky has placed before us. moral. P submit. “unsettling”. MCGILL UNIVERSITY AND TRINITY COLLEGE. and their interrelations with our all-encompassing liberal ideology-these are tasks Chomsky has clearly set for us. These are not questions which those within the mainstream of Western thought have encouraged. the behaviorist model of learning. so with this modern sceptical crisis-we must go back to fundamental issues. Chomsky offers us no grounds for optimism and few for hope. to talk. and to learn. It is an absurdity which will completely overtake us unless we are prepared to deal seriously with those ultimate epistemological. To rethink the empiricist model of mind. As Descartes did when he faced his sceptical crisis we must ask questions about human nature itself. the very possibility of education becomes absurd. They are. about what it is to be a human being. DUBLIN . however. We must ask truly radical questions. like Orwell’s Winston we fail-then.

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