Some background


The 1950s


In the 1950s behaviourism/empiricism dominated philosophy, linguistics, psychology and the social sciences generally. In linguistics in particular, a cluster of theses dominated, with some variation:


(i)   Languages are infinitely various along every dimension.

(ii)  Languages are essentially systems of habit/dispositions.

(iii) Languages are learnt via experience (for Skinner and others,


(iv) There is no component of the speaker/hearer’s psychology that is

       specifically linguistic.

(v)  Syntactic relations are ones of surface immediate constituency.

(vi) Linguistics is a descriptive/taxonomic science - there is nothing to


(It is worth noting that Chomsky’s structuralist taxonomist contemporaries - e.g., Harris, Jacobson, etc. - did not subscribe to (iii); indeed, they had nothing whatsoever to say about acquisition. On the other hand, Bloomfield was a professed behaviorist.)


In the mid 1950s, Chomsky challenged all of these theses in his unpublished The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (a massive book, eventually published in 1975, which was originally rejected by MIT Press!).  Syntactic Structures (1957) presented the bare bones of LSLT, along with a formal refutation of various simple (but popular) computational models of language learning (finite-state machines). Together, the books showed in detail how we could make progress in linguistics precisely by rejecting the six theses. ((v) was refuted, making (ii) also false, and rendering (vi) empty; the famous review of Skinner’s Linguistic Behaviour (1959) refuted (iii).)


A Change of Direction

Chomsky is associated with the thesis that language is largely innate, and so unlearnt. This thesis was not argued for by Chomsky in the ‘50s, not even in the Skinner review. Chomsky’s early work was entirely devoted to the formal delineation of ‘general linguistic theory’ (what was to be christened Universal Grammar) and the specification of a transformational grammar for English whose properties may be derived from the general theory (early work was also done on Hebrew as Chomsky’s Ph.D. thesis). As indicated, this essentially formal work sufficed to shatter the set of theses, but it was not premised upon any nativist claim, nor were there any positive psychological arguments.


The nativist thesis came on line along with the language acquisition device, the competence/performance distinction, the descriptive/explanatory adequacy distinction, and the appeal to a historical heritage, which culminated in Cartesian Linguistics (1966). This was a move from formalization alone, to the formalization being a theory of the psychological endownment of the language acquiring child.


(1960/62)‘Explanatory Models in linguistics’: LAD, nascent c/p and d/e.

(1962/64) ‘Current Issues in Linguistic Theory’: LAD, d/e, Descartes and/Humboldt on creativity, nascent c/p.

(1965) Aspects of a Theory of Syntax, Chp.1: LAD, c/p, d/e, Descartes et al., nativism.


The familiar picture of Aspects amounts to a full dressed rejection of the six theses of the old linguistics, now backed-up with an alternative theory, or, rather, just a theory, for there never was an alternative explanatory account.


No Change

This move from the formal to the cognitive was not a radical break. The basis of the Aspects framework was contained in LSLT. The problem for LSLT was how to understand the generation of formal structures (descriptive adequacy) in a cognitive setting (explanatory adequacy), as being acquired. This problem was in fact to remain until the development of Principles and Parameters  in the late ‘70s which essentially solved the acquisition problem.


This ‘no change’ claim is quite sensible, when it is considered that much of the work against traditional linguistics and its behaviourist dogmas was achieved independently of explicit cognitive theses. With the fall of behaviourism/empiricism, thesis (iv) could be seriously doubted. In fact, since the structure revealed couldn’t be learnt in the traditionally conceived way, the negation of (iv) seems unavoidable. In turn, this leads to serious doubt of (i), for the variation admitted by language would be a function of the structure of the native capacity. Thus, it was natural to see the new linguistics as presaging a novel (resuscitated!) cognitive account to replace the refuted behaviourism.


We may think of the tradition of ‘Cartesian linguistics’ as encouraging Chomsky to push forward with the total overthrow of the old conception of linguistic understanding. Chomsky has said that at the time of LSLT, such a nativist position was “too audacious”.


First and Second Cognitive Revolutions

Chomsky (e.g., Powers and Prospects, 1996) has suggested that the so-called ‘cognitive revolution’, which his own work largely initiated, would be more accurately descried as the ‘second  cognitive revolution’. This is because the work of the ‘50s and ‘60s was very much a rediscovery of the ‘Cartesain’ insights, not only as regards a general mentalism as opposed to empiricism, but also in the specifics of language and perception


No more Cartesian Linguistics

1) After 1966, Chomsky decided to do no more work on phonology, mathematical linguistics or history of ideas. Issues around Vietnam were taking up too much of his time. Chomsky had in fact been organising talks and protests since 1962, when the Kennedy administration initiated the assault on the people of South Vietnam.


2) “I have been sort of put off by the field, frankly. For one thing, there is such a fantastic amount of misrepresentation in the field that I kept quite remote from it. I refuse invitations to conferences and so on. My own work has been widely distorted, in the most amazing ways. For example, there is a whole literature devoted to my distortions of Locke. I could hardly have distorted Locke, since I did not discuss him at all, apart from a few innocuous and uncontroversial references that have never been challenged… Work of this sort is so ridiculous that it is hardly worth discussing. It is unfortunately rather typical of the intellectual or, in a way, even moral level of the field.”

— (1982) The Generative Enterprise, pp.37-8.

(Chomsky has brutally responded to some criticisms of CL: to George Lakoff in NYRB (February 1973) and to Jonathan Barnes and John Searle in (1975) Reflections of Language - a chain-saw to a meringue.)



Chomsky only briefly discusses politics/morality in Cartesian Linguistics, with reference to Humboldt. The ideas are expanded, taking in Rousseau,  Marx and others, in (1970) ‘Language and Freedom’ and (1975) Reflections on Language. For Chomsky, Behaviourist/empiricist doctrine is profoundly anti-humanistic:


“If in fact man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behaviour’ by the state authority, the corporate manger, the technocrat, or the central committee.”


In contrast to the manipulative model of empiricism, Cartesian thought asserts the dignity of the person in setting ultimate moral barriers to coercion and manipulation, for there is an antecedent human nature which animates a person’s actions, autonomous of external control, and characterised by free and novel thought. Given the falsity of behaviourism/empiricism, one can understand its prevalence as a concomitant of dominant ideology of authoritarian socialism and state capitalism. The “empty organism” doctrine is a most natural one for the class of technical intelligentsia, those who claim authority, special knowledge, and a unique insight into what is best for those less enlightened.

At the time of Chomsky’s writing Cartesian Linguistics, the social and psychological sciences were busy devising ways to pacify the people of South Vietnam just as they had been integral to the development of the consumer ideology in post WWI America.


Why Cartesian Linguistics?

For Chomsky, we can hope for explanation of linguistic competence - the structures that constitute our capacity to pair sound and meaning - but there is little hope of us explaining how such structures are integrated into behaviour. That is, performance remains theoretically intractable. Cartesian Linguistics is the most sustained treatment of this central aspect of Chomsky’s outlook, one which is largely neglected by critics and advocates alike, but one which is core to Chomsky’s profound intellectual and moral insight, which rivals anything of the 20th Century, or any other.


Some Things I have learned from Noam - Ray Rackendoff

It is possible to be widely hailed in the intellectual world, and then, without fundamentally changing one's ideas, and without serious arguments being offered against the soundness of one's ideas, to come to be widely reviled.


It is possible to be widely hailed in the intellectual world as a master in multiple fields and still firmly believe that one is unappreciated and virtually without influence.


It is possible to write science in a way so true and so beautiful as to bring tears to the eyes of discerning readers.


It is possible to write science in a way so quietly aggressive as to infuriate rather than win over one's opponents.


There is no substitute for charisma.


There is no substitute for hard work.


There is no substitute for human dignity.


Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. They really do.



The missing Whitehead quotation is:


''A brief, and sufficiently accurate, description of the intellectual life of the European races during the succeeding two centuries and a quarter upto our own times is that they have been living upon the accumulated capital of ideas provided for them by the genius of the seventeenth century''. A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World.