Language, Theory, Politics: Themes from Chomsky


John Collins (UEA)


1. Language


1(a) Linguistics BC

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 indefinitely various along every dimension.

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

(iii) Languages are learnt from experience via analogy and generalisation.

(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



1(b) The Birth of Modern Linguistics (see Appendix)

All six of the above theses look to be false; some are demonstrably false.


(i) While what variation there is across the world’s languages is an empirical question, it looks as if certain basic mathematical/formal properties are universal.


· Sentences are hierarchically, not linearly, structured.

· Rules of grammar are insensitive to number and distance.

· Rules are insensitive to relations of synonymy.

· Rules of grammar are recursive.

· Lexical items sub-categorise.


(ii) The generativity of language means that one’s competence with a structure can’t be a matter of habit or disposition. Our linguistic production and consumption is characteristically novel over an unbounded range. For a given structure, the probability of one’s uttering it is asymptotic to zero.


(iii) Languages can’t be learnt by analogy and generalisation, for even the most remotely adequate generalisations make appeal to ‘hidden’ structure and cross-classify relations of surface analogy.


(iv) The mass of psycholinguistic/neurophysiological data suggest a dedicated cognitive component that subserves linguistic competence. There is no progressive alternative model.


(v) Surface constituent analysis fails to generalise over properties of well-formedness and structural change.


(vi) To be scientific, linguistics must eschew taxonomy.



2. Theory


2(a) Demarcation of Theoretical Interest

There are many reasons to be interested in the study of language and, for each such reason, there may well correspond a distinct conception of what language is. For theoretical purposes, however, our object of interest should be the polymorphic computational structure realised in the normal maturation of the human brain that is invariant over a fixed set of parametric values. So construed, language is


· formal

· universal

· developmentally canalised


2(b)  The Nature of Theoretical Explanation

‘Theory’ is an abused term. In the relevant sense, theories are


· formally articulable

· explanatorily deep

· predictive of novel data

· potentially integratable with related theories

· universal over their domain


In other words, theories of language should seek to replicate the kind of explanation afforded by physical theories. Only where this aim is pursued is it appropriate to speak of ‘theoretical explanation’.


“Until about the 19th century, there was no real difference between science and philosophy. It’s not clear that the distinction makes sense. I don’t have any philosophical view, and I don’t think there are such views. I think we ought to try to understand the world, understand ourselves, society, and do it by whatever methods there are… Physics has been changing to accommodate new phenomena. But either you succeed or you fail. If you fail you’ve got problems. If you succeed, it’s part of physics. I don’t see any other question”.

— Noam Chomsky, ‘The Cognitive Revolution, II’ (1988)


Research in the so-called social sciences has made no contribution whatsoever to our understanding of linguistic competence beyond the trivial.


“[T]he existence of a discipline called “sociolinguistics” remains for me an obscure matter… [It] is, I suppose, a discipline that seeks to apply principles of sociology to the study of language; but I suspect that it can draw little from sociology, and I wonder whether it is likely to contribute much to it… You can also collect butterflies and make many observations. If you like butterflies, that’s fine; but such work must not be confounded with research, which is concerned to discover explanatory principles of some depth and fails if it does not do so.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, Language and Responsibility (1979)



The social sciences are ‘data driven’, non-progressive and marked by explanatory shallowness.


“You sit down for several years and you obtain a corpus of data, and you start analyzing it. It’s predictable in advance that the results will be virtually zero. Just as if you tried to do biology, let’s say, by taking a motion picture of things happening in the world and saying, O.K., after I’ve done that for three years I’ll sit down and analyse it. The result will be zero.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, Modular Approaches to the Study of the Mind (1984)


2(c) Mystery

Just as our cognitive system is not a general purpose device for the acquisition of knowledge, so science is not general either. Apparently, we can develop deep theories in some domains (physics, mathematics) while making no progress for millennia in other domains. This suggests that scientific creativity, like all creativity, only exists within a fixed space of possibilities. It would seem that the concepts required for an understanding of some domains might simply be unavailable to our minds.


“In a number of areas, language included, a lot has been learned in recent years about these mechanisms. The problems that can now be faced are hard and challenging, but many mysteries still lie beyond the reach of the form of human inquiry we call "science", a conclusion that we should not find surprising if we consider humans to be part of the organic world, and perhaps one we should not find distressing either.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, ‘Language and Mind: Current Thoughts on Ancient Problems’ (1996)


3. Language-Politics


3(a) Left to Right

Theoretical research in linguistics may affect our political and social judgments insofar as they purport to delineate and explain real cognitive phenomena, views upon which, implicitly or explicitly, inform political views. This is not going beyond the trivial.



3(b) Right to Left

Political ‘theories’ have no contribution to make to substantial linguistic research.


Politicised conceptions of language, as in other domains, may make a significant contribution, not to our understanding of the real phenomena, but to the ideological support of academic authority and its often concomitant role in state authority. Banalities and falsehoods couched in an abstract language reminiscent of the necessary abstractions made in physical theories serve no noticeable end other than to perpetuate the exclusiveness of expertise, intentionally or not.


There is no theoretical understanding to be had of the social world. There are facts of wealth distribution, media ownership, political and trade alliances, etc. accessible to anyone who can read.


“I don’t spend time on things like the use of language to impose authority. Doubtless it’s true, but it’s a topic that’s not intellectually interesting; it has no intellectual depth to it at all, like most things in the social sciences. Also, it’s of marginal human significance as compared with other problems.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, ‘Language, Politics, and Composition’ (1991)


“It’s a rather striking fact that you don’t find things like “Marxism” in the sciences… there isn’t any part of physics which is “Einsteinianism”, lets say, or “Plankianism”… It doesn’t make any sense… Marxism, Freudianism: any one of these things is an irrational cult.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (2003)


“My own political writing is often denounced from both the left and the right for being non-theoretical - and that’s completely correct. But it’s exactly as theoretical as anyone else’s, I just don’t call it “theoretical”, I call it “trivial” - which is in fact what it is. I mean it is not that some of these of people whose stuff is considered “deep theory” and so on don’t have some interesting things to say. Often they have very interesting things to say. But it’s nothing that you couldn’t say at the level of a high school student.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (2003)


4. Theory-Language


4(a) Cartesian Linguistics

Our linguistic behaviour is creative:


· continuously novel (discretely infinite)

· free from stimulus control, external and internal

· appropriate and coherent to its situation


For Descartes, these non-mechanical characteristics of linguistic behaviour were a sure sign that a principle animated humans that was absent from the rest of the universe.


4(b) The Machine and the Ghost

We now know that Descartes was wrong about matter - Newton exorcised the machine. Descartes was right about the mind as revealed in linguistic behaviour - there still is no explanation of creativity.


4(c) Creativity and Linguistic Theory

Linguistic theory sheds light on creativity insofar as it describes a human nature governed by a generative principle, unconstrained by external contingencies, whose output profile is discretely infinite.


Linguistic theory does not explain creativity. It might be a mystery.


“Plainly, such an approach [i.e., natural science] does not exclude other ways of trying to comprehend the world. Someone committed to it (as I am) can consistently believe (as I do) that we learn much more of human interest about how people think and feel and act by reading novels or studying history than from all of naturalistic psychology, and perhaps always will; similarly, the arts may offer appreciation of the heavens to which astrophysics cannot aspire. We are here speaking of theoretical understanding, a particular mode of comprehension. In this domain, any departure from a naturalistic approach carries a burden of justification. Perhaps one can be given, but I know of none”.

— Noam Chomsky, Language and Thought (1993)


“Human behavior might be beyond our inquiry, that’s possible - but I wouldn’t say that’s because of a “spiritual” property we have: the same thing might be true of large parts of nature… If the human science forming capacity is good enough to figure out quantum theory for some completely unexplained reason, it’s also going to be so bad that it’s not going to figure out lots of other things. And we don’t know what those other things are - but they might well be most everything that we’re really interested in.”

— Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (2003)


4(d) Plasticity and Creativity

The attribution of formally rigid structure to the linguistic competent system does not conflict with creativity. The structure defines the space in which novelty may arise. If our minds were wholly (or to a large degree) plastic, then their steady states would simply reflect the character of the formative input, and so would be incapable of creative production.

      The apparent plasticity of output requires a rigid (but generative) internal structure.




5. Anarchism


5(a) Anarchism is not a Theory

Anarchism does not specify a priori the conditions for an ideal state; a fortiori, it does not prescribe the means to achieve such a state.


Anarchism constitutes a continuous questioning of authority in all its forms. The questioning is premised upon a conception of human nature as an essentially free creativity which finds its expression - its self-perfection - in innovative, spontaneous work entered into in a free community of others. The picture of an aspect of human nature elaborated by linguistic theory is flush with this conception.


“[Anarchism is not] a fixed social system but rather a definite trend on the historic development of mankind, which, in contrast with the intellectual guardianship of all clerical and governmental institutions, strives for the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.”

¾ Rudolf Rocker, Anarchosyndacalism


The burden of justification is on any structure that constrains or impedes our thought and action.


Anarchism entails socialism insofar as capitalist economy treats individual humans as commodities as opposed to free, creative agents. Under capitalism, humans become economic functional items alienated from their work, forced into wage slavery.


6. Cognition and Anarchism


6(a) No Deduction

There is no deductive relation between any empirical theory of human cognition and a political view, for we have no theoretical insight into the latter.


“Perhaps the most interesting aspect of scholarly work… is the way in which behavioral-science rhetoric is used to lend a vague aura of respectability. One might construct some such chain of associations as this, Science, as everyone knows, is responsible, moderate, unsentimental, and otherwise good. Behavioral science tells us  we can be concerned only with behavior and control of behavior. Therefore we should be concerned only with behavior and control of behavior… As rational men, believers in the scientific ethic, we should be concerned with manipulating behavior in a desirable direction, and not be deluded by mystical notions of freedom, individual needs, or popular will.

      Let me make it clear that I am not criticizing the behavioral sciences because they lend themselves to such perversion. On other grounds, the “behavioral persuasion” seems to me to lack merit; it seriously mistakes the methods of science and imposes pointless methodological strictures on the study of man and society, but this is another matter entirely. It is, however, fair to inquire to what extent the popularity of this approach is based on its demonstrated achievements, and to what extent its appeal is based on the ease with which it can be refashioned as a new coercive ideology with a faintly scientific tone.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’ (1969)


6(b) Moral Bounds

Any political position makes an assumption, implicit or explicit, about the natural capacities of human beings - human nature.


An empiricist conception of human nature, which sees it as being essentially malleable, open to shaping, does not entail a political position, reactionary or progressive, but it places no moral bounds on external authority.


“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.”

¾ Noam Chomsky, ‘Language and Freedom’ (1970)


“I think it is fair to say that it is the humanistic conception of man that is advanced and given substance as we discover the rich systems of invariant structures and principles that underlie the most ordinary and humblest of human accomplishments.”

  Noam Chomsky, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (1971)


A rationalist/Cartesian conception of human nature places a burden of justification upon any structure of external authority. Humans are not formless; they do not acquire a nature from outside; rather, their nature is in their inherent capacity for creativity, best exemplified in their structured capacity for language.


“A scientist, like anyone else, is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his acts… The scientist who undertakes this inquiry [into race and IQ] must therefore show that its significance is so great as to outweigh its costs… [In fact], the inquiry has no scientific significance and no social significance, apart from the racist assumption that individuals must be regarded not as what they are but rather as standing at the mean of their race category, it follows that it has no merit at all…What we do as scientists, as scholars, as advocates, has consequences, just as our refusal to speak or act has definite consequences. We cannot escape this condition in a society based on concentration of power and privilege… We may and should recommend the simple virtues: honesty and truthfulness, responsibility and concern. But to live by these precepts is often no simple matter.”

  Noam Chomsky, ‘Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization’ (1976)





(1) Languages are unbounded

(i)   He knows that she knows that he knows that … Man U will win the Cup.

(ii)  The girl behind the boy behind the girl … is blonde.

(iii) The girl, whom Bill likes, whom Mary hates, … is blonde.

(iv) The girl, who likes Bill, who hates Mary, who … is blonde.


(2) Hidden structure

a(i) Billi expects PROi to leave by himselfi (Bill is the subject of leave)

 (ii) Mary believes that Billi expects PROi to leave by himselfi (Bill is the subject of leave)

 (iii) Mary wonders whoi Bill expects <who>i to leave by himselfi (the subject of leave is

       questioned; it is not Bill)


b(i) Who do you want <who> to visit <who>? (ambiguous: the object/subject of visit is


 (ii) Who do you want <who> to visit Bill? (the subject of visit is questioned)

 (iii) Who do you wanna visit <who>? (object of visit is questioned)

 (iv) Who do you wanna visit Bill (not synonymous with (ii) - ill-formed)


Also consider:


(v) The man I want to succeed is Bill

(vi) The man I wanna succeed is Bill


The sentence (v) is ambiguous between Bill being the object of transitive succeed, with I as subject, or Bill being the subject of intransitive succeed. But (vi) is not ambiguous; it’s only reading is with Bill as object.


Such features of contraction generalise:


(vii) Bill is intending to arrive the same time as I am <intending to arrive>.

(viii)*Bill is intending to arrive the same time as I’m <intending to arrive>.

(ix) Do you know where the meeting is <where> tomorrow?

(x) *Do you know where the meeting’s <where> tomorrow?

(xi) Do you know why the meeting is tomorrow <why>?

(x) Do you know why the meeting’s tomorrow <why>?

(xi) Do you know if the meeting’s tomorrow?


Contraction is not acceptable where the contracted item dominates the non-spelt-out launch site of movement.


 (3) Failure of Analogy

a(i)   Bill expected [the doctor to examine Mary].

  (ii)  Bill expected [Mary to be examined by the doctor].

  (iii) Bill persuaded [the doctor]i [PROi to examine Mary].

  (iv) Bill persuaded [Mary]i [PROi to be examined by the doctor].


The first pair are synonymous, the second not.


a(i)    Harry appealed to [the boys]i [PROi to like each otheri].

  (ii) *Harry appealed to [the boys]i [PROi to like himself].

  (iii)  Harryi appeared to [the boys] [<Harry>i to like himselfi].

  (iv)*Harryi appeared to [the boys] [<Harry>i to like each otheri].



(v)  It appeared to the boys that Harry likes himself/*each other.

(vi) It appealed to the boys that Harry likes himself/*each other.


(NB. The acceptable interpretation of (vi) differs from the failed interpretation of (ii). In the former, appeal is adjectival, having a participle reading - witness the gerundive It is appealing to the boys that…In the latter, Harry is the subject of verbal appeal. The reciprocal reading is blocked in each case, for reflexives require a clause mate binder.)


(4) Failure of Analogy across Synonymy

a(i)   Harry told the police his secret

 (ii)   Harry told his secret to the police.

 (iii)  Harry reported his secret to the police.

 (iv) *Harry reported the police his secret.


b(i)    Bill is likely to come

  (ii)   It is likely that Bill will come.

  (iii)  It is probable that Bill will come.

  (iv) *Bill is probable to come.


c(i)     All the boys can sing.

  (ii)    All of the boys can sing.

  (iii)   Every boy can sing.

  (iv) *Every of the boys can sing.



(5) Mismatch of Grammatical with Interpretability

a(i) The horse raced past the barn fell.

 (ii) [The horse [<that was> raced past the barn]] fell.




b(i) The onions fried in the pan burnt. 

 (ii) [The onions [<that were> fried in the pan]] burnt.


c(i) The boat the sailor the dog bit built sank.

      [The boat [<that> the sailor [<that> the dog bit] built]] sank.

(ii) Sailors sailors sailors fight fight fight.

     [Sailors [<that> sailors [<that> sailors fight] fight]] fight.


(6) Structure Sensitive Transformations I


It seems that a simple rule for interrogative transformation is: front the first piece of inflectional morphology. Thus:


(i) That man is happy.

(ii) Is that man happy?


Likewise across the English auxiliary system. But consider:


(iii) That man who is tall is happy

(iv) *Is that man who tall is happy?

(v) That man sleeps.

(vi) *Sleeps that man?


The correct generalisations must appeal to matrix tense, but such tense has no uniform linear position and is not always a lexical item. Compare (v) with (vii):


(vii) Does that man sleep?


(7) Structure Sensitive Transformations II

a(i) Bill loves Mary.

 (ii) Bill loves WHO?

 (iii) Who does Bill love <who>?


b(i) Bob asked what [DP the film with all those Russians wandering about, praying,

        killing and casting iron bells [CP that [IP they saw just the other night at the local

        art house]]] was supposed to mean <what>.

  (ii) Why do [IP you think [CP that [IP Bob reckons [CP that [IP Bill believes [CP that

        [IP Russian films are depressing <why>]]]]]]]?


c(i) Bill loves Mary and Jane.

 (ii) Bill loves Mary and WHO?

 (iii) *Who does [IP Bill love [DP Mary and <who>]]?


d(i) Bill believes Mary loves Harry

 (ii) Bill believes Mary loves WHO?

  (iii) Bill believes WHO loves Harry?


d(i) Bill believes the claim that Mary loves Harry.

  (ii)  Bill believes the claim that WHO loves Harry?

  (iii)  Bill believes the claim that Mary loves WHO?

  (iv) *Who does Bill believe [DP the claim [CP that <who> loves Harry]]?

   (v)  *Who does Bill believe [DP the claim [CP that Mary loves <who>]]??


e(i) Bill liked Jane’s book.

 (ii) Bill liked WHOSE book?

 (iii) *Whose did [IP Bill like [DP <whose> book]]?


f(i) That Bill will drink beer is likely.

 (ii) That Bill will drink WHAT is likely?

(iii) *What [CP that [IP Bill will drink <what>]] is likely?


g(i) Bill wonders where Jane put the beer.

(ii) Bill wonders where Jane put WHAT?

(iii) *What does [IP Bill wonder [CP where Jane put <what>]]?