Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Cognitive Revolution: when did it start?

It's always fun to look back at beginnings. Here's a piece by Pullum trying to place a date. IMO, though it's not that important to answer this question correctly (there may not be a correct answer), it's fun to think about for it returns one to important landmarks and allows one to remember important contributors  whose fame is not what it used to be. Take a look at the comments section. Avery makes a showing and Robert Lees important fillip is justly recalled.


  1. Perhaps the first shot might have been Karl Lashley's (1951) "The Problem of Serial Order in Behavior", but this has been described as 'prescient'. But in defence of the relevance of Skinner's work, I note that most of my errors with coffee-making technology involve situations where response-chaining doesn't work, because the required state of the environment to trigger the next action in the sequence is invisible or hard to see (ie with a drip-machine, no coffee in the basket, with a french press, water not boiled yet); syntax seems to work better for me so perhaps that's an argument that language is different.

    As a revolutionalary pamphlet, Syntactic Structures had the advantages of being short, light and cheap, and at least partially comprehensible to a wide range of people.

  2. I was born long after the period usually associated with the cognitive revolution, and because of it I---like many, if not most, others---cannot possibly have an account of what happened exactly. Still, my impression is that whoever wants to argue for the lack of impact of Chomsky and others always finds plenty of "evidence" to rely on (namely, the delay in the establishment of the new ideas or the previous, sporadic allusions to them by other people). In the linked piece, Pullum does exactly that, and even manages to ommit a mention to Chomsky's review of Skinner because he didn't have "more space", as he confesses in the comments section, and also because it was published in a linguistics journal. People who are not very fond of Chomsky tend to dismiss his influence based on criteria which, I think, are not held in the evaluation of the history of science in general. The most important aspect of the early contributions of Chomsky and some colleagues is that much of what is done today in linguistics and some allied disciplines can be directly (as opposed to indirectly) linked to them. If we look at the history of science, full of well known "revolutions", I doubt we will find overnight paradigm shifts, even though some individuals are often credited with doing so single-handedly and in no time. Indeed, overnight, unanimous, quasi-utopian paradigm shifts seem to be what anti-Chomskyans demand proof of before validating Chomsky's influence. Even today, a time when any paper becomes available to the world as soon as (or even before) it's published and people can discuss ideas in real time across continents, revolutions take some time to materialize, at least in theoretical fields.

    A more nuanced view is in order, I think.

    1. @Pedro: I have to agree that the piece Norbert linked to was not convincing [in fact I was not quite sure what the aim was]. One can of course be sceptical about whether the second cognitive revolution has produced the results that had been hoped for [upon re-reading some of the goals Chomsky formulated in these early days this scepticism seems legitimate]. But that is an entirely different issue from nitpicking about whether there was an individual work [or date] by which the revolution was set in motion. As you say, no revolution is a 'one man show' and paradigms do not change on July 29th, at 10:48 pm.

      It also seems rather irrelevant where [or when] some of the works have been published given that, clearly, they had an impact on the field long before formal publication [like LSLT]. That SS and the Skinner review made more than a splash and that Chomsky virtually “immediately attracted a number of gifted scholars" (Barsky, 1997, p. 101) is hardly doubted by anyone. And of course Chomsky's impact went beyond the intellectual contributions one finds in his books and papers. I think Ray Jackendoff captures it nicely: "[Chomsky's persona] leads a lot of people into trying to outdo him - either in his own game or by finding another game" [Jackendoff, 1995, 100]. Heaven knows how much of the work that has been done with the sole aim to prove Chomsky wrong would have been completed without him infuriating opponents as no doubt he did... As so often Paul Postal probably captures it best:

      “I should like to dedicate this study to Noam Chomsky. The present work is highly critical of some of his recent grammatical proposals. But... none of this kind of work would ever have been possible without the many fundamental and groundbreaking insights and the radical reorientation of the goals and methods in linguistic inquiry which he has played such an enormous role in bringing about” (Postal, 1974, iii)

      So I think when trying to give a fair evaluation of the value of these early contributions it is a mistake to look at them with the benefit of hindsight [and complain: well X, Y, Z didn't pan out and Q, R, S are still not accomplished]. Instead, one has to look at how his impact has changed the way linguistics was done before he came along...