It is somewhat surprising that Harper’s felt the need to run a hit piece by Tom Wolfe on Chomsky in its August issue (here). True, such stuff sells well. But given that there are more than enough engaging antics to focus on in Cleveland and Philadelphia one might have thought that they would save the Chomsky bashing for a slow news period. It is a testimony to Chomsky’s stature that there is a publisher of a mainstream magazine who concludes that even two national conventions featuring two of the most unpopular people ever to run for the presidency won’t attract more eyeballs than yet another takedown of Noam Chomsky and Generative Grammar (GG).
Not surprisingly, content wise there is nothing new here. It is a version of the old litany. Its only distinction is the over the top nuttiness of the writing (which, to be honest, has a certain charm in its deep dishonesty and nastiness) and its complete disregard for intellectual integrity. And, a whiff of something truly disgusting that I will get to at the very end. I have gone over the “serious” issues that the piece broaches before in discussions of analogous hit jobs in the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Aeon (see here and here for example). Indeed, this blog was started as a response to what this piece is a perfect example of: the failure of people who criticize Chomsky and GG to understand even the basics of the views they are purportedly criticizing.
Here’s the nub of my earlier observations: Critics like Everett (among others, though he is the new paladin for the discontented and features prominently in this Wolfe piece too) are not engaged in a real debate for the simple reason that they are not addressing positions that anyone holds or has ever held. This point has been made repeatedly (incuding by me), but clearly to no avail. The present piece by Wolfe continues in this grand tradition. Here's what I've concluded: pointing out that neither Chomsky nor GG has ever held the positions being “refuted” is considered impolite. The view seems to be that Chomsky has been rude, sneaky even, for articulating views against which the deadly criticisms are logically refractory. Indeed, the critics refusal to address Chomsky’s actual views suggests that they think that discussing his stated positions would only encourage him in his naughty ways. If Chomsky does not hold the positions being criticized then he is clearly to blame for these are the positions that his critics want him to hold so that they can pummel him for holding them. Thus, it is plain sneaky of him to not hold them and in failing to hold them Chomsky clearly shows what a shifty, sneaky, albeit clever, SOB he really is because any moderately polite person would hold the views that Chomsky’s critics can demonstrate to be false! Given this, it is clearly best to ignore what Chomsky actually says for this would simply encourage him in articulating the views he in fact holds, and nobody would want that. For concreteness, let’s once again review what the Chomsky/GG position actually is regarding recursion and Universal Grammar (UG).
The Wolfe piece in Harper’s is based on Everett’s critique of Chomsky’s view that recursion is a central feature of natural language. As you are all aware, Everett believes that he has discovered a language (Piraha) whose G does not recurse (in particular, that forbids clauses to be embedded within clauses). Everett takes the putative absence of recursion within Piraha to rebut Chomsky’s view that recursion is a central feature of human natural language precisely because he believes that it is absent from Piraha Gs. Everett further takes this purported absence as evidence against the GG conception of UG and the idea that humans come with a native born linguistic facility to acquire Gs. For Everett human linguistic facility is due to culture, not biology (though why he thinks that these are opposed to one another is quite unclear). All of these Everett tropes are repeated in the Wolf piece, and if repetition were capable of improving the logical relevance of non-sequiturs, then the Wolfe piece would have been a valuable addition to the discussion.
How does the Everett/Wolfe “critique” miss the mark? Well, the Chomsky-GG view of recursion as a feature of UG does not imply that every human G is recursive. And thinking that it does is to confuse Chomsky Universals (CU) with Greenberg Universals (GU). I have discussed this before in many many posts (type in ‘Chomsky Universals’ or ‘Greenberg Universals’ in the search box and read the hits). The main point is that for Chomsky/GG a universal is a design feature of the Faculty of Language (FL) while for Greenberg it is a feature of particular Gs. The claim that recursion is a CU is to say that humans endowed with an FL construct recursive Gs when presented with the appropriate PLD. It makes no claim as to whether particular Gs of particular native speakers will allow sentences to licitly embed within sentences. If this is so, then Everett’s putative claim that Piraha Gs do not allow sentential recursion has no immediate bearing on the Chomsky-GG claims about recursion being a design feature of FL. That FL must be able to construct Gs with recursive rules does not imply that every G embodies recursive rules. Assuming otherwise is to reason fallaciously, not that such logical niceties have deterred Everett and friends.
Btw: I use ‘putative claim’ and ‘purported absence’ to highlight an important fact. Everett’s empirical claims are strongly contested. Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues (NPR) have provided a very detailed rebuttal of Everett’s claims that Piraha Gs are recursiveless. If I were a betting man, my money would be in NPR. But for the larger issue it doesn’t matter if Everett is right and NPR are wrong. Thus, even were Everett right about the facts (which, I would bet that he isn’t) it would be irrelevant to his conclusion regarding the implications of Piraha for the Chomsky/GG claims concerning UG and recursion.
So what would be relevant evidence against the Chomsky/GG claim about the universality of recursion? Recall that the UG claim concerns the structure of FL, a cognitive faculty that humans come biologically endowed with. So, if the absence of recursion in Piraha Gs resulted from the absence of a recursive capacity in Piraha speakers’ FLs then this would argue that recursion was not a UG property of human FLs. In other words, if Piraha speakers could not acquire recursive Gs then we would have direct evidence that human FLs are not built to acquire recursive Gs. However, we know that this conditional is FALSE. Piraha kids have no trouble acquiring Brazilian Portuguese (BP), a language that everyone agrees is the product of a recursive G (e.g. BP Gs allow sentences to be repeatedly embedded within sentences). Thus, Piraha speakers’ FLs are no less recursively capable than BP speakers’ FLs or English speakers’ FLs or Swahili speakers’ FLs or... We can thus conclude that Piraha FLs are just human FLs and have as a universal feature the capacity to acquire recursive Gs.
All of this is old hat and has been repeated endlessly over the last several years in rebuttal to Everett’s ever more inflated claims. Note that if this is right, then there is no (as in none, nada, zippo, bubkis, gornisht) interesting “debate” between Everett and Chomsky concerning recursion. And this is so for one very simple reason. Equivocation obviates the possibility of debate. And if the above is right (and it is, it really is) then Everett’s entire case rests on confusing CUs and GUs. Moreover, as Wolfe’s piece is nothing more than warmed over Everett plus invective, its actual critical power is zero as it rests on the very same confusion.
But things are really much worse than this. Given how often the CU/GU confusion has been pointed out, the only rational conclusion is that Everett and his friends are deliberately running these two very different notions together. In other words, the confusion is actually a strategy. Why do they adopt it? There are two explanations that come to mind. First, Everett and friends endorse a novel mode of reasoning. Let’s call it modus non sequitur, which has the abstract form “if P why not Q.” It is a very powerful method of reasoning sure to get you where you want to go. Second possibility: Everett and Wolfe are subject to Sinclair’s Law, viz. It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. If we understand ‘salary’ broadly to include the benefits of exposure in the high brow press, then … All of which brings us to Wolfe’s Harper’s piece.
Happily for the Sinclair inclined, the absence of possible debate does not preclude the possibility of considerable controversy. It simply implies that the controversy will be intellectually barren. And this has consequences for any coverage of the putative debate. Articles reprising the issues will focus on personalities rather than substance, because, as noted, there is no substance (though, thank goodness, there can be heroes engaging in the tireless (remunerative) pursuit of truth). Further, if such coverage appears in a venue aspiring to cater to the intellectual pretensions of its elite readers (e.g. The New Yorker, the Chronicle and, alas, now Harper’s) then the coverage will require obscuring the pun at the heart of the matter. Why? Because identifying the pun (aka equivocation) will expose the discussion as, at best, titillating gossip for the highbrow, at middling, a form of amusing silliness (e.g. perfect subject matter for Emily Litella) and, at worst, a form of celebrity pornography in the service of character assassination. Wolfe’s Harper’s piece is the dictionary definition of the third option.
Why do I judge Wolfe’s article so harshly? Because he quotes Chomsky’s observation that Everett’s claims even if correct are logically irrelevant. Here’s the full quote (39-40):
“It”—Everett’s opinion; he does not refer to Everett by name—“amounts to absolutely nothing, which is why linguists pay no attention to it. He claims, probably incorrectly, it doesn’t matter whether the facts are right or not. I mean, even accepting his claims about the language in question—Pirahã—tells us nothing about these topics. The speakers of this language, Pirahã speakers, easily learn Portuguese, which has all the properties of normal languages, and they learn it just as easily as any other child does, which means they have the same language capacity as anyone else does.”
A serious person might have been interested in finding out why Chomsky thought Everett’s claims “tell us nothing these topics.” Not Wolfe. Why try to understand issues that might detract from a storyline? No, Wolfe quotes Chomsky without asking what he might mean. Wolfe ignores Chomsky's identification of the equivocation as soon as he notes it. Why? Because this is a hit piece and identifying the equivocation at the heart of Everett’s criticism would immediately puncture Wolfe’s central conceit (i.e. heroic little guy slaying the Chomsky monster).
Wolfe clearly hates Chomsky. My reading of his piece is that he particularly hates Chomsky’s politics and the article aims to discredit the political ideas by savaging the man. Doing this requires demonstrating that Chomsky, who, as Wolfe notes is one of the most influential intellectuals of all time, is really a charlatan whose touted intellectual contributions have been discredited. This is an instance of the well know strategy of polluting the source. If Chomsky’s (revolutionary) linguistics is bunk then so are his politics. A well-known fallacy this, but not less effective for being so. Dishonest and creepy? Yes. Ineffective? Sadly no.
So there we have it. Another piece of junk, but this time in the style of the New Journalism. Before ending however, I want to offer you some quotes that highlight just how daft the whole piece is. There was a time that I thought that Wolfe was engaging in Sokal level provocation, but I concluded that he just had no idea what he was talking about and thought that stringing technical words together would add authority to his story. Take a look at this one, my favorite (p. 39):
After all, he [i.e. Chomsky, NH] was very firm in his insistence that it [i.e. UG, NH] was a physical structure. Somewhere in the brain the language organ was actually pumping the UG through the deep structure so that the LAD, the language acquisition device, could make language, speech, audible, visible, the absolutely real product of Homo sapiens’s central nervous system. [Wolfe’s emphasis, NH].
Is this great, or what! FL pumping UG through the deep structure. What the hell could this mean? Move over “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” we have a new standard for syntactically well-formed gibberish. Thank you Mr Wolfe for once again confirming the autonomy of syntax.
Or this encomium to cargo cult science (37):
It [Everett’s book, NH] was dead serious in an academic sense. He loaded it with scholarly linguistic and anthropological reports of his findings in the Amazon. He left academics blinking . . . and nonacademics with eyes wide open, staring.Yup, “loaded” with anthro and ling stuff that blinds professionals and leaves neophytes agog. Talk of scholarship. Who could ask for more? Not me. Great stuff.
Here’s one more, where Wolfe contrasts Chomsky and Everett (31):
Look at him! Everett was everything Chomsky wasn’t: a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair. He could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller.Methodist son of a cowboy rather than the son of Russian Askenazic Jews infatuated with political “ideas long since dried up and irrelevant,” products “perhaps” of a shtetl mentality (29). Chomsky is an indoor linguist “relieved not to go into the not-so-great outdoors,” desk bound “looking at learned journals with cramped type” (27) and who never left the computer, much less the building” (31). Chomsky is someone “very high, in an armchair, in an air conditioned office, spic and span” (36), one of those intellectuals with “radiation-bluish computer screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts” (31) never deigning to muddy himself with the “muck of life down below” (36). His linguistic “hegemony” (37) is “so supreme” that other linguists are “reduced to filling in gaps and supplying footnotes” (27).
Wowser. It may not have escaped your notice that this colorful contrast has an unsavory smell. I doubt that its dog whistle overtones were inaudible to Wolfe. The scholarly blue-pallored desk bound bookish high and mighty (Ashkenazi) Chomsky versus the outdoorsy (Methodist) man of the people and the soil and the wilderness Everett. The old world shtetl mentality brought down by a (lapsed) evangelical Methodist (32). Trump’s influence seems to extend to Harper’s. Disgusting.
That’s it for me. Harper’s should be ashamed of itself. This is not just junk. It is garbage. The stuff I quoted is just a sampling of the piece’s color. It is deeply ignorant and very nasty, with a nastiness that borders on the obscene. Your friends will read this and ask you about it. Be prepared.
 Actually, Greenberg’s own Universals were properties of languages not Gs. More exactly, they describe surface properties of strings within languages. As recursion is in the first instance a property of systems of rules and only secondarily a property of strings in a language, I am here extending the notion Greenberg Universal to apply to properties all Gs share rather than all languages (i.e. surface products of Gs) share.
 Incidentally, Wolfe does not address these counterarguments. Instead he suggests that NPR are Chomsky’s pawns who blindly attack anyone who exposes Chomsky’s fallacies (see p.35). However, reading Wolfe’s piece indicates that the real reason he does not deal with NPT’s substantive criticisms is that he cannot. He doesn’t know anything so he must ignore the substantive issues and engage in ad hominem attacks. Wolfe has not written a piece of popular science or even intellectual history for the simple reason that he does not appear to have the competence required to do so.
 It is worth pointing out that sentence recursion is just one example of recursion. So, Gs that repeatedly embed DPs within DPs or VPs within VPs are just as resursive as those that embed clauses within clauses.
 See Wolfe’s discussion of the “law” of recursion on 30-31. It is worth noting that Wolfe seems to think that “discovering” recursion was a big deal. But if it was Chomsky was not its discoverer, as his discussion of Cartesian precursors demonstrates. Recursion follows trivially from the fact of linguistic creativity. The implications of the fact that humans can and do acquire recursive Gs are significant. The fact itself is a pretty trivial observation.