Thursday, September 8, 2016

Another constituency heard from

For those misguided souls like me who can't get enough of the awful coverage of the Wolfe book, here is a breath of fresh air.  Steven Poole (I think that this is him) has a short reasonable review in the Guardian (here) (Thx to David Hall for bringing it to my attention). The tone strikes me as just right, as is the main judgment. He notes that Wolfe's book is "a sad example of the interface of literary celebrity with publishing." Yup. Poole, however, is more optimistic than I am about the current state of publishing and critical thought among the high brow, for he continues by saying: "An author less famous and bankable than Wolfe would surely have been saved from such embarrassment by more critical editorial attention." If only. We have a natural experiment indicating otherwise, Knight's book which is by an unknown, has been published by Yale and is also deeply ignorant of the linguistic subject matter. It seems that anything goes when going after Chomsky. Why? Dunno. Maybe the threat his ideas presents are too great to take what he actually says as the subject matter for criticism. Maybe the aim is to make sure that they don't get discussed at all for fear that they will prove too persuasive. And what better way to prevent this than attacking straw men, and poorly fabricated ones at that.


  1. It's Chomsky-bashing is another one:

    Is linguistics the only scientific field where critics go after the person rather than the ideas? There is a certain gloating in the Scientific American piece. Norbert asks why "anything goes" when going after Chomsky. The answer may be that everyone feels they "own" language--we all have a heightened awareness of it, and as opposed to things like genetics and quantum physics, we all feel that we know perfectly well how obviously it works--thereby the insult when told otherwise.

  2. The Scientific American piece is pretty surprising. At the point where the authors went through the apparently obligatory ritual of misunderstanding 'generate' (paragraph 4), I was muttering something to myself about standards of science journalism. What a surprise, then, to see the name one of Chomsky's most prominent critics on the little grey byline. Someone who apparently hasn't got as far as page 8 of Aspects.

    "Confusion over this matter has been sufficiently persistent to suggest that a terminological change might be in order."

    Too late now I guess!

  3. For me, this sentence was surprising:

    Rather young children begin by learning simple grammatical patterns; then, gradually, they intuit the rules behind them bit by bit.

    So the Evans's of the world dislike 'instinct' but like 'intuit'.

    And when the new discovery about language-learnng becomes 'children intuit the rules', well, then they're right and I guess we're done.

    I know this isn't a reviewed piece, but still, to suggest that it's simply the black box of 'intuition'....

  4. If anyone is interested in a more positive assessment of Chris Knight's book, 'Decoding Chomsky - Science and Revolutionary Politics' check out this review by the linguist, Bruce Nevin:

    'Understanding the Labyrinth: Noam Chomsky’s Science and Politics'

    1. And here a more critical take from linguist Wolfgang Sperlich: