Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Some filler

The papers are having a field day with Chomsky, getting hits by insisting that he is wrong about this and about that. The coverage is evidence that he casts a very long intellectual shadow and that his ideas are very attractive. You don't spend pages dumping on a nobody.  So, in one sense, all of the coverage is flattering. It is also deeply ignorant. I have spent some time rehearsing how Wolfe's views, based on Everett's misguided reasoning about Piraha and UG, is an intellectual (and moral) scandal (here). I have also examined in some detail how the high brow press spreads ignorance (see here for a discussion of Tom Bartlett and his agnotological efforts in the Chronicle).

I have also linked to Coyne's more cogent review of Wolfe's book in the Washington Post (here). I add another for your interest. It reviews Caitlin Flanagan's review in the NYT of the Wolfe book (here). It is by Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs (here). Robinson's review of Flanagan says does not deal much with linguistics, but then neither does Flanagan's review. In fact, Flanagan notes, quite rightly, that Wolfe's discussion of Chomsky's linguistics is entirely parasitic on the New Yorker piece on Everett in 2007. The only problem with Flanagan's discussion show it flags that the New Yorker piece. The review says that the New Yorker piece by John Colapinto "sums up the relevant Chomsky theories more clearly than anything in "the Kingdom of Speech." There is a sense in which this is correct, but a more important sense in which it is not. I take the phrasing to implicate that the New Yorker  piece does a credible job of summing up Chomsky's views. This is false. The New Yorker article not only fails to identify the relevant issues, it also manages to obfuscate them by missing the fact that the Everett claims about Piraha are logically irrelevant to Chomsky's claims about UG and FL. Sadly, no doubt given the prestige of the New Yorker as a high brow thinking person's mag, Colapinto's framing of the issues has surfaced repeatedly in all articles that have made the "debate" a central focus of Chomsky coverage. And given that Colapinto's framing distorts the relevant lay of the intellectual land so completely, it has been a baleful influence on all further popular writing on the matter.

At any rate, this is old news. I bring the Robinson reply to Falangan's review to your attention because it notes a vey critical aspect of all of this Chomsky bashing. It is based on carefully not reading what Chomsky has actually written. Robinson focuses on how most everything Flanagan says about Chomsky's "politics" in her price is actually the opposite of what he has written. As you know, this is also true of his linguistic views. It seems that critics consider Chomsky's views on matters linguistic and political so dangerous that actually presenting them accurately is potentially toxic. Better to attack views he does not have than to attack views that he holds. Of course, this is shoddy and dishonest, but hey, Chomsky's views must be discredited, or at least he must be.

Flanagan's NYT piece does serve an important function, something that Bartlett's piece mentioned but only sotto voce: the aim of the Wolfe book/Harper's article was to "fillet" the "New Left figure" Noam Chomsky. Note, not to "fillet" the ideas, nor the evidence, nor the argumentation, nor anything else, but to "fillet" the person. This is exactly right. And this is Flanagan's aim as well. Robinson demonstrates the intellectual shoddiness of Flanagan's asides. Like Wolfe, she too has not read those pieces that she feels comfortable dismissing. Like Wolfe, her misunderstandings are not profound, but rest on a simple refusal to read what Chomsky has written, as Robinson demonstrates. talk abut dumb!


  1. It's getting better and better...

  2. There is a review of Wolfe's book in the Guardian which does a pretty decent job of pointing out that Wolfe doesn't know what he's talking about: