Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Vox cognoscenti

The thoroughly modern well informed member of the professional classes reads Vox (I do). Not surprisingly, then, Vox has reviewed Wolfe’s book to provide discussion fodder for those that frequently eat out in groups. Unlike the NYT or The Chronicle, Vox found a linguist, John McWhorter (at Columbia) to do the explaining. The review (henceforth JMR) (here) makes three points: (i) that Wolfe really has no idea what he is talking about, (ii) that GGers are arrogant and dismissive and their work (overly) baroque, and (iii) that Everett and other critics might really have a point, though (and here JM is being fair and balanced) so does Chomsky and Everett’s critics.

The biggest problem with JMR lies with its attempts to split the difference between Chomsky and his “critics.” As I’ve noted before (and the reason I put critics in scare quotes), Everett (and Vyvyan Evans who also gets a mention) have no idea what Chomsky has been claiming and so their “critiques” have little to do with what he has actually said. They thus cannot be criticisms of Chomsky’s work and are thus of little value in assessing Chomsky’s claims.

Furthermore, it is clear that these critiques are of interest to the general public and are covered by the high brow media precisely to the extent that they show that Chomsky is wrong about the nature of language, as he understand this. Indeed, this is why part of every title to every piece covering these critiques declares that Chomsky is wrong about Universal Grammar (UG). Nobody outside a small number of linguists really cares about whether Piraha embeds sentences! All the fireworks in the high-brow press are due to what Everett’s findings mean for the Chomsky program, which is precisely nothing for it rests on a simple misunderstanding of Chomsky’s claims (see here and here for recent discussion).

The sociological significance of the expansive coverage of these “critiques” given their shoddiness is another matter. It says a lot about how much our thought leaders want to discredit Chomsky’s non-linguistic views. I would go further: I doubt that our thought leaders care much about the fine structure of the Faculty of Language. But they hope that discrediting Chomsky’s scientific/linguistic project might also serve to discredit his non-linguistic ones. However, given FoL’s remit, I won’t here develop this (pretty obvious) line of speculation. Instead I will lightly review some JMR highlights and make the (by now, I hope) obvious points. 

A. JMR describes the position that Wolfe is attacking (via Everett’s work) as follows:

Wolfe’s topic is Noam Chomsky’s proposal that all humans are born with a sentence structure blueprint programmed in their brains, invariant across the species, and that each language is but a variation upon this "universal grammar" generated by an as-yet unidentified "language organ." In other words, we are born already knowing language. (2-3)

This is a very misleading way of putting Chomsky’s claims about UG. A better analogy is that there is a biologically given recipe for constructing Gs on the basis of PLD. These Gs can (and do differ) significantly. The “blueprint” analogy suggests that all Gs have the same structures, with a tweak here or there (JRM: “few “switches” that flip in the toddler’s brain”). And this suggests that finding a language with a very different G “blueprint” (Piraha say, which JRM (reporting on Everett) writes does not allow for “the ability to nest ideas inside one another” (with an example of multiple sentential embedding as illustration)) would constitute a problem for Chomsky’s FL conception as it would fail to have a key feature of UG (“the absence proves that no universal grammar could exist”). But, as you all know, this is incorrect. It is consistent with Chomsky’s views that the “blueprints” differ. What matters is that the capacity to draw them (i.e. acquire Gs) remains the same. Put more directly, JMR suggests a Greenbergian understanding of Chomsky Universals. And that, is a big no-no![1]

Now, to be honest, I sometimes had trouble distinguishing what JMR is reporting from what JMR is endorsing. However, as the whole point of the non-debate is that what Everett criticizes is at right angles to what Chomsky claims, leaving this fuzzy severely misreports what is going on. Especially when JMR reports that Chomsky “didn’t like this,” thereby suggesting that it was the content of Everett’s claim that Chomsky objected to, rather than the logic behind it. Chomsky’s primary objection was, and still is, that even if Everett is right about Piraha, it has nothing to do with GG claims about whether recursion is built into the structure of FL/UG.

This is the important point about Everett’s research, and it must be highlighted in any informative review. Once this point is firmly and clearly made one can raise secondary issues (very secondary IMO): whether Everett’s specific claims about Piraha are empirically accurate (IMO, likely not). However, this is decidedly a secondary concern if one’s interest is the relevance of Everett’s claims to Chomsky’s claims concerning the structure of FL/UG. JMR fails to make this simple logical point. Hence, whatever its other virtues, it serves to obscure the relevant issues and so to misinform.

            B. JMR writes that the “meat of the debate” revolves around “Chomskyans belief that adaptations have arisen in the brain that serve exclusively to allow speech.” This is contrasted with views that believe that “speech merely piggybacks on equipment that already evolved to allow advanced thought.”

There are some small bones to pick with this description. Thus, the issue is not speech but linguistic knowledge more generally. But let’s put this aside. Is there really a disagreement between Chomsky and his critics about how linguistically specific FoL is? I doubt it. Or, more accurately, if there is such a disagreement Chomsky’s critics have had nothing whatsoever to say about it. Why?

The question is an interesting one and, as you all know, it is the central question animating the Minimalist Program (MP). MP takes as a research question whether FoL is entirely reducible to operations and primitives of general cognition and computation or whether there is a linguistically specific residue despite FoL’s computational operations largely overlapping with general principles of computation and cognition. 

Before addressing how would one go about resolving this debate, let me observe (again) how modest the Chomskyan claim is. It does not say that every part of FoL is linguistically specific. It does not deny that language interacts with other areas of cognition, emotion or culture. It does not assert that every detail of linguistic competence or behavior is insulated from everything else we know and do. Nope. It makes the very modest claim that there is something special about language, something that humans have qua being human and that this is interesting and investigatable.

Of course, over the years linguists have made specific proposals concerning what this something special might be and have identified properties of FoL that don’t look to be easily reducible to other cognitive, computational, emotional or cultural factors. But this is what you would expect if you took the question seriously. And you would expect those that took the opposite view (i.e there is nothing linguistically special about human linguistic facility) to show how to reduce these apparent linguistically sui generis facts to more general facts about cognition, computation or whatever. But you would be wrong. The critics almost never do this. Which suggests, that there really is no serious debate here. Debate would require both sides to address the question. So far as I can tell, critics interpret Chomsky as claiming that culture, general cognition etc. have no impact on any part of language knowledge or use. They then go on to point to cases where this appears to be false. But as Chomsky never denied this, as his claim is far more modest, these observations, like those of Everett’s concerning recursion, are beside the point. To have a debate, there must be some proposition being debated. So far as I can tell, once again this is false in this particular case. Hence no debate.

JMR notes that dealing with the substantive question of the linguistically specificity of FoL requires getting empirically and theoretically quite technical.[2]

…without a drive-by of this rather occult framework, one can’t begin to understand the contours, tone, and current state of the debate Wolfe covers. (8)

Of course, JMR is correct. How could it be otherwise? After all, if one is arguing that the computations are linguistically sui generis then one needs to specify what these are. And, not surprisingly, these investigations can get quite technical. And JMR understands this. However, it also seems to find this offensive. Note the occult. Later on JMR says:

…from one academic generation to the next, this method [standard GG analyses:NH] of parsing language has mission-crept into a strangely complicated business, increasingly unrelated to what either laypeople or intellectuals outside of linguistics would think of as human language. It is truly one of the oddest schools of thought I am familiar with in any discipline; it intrigues me from afar, like giant squid and 12-tone classical music. (10)

Hmm. JMR clearly suggests that things have gotten too technical. A little is ok, but GGers have gone overboard. JMR seems to believe that dealing with the question about FoL’s specific fine structure should be answerable without getting too complex, without leaving the lay person behind, without technical intricacies. Imagine the reaction to a similar kind of remark if applied to any other scientific domain of inquiry. Reminds me of the Emperor’s quip to Mozart in Amadeus: Sorry Mr Mozart, too many notes!

JMR concedes that all of this extra complexity would be fine if only there was evidence for it.

The question is whether there is independent evidence that justifies assuming that speech entails these peculiar mechanisms for which there is no indication in, well, how people talk and think.

And the problem is that this independent evidence does not seem to exist; anyway, outsiders would find it peculiar how very little interest practitioners have in demonstrating such evidence. Rather, they stipulate that syntax should be this way if it is to be "interesting," if it is to be, as the literature has termed it, "robust" or "rich." Yet where does the idea that how we construct sentences must be "robust" or "rich" in the way this school approves of come from? It’s an assumption, not a finding. (13)

This is calumny. If there is one thing that linguists love to do is find empirical consequences of some piece of formal machinery. But, with this summary judgment, JMR joins the Everett/Evans camp and simply asserts that it is too much. There really are too many notes- “Split IP, Merge, phases and something called “little v”” (14). That these proposals come backed by endless empirical justification is hardly mentioned, let alone discussed. Look, I love hatchet jobs, but as JMR notes about Wolfe, even a drive-by heading to this conclusion requires more than assertion.

I suspect that JMR includes this to be able to play both sides of the fence: sure Wolfe knows nothing, but really he is somewhat right. No. He isn’t. Nor is JMR’s suggestion that there is something to Wolfe’s suspicions justified or, IMO, justifiable.

C. Then there is the linguists and their “bile” against anyone “questioning universal grammar” (16). More specifically against Everett.

On a personal note, I did not take any interest in Everett’s findings until I read the New Yorker piece, and then only because of how badly it misrepresented matters. Nor do I believe that anyone else would have noticed it much, but for the public brouhaha. Even then, had the high-brow press not used Everett’s work to denigrate my own, I would have given it a free pass. But this is not what occurred. The claim was repeatedly made that Everett’s work demonstrates that GG is wrong. Efforts to show that this is incorrect have not been greeted nearly as enthusiastically. JMR mischaracterizes the state of play. And in doing so, once again, obscures the issues at hand.

The “GGers (Chomkyans) are vitriolic” trope has become a staple of the “GG/Chomskyan linguistics is dead” meme. Why? There is one obvious reason. It allows Chomsky’s critics to shift debate from the intellectual issues and refocus them on the personal ones (i.e. to move from content to gossip). To argue against the claims GG has made requires understanding them. It also takes a lot of work because there is a lot of this kind of work out there. Saying that GGers are meanies allows one to stake the high ground without doing any of the intellectual or empirical hard work. This is not unlike political coverage one finds in the press: lots of personality gossip, very little policy analysis.

Why is JMR so sensitive? Apparently some students at some conference found what they were hearing uninteresting (18). Though, JMR notes that “most Chomkysans” are not as dismissive (19). Yet he mentions that there does exist “a current of opinion within the Chomskyan syntax orbit that considers most kinds of linguistic inquiry as beside the point” (19). So, some students are bored about anything outside their immediate interests and some linguists are dismissive. And this means what exactly? It means that GGers are vitriolic and dismissive (though most aren’t), or they could be because such dismissiveness is in the air. This is really dumb stuff, not even People Magazine level titter.

D. Towards the end, JMR notes that Everett has not really made his case concerning Piraha (25-6). Indeed, he finds the Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodrigues rebuttal “largely convincing” and believes that it is “quite plausible that Piraha is not as quirky a language as Everett proposed” (26). Here my views and JMR’s coincide. However, to repeat, JMR’s reasonable discussion mainly serves to obscure the main issue . Let me end with this (again).

JMR, like many of the other discussions in the high-brow press frame the relevant debate in terms of whether Everett is right about Piraha embedding. This presupposes that what Everett found out (or not) about Piraha is relevant to Chomsky’s claims. Because the coverage is framed as an empirical debate, when GGers dismiss Everett’s claims they can be described as having acted inappropriately. They have failed to dispassionately consider the empirical evidence, evidence which the coverage regularly reports would undermine central tenets of Chomsky’s theory of FL/UG if accurate. But this framing is wrong. There is no empirical debate because the presupposition is incorrect. What has gotten (some) GGers hot under the collar is this mis-framing. It is one thing to be shown to be wrong. It is quite another to have people debunk views that you have never held and then accuse you of being snippy because you refuse to hold those views. I don’t dismiss Everett’s views because I fear they might be right. I dismiss these views because they are logically irrelevant to the claims I am interested in (specifically whether (some kind of) recursion is a linguistically specific feature of FL) and because every time this is pointed out the critic’s feelings get hurt. That really does boil the blood.

To end: As reviews go, JMR is not the worst. But it is bad enough. And part of what makes it bad is its apparent judiciousness. It follows the standard tropes and frames the issues in the now familiar ways, albeit with a node here and there to Chomsky and GG. But, as noted, that is the problem. It really seems to be hard for many to accept that so much contention in the press can be based on a pun (GUs vs CUs) and that the whole “debate” is intellectually vapid. But that’s the way it is. Let’s hope this is the last round for the time being.

[1] If memory serves, Stephen Jay Gould discussed a similar problem in biology with the notion blueprint. He noted that for a long time genetic inheritance was conceived in blueprint terms. This, Gould argued, led to homoncular theories of genetic information transmission (we each had a smaller version of ourselves deep down that contained the relevant genetic pattern). This made sense, he argued, if we thought in terms of blueprints. Once we shifted to thinking in terms of codes, the homunculus theory disappeared. I have no idea where Gould made this point, but it has interesting parallels in current conceptions of UG as blueprints.
[2] I’ve discussed this issue before and noted how one might go about trying to adjudicate it rationally (see here).

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