Michael Corballis Ph.D.

The Recursive Mind

Who's Afraid of Noam Chomsky?

Is Chomsky's influence on psychology waning?

Posted Mar 21, 2018

Who's afraid? Me. But let’s press on anyway.

Noam Chomsky is a polarizing figure in modern intellectual life. Best known in popular discourse for his radical criticism of US foreign policy, he has written countless best-selling books on this and related political topics. It is as a philosopher and linguist, though, that he is likely to be best remembered intellectually, leading some to claim him as the foremost intellectual of our time—on a par with, say, Aristotle or Descartes.

He has had a major influence on psychology. For over half of the 20th century, psychology was dominated by behaviorism, the view that psychology was about what people actually do, rather than what is going on in their minds. In 1957 the behaviorist B.F. Skinner published his monumental book Verbal Behavior, a behavior-based attempt to reach a psychological summit, the explanation of language—that most elusive of human faculties.

In that same year, Chomsky published a slim volume called Syntactic Structures, based on his PhD thesis, which held that language is not a matter of learned behavior, but depends on innate rules. These rules were later called “universal grammar”, common to all humans but denied to all other creatures.

Both books, I think, are more or less unreadable, but they marked 1957 as a watershed year in the history of psychological science, and also set their mark on philosophy and linguistics.  

Two years later Chomsky published a review—a demolition, one might say—of Skinner’s book. Behaviorism itself rapidly dwindled, replaced by what came to be called the “cognitive revolution.” Rats (and pigeons) dispersed from psychological laboratories, as though led away by a Pied Piper, and were replaced by undergraduate students. The mind itself was back.

The rise of the digital computer also played a part—a trend that continues with alarming speed. Even humans may disappear from the lab, and perhaps the workplace, replaced by intelligent machines. Chomsky himself, though, has remained aloof from the drift to cognitive science, and has persisted with sometimes opaque attempts to explain how grammar works. In 1982, the linguist James D. McCawley published a book with the jocular title Thirty Million Theories of Grammar. It’s become worse.

Opaque, or simply beyond the understanding of mere mortals? Does Chomsky’s immense intellectual reputation depend on the simple premise that if you can’t understand it, it must be profound? My sense is that if one does try to penetrate the thickets of Chomsky’s writing, it seems increasingly out of line with biological and psychological reality.

For a start, there is the question of the 6,000 or so languages of the world, each more or less impenetrable to the others. How can there be a “universal grammar” underlying all of them? Chomsky buries this issue by supposing that universal grammar, or what he also calls internal language, is not designed for communication at all. It is a uniquely human mode of thought, symbolic, recursive, and infinitely variable. Communicative language—or what some Chomskyans call external language—simply represents the (to Chomsky) uninteresting ways in which people of different cultures externalize their thoughts.

Secondly, Chomsky maintains that this internal language of thought appeared in single momentous step in a single human, whom Chomsky whimsically names Prometheus, within the past 100,000 years—well after our species itself emerged. That sounds miraculous rather than scientific.

It also makes no sense in terms of evolution. Big changes don’t happen in a single step. And one has to wonder how Prometheus would have coped. To whom would he have talked? What could be adaptive about communication, or even thought, when there is only one individual capable of it?

The question of how human language and thought evolved is one of the biological challenges of our time. Chomsky did have important early insights on the nature of language, but we have moved on.