Sunday, September 04, 2016

Harry Ritchie Follows Wolfe in Dissing Chomsky (But Disses Wolfe, Too)

Harry Ritchie
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The Scottish writer and journalist Harry Ritchie - tongue lodged firmly in cheek - writes, "Aged 85, Tom Wolfe discovers the key to human progress" (The Spectator, August 27, 2016). Ritchie thinks little of Wolfe's 'discovery' . . . but he does like the way Wolfe deals with Chomsky, as we shall see after some preliminary words on Darwin:
How on earth could language have evolved? Darwin's risible best guess was that we'd started off chirruping in imitation of birdsong. His failure to explain language bequeathed an aeon of medieval ignorance - that is Darwin's real legacy, according to Wolfe - a period longer than the Dark Ages in which the origin of human language was a non-topic, erased from intellectual history.

That is, until the 1950s and the dramatic arrival of Noam Chomsky, linguistics' celebrity intellectual, who grabbed the subject by its lapels, slammed it up against a wall and told it that there was a new boss in town. Chomsky's revolutionary theory, which completely dominated linguistics for the next four decades, explained that human language had evolved, with a genetic mutation creating some sort of neural machinery that could process and acquire speech. Chomsky's "language acquisition device," gifted by evolutionary chance, was innate, encoded by our genes, embedded in our brains before birth. Individual languages differed in lots of superficial ways but they all had in common the deeper rules of a "universal grammar."

Wolfe is at his best when describing Chomsky's almost religiously cultish, charismatic hold over linguistics, his ability to swipe any critics or doubters aside. Actually, he didn’t have to do much swiping for a long time, since linguistics had eagerly handed over its wallet, watch and car keys and agreed to anything Chomsky said.
Was Chomsky really so dominant? I ask out of ignorance. I knew his daughter at Berkeley - we were even friends, if for only a semester. My life was in flux. Anyway, she seemed genuinely happy to meet someone who had heard of her father only as a linguist. I knew nothing of his political views. I therefore went to hear him lecture in Berkeley on US foreign policy in the Middle East, about which I also knew nothing, and I came away impressed by his ability to speak so very articulately and in such detail without notes. His daughter and I then spoke about his views. I mostly listened. She was a sincere, personally very kind soul. I liked her - Platonically, I mean - but we lost contact after that semester.

Be all that as it may, I can see how Chomsky might acquire a cultish following. He has impressive intellectual faculties, and he demonstrated, in the lecture I attended, an ability to field a broad range of questions, without hesitation, and offer answers in great detail. He had what I call the "charisma of reason" (not my coinage, of course) and could draw others to defer to him. When I read him nowadays, though, I find his arguments tendentious, his conclusions exaggerated, and his manner dismissive.

But back to Ritchie . . . for those interested in Ritchie's dissing of Wolfe, go to the article.

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