The Chronicle Review

The Chomsky Puzzle

Piecing together a celebrity scientist

August 25, 2016

Jared Swart for The Chronicle
You can order Gnome Chomsky, the Garden Noam for $195, plus shipping. A "What Would Noam Do?" mug can be yours for $15. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," an oft-repeated demonstration of how words can be simultaneously grammatical and nonsensical, is available both as a bumper sticker and an iPhone case.

Noam Chomsky is souvenir-level famous.

That’s what happens when you are "arguably the most important intellectual alive today," a line from a 1979 New York Times book review that’s been recycled ever since as shorthand for a hard-to-summarize man. The same book review, written by Paul Robinson, a Stanford historian, goes on to outline what he calls "the Chomsky problem," that is, "the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist."

There is Noam Chomsky, father of modern linguistics, whose theory of Universal Grammar seeks to explain human language. And there is Noam Chomsky, the political activist and writer, who remains among the most unrelenting critics of American military action.

In his new book, Tom Wolfe takes a crack at explaining that bifurcated persona. (Yes, that Tom Wolfe — the Bonfire of the Vanities, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test guy.) He describes the divide with patented Wolfeian exuberance: "Chomsky’s politics enhanced his reputation as a great linguist, and his reputation as a great linguist enhanced his reputation as a political solon, and his reputation as a political solon inflated his reputation from great linguist to all-around genius, and the genius inflated the solon into a veritable Voltaire, and the veritable Voltaire inflated the genius of all geniuses into a philosophical giant ... Noam Chomsky."

Once he's fully inflated, Wolfe proceeds to stick a pin in him. The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company) is one of two new books that offer sour portraits of the soft-spoken, if not always mild-mannered, emeritus professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The other, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (Yale University Press), by Chris Knight, was a decade in the making and may be the most in-depth meditation on "the Chomsky problem" ever published. Like Wolfe, Knight first consecrates Chomsky, noting that, by one measure, he is the eighth-most-cited thinker in the humanities — hot on the heels of fellow one-namers like Freud and Plato — before setting fire to the shrine.

Is this any way to treat arguably the most important intellectual alive?

The more publicity Chomsky got for his opposition to the Vietnam War, Wolfe argues, the more important in the eyes of many were his linguistic theories.
At least he’s used to it by now. Chomsky, who at 87 is still cranking out books at an astonishing clip (he’s written more than a hundred, and several in just the past year), has a decades-long history of fending off political and scientific adversaries. In the 1989 book, Challenging Chomsky, Rudolf P. Botha documented this track record and advised would-be contenders to beware lest they, too, end up skewered. "Many of intellectual class have come to do battle with The Master about his ideas on language and mind," Botha wrote. "With woeful consequences, alas!"

Daniel Everett did not heed that warning. Everett, an anthropologist, linguist, and former Chomskyan, came to believe that certain features of a language spoken by a primitive tribe in the Amazon, called the Pirahã, disprove Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. He spelled out that argument in his 2008 book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, an adventurous hybrid of memoir and linguistics. Everett’s irresistible narrative attracted mainstream attention for ideas usually relegated to peer-reviewed journals and sparsely attended conferences. John Colapinto traveled to the Amazon to write about Everett and the Pirahã for a 2007 New Yorker article. In 2012, I wrote about Everett v. Chomsky, prompted by the publication of Everett’s following book, Language: The Cultural Tool.

Tom Wolfe couldn’t resist either. He draws from those articles, academic papers, and interviews with Everett to flesh out a "redheaded, redbearded" character who battles both enormous anacondas and enormous reputations. The Kingdom of Speech might seem an unlikely project for a white-suited literary legend who hung out with Ken Kesey back in the day and later wrote best-selling novels in the social-realist vein. But it actually fits nicely alongside two other books in the Wolfe oeuvre: The Painted Word, and From Bauhaus to Our House, both extended essays that send up pretension in the worlds of art and architecture, respectively. My paperback copy of The Painted Word bears the following cover blurb: "Another Blast at the Phonies!"

Wolfe is on the hunt for phonies here, too. In the first half of the book he takes aim at a past-his-prime Charles Darwin, then "sixty years old and more of a hopeless dyspeptic, or hypochondriac, than ever. Vomiting three or four times a day had become the usual. His eyes watered and dripped on his old gray philosopher’s beard." Wolfe pokes at Darwin for thinking that language might have resulted in part from humans imitating birdsong, equating such speculation with Rudyard Kipling’s famous Just So Stories, like "How the Leopard Got Its Spots." (For the record, a hunter paints them on the leopard to help it blend in.)

Here’s Wolfe: "Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale." (Well, maybe. When it comes to birds, Darwin may have been right: In 2013, researchers at MIT concluded that "there are striking parallels between birdsong and human language acquisition.")

After dispensing with Darwin, Wolfe moves on to Chomsky. Everett’s hirsute, man-about-jungle authenticity is contrasted with Chomsky and his effete, clean-shaven acolytes, the "armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts." Not only is Chomsky faux-manly, in Wolfe’s telling, he is self-satisfied and incurious: "Chomsky was bored brainless by all those tiny little languages that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett were still bringing back from out in ‘the field.’"

Wolfe dips briefly into the substance of Everett’s case, which runs something like this: Noam Chomsky believes that all languages exhibit certain characteristics (the "universal" in Universal Grammar) and that the nonnegotiable component is recursion, defined as the ability to infinitely embed phrases. For example: "Dan killed a snake" is a straightforward expression of a discrete event, whereas "Dan, the anthropologist from the United States, a former evangelical, who also has a red beard, killed a snake," shows how multiple ideas can be embedded into that original, simple statement.

Pirahã speakers, the people whom Everett studied for decades, seemed not to embed phrases. They appeared to get along just fine without them. Therefore recursion could not be universal. Therefore Chomsky is wrong. In Wolfe’s phrasing, then, Everett had "KO’d Chomsky’s theory."

Wolfe is on the hunt for phonies, but is his knowledge of linguistics up to the task?
Pretty much everything in the previous two paragraphs, except for Everett’s red beard, has been vigorously disputed. For starters, the assertion that embedding is central to Chomskyan theory is based mostly on a very close reading of a 2002 Science paper co-authored by Chomsky, a reading that is contested by Chomsky and his fierce allies — whom Wolfe dubs, sarcastically, "the truth squad." A 2014 paper co-authored by Chomsky rules out this interpretation — or seems to, anyway (parsing Chomsky is asking for trouble). Besides, Chomsky argued via email with me that it doesn’t even matter whether one particular language lacks recursion: "To take an analogy, if a tribe were found where people don’t stand upright, though of course they could, that would tell us nothing about human bipedalism."

The response from linguists to an adapted excerpt of Wolfe’s book that ran in Harper’s Magazine was predictably scathing. One frequent Chomsky defender, Norbert Hornstein, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, referred to the piece in a blog post as "sludge at the bottom of the barrel." Another tweeted that Wolfe is the "Donald Trump of linguistics." Fredrik deBoer, an independent linguist and blogger, reacted with a 4,000-word post. "I might be in the market for a Chomsky reconsideration," he allowed. "But Tom Wolfe is not the guy to do that."

Sludge and Trump aside, Wolfe does breeze past a few niceties in his barreling narrative. For instance, Wolfe writes that the Pirahã are "preconceptual" and "incapable of abstract thought." He’s right that Pirahã language and culture are firmly rooted in the present and that they eschew even basic 1-2-3 numeracy. But to say that they are incapable of abstract thought is something else entirely. Even Everett, who is more or less the hero of Wolfe’s book and praises the author for getting the linguistics "largely right," was taken aback. He calls the assertion that the Pirahã cannot think abstractly as "wrong as wrong can be."

In addition, a reader of Wolfe’s book would walk away thinking that the question of whether Pirahã has recursion is settled science. It is not. In a paper published this year, Everett and his co-authors admit as much, writing that after years of investigation, no one can say for sure that the Pirahã never embed phrases — which is the primary pillar of Everett’s challenge to Chomsky. "We don’t have nearly enough data to reach a conclusive answer," Edward Gibson, a computational linguist at MIT and one of Everett’s co-authors told me recently.

The gloss given by Wolfe of Chomsky’s activism is also somewhat less than laudatory. He stops just short of accusing Chomsky of "radical chic"-ness, Wolfe’s noted neologism for those celebrities who embrace social causes in order to appear righteous and relevant. According to Wolfe, Chomsky felt "pressure" to be one of the "brave intellectuals" (emphasis his) who protested the Vietnam War. An intellectual, Wolfe writes, was a "figure who gave off whiffs — at least that much, whiffs — of Left-aware politics and alienation of some sort." That was Chomsky. And, what’s more, he knew how to "exploit" the Vietnam War in order to increase his status and promote his ideas.

Chomsky’s prominence as an activist and his accomplishments as a linguist thereby combined to make him a bespectacled avatar for braininess. "Even in academia it no longer mattered whether one agreed with Chomsky’s scholarly or political opinions or not," Wolfe writes, "for fame enveloped him like a golden armature."

In Decoding Chomsky, Chris Knight likewise recounts the remarkable rise of two seemingly separate figures, "each as extraordinary as the other." Knight, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at University College London, follows the money, focusing on the funding that supported Chomsky’s early research at MIT. Those funds came, ironically, from the United States military, the institution Chomsky has chronicled and criticized in book after book. In the preface to Syntactic Structures, the treatise that put a not-yet-30-year-old Chomsky on the academic map, he notes that his work was paid for in part by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

What really seemed to bother Chomsky is the suggestion that his political activism was merely for show.
Why would the Pentagon support the theoretical musings of an up-and-coming linguist? Knight explains that the military brass hoped that the crude computers of the time could be taught to "understand" simple English, making them more useful for planning operations. Chomsky’s research seemed to generally align with that goal, though there is no evidence presented that anything Chomsky did then or since was even accidentally helpful to the military in carrying out so much as a single sortie.

And Knight doesn’t argue otherwise. He does, however, see this early assistance as the secret to understanding the so-called Chomsky problem: "To align his scientific career with his political conscience, Chomsky resolved from the outset to collude neither politically nor practically" with the government’s aims. This created a permanent fissure in his thinking, according to Knight. He isn’t accusing Chomsky of hypocrisy; instead, he’s floating a psychological diagnosis for his dual missions.

You don’t have to entirely buy Knight’s solution to the Chomsky problem to find his book a compelling read. In fact, Knight’s not-so-secondary objective appears to be launching a bombing run of his own against Chomsky’s scientific reputation. The genteel, donnish photo of Chomsky on the book’s cover and the generic subtitle ("Science and Revolutionary Politics") gives a falsely benign impression. Knight has come not to praise Chomsky but to bury him.

Knight mostly sidesteps recursion, the debate that forms the heart of Wolfe’s book. Instead he accuses Chomsky of creating a modern linguistics mired in "tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancor without parallel in any other scientific field." He dismisses Chomsky’s core ideas as nonsensical and makes the case that developments in evolutionary psychology and computational linguistics have long since left his theorizing in the dust. Chomsky’s body of work is "not conscientious scholarship, but devious, Machiavellian tricks designed to ensure victory by moving the goal-posts or tipping up the board — in other words, sheer foul play."

While Knight’s disdain for Chomsky the scientist is impossible to miss, so is his admiration for Chomsky the activist. He writes that "it would be difficult to think of any prominent academic who has done more to take to the streets, risk arrest, measure up to the events of the day, speak truth to power and, in the process, endured ferocious political hostility matched only by passionate grass-roots support." This image of a people’s champion runs counter to the aloof sage sketched by Wolfe, the sort who "never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees."

While Wolfe arches an eyebrow at Chomsky’s activism, Knight salutes him.

If you email Noam Chomsky, he will email you back. He’s known for that. Even if you’re a stranger with a random question. Even if you’re a journalist asking about two new books that denigrate his life’s work and cast doubt on the purity of his motivations.

Chomsky had not yet read Wolfe’s book, and wasn’t sure he was going to either. He had read the Harper’s excerpt and called it a "moral and intellectual disgrace." He questioned Wolfe’s understanding of the field, writing that "the errors are so extraordinary that it would take an essay to review them."

Among those errors, according to Chomsky, is the claim that he is uninterested — or "bored brainless," to use Wolfe’s more biting phrase — by little-known languages like Pirahã. "MIT has been one of the major world centers of research into indigenous languages for 50 years," Chomsky writes. "I and others make constant use of what has been discovered in seeking to explain and understand the range of phenomena unearthed."

His opinion of Knight’s book was equally unfavorable, though he only made it through the first couple of pages. That’s all it took. Chomsky said he received a prepublication copy, noticed "extreme errors" immediately and informed Knight, who, he said, stubbornly refused to correct them. "At that point I dropped the correspondence," Chomsky writes.

Knight has his own version of this exchange. They did carry on an email back-and-forth, though what Chomsky asked him to correct was not, in Knight’s view, an error: He was instead disagreeing more or less with the premise of the entire book and any such "correction" would require deleting everything but the first page. "Naturally, I was not willing to do as he asked," says Knight.

Chomsky rejects outright Knight’s notion that government funding had any influence whatsoever on his thinking or his behavior. "His main point is based on a total misunderstanding of public funding of research," Chomsky writes. "MIT in those years was about 90 percent funded by the Pentagon. There was precisely zero pressure."

What really seemed to bother Chomsky — what he calls "slanderous" — is the suggestion in The Kingdom of Speech that his political activism was merely for show or prompted by a desire for notoriety. "In Wolfe’s infantile little world, all of this is ‘radical chic’ posturing — he of course continues to parade the one phrase that is his contribution to modern social/political analysis," Chomsky writes. "But it was deadly serious business."

I called Tom Wolfe and relayed the comments of one octogenarian icon to another (Wolfe is 85). He told me he was surprised that the book was not more warmly received by its subject. He spoke to Chomsky once, by phone, and found him cooperative and expansive. "If I were he, I would really like the person who comes across in my book," Wolfe says. "He’s a man of great influence, great thoughtfulness. He is the outstanding linguist in the history of that field."

Wolfe says he doesn’t think Chomsky’s opposition to the Vietnam War was an example of radical chic (though he notes that the label does apply perfectly to the late Norman Mailer, who briefly shared a jail cell with Chomsky — a piece of trivia in need of a movie script). "I think I was certainly correct in what I call the ‘multiplier effect’ — the more publicity he received over his opposition to the Vietnam War, the more important in the eyes of many intellectuals were his linguistic theories," Wolfe says. "His eminence in both areas multiplied his overall status."

As for whether Chomsky’s linguistic theories are fundamentally flawed, Wolfe acknowledges that he’s no expert. Instead he is, as he’s always been, an alternately charming and caustic observer. "I’m sitting in the grandstands," he says. "I don’t know enough about linguistics to make a judgment myself and claim any validity."

Chomsky may not be, in Wolfe’s opinion, an example of radical chic, but he does find him guilty of the crime of charisma, which emanates from the professor’s "bearing and his certitude about what he’s saying." That’s an element of Knight’s thesis, too. He sees linguistics under Chomsky as somewhat closer to theology than hard science, with Chomsky as godhead.

The real Chomsky problem may be the problem of a field in which the forceful personality of its founder and the field itself grew upward together and became deeply entwined. Whether that’s Chomsky’s fault, or simply a byproduct of his half-century or so of celebrity, is hard to say. Chomsky himself may have put it best (though he was referring to presidents rather than scientists): "We shouldn’t be looking for heroes. We should be looking for good ideas."

That quote is available, no kidding, on a T-shirt.

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.

[Correction (8/28/2016, 1:45 p.m.): In an earlier version of this article, a sentence contained an erroneous double negative. The sentence has been corrected to read, “Therefore recursion could not be universal.”]