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Is the Cognitive Revolution Here Yet?

Noam-Chomsky2

Noam Chomsky

Strand Palace Hotel, London, England — I’m in the heart of London for a few days attending a British Academy conference headlined “The Cognitive Revolution 60 Years On.” The cognitive revolution we are supposed to be reflecting on was not specified, but no linguist would be in any doubt about it: They mean the one that Noam Chomsky is commonly held to have started by introducing bold claims about psychology and philosophy into American linguistics.

The profession was at the time rather small and cliquish. There were few full departments of linguistics; many American linguists worked in departments of anthropology or English or German or classics. They were much interested in the rigorous statement of approved methods of analysis. They did not usually engage in speculation about the human mind and its cognitive and reflective powers, let alone the 17th-century notion that much of our infrastructure for language and thinking is inborn.

The phrase “60 years on” in the conference title implies a focus on 1953. Was that the year of the revolution? Hardly. Chomsky was a junior member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard at the time, and published his first journal article in that year in The Journal of Symbolic Logic. It attempted to axiomatize certain procedures of structural analysis that the linguists of the time took for granted. It was much closer to logic and mathematics than was customary then, but it was certainly a contribution to the mainstream. The revolution had not yet begun.

Between 1951 and 1955 Chomsky worked on syntactic theory, composing a long typescript entitled The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (one chapter of it sufficed to earn him his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955). But its abstract quasi-algebraic notation was attractive to only a very few linguists, and it mentioned virtually no psychological topics, and Chomsky didn’t even publish any of it until 20 years later. That was not the revolution.

After the award of his Ph.D., Chomsky got a teaching job at MIT, where his friend Morris Halle suggested he teach a course on his view of syntactic theory. The lectures he gave were published in February 1957 by a small Dutch publishing company, Mouton, as a book called Syntactic Structures. It did make a splash. But it is bare of references to cognitive psychology, or the failings of behaviorism, or the powers of the human mind, or the species-limited nature of linguistic abilities, or the difficulty faced by an infant attempting to acquire such abilities, or the limited information the infant has about what to acquire, or a rich genetically transmitted intellectual endowment that does most of the work in advance.

Moreover, wider reading in the linguistics of the 1940s reveals that those topics were sometimes touched on by other linguists. Charles Hockett explicitly discussed such matters, for example, as early as 1948 (in a short note on structure in the International Journal of American Linguistics). No, Syntactic Structures was not the cognitive revolution.

When was it, then? It’s not easy to say. Perhaps it only really started with Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965, the book in which Chomsky first made clear the depth of his commitment to mental phenomena and innate ideas. Perhaps it didn’t begin until the 1970s, as psycholinguistics proper got under way, or the 1980s, as cognitive science started to become a field in its own right. But some people at this conference think it hasn’t actually happened yet.

Maybe revolution is not quite the right metaphor. I know Thomas Kuhn taught us that science develops through revolutions, the detailed work being done under the assumptions of the last one during periods of “normal science.” And it’s an exciting thought, the idea of an annus mirabilis when the whole conceptual world turns upside down, and what was formerly nonsense becomes accepted science (and vice versa), and old guys who don’t get with the program are left to face an embittered retirement. But I’m inclined to think it isn’t quite like that in this case.

The 1950s must have been an extraordinarily exciting time to be in Cambridge, Mass., where so many developments were beginning to come together, and Chomsky was at the heart of it, an intellectual mover and shaker. But I doubt that there was ever a watershed year when the whole applecart of assumptions was overturned and linguistic and psychological science was born anew. From inside the discipline it always feels more gradual, a matter of gradual evolution rather than violent revolution.

So what the heck: Perhaps 2013 is as good as any other year to celebrate the past 60 years of progress on understanding language and thought.

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