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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge companion to Chomsky
  • Robert A. Chametzky
The Cambridge companion to Chomsky. Ed. by James McGilvray. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 335. ISBN 052178431X. $33.99.

There are two things that are unforgivable. One is to have been wronged. The other is to have been right. Many people find Noam Chomsky (C) unforgivable. The contributors to the volume under review provide some explanation for this, in their fourteen chapters and the introduction, in that they assume, assert, and sometimes argue that C has been right about a considerable number of topics of considerable intellectual or societal importance.1 Here, in no particular order, are some fifteen of them; there are more, but these give the general flavor.

  1. 1. There is really only one human language. (21)

  2. 2. Human languages are not expressions of culture and society. (8)

  3. 3. Learning of the kind that . . . involves generalization, association, induction, conditioning, hypothesis forming and testing, etc., . . . does not play any significant role in explaining children's acquisition of language. (50)

  4. 4. At the moment, the linguist is in a much better position to tell the neurophysiologist what to look for than the other way around. (88)

  5. 5. There is not, and likely will not be, a theory of human behavior. (117)

  6. 6. We have support for the idealization to instantaneity, which says that the different stages children go through in the language-acquisition process are of no import to their ultimate psychological state. (27)

  7. 7. The human language faculty might be a 'perfect' solution to the problem of relating sound and meaning. (83)

  8. 8. The general picture of learning that requires notions like E-language has very little to recommend it empirically. (158)

  9. 9. Regularities are imposed on experience in accordance with mental structures already in place. (165)

  10. 10. We cannot so much as FORMULATE a mind-body problem. (192)

  11. 11. Apparently, the language organ is not shaped by experience; it brings concept-forming machinery to experience. In THIS sense, individual concepts are innate, or latent in (the machinery of) our minds. (208)

  12. 12. Quite simply, no simple model or theory of choice and motivation illuminates as much as a good novel. (241)

  13. 13. Neoliberalism's narrow assumptions about our fundamental needs are not just wrong, but pathological. (245) [End Page 845]

  14. 14. The record of US policy involved the subversion of democracy, the undermining of independent development and the legitimation of force in the Third World, in the name of democracy, development and the rule of law in the First. (265)

  15. 15. Corporations . . . [are] . . . 'private tyrannies' or 'totalitarian' institutions. (252)

The book is divided into three parts: 'Chomsky on the human language', 'Chomsky on the human mind', and 'Chomsky on values and politics'. As indicated, the authors do not contest C's views in these areas.2 Rather, they seek to explain and, to varying degrees, defend these views. There is, as well, some attempt to connect up these aspects (as we might say) of C's thought. The book does not aim to be a critical appraisal of, but rather a tourist's guide to, C's thought; this review therefore also does not engage in appraisal of C's thought, but rather tries to evaluate the book on its own terms, as a guide to the (presumably) perplexed.3

No need to be coy: my summary judgment is that over all it succeeds very well in its project, and sometimes indeed much better than that, though there are some notable lacunae and odd inclusions. In the former category, there is nothing specifically about parameters—something along the lines of, say, Baker 2001, by, say, Mark Baker, for example4 —nor is there mention of what Lyons (1970) considered C's signal contribution to linguistics, viz., formalization of theory and concepts, nor, really, is there anything about what C's own syntactic work is actually like (in e.g. Chomsky 1973 or, one of my favorites, Chomsky 1977). In the latter category, there are the chapters by Pettito ('How the brain begets language') and Gleitman and Fisher ('Universal aspects of word learning'). There is nothing wrong, and in fact much that is fascinating, in these chapters...


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