- Chomskyan (r)evolutions
This book is a festschrift to Konrad Koerner on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, and at the same time a series of reflections on the ways in which the modern world of linguistics has fashioned a history OF itself FOR itself, a history that is grounded both in the professional positions that linguists have taken and in the gradual emergence of ideas over time. The editor asked the contributors to reflect on whether there are '"revolutions" in linguistic theory (in the Kuhnian sense) and how ... Chomsky's career support[s] whichever conclusion one might reach to that question' (210).
These contributors generally come to their work with the conviction that things are not all fine in the world of linguistics, and that at least a part of the problem is the result of a sorry understanding of how we got to where we are today—and furthermore, that this results in good measure from the disproportionate influence that Noam Chomsky has had on the field over the last fifty years.
John E. Joseph's essay, 'Chomsky's atavistic revolution (with a little help from his enemies)' (1-18), is for this reader the most interesting chapter of the book and certainly worth several readings. It focuses on two notions: MODERNISM, the intellectual trend that includes the thorough dismissal of all preceding movements, and IRONIC DISTANCING, a much more complex rhetorical relationship developed by an author speaking about his predecessors ('Smith's work was well ahead of its time, though it suffers from the lack of attention to rigor that is characteristic of its age'). This distancing is IRONIC because it is always simultaneously affirming and denying; it praises the previous work, all the while making clear that by today's standards such work would not be considered adequate.
With a few deft examples, Joseph sketches the ways (quite varied, in fact) that the heroes of our field (William Dwight Whitney, Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir) have employed ironic distancing in explaining their own relationship to those who preceded them. But his greater concern is Chomsky and Chomsky's distinctive stance toward his intellectual predecessors, especially in Cartesian linguistics (1966), Chomsky's long essay on Lancelot and Arnauld's Port-Royal grammar. This book is, Joseph suggests, a 'condescension-free zone' (11) for linguists who antedate Hermann Paul; the work of the Cartesian linguists is discussed 'as if they were active members of [the MIT] faculty' (11): no ironic distancing asked, none given.
Joseph goes on to give a brief account of the withering criticisms that targeted Chomsky's book, and he notes that after defending himself against these critics, Chomsky dropped the subject of the relation of his grammatical theory to that of his seventeenth-century predecessors. [End Page 432] Joseph asks—tongue in cheek, I suppose—whether Chomsky might have been more judicious in his claims for his own originality if his critics had not discredited his genealogical claims.
Joseph's chapter is silent on the topic that several other authors in this book consider the most interesting and important: How should we understand the relationship between Noam Chomsky's work and that of his teacher, Zellig Harris? Two ambitious contributions on this question are offered by Bruce Nevin, himself one of Zellig Harris's last students, and by Stephen O. Murray.
Bruce Nevin's lengthy and thoughtful chapter, 'Noam and Zellig' (103-68), is the best account I have seen of the intellectual relationship between Harris's work and Chomsky's in the period during which they interacted—from 1946 to the mid 1950s or so.1 It is not everywhere easy to read, for much the same reason that Harris himself is not always easy to read—more often than not, because the Harrisian perspective is not the orthodox one, and the reader is challenged to take on new perspectives. Some of Nevin's presentation of Harrisian syntax (notably of operator grammar) and how it could or should measure up to Chomskyan accounts of similar phenomena are a...