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The Language of Science and the Science of Language: Chomsky’s Cartesianism
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The Language of Science and the Science of Language
Chomsky’s Cartesianism

[End Page 38]

Almost from its inception, among the most notable features of Noam Chomsky’s “revolution in linguistics” has been his insistence that linguistics, or language itself, or at least the most interesting and important aspects of linguistics, must be understood as parts of natural science.1 Its status as natural science is frequently posited as a critical distinction between Chomskyan linguistics and all (or almost all) other approaches to the subject.2 Much of the seriousness of the reception of Chomsky’s work can be attributed to this claim, and one finds frequent reference to it in Chomsky’s writings and those of his more ardent supporters. The implied, though rarely stated, assumption appears to be that for linguistics to be serious or truthful it must be “scientific.”

While Chomsky is among the first to admit that the word “language” is ambiguous and polysemous—a fact he often directly references in his work—he rarely reflects on any parallel polysemy in the word “science,” usually writing as if its meaning is transparent and even univocal. Science thus comes to serve as an ideological anchor for Chomsky’s thought in the broadest sense, revealing as much about the foundations of his belief system as it does about the study of language. In turn, despite the explicit and (by his supporters) widely accepted scientific character of Chomsky’s research program, it remains possible to view that program in a different set of historical and contextual frames than the ones on which he insists. Rather than proving, that is, that the study of language now must be seen in a new and “objective” light, Chomsky’s specific formulations can be shown to implicate his work in a set of deep historical-cultural tensions in which no formula is likely ever to emerge as decisive, and in which the pursuit of decisive formulations itself is burdened with more cultural, philosophical, and political baggage than Chomsky can or will admit.

>> The Structure of the Chomskyan Revolutions

Several recent developments in Chomsky’s work make these issues clearer than they may have been in the past. These include a shift of emphasis in Chomsky’s writing, or perhaps a new emphasis on a persistent topos, namely the alignment of Chomsky’s project with what he calls the “biolinguistic program”; his late-career adoption of a position he calls the Minimalist Program, which involves, as the name suggests, drastically reducing the number of parts that make up the putative “language organ” of which the study is Chomsky’s main interest; a set of interviews conducted with one of his main explicators and philosophical acolytes, James McGilvray, under the title The Science of Language, which includes a number of unexpectedly revealing admissions about the nature of Chomsky’s enterprise; and, finally, Chomsky’s surprising late collaboration with two evolutionary biologists, Marc Hauser and W. Tecumseh Fitch, on a pair of articles, the first of which appeared in the journal Science, in which Chomsky directly engages with biological science in a far more direct way than in his entire career prior to it (despite his typical insistence on the scientific nature of his enterprise).3

A more distant prompt, but one perhaps no less immediate in importance, stems from the emergence of certain interesting similarities in, and differences between, the [End Page 39] intellectual trajectories of Chomsky and Edmund Husserl. It is somewhat remarkable that Chomsky writes almost nothing about Husserl, since Husserl is essentially the only twentieth-century intellectual to have used the concept of “universal grammar” in anything like the way Chomsky does, prior to Chomsky’s own work.4 It is more remarkable given that, like Chomsky, Husserl also claimed to have been building a scientific discourse where an improperly metaphysical one had existed before, by drawing firm lines and boundaries among a variety of phenomena that he argues had been allowed to blur, specifically with regard to the place of language in the human mind. It is triply remarkable that Husserl, like Chomsky, draws inspiration from an agonistic relationship with a figure whose formative...