, June 16, 2012
(view all comments by GDuperreault)
I purchased Chomsky for Beginners without much expectation, but as a Chomsky book to put into my library. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the exposition and thought that went into putting this excellent synopsis of Chomsky's ideas in linguists and their role in utterly transforming our understanding of human language. Even more than that, Maher and Chomsky include a range of contrary opinions and subsequent arguments that, although very concise, clearly illuminate the issues, thinking and controversies.
The basic evisceration of the behaviourist model of language acquisition was well articulated throughout. But I like how he approached Skinner.
'The Refutation of Behaviourism
In 1959, Chomsky composed a basic refutation of behaviourist psychology in this review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behaviour. According to Chomsky, children are not born tabula rasa. On the contrary, each child is genetically predisposed to structure how knowledge is acquired.
'"The phrase 'X is reinforced by Y' is being used as a cover term for X wants Y, X likes Y, X wishes Y were the case, etc. Invoking the term 'reinforcement' has no explanatory force, and any idea that this paraphrase introduces any new clarity or objectivity into the description of wishing, liking, etc., is a serious delusion."
'Skinner's account rejects all postulations of inner states and sees human behaviour as entirely a function of antecedent events. For Chomsky, this reduction of human behaviour to 'conditioned responses' contradicts the actual [and demonstrated] complexity and freedom of consciousness' (43).
I find the few quotations supplied to be on point and interesting. As a reader of fiction, even of so-called 'literature' I was bemused to read:
'Perhaps literature will forever give far deeper insight into "the full human person" than any model of scientific inquiry can hope to do' (9).
The bulk (2/3) of the book covers linguistics. The balance of the book is Chomsky's political and media criticism. This was of less interest to me, that being where the bulk of my Chomsky reading has been. However with that exposure comes my ability to assess how well that section is put together. But more than that, the precise and clearly articulated criticisms of the media and socio-political thought in general was hugely informative and entertaining to read. For example, the contrast that Chomsky draws between 'enlightenment values' and how far our science and social perspicuity have fallen from them is delightful.
'The American Paradox
The United States proudly calls itself 'the leader of the Free World'. We know the US as a free and open society, more so in many ways than societies of Western Europe. And yet, Chomsky has criticized the US as blind to what it really is…
1. One of the most depoliticized nations in the industrial world
2. One of the most deeply indoctrinated societies in the industrial world
3. One of the most conformist intelligentsias in the industrial world.
Q: IS THIS NOT A PARADOX?
A: It only looks that way.
The freer the society the more well-honed and sophisticated its system of thought control and the indoctrination. The ruling élite, clever, class-conscious, ever sure of domination, make sure of that'(138-9).
It is clear from the very first page that, unlike the one or two 'Dummy' books I've tried, the writers of Chomsky for Beginners, John Maher and Noam Chomsky, demonstrate deep respect for the readers' intelligence and ability to understand complex ideas. This at no time feels dumbed down. This book has been described as a good introduction to Chomsky's ideas, and it is. But far, far more importantly, this is a book that introduces one to the challenge of really thinking, even those who are, like me, familiar with Chomsky. And I loved that.
Now, everything up to this point would have earned from me four stars. So why five? Because for the first time I read someone else make the connection between C.G. Jung and Chomsky's ideas of language and language acquisition. I was so excited to see this! (For my connection, see my review of Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Review by Justin Leiber.) Maher does not elaborate on the connection beyond a citation on the Collective Unconscious which he implies has a correspondence to Chomsky's concepts of Deep Structure and Universal Grammar.
'One part of our biological make up is specifically dedicated to language. That is called our language faculty. UG is the initial state of that language faculty" (77).
Universal Grammar is that part of cognitive psychology (ultimately human biology) which seeks to determine the invariant principles of the language faculty and to determine as well the range of variation that those principles allow - - that is, the possible human languages' (78).
Now compare with Jung's idea of the collective unconscious and archetypes:
'The human psyche is composed of innate forms always present, giving direction and form to their actualization in images and action. The collective unconscious is universal: it is shared by everyone. "The autonomic contents of the unconscious or 'dominants' … are not inherited ideas but inherited possibilities, necessities even, of bringing to birth the ideas by which these dominants have been expressed, every region has its forms of speech, which can vary infinitely"' (80-1).