The greatest living analytical philosopher


 It’s a long time since I’ve read Joe Heller’s Good As Gold, so I’m paraphrasing here, but there was one scene in particular that I remember. The titular professor is talking to a student disappointed that he enrolled in a course on “Monarchy and Monotheism from the Mediaeval to the Modern” but then finds himself reading Shakespeare’s history plays. The professor explains that anyone interested in literature should read Shakespeare, but the faculty are savvy enough to know that nobody will unless they call it something else. Hence the misleading course descriptions.

The student replies that he isn’t interested in literature but religion, and only enrolled in English because they seemed to be offering so many courses in mysticism and transcendent experiences. He asks whether he should transfer to Theology and Gold replies no, they’ll have you reading Weber and Durkheim. If you’re really interested in religion, he says, you should try Anthropology, but be quick or it’ll all be subsumed into Urban Studies and you’ll be reading Shakespeare’s history plays again.

Do you think this is an exaggeration of academic life? Consider the trouble that Philosophy departments, at least the analytically minded ones in the English-speaking world, have had with the anti-philosophers. Kierkegaard, they reckon, really belongs in Theology. Does Nietzsche belong to Philosophy or German, or something else? I don’t know how things are run now at Queens, but it used to be striking that Marx was palmed off on the Thomists in Scholastic Philosophy, basically because Jim Daly was keen to teach Marx and nobody in the Philosophy department was interested. Bergson, of course, is barely taught anywhere, but that’s another story.

This brings me back to Analytical Philosophy. At the risk of provoking Chris, it’s my somewhat jaundiced opinion that, except for maybe two areas, AP in the narrow sense (as opposed to a broader speech community identifying with the AP tradition) is more or less dead as a research paradigm. Most of its practitioners have given in to historicism to some degree or other. However, those two related areas – formal logic and meaning – are pretty damn big ones. In the area of meaning in particular, there is quite a rich tradition starting with Russell, Carnap and the early Wittgenstein (although not the later Wittgenstein) and carried on by Quine and Chomsky.

But hold on, you say. Isn’t Chomsky the leading figure in modern linguistics? Yes, but that just goes to show how difficult these academic categories are. Just about every practicing linguist at least pays lip service to the importance of Chomsky’s work, even if it has no relevance whatsoever to their own research. In that sense, we are all Chomskyans now. And very few people will put in a kind word for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even though many practicing linguists will have at least a sneaking feeling that Sapir and Whorf were onto something.

The reason for this is that Chomsky’s work, though extremely important and valuable, is only marginally connected to areas like sociolinguistics that interest me. In fact Chomsky’s work is on such a level of abstraction that it’s perhaps more accurate to call him an analytical philosopher of mind rather than a linguist. And this isn’t merely a question of Chomsky’s admiration of Russell the man – there is a direct connection between the Chomskyan paradigm of language and mind, and the idea you find in Russell that language can be boiled down to something approaching mathematical logic.

This works for Chomsky, partly because Chomsky these days posits a fairly minimalist model of universal grammar, and partly because Chomsky, as I’ve said, works at an abstract level where linguistics overlaps with psychology and philosophy, and tends more to philosophy the more abstract it becomes. Chomskyan linguistics is to all intents and purposes a different subject from applied linguistics, and I tend more and more to the view that they should be formally separated.

This is not to say that Chomsky’s insights can’t be applied on a practical level. However, lots of people have tried to apply them in a mechanical way and have ended up looking like idiots. The basic reason for this is that, as the later Wittgenstein brilliantly demonstrates, and as any sociolinguistic fule kno, grammar isn’t logical. Language, as it exists in the real world, is not amenable to being bent into a logico-mathematical framework.

There is of course an alternative to a formal separation, and that’s to strengthen the practical aspect of linguistics. It is a long-running scandal that you can qualify in linguistics without ever doing any fieldwork, just by writing essays on deep structure. Since much of the most important work to be done in linguistics remains in the field of description, it’s my belief that every PhD candidate in linguistics should be required to do at least some fieldwork, even if their interests lie on the abstract level. And, who knows, some insights from this practical work may turn out to be of value in those more elevated registers.


  1. June 22, 2007 at 5:54 pm


    Your feature here is most-revealing about the inner workings and the vogue of both philosophy departments and of linguists.

    Chomsky has always seemed like a “grand theorist” to me; I do want to understand his propositions from “the ground up” but his math– which is unexplained as far as I can detect– leaves me with the suspicion that he has terms which are “off limits” and made unresearchable by obscurity and this kind of obfuscation. I do know that a lot of work in the psychology of language has been undertaken — the brunt of which undermines and devalues a notion of “deep,” universal syntax.

    The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis also has some empirical track-record, although it is devilishly difficult to test. I like you have a fond place for it, but on the other hand, as an empiricist, this posit means that I need “test the null hypothesis” that language DOES NOT COLOR ONE’S “PICTURE” OF REALITY.

    But as far as I am concerned, many of these topics need to be phrased in the most-testable way possible, and then researched. Philosophizing uttermost abstraction without any effort of validation is the “old way,” of a religionist or at least a dogmatist.

    Thanks for the input.

    Vernon Lynn Stephens
    1:59 p.m. — Friday, June 22, 2007

  2. Edward said,

    June 23, 2007 at 12:45 am

    Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche. Three of the great philosophers of 19th century thought, pawned off in Theology, Politics, and German Lit. Good going English philosophy depts, ya really dropped the ball.

  3. hkyson said,

    December 10, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    I like Chomsky for his political work.

    His linguistics, however, is based on English and his own intuitions as a native speaker about the nature of English with little regard for the other four or five thousand languages currently spoken in the world. This is much like studying mammals by limiting onself to elephants.

    The fact that he has produced several versions of transformational grammar strongly indicates to me that the scientific pretensions of linguistics are questionable. None of these versions of his grammar have much empirical backup beyond English. Imagine, if you will, five or six competing versions of basic astronomy, physics, or chemistry.

    I wonder how much of Chomsky’s work will be deemed important after he has been dead for thirty years.

    Chomsky once said that his linguistic theories have no contribution to make to the teaching of languages. If llinguistic theory has no way of making language instruction more efficient, then it becomes like a theory of the physical universe that cannot be applied to building space probes to explore the planets of our solar system and their satellites.

    In a television interview in Holland with a French philosopher (I think it was Foucault), Chomsky spoke in English and Foucault in French. It strikes me as strange that someone who supposedly has profound insight into the way languages work seems completely bound to his native language.

    Constantly modifying notions of the nature of deep structure in language is like constantly modifying notions about the nature of the subconscious mind. Such notions, up to now, have not been verifiable or falsifiable with empirical testing.

    I think it is possible that in time we will know how the brain works well enough to explore on more reliable grounds the nature of the subconscious mind and the language -learning and -production system of the brain. What we find out, I have the feeling, will make people regard figures like Chomsky in much the same way that we currently regard medieval scholastic philosophers.

    Still, Chomsky, I think, is deadly accurate in his penetration of the cynical con job that is our federal government’s foreign policy. I hope he lives long and prospers. We need people with the intelligence and the moral courage needed to expose this bullshit to the world.

    hkyson > Harleigh Kyson Jr.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: