Logical refutation of Noam Chomsky’s famous trees – the essence of his theory of language

The fascination of Chomsky’s theory of language is due to the fact that it seems to derive linguistic diversity and complexity from a simple starting point. After Chomsky, a whole generation of linguists was busy with drawing all these elusive inverted trees. Let us stick to a simple example:

                                S

         NP                                           VP

det               N                     V                     det       N

The               boy                  eats                the       ice cream

The derivation is fascinating because of its apparent proximity to the approach of the natural sciences, where complex events are similarly derived from simple basic elements. No wonder that many praised Noam Chomsky’s approach as a revolution that finally turned the study of language into a science. The tree, with its simple peak of “S” for s(entence), seemed to define the rules that a speaker must obey in order to “generate” a potentially infinite number of grammatically correct sentences in English or any other language (hence the name “Generative Grammar”).

But right at the beginning linguists

should have asked the crucial question, what “S” at the top of the derivation is meant to represent? “S” cannot be an entity void of any content, because nothing can be derived from nothing. It must be something, but what exactly?

Of course, “S” cannot be identical with the formal end product, i.e. the English sound sequence “The boy eats the ice cream”, because then there would be no derivation at all, but the whole thing would amount to a mere tautology. Nor can “S” be a mixture of meaning and form, in the way the English word “boy” represents a phonetic form on the one hand and a carrier of meaning on the other. Then we would end up with partial tautology. The only possible interpretation is that “S” refers to something quite different: a structure of meaning. In the speaker’s brain, the real event is represented in conceptual shape, which in the act of speaking he translates into a structured linguistic form.

But then “S” as a term for s(entence) or formal structure turns out to be a misnomer. We have to replace it with another expression, say “M” as an abbreviation for M(eaning).

                                            M

                     **************************

         NP                                                       VP

det               N                                 V                     det      N

The               boy                              eats                 the      ice cream

However, once we perform this necessary distinction, it becomes obvious that we must separate the starting point “M” with a line from the following derivatives, because NP and VP represent something different from meaning, namely elements in temporal order. “The boy” proceeds in temporal sequence “eats ice-cream”. Such temporal order is not found in the conceptual structure. A unit of meaning such as “The tree is green” is independent of time. An action such as “The boy eats ice cream” is of course a temporal event like any action, but this has nothing to do with the sequence of words in the English sentence.

And “M”, which we have to substitute for “S”

exibits still one more distinguishing feature. The expression “S” suggests unity and simplicity, which, however, does not exist on the level of meaning. “The tree is green” denotes the modification of a substance by a quality. “The boy eats” or “The boy eats ice cream” refers to the modification of a person (living substance) by an action. The “Logical structure of Meaning” (see my work “Principles of Language”), portrays the most important types of such units of meaning. Each of these can take the place of “M” on the top of the tree.

Since, furthermore, the conceptual analysis of reality begins in the animal kingdom and is subject to evolution in human societies as well, only the basic types are present in all societies, not their more complex forms. In other words, evolution already comes into play at the level of “M”. Hence we must define “M” as elementary types of the “Logical and Informational Structure of Meaning” and understand them as products of evolution.

What about the components N and V of the formal level

below the structure of meaning, which, according to Chomsky, belong to General Grammar, so that we may apply them to languages as different from each other as English and Japanese? Are these terms universal? If we understand verb in the sense that it should denote a formal class in which actions occur, then this statement is certainly correct, because we may be sure to find actions like walking, speaking, striking etc. expressed by words in every natural language. So, we may of course give the name of “verb” to any formal class in any language where they occur. Doing so, we will, however have difficulties with words such as running, speaking, striking, etc., which in English and German formally belong to the class of nouns although they express actions. The conclusion seems evident: it is impossible to define verb or noun in a general (universally valid) way. All we know is that certain language-specific formal criteria make eat, run, hit etc. verbs in English, Japanese or any other language. Again, we have to modify Chomsky’s deceptively simple scheme:

                                            M

                     **************************

         NPengl                                                  VPengl

detengl           Nengl                            Vengl                 detengl  Nengl

The               boy                              eats                 the      ice cream

                     Running                      tops                             walking

Consider another example to understand this basic correction. In English we may say “Running tops walking”, which we understand in the sense that someone prefers to run rather than just go walking. In many languages this content cannot be expressed in a similar formal way. This means that already on the conceptual level, we are faced with different kinds of analysis. In some language, people must, for example, say, “I like to walk, but I’d rather run.” The agent “I” cannot simply be effaced like in English.

To sum up, Chomsky’s scheme does not in any way describe the generative linguistic capacity of human brains. On the one hand, Chomsky’s “S” is either tautological or has to be replaced by “M”(eaning) – and then becomes much more complex, since “M” consists of different conceptual types (described in the Logical and Informational Structure of Meaning). And on the formal level below the separating line, categories such as V and N are not universal – when used as such, they obscure the existing differences in the formal realization of language instead of explaining it.

That is because the transformation of structures of meaning into structures of sound does not only result in differences of syntax, i.e. in different temporal sequences (like SVO in English, SOV in Japanese), but creates differences in paratax as well, which concern the classification of concepts as formal categories like English verbs, Japanese verbs, etc.

With their deceitful simplicity Chomsky’s trees – the essence of what is new in his linguistic theory – all but obscure our understanding of language. The question why Chomsky created a scheme that so blatantly disregards basic logic, is of interest, but it must here be relegated to a footnote.*1* 

His trees need still one further correction. All the expressions above the dividing line belong to meaning, ie the immaterial conceptual structure, while all expression below belong to the acoustic chain or its representation on a sheet of paper. Now, there is no cogent reason why “eats the ice cream” or “tops walking” should be put in one class named VP rather than “The boy eats” or “running tops”. There is no justification for such classification neither on the formal level nor on the conceptual level (above the dividing line). But there is such a justification (on both levels) for grouping “dirty cloth” or “chanting joyfully” (see footnote one) each in a special class. So, we again modify Chomsky’s tree leaving out NP and VP altogether:

                                            M

                     **************************

detengl           Nengl                            Vengl                 detengl  Nengl

The               boy                              eats                 the      ice cream

                     Running                      tops                            walking

After this final transformation, Chomsky’s modified and reduced tree corresponds exactly to the general formula I had already used back in the eighties:

M formally realized as F

where M refers to meaning and F to its transformation in symbolic form.

Now lets get back to the present example. It represents a conceptual structure consisting of Agent and Patient and an Action. Its members must be separated by commas as on the conceptual level there is no temporal sequence. According to the specific rules governing English syntax and paratax the conceptual structure is then transformed into the following acoustic chain or sentence (with the arrow signifying formal realization in English):

Ag, Pt, A in English symbolically realized as The boy eats the ice cream

or, if we prefer the shape of a tree:

                                Ag, Pt, A

                     **************************

detengl           Nengl                            Vengl                 detengl  Nengl

The               boy                              eats                 the      ice cream

.

1 Chomsky inherited his position from his teacher Zellig S. Harris, the founder of distributionalism, who had excluded the semantic dimension. Harris restricted the description of language to the study of recurrent formal elements. Let us consider the following utterance:

Bird-s are chanting joyful-ly Mary wash-es all dirty cloth big cloud-s cover the sky

N                 V                Adv          N             V           Adj        N    Adj    N         V     det  N

NP                             VP                NP                       VP                   NP                VP

                  S                                                        S                                                     S

Supposed the analyzing linguist knows beforehand what elements in the unbroken spoken chainrepresent English nouns, verbs, adjectives, then he may by purely formal analysis dissect this chain into three sentences. Knowing furthermore that he may substitue any noun like for instance cloth with a larger expression like dirty cloth, he may write NP for N. Such a purely formal distributional analysis may, of course, be turned upside down. Then “S” is placed at the top but that doesn’s change its nature: it remains strictly tautological and is still a mere abstraction representing no more and no less than the respective formal chains in English. By a mere sleight of hand Chomsky turned an analytical process – a tautology – into a derivation. The apparent miracle was nothing more than a logical error.

Politics, Science and – yes! – Linguistics

Until the twenties of the last century, German was still the most common language of science. By 1933 Germany had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation, more than England and the United States combined. Then came Hitler and his policy of systematic lies (and crimes). After the Second World War, German was just one language among others, and German science lost much of its former significance.

Since 1945, the United States could until recently claim that it was leading the way in almost all fields of science. Then came George Bush Jr. and afterwards a still greater evil: the show business man Donald Trump with his policy of systematic lies. In the meantime, China is emerging as the new world power of science (fortified by a messianic belief in its unlimited possibilities). The star of the US is now in rapid decline.

Science is committed to truth

This does not mean that it reveals that kind of TRUTH, by which people understand the meaning or goal of life. On the contrary, on this matter science has very little or nothing to say, yet it unites people in understanding reality. Only five hundred years ago, the elites of France, Japan, China or India had little to say to each other, since only the lower classes dealt with the practical matters of life, that is those which all over the world obey the same laws of nature. Peasants in Germany, India or China could have found much common ground when discussing the issues of field cultivation, but elites lived in different spheres, determined by honor, ambition and above all religion, which, in each country, served different gods and moral rules.

Today, the elites of China, the US, India and Europe

have infinitely more common ground. They may expertly discuss a wide range of subjects, be it finance, corporations, computers and tanks or the latest scientific findings.  At the latest since the second half of the last century, science even became the universal language of mankind.

This does not mean, however, that mutual exchange and a common language necessarily bring people closer together. Even in the past, that has never been true. The Indian caste system, for example, brought people into close contact who communicated in one and the same language and practiced professions that brought members of different castes (such as barbers and Brahmins) into daily contact, but they were not allowed to marry or even to dine together. The Brahmins wanted to retain their position of lords, the other castes had to remain servants – this fundamental conflict of interests ensured that close contact and a common language did not bring them closer together.

Things have remained that way until today. The fact that Western science has by now not only been adopted by China, but is being perfected with increasing success by the Chinese themselves, does not in any way mitigate the conflicting interests arising between the US and China. One thing is science where it is always possible to achieve agreement because its predictions are true or not, a mobile phone works or does not work. But interests are something completely different, because there is no objective basis for recognizing them as justified or rejecting them as unjustified. In the case of interests, an instance completely different from truth proclaims the ultimate verdict – namely power.

Unfortunately, science too can become subject to power

and indeed, it always has been. In the words of its great theoretician Thomas S. Kuhn, it then turns into a “paradigm” dogmatically defended against any contradiction. Such a paradigm was for example the pre-Copernican geocentric world view. Giordano Bruno was burned to death, many others were persecuted or likewise executed because they questioned the dominant paradigm. This world view was not even wrong, because in principle every point in the universe can be arbitrarily made the point of reference in order to describe and calculate the orbits of all surrounding celestial bodies. Even a lunacentric world view is perfectly conceivable and could lead to absolutely correct predictions of solar and (partial) earth eclipses. A lunacentric world view would thus be just as correct as the geocentric one – it would only be so extraordinarily complex that it would hinder the progress of astronomy even more than the geocentric one. The replacement of the latter by the teachings of Copernicus therefore represented a historical breakthrough.

We know that the condemnation of Galileo in the 20th century still inspired Bertolt Brecht. But it was not only the Church which resisted the new doctrine so long and so stubbornly, as the latter could not be reconciled with passages from its sacred texts. Lots of scientists, who had been educated in the old world view and had over many years imparted it to their students, rejected it with equal fervor. Their self-assurance, their fame, their previous knowledge depended on the old model, so they clung to it. Einstein once indicated how much this adherence to the familiar also applies to physics, the strictest of sciences. He thought that the old generation of physicists must first die before a new one would be ready to accept his thoughts. 

Often a progress of scientific knowledge

entails no immediate practical significance. As already mentioned, the geocentric world view was not wrong, it only rendered astronomic description unnecessarily complex. Nor was classical physics, as founded by Newton, wrong. Einstein did, however, show that it is not able to explain border areas of the real world (a fact that was further substantiated by quantum physics).

But clinging to a paradigm can have much more serious practical consequences. The Austrian surgeon and obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis attributed the frequent death of women in childbirth due to childbed fever to lack of hygiene. He drew up a catalogue of regulations to prevent the outbreak of diseases through cleanliness and disinfection – regulations that are considered exemplary today. In his day, however, Semmelweis’s colleagues had different views on the causes of disease and premature deaths. They dismissed his theory as speculative nonsense. Semmelweis died in 1865 under unexplained circumstances in a Viennese lunatic asylum. His theory accused his colleagues – even if only indirectly – of ignorance, conceit and a lack of truthfulness. That is why until his end they never forgave him. In fact, they accepted the death of many women rather than allowing their professional honor to be offended.

Ignorance, conceit and lack of truthfulness

dominate science today as they did in the past. This is the essential insight that Thomas S. Kuhn arrived at in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. I would like to back it up with another example, which is really harmless when compared to the devastation produced in the case just mentioned. But on the other hand, it nicely illustrates how lies not only in politics but in science as well may come to play a dominant role.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, linguistics

had for a couple of years become a kind of beacon of hope for all cultural sciences. Noam Chomsky caused a worldwide sensation with a theory that apparently made it possible to explain, with the help of a few formulas, the principles that enable the speaker of any language to form a basically infinite number of correct sentences. Generative and General Grammar were born – and for a while it looked as if language was that part of culture which would allow the humanities to derive all cultural phenomena from a few universal principles in exactly the same way as the natural sciences had already succeeded in doing far earlier with regard to the realm of inanimate nature. In other words, linguistics became a star science for a short time during the 1980s and 1990s.

What remained of this enthusiasm?

The question may be concisely answered with one single word: nothing! Even one of Chomsky’s most dedicated admirers, Steven Pinker, sees in his master’s theory a bloated scholasticism hard to digest. Others are much outspoken and they have shown that during the past decades Chomsky himself dismantled one component of his theory after the other. Even if they declare its goal, the scientific foundation of a General and Generative Grammar, to be legitimate, most critics agree that Chomsky’s method proves unsuitable and unfruitful for this purpose. Among Chomsky’s followers are of course all those who see him as their teacher – linguists like Steven Pinker, Ray Jackendoff or J. Mendivil-Giro – just to pick up some names at random. Among his more or less devastating critics are Christopher Hallpike, Giorgio Graffi, John Colarusso, David Golumbia, Nikolaus Allott, Roland Hausser, John Goldsmith, Per Linell, Tristan Tondino, Christina Behme – again I arbitrarily pick out a few names from the immense crowd of scientists who spent a good part of their lives trying to find their way through the nearly impenetrable thicket of Chomsky’s scholastic meanderings. Encouraged by Chomsky’s constant changes of direction, these people are now busy with the opposite concern of deconstructing Chomsky’s theses one by one.

As a scientific theory, Chomsky’s teaching is dead,

or rather, it has proved to be a lie, because unlike the geocentric world view, it is not only uncomfortable but decidedly wrong, unable to keep any of its promises. It neither explains the generative nor the universal aspects of human languages. But, of course, the people who have devoted the best part of their lives to this lie and infected their students with it do not want to admit that for years they have simply been wrong – just as Semmelweis’s colleagues did not want to be accused of lacking truthfulness. This is why many of them now turn their superior intelligence to the opposite endeavor, applying Chomsky’s scholastic jargon to the criticism of their former master. The danger associated with this had already been recognized by the wonderfully perceptive William James more than a century ago, when he – at the time with regard to German cultural scholars – recorded the following observation: “The forms /at universities/ are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and eccentric, has the legal right to figure forever in the history of the subject like a fly in amber. All later comers have the duty of quoting him and measuring their opinions with his opinion. Such are the rules of the professorial game – they think and write from each other and for each other and at each other exclusively.”

This is the typical behavior of an elite,

and it is as old as mankind itself. It reminds me of a scholastic enterprise that was conceived almost three thousand years ago and laid down in the so-called Brahmana texts, where an elite group of highly respected and highly paid priests, described with meticulous precision how, by piling up bricks, pouring butter over them and murmuring various mantras, they were able to cure all kinds of diseases, drive away enemies, prevent droughts and produce rain. An American Indologist described the texts – apparently in a fit of intellectual despair – as the “babble of madmen”, although a high level of systematic intelligence and knowledge belongs to its salient features.

As a theoretician of politics, Noam Chomsky has created some texts of great clarity and persuasiveness. The contrast to his sterile linguistic hairsplitting can only be explained by the fact that his method proved to be utterly inedequate and therefore required constant intellectual vagaries, reversals and concealment tactics to be kept alive. How will scientists who already criticize him so mercilessly today think about his linguistics after a decade or two? I suppose that his theory (together with most critical comments, which as a rule are mostly just as scholastic) will then be described as “insane babble” – despite or rather because of their pretentious jargon. As Einstein said, a new generation must take a fresh look at reality. Only then can a change in thinking take place. Now the representatives of the old doctrine are still in office and far too much imbued with their own knowledge and eminence to overcome academic conceit through truthfulness.

But there are always outsiders

sometimes large ones like Nicolaus Copernicus, sometimes smaller ones like Ignaz Semmelweis, who oppose the paradigm. In linguistics, too, there has been such an outsider, early on in the beginning eighties. The person in question realized that General or Universal Grammar was difficult to talk about if you just had a little knowledge of Hebrew and Spanish in addition to your own mother tongue. A zoologist is expected to know hundreds of animals, a botanist thousands of plants to be at home in his area. Doesn’t it seem like a miracle that Chomsky and most of his linguistic followers have just mastered their mother tongue, English, and yet are able to express themselves confidently about Universal Grammar?

The master himself was not aware of any disadvantage. He literally claimed to have a homunculus within himself that would tell him the right thing.*1* It is, of course, difficult to oppose this argument if you do not feel the homunculus in your own chest. The said outsider could not boast of such a mysterious creature within his breast, he therefore had to rely on reason. At the beginning of the 1980s, he was able to prove that Chomsky’s theory was based on quicksand, because it used hybrid concepts of traditional grammar that are not universal, namely verbs and nouns. These constitute formal classes filled with different semantic contents in languages such as English and Chinese, so that we may only speak of English, Chinese, Japanese verbs or nouns but not use these terms as universal categories. If this criticism of wrongly chosen basic concepts was correct, then any further preoccupation with a theory that claimed universality but was based on non-universal building blocks would be a waste of time.

In the 80s, however, the enthusiasm for the apparently Universal Grammar

of Chomskyan provenance was so overwhelming that the voice of an outsider was simply ignored. No, it was actively rejected. His objection was felt to be so disturbing that his initial mention as a linguist in Wikipedia was subsequently revoked. Not only was there never any discussion of his arguments,*2* but by removing the person in question from the list of linguists, the latter wanted the outsider to be declared linguistically non-existent.

Not only in politics but in science too,

such strategies are, as we saw, completely normal – and in most cases quite trivial as well. Lots of women had to lose their lives for the disregard of Semmelweis, but the scholastic aberrations of a Noam Chomsky only wreak havoc in the minds of a handful of university professors, the fate of the rest of humanity remains unaffected.

No, maybe not completely, because science changes its character in the process. Let us not forget that there is also an amazingly successful branch of modern linguistics: machine translation with the help of Artificial Intelligence. The successes in this field may be described as breathtaking. Now that living conditions and languages have become more and more similar worldwide, most of those cultural differences are rapidly disappearing that once made translation so difficult. Today, economic and scientific texts can be translated almost perfectly by these machines. Only literary texts – and especially poems – mock these efforts because they cannot be standardized. If a writer produces standard writings, then they are easy to translate, but mostly without value too.

Automated translation is nothing less than a great triumph

of instrumental intelligence – here the same rule applies as in the applied natural sciences – either it works or it doesn’t work. The quality of translation and thus the criterion of truth (of the underlying algorithms) can be clearly determined. This unambiguity is missing in the non-instrumental – the understanding – cultural sciences. And it is not even sought in those circles where, as William James observed, a clique of academics “write of each other, for each other and against each other”. Hence the imposed cutbacks in the humanities. Without public relevance many politicians no longer see a justification for their further existence – posts and areas are being reduced to such an extent that the humanities now play the role of ignored wallflowers. A considerable share of the blame for such a development must be attributed to the scholasticism of scientists like Noam Chomsky. What remains of the whole, originally so fascinating theory of his General and Generative Grammar is by no means a better understanding of language, but rather a difficult to incomprehensible scientific jargon – the empty shell of an insider language which linguistic adepts must up to this day assiduously learn if they want to belong to the circle of the initiated.*3*.

All that remains at the end is to add that,

by a whim of fate, the outsider in question happens to be identical to the author of these lines.  His book “Principles of Language” is not to be recommended to anyone who is concerned with the beauty of language, for it only speaks of logical structure and the universal constraints every natural language is bound to obey (of course, this applies generally to all linguistic texts that deal with the abstract regularities of language). The “Principles” examine the logical skeleton of language, not its living flesh, seductively blooming in infinite nuances.

Those, however, who are interested in the logic of language will be richly rewarded by reading this book, for it reveals and explains the boundary between linguistic chance and linguistic law, which exists both in language as in culture in general, but is much easier to determine in language. As a matter of principle, immaterial meaning and its material manifestation through sound sequences that are exchanged in the process of communication between speaker and listener, are regarded as the two constituent components of language and carefully kept apart.

The conclusion of the “Principles” proves Chomsky right: Yes, there is a Generative and General Grammar. Language is generative because children are capable of forming an infinite number of statements, even if they have never heard them before. And, yes, the faculty of language must be general because the statements of different languages can be translated into each other. These are empirical facts.

But language is not generative and general according to the deceptive simplicity of the model illustrated by Chomsky when he presented his once famous inverted trees. At the top of the tree he wrote an S for sentence, from which a speaker was supposed to derive in downward direction all possible concrete instances of that language with the help of but a very few general rules and a lexicon. Each particular language then adds some specific rules to the general ones in order to define the differences to other languages.*4* That was the dazzling idea of the Chomskyan model, its actual core, while everything else was just ancillary.

Chomsky’s deceptive trees owe their fascination

to the fact that they turn language into a kind of simple computer game. It is only this extraordinary fascination by a theory that seemed to explain the genesis of language as comprehensively as the natural sciences explain the world of dead things, which makes us understand why no one became aware of the elementary logical error in these deceptively simple trees. For it only needs some straightforward logical analysis to show that the tree model – the very core of Chomskyan Generative Grammar – is wrong from the outset, because it confuses the deep level of immaterial analysis of reality (conceptual structure) and its material manifestation by means of acoustic (or other) signs.

Immaterial reality analysis already takes place in animals even without the use of material signs, and it develops in humans from primitive beginnings (as in the Amazonian Piranha language, for example) to the most complex conceptual structures. These are based on a basic conceptual structure that explains why sentences from an evolutionary primitive language can easily be translated into a more developed one, while this is very difficult or even impossible in the opposite direction (how can a modern text on mathematics be translated into a language where people don’t use numbers beyond two or three?)

But differences on the conceptual level do by no means exhaust the complexity of language, because on the basis of identical immaterial conceptual structures various material realizations, i.e. sign systems, can be built. Chomsky’s seductively simple tree does violence to language and it explains strictly nothing. In the “Principles” General and Generative Grammar is turned into a complex ensemble, which furthermore is characterized by constant evolutionary unfolding.

Steven Pinker, in “The Language Instinct”, correctly recognized pre-linguistic conceptual analysis as the general and generative substrate underlying all languages. That was a bold step beyond Chomsky, but it remained a lonely insight. Pinker did not succeed in drawing the appropriate conclusions. Chomsky’s hopelessly simplistic and logically untenable linguistic model proves to be a stubborn paradigm, which even today hinders the progress of science.

1 See David Golumbia: “The Language of Science and the Science of Language: Chomsky’s Cartesianism

2 This is not quite correct. The linguist John Goldsmith of the University of Chicago finally felt compelled to concede that verbs, nouns, etc. are not suitable as universal categories.

3 Technical languages are of course wholly justified and even unavoidable when they are required by the object in question. Modern natural science cannot do without a specific technical language, because its results can only be achieved in this way. If, on the other hand, a technical language produces no results, then it just serves as a jargon for the initiated like in former times Latin or Old Slavic or Sanskrit in India that were meant to keep the laymen at bay.

4 For example, the difference in word order, which in English mostly prescribes a middle position of the verb, i.e. SVO, whereas in Japanese it prescribes its position at the end: SOV.

.

From Prof. Hallpike I got the following commentary by mail:

Dear Mr Jenner,

Thank you for this, which is most entertaining – “the babble of madmen” indeed! In which one can also include, for example, Skinner and the Behaviourists, and Levi-Strauss and the structuralists.) It’s really fascinating to see how dogma overtakes so many branches of science and learning generally. Those believe that Darwinian Selectionism can explain cultural evolution provide another example in my own field. I have also been thinking some more about Chomsky and recursion. As I understand it, mathematical recursion is nothing more than an iterative procedure by which one constructs a series, like the natural numbers or the Fibonnacci  series, which go on for ever. This “going on for ever”, however, which apparently Chomsky and followers thought an essential feature of language creativity is quite different from and irrelevant to the structural complexity both of grammar and meaning achievable by the repeated nesting of clauses within a sentence, which could actually be quite short. From what you say this basic difference between the two recursions was actually glossed over?

Yours

Christopher Hallpike

My return mail:

Dear Mr. Hallpike,

I am glad you took no offence at my somewhat harsh comment on certain intellectual games in academia, a comment which was indeed meant to amuse. Even more amusing are comments by followers of Chomsky that interpret his thoughts in blatantly contradictory ways:

Mendivil-Giro (“Is Universal Grammar ready for retirement?”): “The mathematical concept of recursion was quasi-synonymous with computability, so that recursive was considered equivalent to computable… what Chomsky… postulates as the central characteristic of human language is recursion in the computational sense, not the existence of sentences within sentences or the existence of noun phrases inside noun phrases” (my italics).

Pinker (“The Language Instinct”): “Recall that all you need for recursion is an ability to embed a noun phrase inside another noun phrase or a clause within a clause” (my italics). Is there a better proof of Chomskyan vagueness than such opposing interpretations?

Yours

Gero Jenner

Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

As human beings we are controlled by emotions and by our intellect – at any time both are invariably involved, even if it sometimes seems as if we are dealing with either purely emotional people or pure intellectuals. A mathematic formula, for example, which to an average person may seem as cold, lifeless and repellent as a prison wall, may produce enchantment and ecstasy in a mathematician who perceives it something extremely beautiful and elegant. In other words, he experiences much the same feelings as a musician who is playing Mozart or Bach. Feelings and the intellect don’t present themselves to us with an either-or, but we may definitely speak of prevailing tendencies.

The more emotionally driven man

let’s himself get involved with an object and makes it his own step by step in ever greater depth and complexity. This is how the artist proceeds, but this is also how any normal student approaches his subject. He feels attracted by an object, then slowly acquires more and more knowledge and skills in its handling – and at some point he himself will become an expert. In the course of his studies he acquires a reputation or at least some official certificate testifying that he may with legitimate competence express himself about the matter.

Those who identify with the object of their studies in this usual way hardly ever perceive it as a problem. A classical musician is not supposed to ask himself whether it is not the mere coincidence of his birth that is responsible for the fact that he loves Bach so much instead of, say, the musical tradition of the Peking Opera. The philosopher who grew up with Kant sees the world through the eyes of the famous man from Königsberg, he usually does not ask himself why he does not see it through the glasses of Shankaracharya’s Vedanta. The intense emotional attachment to a beloved object very often virtually excludes even the mere awareness of problems. People who grow up in a certain tradition therefore often reject as unconscionable the mere attempt by outsiders to doubt, to question or to modify it. The understandable reaction of such an affective relationship then consists in the motto that one holds against any intruders: “Unauthorized persons are forbidden to enter”.

More intellectually controlled persons

seldom follow the straight and slow path of a growing emotional bond; on the contrary, they are attracted to problems and fractures without necessarily scoring with great knowledge in the first place. “Die arbeitslose Gesellschaft“,  S. Fischer, 1997 (Society without work) proved to be a publishing success, but Jenner had never attended an economics seminar. What preoccupied him was not the economics subject as such, which until then had hardly attracted his attention but something quite different: a problem. During his stay in Japan for the purpose of study and work, he experienced how this country – much like China today – was taking over more and more industrial capacities from the West. He wondered what an increasing outsourcing of industrial production to Asia (at that time mainly to Japan and the “East Asian Tigers”) would mean for Germany. This problem preoccupied him – and it was only while working on it that he, as an autodidact, acquired the necessary economic knowledge to be able to have a say in the matter.

Problem solvers may be recognized by the fact

that they turn the usual order upside down: they rarely start with years of study, gradually and lovingly deepening their understanding until they are rewarded with some official certificate; instead they get involved with some problem that challenges them, fascinates them – and this then pushes them to an often stormy conquest of the subject in question. Without doubt, this approach contradicts the above-mentioned motto, because in this case an unauthorized person gains access. In other words, problem solvers tend to do so in an unusual way, often considered improper, namely without first asking the reigning luminaries for permission.

The risk of such a procedure is obvious

We know that lots of inspired weirdos are constantly busy conjuring up solutions to all kinds of world problems from all kinds of esoteric hats. At best, such people appear as problem finders – they point out existing fractures and conflicts – but rarely do they emerge as real problem solvers. You only need to take a quick glance at the Internet to see the truth of this statement. On the other hand, no society can do without problem finders and problem solvers, because emotionally attached people often tend to be inaccessible or completely blind to fractures and contradictions. They cling to what they have learned and to their respective subject as if it were a beloved one whose beauty they not even dare to question.

As for Jenner, he was certainly lucky

Prof. Bert Rürup, then a renowned leading German economist, who acted as an economic advisor for the German government as well as for S. Fischer publishing house, supported his work (whose topic, outsourcing, may again be quite relevant in times of the Corona). In this way he paved the way for the book’s success. The usual reaction towards an outsider: “Access prohibited for unauthorized persons” was overridden by Prof. Rürup’s timely recommendation. Jenner had gained access to the ranks of the economic guild – at least for a certain time.

However, problem solvers are unpredictable

precisely because they tend to question many things that others take for granted. This was soon to be seen in the case of the newly qualified economist. Jenner undoubtedly owed Mr. Rürup a great debt of gratitude (which, of course, he only noticed later, when the latter had already turned into his enemy). Had his manuscript fallen into the hands of an average editor, instead of being presented to the distinguished economist, the editor would have asked first of all: “Is this man even authorized to comment on the subject?”. He would of course have answered this question in the negative, and the manuscript would have been rejected by the publisher with the usual haughty arrogance.

But gratitude was no reason for Jenner to accept a course of action that to him seemed not really gentleman-like. On one of the first pages of his second book published by S. Fischer “Das Ende des Kapitalismus -Triumph oder Kollaps eines Wirtschaftssystems” (The End of Capitalism – Triumph or Collapse of an Economic System), Prof. Rürup described himself as co-author – literally: “Expert advice: Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Rürup”. Since Jenner could not remember any advice even after the most strenuous self-questioning, he immediately spotted a new major problem, which he personally solved by publicly rejecting this usurpation.

Of course, Jenner should have known that in Germany such a procedure is perfectly in tune with academic ethos. Professors consider it their God-given right to have most back-breaking work done by assistants and to adorn themselves with borrowed intellectual plumes, whenever this seems opportune. Jenner believed he had to protest against this venerable tradition. That was naive, because he had, of course, soon to pay for this audacity. Mr. Rürup made sure that from then on his access to the S. Fischer publishing house would be blocked.

Two more economic works were related to obvious problems

Both were published by major editors: “Energiewende – so sichern wir Deutschlands Zukunft” (Energy turnaround – how to secure Germany’s future) in 2006 (Propyläen), when there was yet hardly any talk of the impending climate crisis. Here Jenner propagated the transition to sustainability with a slogan that became part of popular usage later after the disaster of Fukushima. Jenner literally spoke of a “national project“. However, in that book he had drawn too black a picture of the German economy. The loss of competitiveness in key German industries (especially the automotive sector) due to outsourcing and Chinese competition is only now becoming apparent.

With “Das Pyramidenspiel” (The Ponzi Scheme) on the dynamics of public and private debt published by Signum in 2008, Jenner once again attracted the attention of an economic expert, namely Prof. Gerhard Scherhorn. Scherhorn also introduced the book with a benevolent foreword. In contrast to the first-mentioned economist, Jenner still remembers this outstanding scientist with great respect, even though he did not follow the fatherly advice he received from him. Prof. Scherhorn urged him to refrain from sending his texts (newsletters) to God and the world. This, he rightly said, was simply not usual among serious academics.

A characteristic of problem finders and problem solvers

is their volatility. Jenner had acquired knowledge and interest in basic economic facts. But the economy as such had attracted him less than the preoccupation with foreign cultures, which he had turned to from the very beginning of his studies, being concerned mainly with the Indian, Chinese and Japanese cultures. During his last stay in Japan, however, a problem began to worry him, which in time was to become the problem par excellence for him, although he first encountered it where most people are usually not even aware of it, namely in language.

Germans think it is evident to call a monkey with the word “Affe”, while an Englishman says “monkey”, an Italian “scimmia”, a Japanese “Saru”, a Chinese “Houzi”. The famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure concluded that the signs that humans use for concepts are arbitrary, i.e. the outcome of chance. This view is, of course, a purely intellectual insight, which is in stark contrast to the way in which the emotionally attached person normally experiences his mother tongue. In most earlier cultures, people were convinced that the gods expressed themselves with the very same words – these could therefore by no means be merely coincidental.

Nevertheless, the reader will wonder whether it is not ridiculous to see a problem in the relationship of a concept to its sign?

No, in reality this is much less ridiculous than it seems at first glance. How far this relationship actually extends becomes obvious as soon as we relate the question to other cultural “self-evidences”. Just try to tell a Muslim that the consumption of pigs is no more and no less justified than that of cattle. Or a Christian that his faith in Jesus Christ could be explained by the coincidence of his belonging to this specific religious community just as much as a Hindu’s faith in Shiva or Vishnu. Both will react to this with utmost anger. Obviously we are dealing here with cultural positions that have been able to incite people against each other in such a way that they repeatedly bash each other’s heads.

But first Jenner “only” looked at the problem of language,

because here he was confronted with a most intriguing question. If in natural languages all individual signs (tree, monkey, cloud, etc.) are arbitrary, as de Saussure claims, does this not apply to language as a whole, namely also to all those regularities, which we refer to by the term grammar? And furthermore: if every language as a whole is a work of chance, can we expect any connecting similarities to exist between different languages? After all, there can be no similarity between mere coincidences!

This question became a problem for Jenner, which fascinated him to such a degree that it gave rise to his next and quite ambitious work. As in the case of economics, he had never dealt with the subject matter itself – in this case linguistics -, although he had learned several languages in the course of his studies. Now he immediately fell under the spell of one of the leading linguists of the time: the then Pope of Linguistics, Noam Chomsky, who had asked the same question in quite a similar way. Is there a universal linguistic ability that is common to all human beings and can be demonstrated by drawing up a Universal Grammar? Apparently such a Universal Grammar would separate linguistic chance from linguistic necessity. Although people would use arbitrary signs in any language, the rules that codify their connection in grammatical patterns would then be universal, that is, far from accidental. Chomsky believed he had discovered such universal patterns, but in their description he used the same basic concepts that traditional grammars had gained from the study of Indo-European languages. Jenner soon realized that this path was misleading. Chomsky had never understood that the basic concepts he used can’t be applied to other languages – for instance Chinese. 1

Jenner was and remains in agreement with Chomsky as to the goal

It is about the description of the universal properties of the human faculty of speech. Where does chance end, and where do we find the structural laws common to all of them? After all, there must be a Tertium comparationis – how else would could we otherwise explain that they can be translated (to a large extent, though by no means completely!).

The outer garment of their random form must be based on meanings and structures of meaning that are understood as such by all human beings. Between 1981 and 1993, when Jenner’s “Principles of Language” were published (by Peter Lang Verlag), Jenner set out to define these non-random “deep structures” together with their partly random, partly formally necessary realization in various empirical languages. From today’s perspective, much of what he wrote at that time now seems to him to be too difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. He only agrees with the revised edition of the Principles published by Amazon in 2019 (“The Principles of Language: Towards trans-Chomskyan Linguistics“).

In this case too, Jenner acted as an unauthorized outsider,

who invaded a field of knowledge that originally was quite foreign to him. But this time he did not have the chance of finding a patron who appreciated an investigation openly contradicting the prevailing paradigm. Instead, he was confronted with the typical reaction: “Unauthorized persons are forbidden to enter!” 2

The reason is not hard to discover. Renowned scientists had wasted the most precious time of a short human life on the almost superhuman task of shedding some light on the largely incomprehensible scholasticism of Noam Chomsky, and an outsider simply declares this effort superfluous, making fun of respectable scientists, so to speak, when he claims that even the basic concepts of Generative Grammar are misleading because they are simply not universal. The answer followed immediately, it was: “Don’t even ignore the outsider!” 3

And yet it was by no means absurd to assume that a linguist should have acquired a certain knowledge of his subject, i.e. a knowledge of empirical languages. It is said of Chomsky that, apart from English, he only speaks Spanish and a little Hebrew, while Jenner earned his doctorate in Sanskrit, reads and understands Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and studied at the Sorbonne (Paris), at the Università degli Studi in Rome and at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. Chomsky would, of course, not accept such an objection. He believes that he can do without trivialities such as empirical knowledge, as he carries a “homunculus” within him, as he literally confesses. Therefore, he only needs to study this tiny man in order to discover everything essential about language within himself. In other words, the knowledge of empirical languages does not really count and concern him! 4

The problem of chance and freedom

continued to be Jenner’s obsession. Having first encountered it in language it soon turned into a problem of a much more basic nature. With his book “Creative Reason – A Philosophy of Freedom (dedicated to William James)” he now ventured into a large terrain that had always intrigued him, but until then not as a particular challenge.

We noticed that in language the existence of chance is undeniable, nobody can explain why a concept like tree is “realized” with the sound prescribed for it in English while it could as well be realized by an infinite number of different signs. It must have seemed all the more strange to Jenner that since the 17th century a dogmatically held doctrine held sway over European science, namely determinism, which fundamentally denies chance and explains it as a mere indication of human ignorance. In truth, this doctrine states that all of nature, including man, is governed exclusively by laws. Chance does simply not exist. According to this view, human freedom, too, is dismissed as an illusion – more precisely, as a subjective delusion.

Creative Reason” is in its first part a historical work. The book traces the denial of chance and freedom through the philosophical history of the past three hundred years. It shows why science insisted so much on the denial of freedom and that even when quantum physics finally accepted the existence of chance, it did not know what to do with it. Chance is dismissed as blind and meaningless.

In contrast, with regard to chance and freedom

Jenner’s position is the exact opposite to the traditional one. “We cannot even think necessity without freedom (chance). A deterministic science is a logical self-contradiction because on logical grounds it presupposes the existence of freedom.” In his view, Creative Reason is of equal importance beside that Reason, which is based on the recognition of laws.

Jenner considers “Creative Reason” to be his best and most original work, because for the first time, it establishes freedom alongside necessity as a logically indispensable dimension and thus opts for a basic change of our present world view. In his view, “tantum possumus quantum scimus” (we can only do as much as we know – this statement about man, accepted since Francis Bacon) has been wrong from the start. In every moment of his personal life, each human being can and does far more than he knows. Creative Reason is a book whose aim is both to illuminate and explore the scope and limits of human reason.

In human history

the antithesis of necessity is not chance but freedom, with the essential difference between both resulting from the fact that we do not understand what we encounter as chance in nature, whereas we do sympathize with the motives of other people and are therefore able to give meaning to their as well as to our own freedom in thoughts and in acts. Why this world exists at all and why it is the way it is, we will never decipher, even if we describe existing order in thousands of laws. That is why in nature, necessity (comprising the totality of laws) is opposed to chance, which we perceive as blind and senseless, just because we are unable to endow it with any human meaning.

On the other hand, human history is so fascinating for us precisely because people always orient their own actions along some kind of meaning, which we may detect and decipher. Of course, there is necessity here as well. We can only survive in nature as long as we obey nature’s laws, but we can use these laws for purposes designed by ourselves – and indeed since the Industrial Revolution we have been doing so to an extent never seen before.

The three books

Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History – The Destiny of Mankind in the 21st Century”,Peace, War and Climate Change – a Call for New Strategies“, and finally “Homo IN-sapiens – A Short History of Human Insanity” were written by Jenner again in the capacity of a problem solver, who gropes for the meaning of history. Let us remember: in language he was concerned with finding universals beyond the arbitrariness of signs.

He now set himself the same task with regard to the differences and contrasts in culture that go beyond language – aren’t all those infinite rules concerning food, behavior and belief equally arbitrary?

The basic question remained the same: Do we find supra-cultural meaning in human history? With regard to omnipresent evil, meaning seems indeed very hard to come by. But this is certainly not the last word. At least we can always ask for the motives of human agents, and – when finding them – explain evil to a certain degree.

As to the goal of history,

however, it seems to Jenner not only possible, but downright necessary to offer a solution to this paramount problem (which from Immanuel Kant to Arnold Toynbee, had already been conceived in a similar way).

Since the second half of the 20th century, the survival of humans as a species is in evident danger. Using the huge arsenal of existing nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, it is as much in his hands to end his earthly existence as by irrevocably destroying the globe’s natural environment. For the first time in history, the goal of history becomes therefore perfectly clear. We are all in the same boat and together we must prevent it from capsizing and pulling us all into the abyss. In concrete terms, this means that we must radically change our economic system together with current politics. The problem of freedom being directly related to war and peace suddenly becomes very concrete, because man is not merely confronted with nature, but with his fellow human beings – and they pose a similar threat to his survival. In our days, the race between nations for greater economic, military and political power is the major force threatening to drive homo insapiens into insanity.

The intellectually controlled human being,

who is a problem finder and sometimes also a problem solver, who points to existing fractures, conflicts and contradictions, can only reveal insanity but not overcome it. He can show how Homo insapiens acts against his own advantage even risking his own survival. There is no lack of supreme intelligence in all modern states. Indeed, the breathtaking ingenuity of science and technology has radically transformed the face of the earth within only three centuries. But we now understand that intelligence alone does not make man a Homo sapiens. For this to happen, something else is needed, namely wisdom that springs from feelings, from sympathy for other beings, from mutual respect and help. As long as the disastrous race of nations for greater economic and military power is not ended, we can hardly hope that Homo sapiens – the wise and not the merely intelligent man – will steer history in a different direction.

For his large-scale history project

Jenner did not meet with any interest from major publishers, despite several attempts. Meinhard Miegel, a well-known German author whose writings Jenner always held in high esteem, expressed his praise both for the style and content of “Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in Human History” (referring, of course, to the German original). Miegel insisted that it must absolutely be published, and that he would like to support this if necessary with a printing cost subsidy. Not only Mr. Miegel welcomed Jenner’s new work, but Karl Acham, a renowned Austrian professor of sociology, even vouched for its scientific respectability with an extensive foreword.

Prof. Acham recommended the Springer publishing house (sociology), being convinced that his preface would open the door to the author. This time, however, things turned out quite differently from when he had offered “Die Arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (Society without work) to the Fischer Verlag. Just two days after the manuscript arrived at the publishing house, it was rejected without even being examined.

This out-of-hand rejection is not as strange as it may appear at first glance. A proofreader is hardly allowed to rely on his own opinion or that of a foreign reviewer. As in the Colosseum, where thumbs up or thumbs down decided on the life or death of a gladiator – all turns around the “placet” of one of those demigods in the German professorial sky who reserve for themselves the last word on what may or may not be published – anonymously, of course, nobody can hold them accountable. This time the motto obviously prevailed: “Unauthorized persons not allowed to enter“.

Since then, Jenner has published on Amazon

In a certain way, this kind of publication even seems to suit the author’s inclinations, for he not only finds fault with others, but often with himself as well. He continues to retouch his own writings, to add or to remove whole passages. Nothing worries him as much as when he can be proven to have made a mistake in the reception of facts or the framing of arguments (and, unfortunately that sometimes happens. Jenner is a lone fighter, so mistakes can never be wholly excluded). 5 In any case, the publication at Amazon accommodates his tendency to self-correction, because changes in both the print as well as in the Kindle edition can be done on the personal computer within hardly more than half an hour – a procedure that would be completely unthinkable at other publishers.

1 Jenner’s thesis that the basic concepts of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (verb, nouns etc.) are not universal is either right or wrong. One would therefore think that serious scientists would either accept or disprove it. But Jenner knows of no linguist who has seriously dealt with the problem. So much has the orchid subject linguistics become a “paradigm” as described by Thomas Kuhn, that no one studies its premises anymore. Although attacks on Chomsky have increased recently, the child is now being ejected with the bath: The legitimate goal of getting language as such into view, and not just individual languages, is being questioned.

2 Jenner’s habilitation thesis on linguistics, which already contained his main propositions, was rejected “for formal reasons”, although a reviewer (Prof. Peter Hartmann from Konstanz) had stood up for it in the review board. However, Prof. Bernfried Schlerath, the then full professor at the Free University of Berlin, was not to be trifled with. And that for understandable reasons: Jenner had never sat at his feet for Even a single hour.

3 Chomsky is as clear in his political writings as he is unclear in his linguistic texts. That is probably why he finally abandoned the second and embraced the first area. Even a linguist like Steven Pinker rejects the scholasticism of his academic mentor. Pinker convinces with his amazing knowledge, with a clear language and clever argumentation. Jenner criticizes Pinker for another reason: he considers him not quite honest. His idea of a prelinguistic language (mentalese) is completely on Jenner’s line, and the conclusion resulting from this premise seems obvious. Pinker, like him, would have to replace Chomsky’s basic concepts of Generative Grammar with prelinguistic ones. But Pinker shrinks from doing so, for he would then be in danger of breaking away from Chomsky altogether and standing by the side of a still ignored outsider. Here again, we experience the power of paradigms so vividly described by Kuhn. Kuhn had tracked down dogmatism in the natural sciences through their paradigms. He would have had a much easier job if he had looked for them in the humanities. If a company plans and produces new devices according to the known laws of nature, we can be sure that the laws it applies are true – otherwise the devices would simply not work. But in the humanities, the most outlandish theories can emerge with no need (and often no possibility) for their proponents to test it by confronting it with reality.

4 Homunculus science, as practiced by the late Chomsky, is questioned by David Golumbia in the essay “The Language of Science and the Science of Language – Chomsky’s Cartesianism” as a violation of the principles of an empirical science.

5 Jenner is a lone wolf, his last books have not passed through the hands of an editor, nor has he asked friends to peruse them. Sometimes this has led to mistakes that quite embarrassed him. For example, the term Anthropocene he erroneously did not use in the sense intended by its inventor Paul Josef Crutzen to designate the industrial age, but referred it to the entire history since man actively changed his environment. We know, that this already happened at the time of hunters and gatherers, when they largely exterminated the existing megafauna. Jenner corrected this mistake by using the term “Great Anthropocene”.

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When it comes to Universal and Generative Grammar – undoubtedly a central topic of the modern science of language – the prevailing attitude of linguists – even that of its American representatives – is best described as hagiographic prostration vis-à-vis its prominent author: an attitude stifling to the critical mind and that furthermore stigmatizes all those as heretics who dare to proffer their “ceterum censeo”. Continue reading The Goldsmith Paper (Prof. John Goldsmith, University of Chicago, and Dr. Gero Jenner, author of “Principles of Language” criticize Chomsky’s Universal Grammar)

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