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

Dr. Goldsmith’ deplorable Debacle while fighting his “Battles in the Mind Fields”

The intellectual jousting of scientists – let’s call it with Dr. Goldsmith “Battles in the Mind Fields” – may certainly arouse some interest among curious bystanders as it reveals both the open horizon of scientific discourse and its obvious limits. Continue reading Dr. Goldsmith’ deplorable Debacle while fighting his “Battles in the Mind Fields”

The Hallpike Paper – Universal and Generative grammar – a trend-setting idea or a mental straitjacket?

It is Noam Chomsky’s merit to have significantly influenced (if not created) a prominent area of modern linguistics by asking the right questions. Continue reading The Hallpike Paper – Universal and Generative grammar – a trend-setting idea or a mental straitjacket?

The Goldsmith Paper (Prof. John Goldsmith, University of Chicago, and Dr. Gero Jenner, author of “Principles of Language” criticize Chomsky’s Universal Grammar)

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)