Everett’s Five Favorite Linguistics Books.

John Emerson sent me this Five Books interview with Daniel L. Everett (of Pirahã fame), saying “I find it very interesting”; I responded, “It is indeed. It grates on me to read praise for Chomsky and Wittgenstein, but I enjoyed reading it and learning about those important doorstop books I’ll never read.” (There was a long and, uh, vigorous LH thread about Everett and Chomsky a few years back. And yes, I know, Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy, but I’m not a philosopher and pretty much everything he said about language seems to me both wrongheaded and excessively praised.)

Comments

  1. Frantsevitch says:

    And yes, I know, Wittgenstein revolutionized philosophy, but I’m not a philosopher and pretty much everything he said about language seems to me both wrongheaded and excessively praised.

    Is that to say it seems so to you because you’re not a philosopher? But then you’re not a linguist either, are you?

  2. I love the anecdote about reading Chomsky’s unpublished papers in the Amazon. There’s an amusing (if exasperated) correction in the comments, too.

  3. Is that to say it seems so to you because you’re not a philosopher?

    Yes. If I were a philosopher, I would probably care about his contributions to philosophy. Because I’m not, and have no training or special interest in philosophy, I don’t. I would have thought that was clear enough. Similarly, someone with no special interest in linguistics might say “People make a big deal of Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics, but I’m not a linguist, so what I care about is his political views.”

    But then you’re not a linguist either, are you?

    Not by profession, no, but I have a master’s degree in linguistics and have always cared about the field. And I have vivid memories of being made to take a course in Chomskyan linguistics in grad school, which (as I have said before) is much like having to take a course in Marxism-Leninism in the good old USSR — not only a waste of time but an insult to the intelligence. Unless, of course, one is a true believer.

  4. J. W. Brewer says:

    “So like Freud’s unconscious, Chomsky’s universal grammar was an important idea in the history of thought. The fact that it’s wrong – that’s just the way things turn out sometimes.” That’s rather qualified praise, especially since it ought to be obvious that Freud was a charismatic charlatan who attracted unpleasantly cult-like followers who collectively retarded scientific progress in an important field of inquiry for several generations.

    (FWIW I don’t recall Wittgenstein’s ideas about language striking me as wrongheaded but I haven’t focused on them in detail since I was in college and maybe if I went back I would think they hadn’t aged well.)

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    “So like Freud’s unconscious, Chomsky’s universal grammar was an important idea in the history of thought. The fact that it’s wrong – that’s just the way things turn out sometimes.” That’s rather qualified praise, especially since it ought to be obvious that Freud was a charismatic charlatan who attracted unpleasantly cult-like followers who collectively retarded scientific progress in an important field of inquiry for several generations.

    (FWIW I don’t recall Wittgenstein’s ideas about language striking me as wrongheaded but I haven’t focused on them in detail since I was in college and maybe if I went back I would think they hadn’t aged well.)

  6. Once upon a time, I was a physics student at Cornell– and I attended a lecture by a famous Wittgensteinian philosopher. He claimed there was a form of speech that could be interpreted as implying that an effect could temporally precede a cause, and consequently, that an effect could, in fact, temporally precede a cause. I wasn’t convinced, and neither were the other physicists in the audience. I suppose it’s possible that he was just pulling our collective leg.

  7. Stefan Holm says:

    …being made to take a course in Chomskyan linguistics…

    That would explain what always has puzzled me on the eastern side of the pool: Why is Chomsky, even outside the field of politics, so controversial over there? It isn’t really the man himself or his ideas that are at stake but the dominance of his followers in the educational system – right?

    To me the concept of ‘universal grammar’ is best illustrated by another controversial fellow who was a master of simplification. In his little red book chairman Mao stated: In a suitable temperature an egg is transformed into a chicken but no temperature in the world can transform a stone into a chicken.

    In my book that translates: The universal (disposition for) grammar is all there within the egg but the temperature (environmental conditions) decides the specific outcome of it (within the limits given by the egg).

  8. Cause and effect are specific terms for our way of structuring reality. We believe that there are universal laws and initial conditions. The laws we cannot change, but initial conditions is possible to affect. If we change the conditions at time t than the unchanging laws lead to different outcomes at times >t (I’m ignoring relativity, of course). If we believed that everything is predetermined and therefore there is no way to change even initial situation there would be no sense in the cause/effect pair. Or if we believed (as Aristotle) in the “final cause” we would structure the reality completely differently.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    I don’t think the Aristotelian notion of final cause requires a different way of talking about temporal sequence, because the point is that the telos of such-and-such a thing has been present in the situation from the beginning even though it does not manifest itself until later in the process. If anything, it turns out to be rather difficult to talk in non-technical terms about what we officially believe are blind/random/non-teleological natural processes (the evolution of species to take the most obvious example) without lapsing into teleological rhetoric. I think that’s more likely a fact about our psychology or folk-metaphysics (e.g. even atheist-materialists tend to reify/anthropomorphize natural processes and talk about them as if they have conscious goals and intentions) than about the structure of our grammar, however.

  10. Natural and artificial processes both. It’s practically impossible to do computer programming without teleo-talk.

  11. “That’s rather qualified praise, especially since it ought to be obvious that Freud was a charismatic charlatan who attracted unpleasantly cult-like followers who collectively retarded scientific progress in an important field of inquiry for several generations. ”

    The parallels with Chomsky are obvious.

  12. Indeed!

  13. I think that overstates the case. Freud and Chomsky had new ideas that demolished an existing, stultified orthodoxy; unfortunately, they carried the new ideas too far and created a new and far more stultifying orthodoxy.

  14. Stefan Holm says:

    Do you deliberately try to connect Chomsky with Freud? I think Freud and Everett have far more in common than anyone of them have with Chomsky. They are both psychologizing, allude to the noble savage, have an underlying concept that culture and technology is the root of distress and anger, dream of something pristine (feminine) within us that has been suppressed by civilization (the garden of Eden – or libido) and know their Jean Jaques Rosseau all too well.

    At least those consevative, not to say reactionary, tendencies à la recherche du temps perdu I don’t find in Chomsky. Maybe he could be blamed for misuse of the mathematical term ‘recursion’. That’s however all over the place in the humanities, where ‘energy’, ‘waves’, ‘momentum’ etc. are used in a way that makes scientists just tired.

  15. You’re paying too much attention to psychology and politics and too little to scholarship. The point is that both Chomsky and Freud oversimplified wildly and ignored evidence in order to create monstrous webs of personal influence staffed by genuflecting disciples. Whatever Everett’s failings (which have nothing to do with “reactionary tendencies”), he’s trying to present actual evidence from an actual language and being shouted down by the disciples.

  16. J. W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps Chomsky is more Cartesian than Rousseauian. Unhelpful French philosophers come in a variety of flavors, and whether their errors harmonize with each other seems like the sort of detail that can be left to the specialists.

    There are perhaps weaker and stronger versions of not-being-a-Chomskyan. The weaker version would be something like “he asked the right questions, thereby transforming the field, but his particular answers were generally wrong (and his henchmen were often not very nice people in the hurly-burly of academic politics); nonetheless, the field has advanced as people eventually came up with better answers than he did to the questions he had posed.” Everett sounds like he might have that perspective. The stronger version is something like “he asked stupid questions (often stupid in a clever-sounding way characteristic of over-abstracted rationalists who have no clue about how to study actual living human beings and their interactions) whose answers were necessarily either trivial or incoherent, but then hijacked the field and created a situation in which the more interesting and important questions were for a period of time thought not worthy of serious scholarly investigation, thereby causing tremendous damage that the field is still trying to recover from.” I think that might be closer to hat’s perspective.

  17. Well said, and I think largely accurate. He did ask some good questions (having been trained by Harris), but went off the rails right away.

  18. That’s rather qualified praise, especially since it ought to be obvious that Freud was a charismatic charlatan who attracted unpleasantly cult-like followers who collectively retarded scientific progress in an important field of inquiry for several generations.

    I’m with John Cowan. There’s certainly plenty wrong with Freud, but I think the above exaggerates the damage done to psychology and, to go further than John, ignores Freud’s accomplishments as a philosopher. Other psychologists were on to Freud’s charlatanism from the moment he claimed to have discovered the unconscious — Pierre Janet, e.g., claimed to own the paternity of many of Freud’s ideas — and Behaviorism was flourishing by the time a significant portion of the bourgeoisie came to believe”that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts,” to quote Nabokov (although perhaps someone knows better than I do when psychoanalysis and psychology were fully differentiated and if the former did in fact interfere with the latter, i.e., I could be wrong). I don’t quite feel up to defending Freud’s influence on culture — Freud as philosopher — but I can point you to Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, specifically its second chapter (unfortunately not available in the preview, at least not the relevant pages), which made me reexamine my opinion of Freud.

  19. Oh, Freud was without question an important thinker, and I loved a lot of what I read by him in college; it’s just too bad he had a Napoleonic complex combined with an indifference to, you know, facts.

  20. With that I agree in full!

  21. Though I’d still urge you, and everyone else, to check out the Rorty if you get the chance. Maybe I’ll find time soon to do some extreme pasting from my Kindle copy (the argument builds in a way that it’s impossible to single out paragraphs without losing a lot).

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    It is possible that the more scientifically-minded faculty in psychology departments got out from under Freud’s influence fairly quickly so the academic damage was more with pop-Freudians subsequently running wild in English departments and other places in the academy with weaker defenses. I was as it happens taught philosophy of language as an undergraduate (eek, 28 years ago this semester) by Jonathan Lear, now at the University of Chicago, who claimed to be either (I can’t remember which sequence he used) an Aristotelian Freudian or a Freudian Aristotelian (and who had done formal training in psychoanalysis as well as getting a Ph.D. in philosophy). Although the syllabus mostly featured a lot of stuff like Wittgenstein hat might not have enjoyed, and I think he mostly tried to teach us the “mainstream” (= boring analytical-in-a-different-sense dudes) view of the subject as it then stood without throwing in any idiosyncratic Freudian insights. If he had, I probably would have tried to come up with a Jungian and/or Reichian response, being young and irresponsible in those days.

  23. no temperature in the world can transform a stone into a chicken

    Mao was a scientific genius.

  24. Doesn’t Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” idea anticipate the basic idea of prototype theory, which underlies much of modern lexical semantics (particularly on the cognitivist, non-Chomskyan side)? I don’t know the intellectual history well enough to say to what extent Wittgenstein’s idea inspired later developments, but it seems like an insightful observation about language, and one which later became mainstream, and important, in linguistics.

  25. Wittgenstein didn’t know enough about linguistics to make contributions to it. He was introspecting about language as people (including philosophers) have been doing more or less forever, but he lived in a time when actual linguists were writing scientifically about language, and if he were going to shoot off his mouth about the subject he should have studied their results and taken them on board. It just really gripes me that the science of language gets so little respect that people think you can contribute to it just by thinking hard, whereas anyone who tried to do that in, say, astrophysics would be laughed out of court. No linguist I know of was inspired by Wittgenstein, though I’m not saying there aren’t any — I haven’t kept up with the field for quite a while. But it seems unlikely, just as it seems unlikely that any physicists have been inspired by The Dancing Wu Li Masters.

  26. (As you can see, I am not calm and even-handed on this subject; I have been buttonholed by too many philosophy majors, including my own brother, eager to share with me the brilliant contributions of the great philosopher to the study of language.)

  27. David Marjanović says:

    It just really gripes me that the science of language gets so little respect that people think you can contribute to it just by thinking hard, whereas anyone who tried to do that in, say, astrophysics would be laughed out of court.

    Lots of people believe they’re experts on language – after all, they speak one.
    – quoting Justin B. Rye from memory

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