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Chomsky's Revolution: An Exchange

By Noam Chomsky, Reply by John R. Searle

In response to CHOMSKY'S REVOLUTION (APRIL 25, 2002)

The New York Review of Books

VOLUME 49, NUMBER 12 · JULY 18, 2002

To the Editors:

John Searle's response to Sylvain Bromberger's letter [NYR, April 25] compounds the severe
misinterpretations of work on language of the past fifty years presented in his earlier articles,
corrected in the letter to which he responded.

Searle believes that this work (generative grammar within the biolinguistic framework,
henceforth GG) was initially concerned with topics that interest him: following such rules as
"drive on the right." His claim that the "revolution" failed is based on the observation that no one
interested in GG now pursues his project. That is true, for a simple reason. Searle's project was
never entertained, in fact never even mentioned in the past fifty years except to stress—explicitly,
forcefully, and unambiguously—that GG adopted a conception of the nature, use, and acquisition
of language in which his notions play no role at all.

True, the word "rules" was used in GG, adapted from traditional scientific grammar, but in a
sense utterly unrelated to Searle's usage. As Bromberger observed, rules are understood to be
elements of the computational systems that determine the sound and meaning of the infinite array
of expressions of a language; the information so derived is accessed by other systems in language
use. That much is evident on the most cursory look at the earliest work, and everything since.

Consider Searle's most "striking feature of the failure" of his "revolution": that "even the
apparently most well-substantiated rules ...have been quietly given up," specifically, the rule
converting "John loves Mary" into "Mary is loved by John." It is true, as he says, that "nobody
thinks that anymore," because no one ever did. The rule could not have been "given up" because
nothing remotely like it was even formulable in the GG framework. An array of rules was indeed
proposed to describe the properties of passive constructions in English, though with no
resemblance to Searle's proposal. As anticipated from the outset, there were serious flaws in the
first attempts to deal with phenomena that had, in large measure, never even been noticed before
the first efforts to construct explicit rule systems.

Since the 1950s, proposals have been revised and improved as more has been learned, though not
"quietly"; rather as explicitly and loudly as possible. The reason is that these successive steps
(still continuing) have been regarded as progress toward the original goal: to show that
phenomena that appeared to require rules of great intricacy and diversity in fact followed from
the interaction of far simpler rules that might be true invariants, holding for many constructions
in typologically distinct languages. The long-term goal has been, and remains, to show that
contrary to appearances, human languages are basically cast to the same mold, that they are
instantiations of the same fixed biological endowment, and that they "grow in the mind" much
like other biological systems, triggered and shaped by experience, but only in restricted ways.

For clarity, the invariant rules proposed in the past forty years have been called "principles." But
apart from invariance, simplicity, explanatory power, and empirical scope, the principles are
"rules" in the earliest sense—though never in anything like Searle's sense—and the general
project remains effectively unchanged.

About twenty years ago, a great deal of work along these lines, with many participants here and
abroad, crystallized in a conception of language that was sharply different from those that had
guided linguistic research for thousands of years, including early GG. This "Principles and
Parameters" (P&P) conception sought to eliminate language- and construction-particular rules
entirely in favor of invariant principles associated with a finite range of options, yielding the
particular human languages as these "parameters" are assigned values in the course of language
acquisition. This was a welcome step forward, providing the first clear idea to how to resolve the
tension that had driven research from the outset: between "descriptive adequacy" (which seemed
to require elaborate and diverse rule systems) and "explanatory adequacy" (accounting for
superficially varied phenomena on restricted and principled grounds). See Mark Baker's recent
Atoms of Language [Basic Books, 2001] for an expert and accessible account of the current state
of these endeavors.

Searle bases his "abandonment" thesis on a statement of mine that he has cited several times but
completely misunderstands: that the P&P approach "reject[s] the concept of rule and grammatical
construction entirely: there are no rules for forming relative clauses in Hindi, verb phrases in
Swahili, passives in Japanese, and so on." This statement (which is twenty years old) is part of a
summary of the goals of the P&P approach, pointing out that if it succeeds, language-particular
constructions such as those mentioned will be shown to be taxonomic artifacts, rather like aquatic
mammals. That would be an important step toward the original goals, which remain unchanged,
along with the centrality of rules.

Searle persistently misconstrues a simple terminological point, and misses entirely the reasons or
the change of terminology from "rules" to "principles," discussed without ambiguity in the
passage to which he refers. Fixated on his personal usage of the term "rule," he fails to
comprehend that the basic concepts and goals remain unchanged though there were far-reaching
substantive changes in what the rules were taken to be (if invariant, called "principles"). If
correct, these steps advance the earlier project considerably. Whatever their fate turns out to be,
there is no serious doubt that they played a large part in the unprecedented flourishing of
empirical and theoretical inquiry into language in the past twenty years, and in the important
achievements in related areas that were reshaped and revitalized in these terms.

There are serious questions that should be raised: Was the project that took shape fifty years ago
properly conceived? Have the various efforts to pursue it been on the right track? Have they led
to substantive progress in the biolinguistic program, as many (including me) believe? Searle
cannot address these questions, because, despite the authoritative tone, he has never understood
what the project was in the first place, or how it has been pursued. Some of the other issues that
he mentions may be worth discussing, but not unless some ground rules are observed.

Noam Chomsky
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

John Searle replies:

I believe that Noam Chomsky's letter seriously distorts the claims I made in my review of his
book and evades the issues I tried to raise. I will briefly try to set the record straight.

1. Rules. Chomsky thinks that I suppose the rules of grammar are regulative rules like the rule
"drive on the right." That is not true. In my article, I introduced a reference to driving on the right
as an example to show how rules can function causally in behavior; but in the article I also
distinguish between "regulative" and "constitutive" rules. Regulative rules regulate antecedently
existing activities like driving. Constitutive rules create the very possibility of the activities they
regulate, for without the rules there is no activity to regulate. Human languages—like chess,
money, private property, and government—are matters of constitutive rules, because to speak
English—or play chess—for example, one must follow (at least a large subset of) the rules.

The rules of generative grammar were intended to be constitutive in this sense. The chief
difference between me and Chomsky was not over whether there really were constitutive rules of
generative grammar, but their relation to consciousness. I thought that unconsciously functioning
rules had to be the kind of rules that could be conscious; Chomsky disagreed. Indeed, four of the
features of rules in Chomsky's early work were that the rules functioned unconsciously, were not
even accessible to consciousness, were constitutive, and functioned causally. The rules have to be
causally real in order to explain linguistic behavior. The speaker's competence consists in a
mastery of the rules and his competence gives rise, though often imperfectly, to his performance.
Competence is the competence to perform. And in order to function causally the rules have to be
constitutive in my sense, because prior to the rules there is nothing to operate causally on. There
is no set of physical properties sufficient to determine all and only English sentences (or games of
chess or married couples or governments), because such things exist only within systems of rules.

Does Chomsky seriously deny that he held this conception? I went to MIT in the 1960s to do
research with Chomsky precisely because I was writing a book on these and related issues (later
published as Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language, Cambridge University Press,
1969). In discussions, lectures, writings, etc. there was never any doubt that the rules of grammar
were causally real, constitutive, and unconscious. I later wrote an article in this journal,
"Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics" [NYR, June 29, 1972], explaining these developments. Is
he now really claiming that there never was a "revolution" of the sort I described, and there never
were supposed to be real rules that constituted linguistic competence? If so why did he wait thirty
years to say so? He has written about my views and reactions to his work on several occasions; so
far as I know, he has never before denied that he had put forward the explanatory apparatus
attributed to him.

The comparison between generative grammar and traditional grammar is illustrative. The
objection to traditional grammar was not that it postulated real rules that people really followed,
but rather that it was incomplete and unformalized. The competence of the native speaker was not
explained but presupposed. We had to assume a contribution by the native speaker in order to
understand the statement of the rules.

2. Active and passive. Chomsky claims there never was a rule for statements in the passive voice
of the sort I described. I left the technical details out of my account. For the sake of simplicity I
described the rule as converting active sentences to passive ones. But of course that is not
technically correct. Transformational rules do not operate on sentences but on underlying phrase
markers, themselves generated by the phrase structure rules that are a component of the grammar.
I thought I might spare the readers of this journal these details, because they did not seem
relevant to the point I was trying to make. But there definitely was a passivization rule. I heard
Chomsky explain it in detail in lectures at MIT and read it in his books.

3. The paradigm change. In my exchange with Sylvain Bromberger we agreed that Chomsky's
conception of the subject matter of linguistics had not changed, but I argued both there and in my
original review that the original paradigm had failed and that the current research program used a
different explanatory apparatus. In his letter Chomsky denies this. But I think a close reading of
his letter shows that he tacitly accepts it. He writes of his current conception of language that it is
"sharply different from those that had guided linguistic research for thousands of years, including
early GG" (generative grammar). And about the principles and parameters (P&P) approach he
writes that it "sought to eliminate language- and construction-particular rules entirely in favor of
invariant principles...." One wonders how the research program could eliminate language- and
construction-particular rules entirely if it had not accepted them in the first place.

Again, when he writes that the P&P approach "reject[s] the concept of rule and grammatical
construction entirely: there are no rules for forming relative clauses in Hindi, verb phrases in
Swahili, passives in Japanese, and so on," the clear implication is that the previous explanatory
model accepted rules for forming relative clauses, etc., and this acceptance is now found wanting,
and has been abandoned. Chomsky cannot have it both ways. He cannot say there never was a
paradigm shift, and besides the new paradigm is better.

4. Normative criteria. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Chomsky is right about the
history of the subject and that he never thought there were any rules of grammar in the literal
sense of "rule." Then it seems to me the situation becomes worse and not better. Here is why.
Actual sentences of actual human languages are human artifacts; they are not natural biological
phenomena like photosynthesis or synaptic transmission. The fact that a string of words is a
sentence of English is not a brute fact like the fact that I have a pain; it is a special sort of fact, an
institutional fact, in that it presupposes the existence of a human institution, the English language
with its constitutive rules. (It is not an objection to this point to claim that the institutions are
realized in individual human brains as internal or "I-languages.") As human artifacts created
within human institutions, sentences of French, or English, or any other language have a special
normative status: their utterances will fit or fail to fit certain normative criteria such as being ill-
formed or well-formed. For example, in my dialect of English one criterion would be whether a
singular subject will have a singular verb. To say "he are here" would not fit the criterion. What
is the source of these normative criteria? There have to be constitutive rules (or some such
apparatus) of natural languages in order to account for the existence of such normative criteria.

Chomsky would like to treat linguistics as a natural science, but this kind of normative standard
has no analogue in natural science. Under certain stimuli my nervous system will produce a
sensation of pain, under certain other stimuli it will also produce an utterance of an English
sentence, but there is a huge difference. There is no analogue to grammaticality and
ungrammaticality where pains are concerned. There has to be something like "rules for using
singular or plural verbs," etc. to account for the fact that speakers can do it rightly or wrongly.

I could not figure out from the book I reviewed what Chomsky thinks the relation of competence
to performance is. How do the "invariant principles" relate to the actual performance of speech
acts? Perhaps he discusses it in another work, but there has to be some account of this central
question in linguistics: How does the speaker's mastery (internalization, knowledge) of the rules
of the language relate to his speech behavior? And any such account has to deal with the
normativity of the phenomena.

5. Computation and natural science. What about Chomsky's appeal to "computational

procedures"? Is that sufficient to account for the data we need to explain? As I pointed out in my
article the notion of computation is not defined in Chomsky's book, and is ambiguous in popular
speech. There is a pre-Turing sense in which "compute" just means figure out. And there is a
contemporary technical sense in which computation is defined in terms of the implementation of
algorithms, using symbols, normally in a binary system.

Which is Chomsky's use? It can hardly be the former because the computational rules would then
be of the sort that he is denying. But if the latter, then computation exists only relative to an
observer. Chomsky would like linguistics to become a natural science, but "computation" does
not name a phenomenon of natural science like photosynthesis or neuron firing, rather it names
an abstract mathematical process that we have found ways to implement in commercial hardware
and which we can often interpret as occurring in nature. Indeed, just about any law-like process
that can be described precisely can be described computationally. Thus some scientists describe
the stomach in computational terms ("the gut brain") but we all know there is no mental life in
the stomach and no zeroes and ones. Computation is not discovered in nature, rather it is assigned
to it.

Is it reasonable to suppose on the basis of what we know that the attempt to make linguistics a
natural science is a plausible or even well-defined research program? The problem is not merely
that Chomsky is involved in some very implausible assumptions—for example, that all concepts
are innate, including concepts like "bureaucrat" and "carburetor"—but that several of the
fundamental notions he discusses, such as sentence, grammaticality, and, above all, computation
are observer-relative, or normative, or both, in ways that have no echo in natural science. It is
often tempting in the human sciences to aspire to being a natural science; and there is indeed a
natural science, about which we know very little, of the foundations of language in the
neurobiology of the human brain. But the idea that linguistics itself might be a natural science
rests on doubtful assumptions. I have tried to make clear some of those doubts, and nothing
Chomsky says in either his book or his letter has answered my doubts.