Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals. Neil Smith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 268 pp.
Over the past four decades, Chomsky has been a towering presence in two completely disparate fields: linguistics, and opposition to the US government's role in world affairs. Although these two activities are entirely separate, some writers, including Neil Smith, believe that there are sufficient common strands to make it worthwhile considering them together. In particular, these strands include Chomsky's rejection of orthodoxy and his commitment to rational, meticulous analysis in everything he does. In the subtitle of this book, Ideas might be regarded as referring to the first four chapters on linguistic ideas, and Ideals principally to the fifth chapter on politics, but there is sufficient crossover that both ideas and ideals can be considered as relevant for the whole book.
I have to admit to some ambivalence concerning the juxtaposition of these two strands, especially as Smith admits (p.180) that Chomsky himself claims any link between his linguistic and political work to be "extremely tenuous". Moreover, whatever one's own political sympathies, statements such as the following do not seem to fit in very comfortably in a book on linguistics: "the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom are preparing for another unjustified and unsanctioned attack on Iraq" (p.187).
However, maybe this is missing the point, as this is a book not about linguistics, but about the ideas and ideals behind one of the most prominent thinkers of the late twentieth century, and Smith does an admirable job in presenting the material exceptionally clearly and in some detail without intruding in any way into Chomsky's personal life. Indeed, the fact that we find out so much about his theories and his philosophy while we learn almost nothing about him as a person should be quite refreshing to anyone interested in ideas rather than intrusive personal details.
Henceforth, this review will concentrate on the linguistic issues raised in this book. Chapter 2, which covers the evolution of Chomsky's ideas on syntactic structure and gives an authoritative overview of some quite difficult ideas, is a model of clarity, and this is an exceptionally valuable contribution as Chomsky's writings on the subject can, at times, be rather inaccessible to all but the specialist on syntactic theory.
Many linguists disagree quite fundamentally both with Chomsky's views and with his approach to the study of language. For example, he insists that the proper domain of linguistic studies is the grammatical knowledge of the individual, and he dismisses the language behaviour of people in society as irrelevant. Such a claim is, of course, not popular among sociolinguists, and indeed many would argue that an essential part of a person's linguistic knowledge is the ability to function effectively in society, producing utterances that are not just grammatically correct but also suitable for the occasion. Consequently, if we ignore the sophisticated knowledge behind such appropriate social interaction while concentrating solely on the syntactic structure of sentences, it can be argued that we are overlooking an essential part of human linguistic ability.
Perhaps the most controversial of Chomsky's claims, and the one that is central to all his work on language, is the assertion that knowledge of Universal Grammar is innate, so that infants just need to be exposed to some basic triggers from the speech they hear to enable them to develop a complex ability in human language in a remarkably short time, even though the input is severely impoverished as it contains many errors, false starts, and so on, and does not contain any information on the limits of grammar. This Innateness Hypothesis has been the subject of considerable debate, much of it heated, particularly with regard to whether the linguistic input available to infants is really as impoverished as is claimed.
In his discussion of these controversial issues, Smith aligns himself quite firmly on Chomsky's side. Given that they are so controversial and that many eminent scholars fundamentally disagree with Chomsky's conclusions, Smith is perhaps too dismissive of opposing views, for example claiming (p.153) that "criticism of Chomsky's view becomes irrelevant" it is hard to believe that the views of so many highly respected linguists, psychologists, and thinkers can really be dismissed so easily. However, even if one might prefer a more balanced evaluation of the issues, there is no doubt that Smith does an excellent job in presenting important and quite complex issues in a clear, accessible fashion.
Apparently, Chomsky was once called (by the philosopher Richard Montague) one of the "two great frauds of the twentieth century", but as Smith (p.4) points out, at least he is in good company, as the other great fraud was Einstein! Just as no physicist could possibly afford to ignore Einstein's Theory of Relativity, all serious linguists need to be at least reasonably familiar with the theories of Chomsky, and this book provides a very welcome guide in facilitating this.