The Linguistics Wars

Author: Randy Allen Harris
Year: 1993
Genre: Linguistics

I came to this book hoping that Harris would be the Stephen Jay Gould of linguistics: someone who understands the field well, and can explain major ideas in their historical context. Upon reading, though, The Linguistics Wars strikes me more as an academic Homicide: an intimate portrait showing that science is a dirty business done by real, flawed human beings.

Our story begins with Noam Chomsky as a rising star of linguistics and philosophy in the 1950s, and then focuses primarily on the well-established Chomsky c. 1970 and his conflict with a group of former students who broke off to follow a research program called "generative semantics." While the substance of generative semantics and its differences from Chomsky's "interpretive semantics" program do receive some attention, Harris spends far more time on the personal antipathy between Chomsky and the generative semanticists, most notably George Lakoff. I was left with an impression that, whatever the respective merits of the generative and interpretive theories may have been, the actual unfolding of the debate had more to do with personality than with science.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- necessarily. An early stage of the debate, it seems, was scientifically productive. The dislike that grew between the two camps did inspire its share of nasty ad hominem and polemic, but also caught linguists by their competitive instinct, resulting in some of the field's most original and influential research. With time, though, scientific debate gave way to personal sniping, and eventually, the generative program fizzled and the "wars" faded away.

The moral of the story is that scientific "progress" is largely a product of the culture that the scientists inhabit. (Maybe the comparison of Harris to Gould is not so far wrong, then; see my review of The Mismeasure of Man.) In the case of Chomsky et al. vs. Lakoff et al., that means the culture of research in modern theoretical syntax; and as Harris points out, it's not inaccurate to say that Chomsky, the ultimate victor in the Linguistics Wars, had founded that culture. In a larger sense, though, it also means the culture of the United States in the 1960s and '70s. While Chomsky was (and remains) an outspoken political ultra-liberal, Chomsky-the-academic is deadly serious and strictly authoritarian. (Perhaps he inspired the discussion in Lakoff's Moral Politics of people who are both politically progressive and academically conservative.) Harris contrasts this with a picture of the generative semanticists as academic hippies, bringing the "sex-drugs-rock & roll" counterculture and its collectivist ethos to their way of doing linguistics. Their hypotheses were grand and their failures public; they promised a map of the human mind that, in the end, they could not deliver.

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