Weekly Worker, 18 March 2010 **** Front Page

Nonsense about Chomsky

By Hannu Reime

It is fine that Weekly Worker is free from one of the besetting sins of radical left, namely sectarianism, and in the name of pluralism publishes a wide variety of viewpoints, even up to scandalous ones. Still, I think it's a bit too much to give space so generously (two long articles) to Chris Knight for his strange attacks against Noam Chomsky (WW 803, 808). Knight seems to really believe in the existence of a huge military-corporate conspiracy, where Chomsky tried, by nothing less than his political activities against the Vietnam War and other left-wing credentials, to explain away Pentagon's funding of MIT's linguistics program back in the 1950s and 1960s.

To refute Knight's scurrilous diatribes in detail would be like shooting sparrows with heavy artillery. Just to put matters straight for the readers of WW, the modern study of generative grammar, which started at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics in the 1950s, had neither then, nor has had ever since, any practical applicability, military or civilian. It is pure basic research, where the object of inquiry is the human language faculty. That was Chomsky's own view right from the beginning, although some of his colleagues at RLE were initially interested in machine translation.

The institutional reason for Pentagon's funding of linguistics at MIT up until about the middle of the 1960s was that the predecessor of the RLE had been the famous Radiation Laboratory, where for ex. radar was developed during World War II. One component of the whole complex was RLE's Acoustics Laboratory, where Morris Halle, the organizer of the future linguistics program, had been working since the early 1950s. It was Halle who arranged for Chomsky to be hired into the program.

The best way to refute Chris Knight's conspiracy fantasies once and for all would be for WW to publish a popularized but informed article by a professional linguist on the real research program of generative grammar. It would be even better if the writer had a progressive viewpoint, so that readers could see what is politically relevant in science and what is not. Presenting the contrast between culturally oriented anthropological linguistics and generative grammar with its biological view on human language in terms of a power struggle between left and right, as Knight does, is grotesque nonsense.


Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, Languages, Hannu Reime


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