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The intelligent, well-informed reader who knows of Chomsky, but not all about Chomsky, would be well-advised to begin this Where-I-Stand treatise with the last chapter--a reasonably accessible presentation of Chomsky's definitions of linguistics and language; of "competence," grammatical and pragmatic. The chapter begins with homage to Eric Lenneberg, and does much to put in perspective Chomsky's quarrels with contemporary schools of linguistics and psychology (not just Skinner, but also Piaget), encapsulating what the preliminary chapters do ad nauseum: attack opponents with scholarly put-downs. Essentially, Chomsky defends his notion that the rules governing linguistic expression are universal and innate, part of the genotype which grows and matures to a steady state, all the while shaped by culture and circumstance. No reason for such a stance to be rejected as "purely hypothetical," he says; no reason for the dichotomy in the human sciences between empirically verifiable "psychological reality" (like reaction time) and abstract hypotheses (like universal unconscious grammatical principles). Physics, he says, never suffered such a dichotomy; and he is right. That said, Chomsky argues that his ideas are eminently testable and chides his critics as dogmatists. Much of this is hard going, assuming a competence at sentence-analysis in Chomsky's mathematico-logical style, not to mention familiarity with less well-known challengers. Chomsky's attack on empiricism and the "poverty of the stimulus" argument seem well-taken, but he is open to question on a number of fronts, including the inaccessibility of the unconscious and the uselessness of introspection. Still, this controversial scholar may have the edge over his detractors: he can point to a complex innate structure for the visual system and maintain, congruently, that the methods of natural science are the ultimate criteria by which rival linguistic schools will stand or fall. Difficult but not unrewarding.
Pub Date: April 1st, 1980
ISBN: 0231132700
Page count: 360pp
Publisher: Columbia Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1980


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