A willingness to change his own mind

Gary Marcus, “Happy Birthday, Noam Chomsky,” The New Yorker (2012):

One of Chomsky’s most remarkable traits is his willingness to change his own mind, like Bob Dylan suddenly going electric to the consternation of his early fans. Take for example the distinction that he once made between “deep structure” and “surface structure.” In its crudest form, the notion is that an active sentence (“John loved Mary”) and a passive sentence (“Mary was loved by John”) might seem superficially different; yet they have some important underlying commonality, both in meaning and in their representation in the brain. It’s a neat idea that makes certain very specific claims about how language is represented in our mind, and how sound relates to meaning; decades of linguistic work have been based on it. It also (somewhat uncharacteristically for Chomsky) makes for a perfect sound bite; there are plenty of people who know nothing about linguistics, but have the sense that what he was talking about was “deep versus shallow”; there was an even a Nobel Prize winner, Niels Jerne, who used the metaphor in his Nobel address about language and the immune system. Most people would have lived off a metaphor that good for the rest of their careers; Chomsky has spent the past twenty-five years arguing that he made a mistake. Although the basic metaphor is simple, the distinction between deep structure and surface structure required a great deal of behind-the-scenes technical examination in order to make it work with the complexities of different languages. In its place, Chomsky has recently been trying to develop a simpler, more elegant theory (known as the Minimalist Program) that encompasses the spirit of the original. (Not all of us are convinced about the success of that approach; my own view is that language is irreducibly messy, and that the elegance that Chomsky seeks will not be forthcoming.)

More recently, in a co-written 2002 paper, Chomsky seemed to open a door to a view that he’d long criticized: the idea that the “faculty of language,” as he called it, might draw on parts of the brain that weren’t specialized for language. Up to then, Chomsky had been known in part for idea called “the autonomy of syntax,” which, in crude terms, suggested that grammar was cognitively separate from other aspects of the mind (like our understanding of the world and our desire to eat pizza for dinner). I was so surprised by the dramatic shift that I wrote to him to ask. “A lot of people take [your new] paper to be a renouncing of your earlier arguments.” Was that really the case? His response, as immediate as ever, “As for my own views, they’ve of course evolved over the years. This conception of ‘renouncing beliefs’ is very odd, as if we’re in some kind of religious cult. I ‘renounce beliefs’ practically every time I think about the topics or find out what someone else is thinking.”

Nine academics out of ten never change their mind about anything; most (though there are salient exceptions, like Wittgenstein) lock into a position earlier in their careers and then defend it to the hilt. Chomsky, in contrast, has never stopped critiquing his own theories with the same vigor with which he has criticized others. For fifty years, his search for linguistic truth has been relentless.