अनिल एकलव्य ⇔ Anil Eklavya

August 4, 2007

Has Chomsky Failed?

Filed under: Articles,Linguistics et al.,NLP — anileklavya @ 5:14 pm

There seems to be a widespread explicit or implicit assumption among many linguists as well as among people from fields which have some overlap with linguistics that Chomsky has not only failed but has refused to accept his failure. Well, I am not really a *linguist* and I am interested in cognitive and statistical approaches. Also, as a computational linguist, I am using corpus all the time. But I just can’t see why one should say that Chomsky has failed.

  • During the last fifty years or so, he has done so many things that it’s impossible to say that he has failed in all that he did
  • Even in the narrow sense, I don’t think he has failed, because as Mike has pointed out, the central idea was innateness and Universal Grammar, which has been quite a success
  • As another example, I personally think the idea of autonomy of syntax and semantics is correct and it will be proved so in the future. I can say more on this, but may be later…
  • All kinds of people have taken something from the Chomsky branch of linguistics, e.g. cognitivists. Even computer scientists.
  • Just try to imagine what linguistics would have been had behaviorism dominated the field
  • It’s really not correct to say that Chomsky has refused to ‘accept that he has failed’. I don’t remember the source or the exact words now (someone on this list surely would) but he had explicitly said that he doesn’t claim to know what exactly is the correct solution. He had written that if at all we some day find the correct solution*, most probably the (specific) solution he is suggesting will turn out to be wrong.
    • * Which we might not: his famous spider and the web example. Like the spider, we may have this great skill of language but we may never get to know how exactly we use it.
  • His churning out new theories every decade shows that he never claimed to have found the correct solution. He just claimed to be trying to get nearer to the solution.
  • I think it’s unfair to just look at his specific theories and based on their (partial) failure claim that he has failed. What he has been doing is much more than just proposing some new grammatical theories.
  • I think, on the whole, he has succeeded more than he has failed. Even his failures (if they are that) have added to our understanding of how language works.
  • A lot of his presumed failure has to do with the kind of goals he had set for himself and for linguistics. He wanted to do linguistics the way physicists do physics. No wonder he considered semantics to be out of the scope. Can anyone really claim that we can (even after his ‘failure’ and some others’ non-failure) talk about semantics in the way physicists talk about physics? I don’t think we should restrict ourselves to physics-like study and so I am not averse to speculating about semantics. I think the best work on semantics (including computational) is at the same level (on the scale of being scientific) as the political work of Chomsky. And that is quite alright because it:
    • is a sincere attempt to find the truth
    • is rigorous
    • tries to stick to really scientific methods as far as possible (not always possible)
    • may be practically useful
  • That some ways of inquiry were ‘blocked’ is as much a fault of others as his. Others could have tried new ways irrespective of what he said. That a lot (or all) of them did not is something to do with the way society works, not just about his views.
  • Language is so complex and so important a part of our psychology (and philosophy and social behavior and politics and …) that, as they say in computational theory, if this problem is solved, all the problems will be solved. Why should there be any surprise that Chomsky, or anyone else for that matter, has failed to come up with a complete and correct solution. I, for one, am extremely thankful that the mysteries of language haven’t been all solved and am hopeful that they won’t be: at least in the near future.
  • As some others have pointed out, what is the right way and what is not may depend on your purpose. If I just want to automatically identify the language of a document and a purely statistical method (learning from a small corpus) gives me the right answer almost always, statistics is the right way for me for this purpose. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Chomsky has been proved all wrong.
  • Finally, my favorite example (from Chemistry): Dalton, in his formulation of the atomic theory, confused atoms and molecules (which Avogadro later pointed out). Did Dalton fail and Avogadro succeed? In an extremely narrow sense, yes. Otherwise, not really.

(This comment was sent in reply to some mails on the corpora list).

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