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On Chomsky’s Linguistics

March 22, 2011 Leave a comment

It must hve been around the end of Summer that a friend of mine lent me a copy of John Lyons’ Noam Chomsky, part of a(n old) series from Penguin press called “the Modern Masters”. Well, it’s now Spring break and seizing the oportuninty, I’ve just begun to dig in. I’ve always been fascinated with Chomsky, and of course, like the rest of us, I was first introduced to him as a political dissident. Lyons’ book, however, is an exhaustive introduction to Chomsky’s contibutions to linguistics (though he does note the likely connection between chomsky’s work in linguistics and his political views). This is a side of Chomsky’s work that I’ve always wanted to get into, but have, for whatever reason, consistently failed to do.

The book is intended to be a kind of primer, to give the reader a basic enough background that she can go on afterward to Chomsky’s works themselves. Lyons begins by spending the first chapter briefly introducing the field of linguistics (the book was published in 1970, and revised in ’77 – bear that in mind). Here, he details a number of principles important to the study of linguistics:

  • Modern linguistics is a science : That is, it employs a method that can be classified as having the traits typically associated with the various sciences. WIth explicit intention to refine the use of this term in later chapters, Lyons tentatively explains that “a scientific description is one that is carried out systematically on the basis of objectively verifiable observations and within the framework of some general theory appropriate to the data.” This later point, about a general theory, seems to me to be a crucial one. Traditional grammarians were never concerned with offering an explanatory theory of language (in either it’s use, or in it’s acquisition).
  • Linguistics is autonomous from other disciplines : Though there is much connection and interrelatedness between linguistics and other studies such as psychology, philosophy, literary theory etc., nevertheless linguistics, as a science in it’s own right, performs it’s own unique tasks and asks unique questions about language.
  • Linguists maintain that spoken language is “primary” : Most linguists (at least at the time of the book’s publication) regard the range of sounds that can be produced by the “speech-organs”, is the medium in which language is embodied, and that written languages are constructed (if at all) by transfering speech to a secondary visual medium.
  • Syntax, semantics, and phonology are necessary features of the grammar of any language.
  • A linguistic theory should account for the “creativity” of human language : By “creativity” (or alternately “open-endedness”) Lyons means “the capacity that all speakers of a lnaguage have to produce and understand an indefinitely large number of sentences that they have never heard before and that may indeed have never been uttered before by anyone.”

The following chapter sketches a concise layout of the development of linguistics, up to Chomsky. Lyons offers an account of the various strands and scools within linguistics that have had important influence on Chomsky’s own revolutionary theories. In particular, he discusses the work of Franz Boas, and especially of Leonard Bloomfield, who’s thought (via Zellig Harris) was the tradition in which Chomsky was trained, but which he later came to reject.

To be continued…

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The task of faith: Carlisle’s guide to “Fear and Trembling” no. 1

August 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the first section of her dedicated guide to Fear and Trembling, Clare Carlisle suggests that for Kierkegaard “faith is not only the highest task of a human life, but the most difficult” [p4]. The difficulty of actually achieving faith, is after all, one of the central tasks Kierkegaard sets out for himself in the text – just opening up to his preface, this is immediately impressed upon the reader. But why might faith be difficult to achieve? Carlisle shows how, for the Danish existentialist, “faith has to contend with two powerful forces: doubt and sin” [p5]. Indeed, she (partially) definies faith as “the opposite of doubt, on the one hand, and the opposite of sin, on the other.” [p5]. Intuitively, I really resonate with this way of putting it. But exactlywhat is itabout faith that situates it as the opposite of both doubt and sin?

Earlier on she makes the provocative point that faith – at least as Kierkegaard understands it – contains at it’s core a tension between responsibility and humble receptivity. To this point, she notes that the title Fear and Trembling is a reference to Philippians 2:12–13, where Paul writes, “work out your faith with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This imperative entails both accepting responsibility for one’s life (work out your faith), and also rejecting self-sufficiency (it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to work for his good pleasure). Doubt then, which “undermines a person’s belief and trust in the existence and goodness of God” [p5], poses a significant, and indeed a continuous challenge to faith. For “faith is not knowledge and thus it is always susceptible to being tested by doubt.” This trust is coextensive both with one’s ability to humbly receive one’s being as a gift from God, ans well as with one’s ability to courageously take responsibility for one’s existence. I say coextensive, because, although the obvious temptation would be to say that this trust is a necessary condition for such humble receptivity, terming it in this manner would give the sense that one must have this trust prior to, and separately from one’s own intiative, from one’s act of faith – the ultimate result of which would be that we are not truly responsible for our inertia and lack of faith. But I think this is incompatible with Kierkegaard’s view.

On the other hand, faith is also significantly challenged by sin. According to Carlisle, sin, in Christian theology, denotes the universal human tendency to turn away from God, to neglect “what is deep-down most important in one’s life.” She does make the point that the concepts of sin and doubt do not necessarily have to be confined to a specifically religious context. Despite the difficulty in establishing a precise definition of terms that would allow for a coherent separation of what counts as “religious” and what counts as “secular,” there is a good point here, I think. Kierkegaard’s treatment of such categories as doubt, faith, and sin, can be applied beyond the individual’s relationship to God. We do after all, have a “relationship to ourselves.” As Carlisle says: “One might find oneself contending with self-doubt; one might have an obscure sense that one is ignoring or avoiding something within oneself that, if it succeeded in claiming one’s attention, could turn out to be integral to one’s being.” [p6.] “Sin” in this sense would basically turn out to mean something like, “being untrue to yourself” (I think I puked a little just typing that out). But I don’t think that Kierkegaard, at least not in Fear and Trembling, really makes a distinction between this kind of “relationship to ourselves,” and one’s duty to God. Somewhere in one of his podcasts from Berkeley, Hubert Dreyfus refers to this as one’s “calling.” I rather like this term for it, not least of all because it is so commonly used to refer to this sense both inside and outside of the church.

Claire Carlisle, and Kierkegaard.

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Clare Carlisle, who has published numerous works on Kierkegaard, has written an illuminative reader’s guide to Fear and Trembling. The book is entitled, simply enough, “Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: A Reader’s Guide.” – and it is part of a larger volume of like reader’s guides that the fabulous Continuum Press has released in accompaniment to many important philosophical works. I’ve been interested in Kierkegaard for a long time and have had trouble fully digesting his works on my own. My girlfriend, God bless her, doesn’t have a single philosophical bone in her body – she has been reading and discussing Carlisle’s guide along with me. Both of us have found her writting beneficial.

The first Chapter is an overview of themes and context. Some subsections focus on a particular of what Carlisle percieves are the books major themes, others discuss certain relevant issues outside the text (if indeed there is anything outside the text). The subsections include:

i. The Task of Faith: Relating to God

ii. Faith and Gift

iii. Soren and Regine: Fidelity, Love and Truth

iv. Spheres of Existence: Aesthetic, Ethical and Religious

v. Religion and Ethics: Faith and Reason

vi. Critique of the Modern Age – and of Modern Philosophy

vii. Telling Stories – and Who is Johannes De Silentio?

I will briefly discuss each of these sections in a series of “blahgs”. Some sections I found to be of more interest than others, some where, I felt, more provocative of thought or discussion, while others seemed merely informative. Those sections which provoked more thought for me personally, will be discussed at greater length. Some of those I found less interesting may not even be discussed at all. I do whatever I want.