Noam Chomsky, the Quixotic linguist

Mind is embodied; according to George Lakoff we can only understand how language works subjectively.

By Phil Hall

George Lakoff was one of the people involved in the Generative Semantics project. They believed there was a deep structure to meaning. But it failed. It failed because meaning is fuzzy and tautological and hardly something that can be explained in branching tree diagrammes.

But subsequently the generative semanticists, and especially Lakoff, learned from their mistakes. This lead them to a new way of explaining meaning through embodied experience as metaphor. This was their deep structure. In doing so they began to disagree with ideas of thought that were about cognition as a kind of optimised information processing.

meaning is fuzzy and tautological and hardly something that can be explained in branching tree diagrammes

Noam Chomsky, a deeply rational and lucid man, made certain assumptions based on tried and tested principles from the philosophy of science. Lakoff and others called this an objectification of something that was actually deeply subjective and experiential; namely the interplay between experience and language.

This was some time ago. Their positions haven’t changed much for 30 years.


George Lakoff, Photo from wiki by Mikethelinguist

Neurology (or more accurately, Neurolinguistics) has stepped in to try to clarify this fundamental difference in approach between Chomsky and Lakoff. If human language is simply a mechanism of a putative Universal Grammar whose parameters are set according to environment, then it might be possible to reverse engineer the brain by watching the paths of neuronal firings and observing patterns of chemical secretions and explain how Universal Grammar works at a deeper level, if not at the level of the actual substrate of the mind.

Abstract thought is well beyond the power of any machine to anatomise.

However, while neurologists can observe and even use correlations between behaviours and evolving images, they can only do this in a very broad brush way; according to moods or concrete thoughts. Abstract thought is well beyond the power of any machine to anatomise. What machine would know when your mind used the term like ‘ catachresis‘ (a failure of the will) for example?

Such correlations might well be very useful, but they explain little. For example, a Jordanian colleague of mine developed a mind controlled drone. He raised his hand. The pattern of neuronal firing was registered, and it was linked to the upward movement of a drone and so now, when the professor raises his hand or even thinks of doing so, the drone rises.

But, let’s not be blinded by the power of technology and engineering. The problem is a problem of understanding and explanation. Can language – and consciousness – be explained objectively and by looking at patterns firing on a screen? Probably not.

consciousness can only be understood from the subjective viewpoint of being conscious.

They have discovered that the brain integrates information from all its different sensory modules in addition to calling on memory, instinct, gradations of belief, motor-sensory aspects, the libido, the regulation of bodily functions, and so on. We can’t make a comprehensive list of all the mind/brain does. Jerry Fodor says that everything is integrated into a Central Processing Unit (CPU) but the analogy is unfortunate.

Yes, there is evidence for modularity of mind, and a tracing of the patterns of the way some modules of the mind share information in different circumstances and according to different pathologies: aphasia, for example. But there is nothing ‘central’ about the brain’s CPU. It is distributed in three dimensions and, according to Roger Penrose, there may also be some quantum trick to the way the mind works that we are unaware of at the moment. After all, even plants use quantum mechanics to get energy from sunlight. Photosynthesis uses quantum effects.

it is laughable to imagine that neuronal observations can help us understand complex abstract concepts from culture

Clearly, it is laughable to imagine that neuronal observations can help us understand complex abstract concepts from culture and our more intangible beliefs or values. To dismiss the reality of such beliefs and values, or to downplay them is to dismiss the reality of all subjectivity. To do so is idiotic. Such beliefs are often powerful enough to govern our lives.

Some arrogant people working in the field of computational linguistics and neurolinguistics from the USA and the UK and other developed countries believe that their cultural outlook is somehow the universal measure of all culture and societies, this colours their thought about language. Sentences, or utterances are less subject to easy conceptual disambiguation by a machine than they imagine. Correlations are crude, very crude. In the end, neurology might correlate, a little light might be shed, but neurolinguistics can’t explain what is happening.


CAT scan PET image of the brain in action, from Wiki

Lakoff, and others, including, perhaps, John Searle, would say that consciousness can only be understood from the subjective viewpoint of being conscious. You can explain your ideas and thoughts and how you feel. For example, it would be utterly impossible for a neuro-imager of some sort, no matter how advanced, to read my mind as I write this.

The problem lies in a basic and willful misunderstanding of what concepts and thoughts actually are. They do not exist outside the mind except in the form of symbols – symbols which require a human mind to meaningfully interpret them. Neurolinguistics, when the claims it makes are too strong, risks becoming a new form of phrenology.

So Lakoff, rightly so in my view, is a ‘subjectivist’ and Chomsky has retreated into narrower and narrower claims for a syntactic bit in the brain which he says is an evolutionary characteristic. He, himself dismisses the stratagems of neurologists as ‘just engineering’. Chomsky believes that, by trying to explain his bit of the brain logically, we might get an insight into the organisation of the brain/mind and (possibly) discover the physical mechanisms and structures that underlie syntax.

Neurolinguistics, when the claims it makes are too strong, risks becoming a new form of phrenology.

Chomsky is a romantic anarchist. He is also a romantic linguist. We all consider him to be the father of modern linguistics, but it is probable – in my humble opinion – that there is no descrete Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and that language, like consciousness itself, is ‘simply’ an emergent property of mind.


Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.