Is the Cognitive Revolution here yet?



I’m in the heart of London for a few days attending a British Academy conference headlined “The Cognitive Revolution 60 Years On.” The cognitive revolution we are supposed to be reflecting on was not specified, but no linguist would be in any doubt about it: They mean the one that Noam Chomsky is commonly held to have started by introducing bold claims about psychology and philosophy into a somewhat scandalized American linguistics profession.

The profession was at the time rather small and cliquish. There were few full departments of linguistics; many American linguists worked in departments of anthropology or English or German or classics. They were much interested in the rigorous statement of approved methods of analysis. They did not engage in speculation about the human mind and its cognitive and reflective powers, or the 17th-century notion that much of our infrastructure for language and thinking is inborn.

The phrase “60 years on” implies a focus on 1953. Was that the year of the revolution? Hardly. Chomsky was a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard, and published his first journal article in that year. It appeared in The Journal of Symbolic Logic, and attempted to axiomatize certain procedures of structural analysis that the linguists of the time took for granted. It was much closer to logic and mathematics than was customary at the time, but it was certainly a contribution to the mainstream. The revolution had not yet begun.

When did it begin? Between 1953 and 1955 Chomsky worked mostly alone on syntactic theory, composing what became a very large typescript called The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (one chapter of it had sufficed to earn him his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, in 1955). But it was full of abstract quasi-algebraic notation, and thoroughly unlike anything that linguistics was then doing, and Chomsky didn’t publish any of it until 20 years later. That was not the revolution.

After the award of his Ph.D., Chomsky got a teaching job at MIT, where his friend Morris Halle suggested he give a course of lectures on his view of syntactic theory. Those lectures were published in February 1957 by a small Dutch publishing company, Mouton, as a book called Syntactic Structures. It made the first big splash in Chomsky’s career.

But the book is utterly bare of references to cognitive psychology, or the failings of behaviorism, or the powers of the human mind, or the species-limited nature of linguistic abilities, or the difficulty faced by an infant attempting to acquire such abilities, or the limited information the infant has about what to acquire, or the possibility of a rich genetically transmitted innate intellectual endowment that does the bulk of the work before the child is even born. Such topics are absent from Syntactic Structures.

Moreover, close reading of the linguistics of the 1940s reveals that those topics were sometimes touched on by linguists before Chomsky. Charles Hockett reflected a bit on such matters, for example, as early as 1948. Syntactic Structures was not the revolution.

When was this revolution of which the British Academy’s conference title speaks? It’s not easy to say. Perhaps it started with Aspects of the Theory of Syntax in 1965, the book in which Chomsky first made clear the depth of his commitment to mental phenomena and innate ideas. Perhaps it only began in the 1970s, as psycholinguistics really got under way, or the 1980s, as cognitive science started to become a field in its own right. Perhaps it’s still going on now. Some people at this conference think it hasn’t actually happened yet.

So maybe revolution is not quite the right metaphor here. I know Thomas Kuhn taught us that science develops through revolutions, the detailed work being done under the assumptions of the last one during periods of “normal science.” And it’s an exciting thought, the idea of an annus mirabilis when the whole conceptual world turns upside down, and what was formerly nonsense becomes accepted science (and vice versa), and old guys who don’t get with the program are left to face an embittered retirement. But I’m inclined to think it isn’t quite like that as viewed from within the science.

The 1950s must have been an extraordinarily exciting time to be in Cambridge, Mass., where so many developments were beginning to come together, and Chomsky was at the heart of it, a major mover and shaker. But I doubt that there was ever a watershed year when the whole applecart of assumptions was overturned and linguistic and psychological science was born anew. From inside the discipline it always feels more gradual, a matter of glacial evolution rather than violent revolution. So perhaps 2013 is as good as any other year to celebrate 60 years of progress on understanding language and thought.