academic freedom Evolution language

Reviews of Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech actually “get” what he is trying to say

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Just trying to get it is more than some might expect. From Peter Wood, Geoffrey Clarfield, Gwyneth Custred, and Carol Iannone at National Association of Scholars (NAS), 

The The Kingdom of Speech is an extraordinary display of intellectual independence.[1] This is a book that treats Charles Darwin as a toplofty prig and Noam Chomsky as a haughty fake—which is to say it aims to harpoon two of the biggest whales of modern secular thought.

Tom Wolfe, writing at age eighty-five with the deftness and assurance of Queequeg on the prow of Starbuck’s boat, undertakes these perilous ventures with his accustomed nonchalance. Having dispatched modern art in one book and modern architecture in another, why not aim a spear or two at exemplars of intellectual modernity?

We may not usually think of Darwin and Chomsky as a pair, but Wolfe traces a convincing link. Darwin struggled with and left an unsatisfactory hypothesis for the origins of human language. Chomsky, by conjuring (without much evidence) a portion of the human brain specifically wired for a universal human grammar, revived Darwin’s idea that we evolved language.

We moderns are so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as products of evolution that it might be hard to imagine an alternative. Of course our capacity for language evolved. Apes don’t speak. We do. QED.

But there is a gap between “capacity to speak” and actual speech, and it is a gap that has proven devilishly hard to bridge. (Wood) More. [And  the other three reviews follow.]

Yes. It is a reasonable question whether the mid-nineteenth century had all the answers for today. We should be grateful for scholars who are willing to ask it without canned answers from the Darwin lobby.

Note: National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. Membership in NAS is open to all who share our commitment to these broad principles. We publish a journal and have state and regional affiliates.” One suspects that the chapters at Jackboot U and We’ll Fix U are pretty small.

See also: Linguist Noel Rude on Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech

and

Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

2 Replies to “Reviews of Tom Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech actually “get” what he is trying to say

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    That’s unfair to Chomsky. Unlike most academics, he has always been ready to re-examine and adjust his theory instead of faking the facts.

    He adjusts reluctantly, which is appropriate. If everyone instantly switched to a new idea there wouldn’t be any adjustment of the NEW idea. Science was meant to work by push-pull and negotiation, and Chomsky works within that model.

  2. 2
    Belfast says:

    You can tell that a new idea is coming when you appreciate that you are witnessing the funeral of the old one.

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