Chomsky vis-a-vis the Methodology of Science

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(1) In the first part of this paper, I review Chomsky's meandering journey from the formalism/mentalism of Syntactic Structures, through several methodological positions, to the minimalist theory of his latest work. Infected with mentalism from first to last, each and every position vitiates Chomsky's repeated claims that his theories will provide useful guidance to later theories in such fields as cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. With the guidance of his insights, he claims, psychologists and neuroscientists will be able to avoid costly dead-end lines of research. (2) This never happened. As I have shown, this never could have happened. (See Johnston, 2018). What has happened, instead, is that current neurolinguistic research (with the arguable exception of the now-dated Lemma Model of Willem Levelt) proceeds without reference to Chomsky. It also wholeheartedly rejects the mentalism of the associated Language of Thought theory of Jerry Fodor. (See Johnston, 2018). (3) I make this argument in the first part of this paper. I would also like to point out that most of my argument was developed in 1972, when I was a graduate student. I know of no other sustained criticisms of Chomsky at that time, and certainly none along the lines I had developed back then. (4) In the second part of this paper, I present my own account of the methodology of science. When I was a graduate student, philosophy of science was dominated by an attempt to describe a methodology common to all the specific sciences, i.e. Hempel’s deductive-nomological model. These days, Hempel’s emphasis on the methodological unity of science has been rejected by such “dis-unity” philosophers of science as Ian Hacking, Patrick Suppes and Nancy Cartwright (see Cat, 2021). (5) I view this change as the swing of a pendulum or, to change the metaphor, a journey from one end point of a continuum to another. As the level of abstraction at which one tries to describe scientific method is raised, the descriptions become increasingly general. Whether or not unity-of-science theories become so general as to be vacuous, is ultimately a subjective judgment. And so I expect that philosophers will eventually become tired of increasingly specific “close to the workbench” descriptions of how scientists work, and begin to turn back to methodological “big pictures”, finding in them powerful abstractions rather than empty irrelevancies. (6) In the second part of this paper, I present my own account of the methodology of science, which I would situate somewhere between the “unity” and “dis-unity” accounts. However, I am not a scientist. My own views about scientific method have three origins: (6a) my work as a graduate student from 1966 until I passed my comprehensive exams in 1973 (at a different university); (6b) reading every issue of Scientific American from 1972 until nearly 2000, (at which point I continued to read it only sporadically, since I concluded that, around that time, it had evolved from a serious science magazine to a popular science magazine); and (6c) my three-year immersion in the cognitive neuroscience of language after I retired, based on repeated study of and note-taking for (Banesh & Compton, 2018), (Kemmerer, 2015), several other books and, finally, numerous articles not hidden behind a paywall. So, as always with my writings: caveat emptor.
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