John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 2 Dec 1995 08:33:47 +0900

I don't know enough to say what effect Chomsky has had on anthropology as a whole, except perhaps as a demonized Other for linguistic anthropologists who insistquite properly that language as she is spoken is a messier business than
Chomsky's austere structures suggest. (Many years ago I heard Wallace Chafee
offer a wonderful image here. To Chomskyians, he said, language is like a
shiney new erector set. All the pieces are clean and new and the only interesting questions are how to put them together. The languages anthropologists study are like erector sets discovered years later in dusty attics. Some pieces are
missing. Others have been replaced by rubber bands, pencil stubs and bits of
aged bubble gum. We wonder who owned the set, what kinds of things they built
with it, and what those things meant to them. We are more interested in how
people play with the pieces than in trying to define the logical relations that limit their use.)

Be that as it may, when I was in graduate school I found Chomsky inspiring and
likewise Levi-Strauss. Both suggested the possibility of (to use L-S's image)
discovering a "Mendelevian table of the mind," a set of elements from which
all the enormous variety of cultures could be constructed. I have never seen
any contradiction between this vision and careful attention to the historical
and social particularities Chafee talks about. Knowing the table of chemical
elements is one thing. Knowing how some of the elements fit together to form
DNA, semiconductors or spaceships is another. Both are valuable chunks of knowledge.

Anyone care to call me on this?

John McCreery