Chomsky and Levi-Strauss

Michael D. Fischer (M.D.Fischer@UKC.AC.UK)
Sun, 10 Dec 1995 23:26:01 GMT

There have been a few recent messages suggesting a direct technical=
relationship between N Chomsky and C L=E9vi-Strauss. Although they were=
doubtless aware of each other as human beings by the mid sixties (after=
Chomsky attained some real celebrity), there is nothing in their respective=
writings to suggest that either was greatly influenced by the other in=
formulating the theories and methods they are best known for. In any case=
Levi-Strauss's basic framework was well established while young Noam was in=
grammar school. Their main connection is that they each added a rationalist=
dimension to their respective disciplines by building on advances in
formal representational tools which had become available during and after=
the war.

Chomsky's innovation in linguistics was pervasive across the 'state of the=
art'. Chomsky began work in a behaviourist tradition of descriptive=
linguistics, in his case syntax. By the early 1950s descriptive syntactic=
theory in America was in a mess, in part because linguists were attempting=
to account for the specific forms and varients of human language behaviour.=
Chomsky basically suggested that instead of directly accounting for=
production (eg behaviour) that linguists should account for what he called=
'native speaker judgements'. Thus a grammar no longer was required to=
produce all the possible things that a given language speaking human=
population COULD say, but only the set of utterences that the members of=
that population would consider to be CORRECT. He did not suggest that=
accounting for all the other aspects of human langauge was not important,=
simply that one way we could improve our understanding of human language=
was by developing an account of the internal judgements of the language=
speaking group.=20

L-S demonstrated though his framework that what had been seen as simple=
societies were equally as 'complex' as those socieities that=
anthropologists inhabited. By focusing on 'mental life' through kinship and=
myths and attempting to identify 'universalist' features shared among all=
humans, humanity could not be localised to specific developments in=
technology or economics.

Chomsky and L-S suffered badly from misunderstanding and misapplication of=
their frameworks within anthropology. This apparently continues to this da=

Michael Fischer
Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing
University of Kent at Canterbury