Rationality and the Literate Mind

Raphael Salkie is unimpressed by the latest work from a controversial scholar

August 27, 2009

In 1980, the University of Oxford surprised the outside world by appointing Roy Harris, a little-known intellectual historian, as professor of linguistics. I have often speculated about how this happened. Where was Inspector Morse when we needed him? Could he have unravelled the tangled web of intrigue and ignorance that led to this bizarre intellectual crime in a mystery called "The Strange Death of Oxford Linguistics"?

In the intervening years, Harris' output has been prodigious: this is at least his 20th book, and a search on Google Scholar turns up 260,000 hits, easily outstripping Noam Chomsky, Michael Halliday, Bernard Comrie and other major figures in the field. If ever proof was needed that quantifying outputs and citations is a disastrous way of assessing research quality, this is it (Higher Education Funding Council for England: are you listening?).

In fact, Harris has produced virtually nothing that is recognisable as linguistics: instead, he has attacked the discipline for resting on illusions, written ill-tempered reviews of other people's work, and continued to write tendentious and embittered studies in intellectual history.

Harris' latest book continues in this vein. Much of it is an extended critique of Aristotle, although along the way he also locks horns with John Locke, Ferdinand de Saussure, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, Ludwig Wittgenstein and many others. A feature of the book is its casual nastiness: major bodies of work are routinely dismissed as "worthless", "a quagmire of confusions", or "a way that leads nowhere". In his brief dismissal of Chomsky and Bertrand Russell, Harris starts one sentence: "Had they understood the issues better".

Writing in Times Higher Education last year, Harris was in typical form as he offhandedly dismissed The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins as an "attempt to transform the protracted academic sneer into an art form ... as soon as you see the word 'delusion' in the title, you already know what the bottom line of the argument will be". Thus spake the author of a book called The Language Myth. Rarely can a blacker pot have condemned a kettle.

Rationality and the Literate Mind argues that literacy is very important: languages that have writing systems are fundamentally different from those that do not. Furthermore, the Western idea of rational thought is alleged to be a by-product of the way literacy developed in Europe. Actually, it would be misleading to suggest that the book presents a positive position at all. The first nine chapters merely hint repeatedly at arguments about literacy and rationality as they excoriate what Harris calls "scriptism", his term for the belief that (a) written language is superior to spoken language and (b) written and spoken language are essentially the same. (Don't these two beliefs conflict? Well spotted.)

In chapter ten, Harris announces that he will now set out his own views, but instead we get another two chapters of whirlwind attacks on historical figures: Herodotus, Leonard Bloomfield and John Dewey get short shrift, as do more recent targets such as Jacques Derrida, John Searle and Paul Grice.

Only in the epilogue do we finally see an outline of what Harris calls "integrational" linguistics, although here again most of the space is taken up by denigration of Aristotle, including a priceless sentence that starts: "As any Buddhist would point out, we are here dealing with someone who has been brainwashed".

It is hard to summarise integrationism without making it sound silly. I'm afraid Harris lost me several years ago when he wrote, with admirable clarity, that we must dispense with the assumption that words have meanings. No doubt the reality is more subtle, but there is little in this book to suggest that it would be worth probing more deeply.

As previous reviewers of his work have noticed, Harris likes to say that a certain thinker implies x, and then goes on to criticise x, rather than what the thinker actually wrote. Another favoured rhetorical device is ending the discussion of a body of work with an unanswered question, on the lines of: "But does this writer not illustrate starkly a certain myth that underlies much Western thinking about language?"

The book's six-page bibliography contains only ten items written since 2000, two of them by the author; most of the others are briefly cited in the preface and then barely referred to again. In short, this is an unscholarly book, typical of an outsider who it seems has never tried to analyse language or wrestled with palpable problems in linguistics.

Fortunately, Oxford had genuine scholars such as Suzanne Romaine and Martin Maiden who kept the study of language alive during the dark years, and linguistics is now thriving on the Isis. Perhaps one day, devotees of ITV mystery drama will cheer on Inspector Lewis as he tackles "The Strange Rebirth of Oxford Linguistics".

Rationality and the Literate Mind

By Roy Harris

Routledge, 206pp, £80.00

ISBN 9780415999014

Published 9 January 2009

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