Here, dear readers, is a hilarious review of Gregory Sampson's "The Language Instinct Debate" from humorist and Amazon "top 1000" reviewer Olly Buxton. There's politics; there's drama; and it is delightfully droll! (Steve Pinker and Noam Chomsky also make appearances).
Olly gave the book a five-star rating and titled this review, "The sound of leather on willow floats across the village green."
"There's nothing better than seeing an overconfident favourite getting a proper seeing to from an unfancied underdog.
All the same, when best-selling MIT and Harvard-credentialised psycho-linguist Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" - a work feted far and wide and rarely challenged in polite circles - is subjected to critical treatment by an curmudgeonly British professor from an unfashionable second tier university in the home counties, it is a hopeful chap indeed who thinks an upset might be on the cards.
Pinker, after all, has the weight of Noam Chomsky (self styled most important intellect on the planet) behind him, and rates consistently favourable mentions from the literary review sections of important newspapers and that peculiar clique of populist science writers (Dan Dennett, Alan Sokal and Richard Dawkins among others).
The best you could say for Sampson, on the other hand, is that he lacks profile: His tenure is at the University of Sussex - yes, there is one - and the profile he does have isn't the sort most people would want: as far back as 1977, Christopher Hitchens described him as "an academic nonentity who made various other incautious allegations [about Noam Chomsky's political views] and who later ... strolled into the propellers and was distributed into such fine particles that he has never been heard from again." Ouch.
That's all ancient history, though, and the pleasant surprise is that over the last thirty years the plucky little Britisher has made a full recovery from his encounter with the propellers and is in fine enough fettle to give said global linguistic superstar a good old-fashioned intellectual walloping. Even read alone, Pinker's book is built on a wobbly edifice, but with Sampson's expert guide, it looks positively idiotic. Sampson is systematic: he sets up each of Pinker's arguments (such as they are), represents them fairly (I read Pinker's original concurrently to check) and then, like a gentleman cricketer on the village green dispatches each of them deftly to the boundary through extra-cover.
I'm really not sure why Geoffrey Sampson's book hasn't received more attention: possibly the author's history (he seems to made a number of "incautious" political statements over his life and doesn't seem to be the recanting type), but also because it swims bravely against an intellectual tide: Sampson is - though I don't think he expressly says it - a relativist:
"What the language learner is trying to bring his tacit theory into correspondence with is not some single, consistent grammar inhering in a collective national psyche, the sort of mystic entity that a sociologist such as Emile Durkheim would call a "social fact". Rather, he is trying to reconstruct a system underlying the usage of various speakers to whom he is exposed, and these speakers will almost certainly be working at any given time with non-identical tacit theories of their own - so that there will not be any wholly coherent and irrefutable grammar available to be formulated"
Advocating relativism, as I think Sampson coherently and convincingly does, has the misfortune to be about as incautious as criticising Noam Chomsky these days, so perhaps Sampson's card is marked and that's that. All the same, the passage cited above is beautifully put, and by itself is more persuasive than Steven Pinker's whole book.
All the same, who's laughing now? Probably not G. Sampson esq., as he strolls from the wicket at stumps, having carried his bat valiantly, but not having managed to save the innings. But up on the grassy bank, this cricket connoisseur stand to applaud this stylish, defiant knock.
Well batted, sir.