On Language
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On Language

Chomsky's Classic Works: Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language

Noam Chomsky

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eBook - ePub

On Language

Chomsky's Classic Works: Language and Responsibility and Reflections on Language

Noam Chomsky

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The two most popular titles by the noted linguist and critic in one volume—an ideal introduction to his work. On Language features some of Noam Chomsky's most informal and highly accessible work. In Part I, Language and Responsibility, Chomsky presents a fascinating self-portrait of his political, moral, and linguistic thinking. In Part II, Reflections on Language, Chomsky explores the more general implications of the study of language and offers incisive analyses of the controversies among psychologists, philosophers, and linguists over fundamental questions of language. " Language and Responsibility is a well-organized, clearly written and comprehensive introduction to Chomsky's thought." — The New York Times Book Review " Language and Responsibility brings together in one readable volume Chomsky's positions on issues ranging from politics and philosophy of science to recent advances in linguistic theory.... The clarity of presentation at times approaches that of Bertrand Russell in his political and more popular philosophical essays." — Contemporary Psychology " Reflections on Language is profoundly satisfying and impressive. It is the clearest and most developed account of the case of universal grammar and of the relations between his theory of language and the innate faculties of mind responsible for language acquisition and use." —Patrick Flanagan

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Part I of this book is an elaboration of the Whidden Lectures, delivered in January 1975 at McMaster University. Part II is a revised version of my contribution to a volume of essays in honor of Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (Kasher, ed., forthcoming), submitted for publication in June 1974. The latter essay considers some critical discussion of the general point of view developed here, as it had been presented in earlier work. To preserve the internal coherence of the discussion in part II, I have retained some material that recapitulates themes that are developed in a somewhat different form in the Whidden Lectures.
I have presented much of this material in lectures at MIT and elsewhere and am indebted to many students, colleagues, and friends for valuable comments and criticism. The work reviewed in chapter 3 of part I, in particular, incorporates suggestions and research to which many people have contributed, as the citations only partially serve to indicate. Among others, Harry Bracken, Donald Hockney, Ray Jackendoff, Justin Leiber, Julius Moravcsik, and Henry Rosemont have made helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. I have also profited greatly from lively and extensive discussions with members of the faculty of McMaster University.
Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 1975
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The Whidden Lectures
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On Cognitive Capacity

These reflections on the study of language will be nontechnical for the most part, and will have a somewhat speculative and personal character. I am not going to try to summarize the current state of knowledge in the areas of language study that I know something about, or to discuss ongoing research in any depth. I want to consider, rather, the point and purpose of the enterprise, to ask—and I hope explain—why results obtained in technical linguistics might interest someone who is not initially enchanted by the relation between question formation and anaphora, the principles of rule ordering in phonology, the relation of intonation to the scope of negation, and the like. I will sketch what seems to me an appropriate framework within which the study of language may prove to have more general intellectual interest, and will consider the possibilities for constructing a kind of theory of human nature on a model of this sort.
Why study language? There are many possible answers, and by focusing on some I do not, of course, mean to disparage others or question their legitimacy. One may, for example, simply be fascinated by the elements of language in themselves and want to discover their order and arrangement, their origin in history or in the individual, or the ways in which they are used in thought, in science or in art, or in normal social interchange. One reason for studying language—and for me personally the most compelling reason—is that it is tempting to regard language, in the traditional phrase, as “a mirror of mind.” I do not mean by this simply that the concepts expressed and distinctions developed in normal language use give us insight into the patterns of thought and the world of “common sense” constructed by the human mind. More intriguing, to me at least, is the possibility that by studying language we may discover abstract principles that govern its structure and use, principles that are universal by biological necessity and not mere historical accident, that derive from mental characteristics of the species. A human language is a system of remarkable complexity. To come to know a human language would be an extraordinary intellectual achievement for a creature not specifically designed to accomplish this task. A normal child acquires this knowledge on relatively slight exposure and without specific training. He can then quite effortlessly make use of an intricate structure of specific rules and guiding principles to convey his thoughts and feelings to others, arousing in them novel ideas and subtle perceptions and judgments. For the conscious mind, not specially designed for the purpose, it remains a distant goal to reconstruct and comprehend what the child has done intuitively and with minimal effort. Thus language is a mirror of mind in a deep and significant sense. It is a product of human intelligence, created anew in each individual by operations that lie far beyond the reach of will or consciousness.
By studying the properties of natural languages, their structure, organization, and use, we may hope to gain some understanding of the specific characteristics of human intelligence. We may hope to learn something about human nature; something significant, if it is true that human cognitive capacity is the truly distinctive and most remarkable characteristic of the species. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the study of this particular human achievement, the ability to speak and understand a human language, may serve as a suggestive model for inquiry into other domains of human competence and action that are not quite so amenable to direct investigation.
The questions that I want to consider are classical ones. In major respects we have not progressed beyond classical antiquity in formulating clear problems in this domain, or in answering questions that immediately arise. From Plato to the present time, serious philosophers have been baffled and intrigued by the question that Bertrand Russell, in one of his later works, formulated in this way: “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?” (Russell, 1948, p. 5). How can we gain such rich systems of knowledge, given our fragmentary and impoverished experience? A dogmatic skeptic might respond that we do not have such knowledge. His qualms are irrelevant to the present point. The same question arises, as a question of science, if we ask how comes it that human beings with such limited and personal experience achieve such convergence in rich and highly structured systems of belief, systems which then guide their actions and interchange and their interpretation of experience.
In the classical tradition, several answers were suggested. One might argue, along Aristotelian lines, that the world is structured in a certain way and that the human mind is able to perceive this structure, ascending from particulars to species to genus to further generalization and thus attaining knowledge of universals from perception of particulars. A “basis of pre-existent knowledge” is a prerequisite to learning. We must possess an innate capacity to attain developed states of knowledge, but these are “neither innate in a determinate form, nor developed from other higher states of knowledge, but from sense-perception.” Given rich metaphysical assumptions, it is possible to imagine that a mind “so constituted as to be capable of this process” of “induction” might attain a rich system of knowledge.1
A more fruitful approach shifts the main burden of explanation from the structure of the world to the structure of the mind. What we can know is determined by “the modes of conception in the understanding”; 2 what we do know, then, or what we come to believe, depends on the specific experiences that evoke in us some part of the cognitive system that is latent in the mind. In the modern period, primarily under the influence of Cartesian thought, the question of what we can know became again a central topic of inquiry. To Leibniz and Cudworth, Plato’s doctrine that we do not attain new knowledge but recover what was already known seemed plausible, when this doctrine was “purged of the error of preexistence.” 3 Cudworth argued at length that the mind has an “innate cognoscitive power” that provides the principles and conceptions that constitute our knowledge, when provoked by sense to do so. “But sensible things themselves (as, for example, light and colors) are not known and understood either by the passion or the fancy of sense, nor by anything merely foreign and adventitious, but by intelligible ideas exerted from the mind itself, that is, by something native and domestic to it. . . .4 Thus knowledge “consisteth in the awakening and exciting of the inward active powers of the mind,” which “exercise[s] its own inward activity upon” the objects presented by sense, thus coming “to know or understand, . . . actively to comprehend a thing by some abstract, free and universal ratio’s, reasonings. . . . ” The eye perceives, but the mind can compare, analyze, see cause-and-effect relations, symmetries, and so on, giving a comprehensive idea of the whole, with its parts, relations, and proportions. The “book of nature,” then, is “legible only to an intellectual eye,” he suggests, just as a man who reads a book in a language that he knows can learn something from the “inky scrawls.” “The primary objects of science and intellection,” namely, “the intelligible essences of things,” “exist no where but in the mind itself, being its own ideas. . . . And by and through these inward ideas of the mind itself, which are its primary objects, does it know and understand all external individual things, which are the secondary objects of knowledge only.”
Among the “innate ideas” or “common notions” discussed in the rich and varied work of seventeenth-century rationalists are, for example, geometrical concepts and the like, but also “relational ideas or categories which enter into every presentation of objects and make possible the unity and interconnectedness of rational experience,” 5 including such “relative notions” as “Cause, Effect, Whole and Part, Like and Unlike, Proportion and Analogy, Equality and Inequality, Symmetry and Asymmetry,” all “relative ideas . . . [that are] . . . no material impresses from without upon the soul, but her own active conception proceeding from herself whilst she takes notice of external objects.” 6 Tracing the development of such ideas, we arrive at Kant’s rather similar concept of the “conformity of objects to our mode of cognition.” The mind provides the means for an analysis of data as experience, and provides as well a general schematism that delimits the cognitive structures developed on the basis of experience.
Returning to Russell’s query, we can know so much because in a sense we already knew it, though the data of sense were necessary to evoke and elicit this knowledge. Or to put it less paradoxically, our systems of belief are those that the mind, as a biological structure, is designed to construct. We interpret experience as we do because of our special mental design. We attain knowledge when the “inward ideas of the mind itself” and the structures it creates conform to the nature of things.
Certain elements of the rationalist theories must be discarded, but the general outlines seem plausible enough. Work of the past years has shown that much of the detailed structure of the visual system is “wired in,” though triggering experience is required to set the system in operation. There is evidence that the same may be true of the auditory structures that analyze at least some phonetic distinctive features. (Cf. Eimas et al., 1971.) As techniques of investigation have improved, Bower argues, “so has the apparent sophistication of the infant perceptual system.” He reviews evidence suggesting that “the infant perceptual system seems capable of handling all of the traditional problems of the perception of three-dimensional space’s—perception of solidity, distance, size-distance invariants, and size constancy. Thus ”contrary to the Berkeleian tradition the world of the infant would seem to be inherently tridimensional” (Bower, 1972). There is evidence that before infants are capable of grasping, they can distinguish graspable from ungraspable objects, using purely visual information (Bruner and Koslowski, 1972).
Gregory observes that “the speed with which babies come to associate the properties of objects and go on to learn how to predict hidden properties and future events would be impossible unless some of the structure of the world were inherited—somehow innately built into the nervous system.” 7 He suggests further that there may be a “grammar of vision,” rather like the grammar of human language, and possibly related to the latter in the evolution of the species. Employing this “grammar of vision”—largely innate—higher animals are able to “read from retinal images even hidden features of objects, and predict their immediate future states,” thus “to classify objects according to an internal grammar, to read reality from their eyes.” The neural basis for this system is gradually coming to be understood since the pioneering work of Hubel and Wiesel (1962). More generally, there is every reason to suppose that “learning behavior occurs via modification of an already functional structural organization”; “survival would be improbable if learning in nature required the lengthy repetition characteristic of most conditioning procedures,” and it is well known that animals acquire complex systems of behavior in other ways (John, 1972).
Despite the plausibility of many of the leading ideas of the rationalist tradition, and its affinity in crucial respects with the point of view of the natural sciences, it has often been dismissed or disregarded in the study of behavior and cognition. It is a curious fact about the intellectual history of the past few centuries that physical and mental development have been approached in quite different ways. No one would take seriously a proposal that the human organism learns through experience to have arms rather than wings, or that the basic structure of particular organs results from accidental experience. Rather, it is taken for granted that the physical structure of the organism is genetically determined, though of course variation along such dimensions as size, rate of development, and so forth will depend in part on external factors. From embryo to mature organism, a certain pattern of development is predetermined, with certain stages, such as the onset of puberty or the termination of growth, delayed by many years. Variety within these fixed patterns may be of great importance for human life, but the basic questions of scientific interest have to do with the fundamental, genetically determined scheme of growth and development that is a characteristic of the species and that gives rise to structures of marvelous intricacy.
The species characteristics themselves have evolved over long stretches of time, and evidently the environment provides conditions for differential reproduction, hence evolution of the species. But this is an entirely different question, and here too, questions can be raised about the physical laws that govern this evolution. Surely too little is known to justify any far-reaching claims,
The development of personality, behavior patterns, and cognitive structures in higher organisms has often been approached in a very different way. It is generally assumed that in these domains, social environment is the dominant factor. The structures of mind that develop over time are taken to be arbitrary and accidental; there is no “human nature” apart from what develops as a specific historical product. According to this view, typical of empiricist speculation, certain general principles of learning that are common in their essentials to all (or some large class of) organisms suffice to account for the cognitive structures attained by humans, structures which incorporate the principles by which human behavior is planned, organized, and controlled. I dismiss without further comment the exotic though influential view that “internal states” should not be considered in the study of behavior.8
But human cognitive systems, when seriously investigated, prove to be no less marvelous and intricate than the physical structures that develop in the life of the organism. Why, then, should we not study the acquisition of a cognitive structure such as language more or less as we study some complex bodily organ?
At first glance, the proposal may seem absurd, if only because of the great variety of human languages. But a closer consideration dispels these doubts. Even knowing very little of substance about linguistic universals, we can be quite sure that the possible variety of languages is sharply limited. Gross observations suffice to establish some qualitative conclusions. Thus, it is clear that the language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available. This is why scientific inquiry into the nature of language is so difficult and so limited in its results. The conscious mind is endowed with no advance knowledge (or, recalling Aristotle, with only insufficiently developed advance knowledge). Thus, it is frustrated by the limitations of available evidence and faced by far too many possible explanatory theories, mutually inconsistent but adequate to the data. Or—as unhappy a state—it can devise no r...

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