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« More On Chomsky and Language: Its Nature and Acquisition | Main | Truth and Trump »

Chomsky on Language: Its Use, Acquisition and Value

Frege and Russell made language central to philosophy in the twentieth century and Ludwig Wittgenstein made ordinary language the core of our interest, how it shapes our thoughts and deeds, how it structures our picture of the world. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky came on the scene with a radical new take on language though, a new take that partook of old ideas. Picking up from the 17th and 18th century thinkers, particularly the rationalist tradition but also the early empiricists, Chomsky argued that language was so complex that it could not possibly be merely learned by us as children. Rather, he posited, there must be a deep, inherent set of rules encoded in our brains which enable language to grow in us the same way the human embryo grows arms and legs, the infant matures, the child passes through puberty, etc. Language, that is, on his view had to be inherent in creatures like us or it could not occur at all.

The old empiricist tradition which had challenged rationalists like Descartes and rationalist reformers like Kant and others writing in his wake, must have gotten it wrong, Chomsky argued. Kant and his supporters had it right: There must be a structure to experience which arises in the brain itself and which is built in, not learned by trial and error of the organism. The old empiricist idea of the tabula rasa had to be mistaken.

In its place, Chomsky proposed a deep grammatical structure which is beyond our capacity to access (differentiating it from what he called the surface grammar of rules we learn in our schooldays which consist of generalizations about the conventions of use in any given language). Chomsky, instead, argued that to understand the occurrence of any language we must recognize that its complexity (because of its capacity for infinite generative production of new statements) would never allow language formation on the classic empiricist model. We don't teach our children how to speak a language, he reminds us. They just pick it up when exposed to it. It comes naturally to them, just as growth comes naturally. Language possession is, on this view, a biological expression of our brains. His evidence for this lies partly in his claim that all human languages that we know of can be shown to share an equivalent level of complexity and partly in the fact that the archaeological evidence we have (reflecting the artifacts discovered at early human habitations) suggests that the capacity for abstract thought sprang full blown in humans no more than some 70,000 years ago. Abstract thought, the capacity to think about things in a discrete and isolated way rather than as a mere flow of inputs, depends, he argues on language possession and human artifacts only begin to demonstrate such an ability around that time.

Language,Chomsky reminds us, is not primarily communicative a la the signaling mechanisms found in so many other creatures but thought supporting, i.e., it makes possible our ability to think about our world. (I would add to think about our world AS A WORLD but that's me, not Chomsky so I don't want to put words in his mouth). For Chomsky the capacity for thought hinges on our ability to formulate concepts and that requires the mechanics of language use. Intriguingly, however, despite having made this case for decades now, he makes no effort to explain how language arose or even how it works at the deep level he posits.

His view, like that of John Searle on consciousness (who rejects the possibility of artificial intelligence of a sort that is equivalent to our own on logical grounds alone), seems to rely on the not altogether outlandish notion that scientific inquiry will, in time, prove him right. And perhaps it will. But if the theory he advances is sound, oughtn't it to have shown some fruitful results by now? But even Chomsky seems to have made no progress over the decades in his theory development, continuing to make the same arguments and draw the same conclusions today that he drew years ago. Even the examples he gave 30 to 40 years ago, when he was a young Turk challenging the established order of things, are still the ones he gives now. If his idea of reviving classical rationalism (the belief that the mind has intrinsic properties that shape the world) in linguistic garb is any good, oughtn't we to have seen something more from it by now? Oughtn't it to have proved itself a fruitful path down which theorists and researchers could proceed? Yet Chomsky's account still seems stuck in the place it began, asserting a deep grammar that lies beneath all extant languages and thus makes them possible.

Chomsky's argument hinges on his assertion that there MUST be some fundamentally simple mechanism of brain behavior (where "behavior" just means the way in which our brains work) and that this mechanism must have arisen in us by some evolutionary quirk, thereby introducing language into the previously non-language using species of primate we then were. Only this could, on his view, have made possible the rich array of things we can do with sounds, symbols, gestures, etc., i.e., turning such physical phenomena into the referential mechanisms of human language.

Listening to his lectures from 30 or 40 years ago and comparing them to those of more recent vintage, one is struck by the lack of growth in what he has to say. What he was saying back then is what he's still saying now -- and in the same way. He makes the same assertions about how language must work without explaining the details of it or how it might have arisen. His examples repeat over the years. He is still talking about how our concepts, like "river" or "persistence" are too complex to consist of any finite set of sensory inputs. Well, that is arguably true, but do we need to posit a deep level, pre-existing set of rules which our brains follow in building such concepts from the particular inputs we take in as we connect them to particular sounds or signs, as he does?

Certainly there are alternatives which can be explored including the notion of brain capacities, where these are understood as the increased ability of primate brains like ours to receive and hold onto inputs organized in pattern formations that such brains already make use of. Language can then be understood as the coming together of mechanisms which some brains develop to hold onto and organize their inputs. Language, that is, can be explained as an outgrowth of these capacities and not as a thing that happens in itself, a new organ of the brain that somehow sprang full blown into our ancestors' heads. Rather it can be explained as a gradual accretion of other brain capacities and thus as an ancillary development of those capacities which, because it increased our survival capacities, hung around and strengthened through natural selection.

This doesn't deny that language is a function of brains (or that our mental life, insofar as it consists of the capacity to have and use concepts) is a function of language. But it explains language in a less rationalistic way, as a behavioral output of brains rather than as an organ-like function some brains have. A fine point of difference, to be sure, but all the difference between an account that rests on the mystery of language occurrence in creatures like us and the supposed special nature of our brains as language-expressing organs. Instead of a rationalistic account which hinges on an unexplained occurrence of hidden rules, universal to all language users, we can explain the occurrence of language users as a natural outgrowth of the interplay of some organisms with their world, the similarities of language that recur across human groups being reflective of the similarity of humans and the environments with which they interact.

Chomsky makes an important point about the role language plays for us but his theory is much less helpful or clear than he thinks for it fails to give us a way of explaining the hows and whys of a language using brain's working mechanics. Nor does he make a substantial distinction in -- or a strong case for -- his account that human language sprang full blown, in all its robustness, in the human species less than a hundred thousand years ago (and continues to spring forth in each normal human being in the course of his or her own maturation) as opposed to the idea that it is not language per se that appeared in us but certain increased capacities of our brains which are continuous with our other capacities as primates, and that it is these that have enabled us to become language-using primates rather than mere signalers.

That is, a strong case can be made that language appears as an aspect or function of other increased brain capacities, which evolved as certain of our ancestors progressed in their capacity to interact with their world. Seen thus, language is just an enhanced interactive output of larger, more efficient brains when those brains become more capable of integrating the information inputs of sensory experience. In other words, Chomsky aside, we don't need to posit a special innate language mechanism which only brains like ours possess to explain how language arises and works in the world. It's enough to suppose that brains with stronger capacities along the same line as some of our more primitive ancestors possessed could have, as a natural outgrowth, the development of language using capacity when circumstances are right for it.

Not deep, universal grammar, then, but a shared world and commonalities in our physical makeup which determine how we experience it can more than explain the possibility of linguistic translation between human groups and their ability, thereby, to come to understand one another. In the absence of a satisfactory account of how language could have come about as some deep-seated fully formed mechanism according to Chomsky's account, why should we reject the simpler possibility that language is just an accretive aspect to the signaling capabilities which humans share with other primates and animal species and which, on reaching a certain threshold of retention and ordering capacity, makes possible the more complex development which turns signaling into assertion and its various aspects (depiction, description, naming and telling) that make up the core of what any human language must be?

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