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Philosophy of Language

Chomsky and Knowledge of Language


Ming Liu
Zhejiang Institute of Administration
Xin Sheen Liu
Syracuse University

ABSTRACT: The linguistic theory of Chomsky has changed the long,


traditional way of studying language. The nature of knowledge, which is
closely tied to human knowledge in general, makes it a logical step for
Chomsky to generalize his theory to the study of the relation between language
and the world-in particular, the study of truth and reference. But his theory has
been controversial and his proposal of "innate ideas" has been resisted by some
empiricists who characterize him as rationalist. In our view, these empiricists
make a mistake. In the present paper we attend to his position regarding
linguistics as a science of mind/brain, which we believe is an important aspect
of his theory that has not been paid enough attention or understood by his
opponents. In turn, this will help to clarify some of the confusions around his
theory. Finally we will discuss some of the debatable issues based on the
outlines we draw.

Chomsky's linguistic theory is based on the following empirical facts: "child learns
language with limited stimuli", or the problem of poverty of evidence. (1) The input during
the period of a natural language acquisition is circumscribed and degenerate. The output
simply cannot be accounted for by the learning mechanism only, such as induction and
analogy on the input. The output and input differ both in quantity and quality. A subject
knows linguistic facts without instruction or even direct evidence. These empirical facts,
"knowledge without ground", (2) are expressed: "Knowledge of language is normally
attained through brief exposure, and the character of the acquired knowledge may be
largely predetermined." (3)

This predetermined knowledge is some "notion of structure", in the mind of the speaker ,
which guides the subject in acquiring a natural language of his own. For a subject to know
a natural language is for him to have a certain I-language. Language acquiring, in terms of
I-language, corresponds to the change of a subject's mind/brain state. To know the language
L is for the subject's (H's) mind/brain, initially to be in a state So, to be set to a certain state
SL. (4) One task of the brain sciences will be to explain what it is about H's brain (in
particular, its language faculty) that corresponds to H's knowing L.

He makes an important hypothesis that universal grammar (UG). UG is a characterization


of these innate principle of language faculty, I-language. (5) He then postulates some
detailed structure of UG. It is a system of conditions on grammars, constraints on the form
and interpretation of grammar at all levels, from the deep structures of syntax, through the
transformational component, to the rules that interpret syntactic structures semantically and
phonetically. The study of linguistic universals, which is classified as formal or substantive,
is the study of the properties of UG for a natural language. (6) Substantive universals
concern the vocabulary for the description of language and a formal linguistic universal
involve the character of the rules that appear in grammars and the ways in which they can
be interconnected. Language-acquisition device uses primary linguistic data as the
empirical basis for language learning to meet explanatory adequacy that is defined in UG,
and to select one of the potential grammars, which is permitted by UG.

Chomsky then makes another two explicit hypothesis, "pure" speech community and a
common grammar. (1) A "pure" speech community excludes contradictory choices for
certain of options permitted by UG. (2) the property of mind described by UG is a species
characteristic, common to all humans.

The hypothesis (2) implies that the study of one language, such as English, may provide
crucial evidence concerning the structure of some other language. Acquisition of language
then, is a matter of adding to one's store of UG rules, or modifying this system, as new data
are processed. (7)

The nature of knowledge of language, which is closely tied to human knowledge in


general, makes it a logical step for Chomsky to generalize his theory. The linguistic theory
for special 'Plato problem' can be applied to 'Plato's problem' to knowledge in general,
providing that an empirical evidence of such problem for a certain knowledge. He says, his
innate principle includes syntax, phonology, and morphology, and semantics. By
'semantics' he means the study of the relation between language and the world — in
particular, the study of truth and reference. (8) At the same time, he also generalizes his idea
of UG, especially the process of parameter determination in acquiring a particular natural
language for a subject. "This result of this process of parameter determination and
periphery formation is a full and richly articulated system of knowledge. ...The same may
well be true of large areas of what might be called 'commonsense knowledge and
understanding'". (9) The first generalization, generalization of 'Plato's problem' to
knowledge in general, is correct. The second generalization, seems to us, is too hasty. The
advances in neural science and mathematics have produced new theory on complex
systems. For a vast complicated system as human brain, which is tremendously flexible and
which processes abstract concepts at many different levels, the theory of parameter
determination over-simplifies the problem we are facing.

Chomsky proposed, in our view, a plausible theory of language. The different approaches
between E-language and I-language may be similar to the Brahe and other's observational
astronomy, which collected a vast body of data, and Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler's
model of planetary motion, even though the details of the model might be questionable.
Chomsky's first generalization is also a legitimate step. But his proposal of "innate ideas"
has been resisted by some empiricists, and he is characterized as rationalist. In our view,
those empiricists make a mistake. In order to clarify this issue we will cite Chomsky's
statements in spite of somewhat redundancy.

Chomsky attempts to develop a theory of linguistics as a discipline of natural sciences or


physical sciences, which are empirically based. He specifically objects to 'Abstract-
linguistics' (10) and he maintains that the boundary between linguistics and natural sciences
will shift or disappear. The theory of mind aims to determine the properties of the initial
state So and each attainable state SL of the language faculty, and the brain sciences seek to
discover the mechanisms of the brain that are the physical realizations of these states. (11)
Eventually, the linguistics and the brain science will converge. Chomsky uses the term
'mechanism', which refers to the physical mechanism. (12) He says, one task of the brain
sciences, is to discover the mechanisms of brain that are the physical realization of the state
SL. What he means by physical realization is the physically encoded mental state on the
brain. "In contrast to E-language, the steady state of knowledge (I-language) attained and
the initial state So are real elements of particular mind/brains, aspects of the physical world,
where we understand mental states and representations to be physically encoded in some
manner." (13) Chomsky's UG is biologically determined (14) principles too. Chomsky seems
to use 'physically' and 'biologically' interchangeable. In this aspect Chomsky's universals
that are biologically realized and physically encoded in brain, are different from Descarte's
innate ideas.

Chomsky rejects the fictional and abstract objects and, especially, rejects the suggestion
that knowledge of language should be taken to be an abstract "Platonic" entity. He says;
"Knowing everything about the mind/brain, a Platonist would argue, we still have no basis
for determining the truths of arithmetic or set theory, but there is not the slightest reason to
suppose that there are truths of language that would still escape our grasp." (15) He
differentiates linguistics from mathematics and emphasizes the empirical aspect of
linguistics and its relationship to brain sciences; therefore, the justification of his theory is
not only a theoretical matter, but also an empirical that relies on the results of brain science.
Based on Chomsky's positions on the nature of his linguistics theory, we conclude that he
has been mistaken as a rationalist. In the next section, we will discuss some of the debates
on this subjects and other related issues.

One of the reason that he is regarded as a rationalist might be that Chomsky tries to
differentiate himself from the linguistic behaviorism and he emphasizes some of reasonable
core of "rationalism" to make a statement that my "sausage-making machines" (16) is not
tabula rasa, but has complex, dedicated parts and structure. The other reason is the
tradition of the rationalist philosophy of language, philosophical grammar. (17) He is not
satisfied with the explanatory power of the descriptive grammar. Philosophical grammar is
"typically concerned with data not for itself but as evidence for deeper, hidden organizing
principles,..." (18) However, it may be surprising, his term 'rationalism' is equivalent to
'natural science', He states that the issue of rationalist philosophy of language "is not
between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, but between description and explanation,
between grammar as 'natural history' and grammar as a kind of 'natural philosophy' or, in
modern terms, 'natural science.'" (19) He particularly criticizes the lack of physical,
empirical aspects of Cartesian rationalism. (20)

Rationalism stressed the power of reason as opposed to empirical facts and used deductive
reasoning as the basis for their knowledge system. Chomsky's theory is an empirical
science and his method is largely based on linguistic empirical data. Therefore, Chomsky's
theory is not rationalist in the classical sense. Some of his opponents (Quine, Wells)
confuse what Chomsky is claiming and what he is doing. (21)

Understanding of Chomsky's position on those issues, some of the objections to his theory
become automatically invalid, Goodman (22) raises a question. How does Chomsky start
from some subtle difference in linguistics and then moves on to innate ideas? "I know what
a horse with spirit is, but not what the spirit is without the horse." (23) This UG is not
something that "a spirit without a horse" at all.

On the other hand, Chomsky's theory is empirical, but different from behaviorism
linguistics. On the issue of "innate structure", Harman does not accept Chomsky's theory of
innate structures. He said: "I view linguistics, it is closer to both anthropology and the
behavioral sciences than he would apparently allow." (24) Quine argues: "This indisputable
point about language is in no conflict with latter-day attitudes that are associated with the
name of empiricism, or behaviorism. (25) There are two major differences between
behaviorism and Chomsky's theory. Behaviorism treats a complex system as a black box, a
functional mechanism. If two black box function exact the same, behaviorism and
functionalism regards them exact the same. This is Quine's so-called 'enigma doctrine'. He
says, "English speakers obey, in this sense, any and all of the extensionally equivalent
systems of grammar that demarcate the right totality of well-formed English sentences." (26)
However, Chomsky's "theories of grammar and UG are empirical theories" and his systems
of grammar is physically encoded in some manner. The development of brain science will
discover the very physical structure of human brain, and there can be only one of a set of
"extensionally equivalent systems of grammar" is correctly attributed to the speaker-hearer
as a property that is the same as that is physically encoded, where some other one merely
happens to fit the speaker's behavior but does not correctly represent the physical facts. The
second difference is reflected by the relationship between I-language and E-language.
E-language, as the traditional behaviorist linguistics, deals with steady-state language, or
mature language; while I-language in Chomsky's theory specifies not only the internal
characteristics of language, but also deals with a dynamic process, language acquiring
process, from initial state So to the steady state SL. (27) E-language is independent of a
individual's history, while I-language explains the language aspect of individual's history.
This dynamic process puts more constraints on the characteristics of the languages.
I-languages may reach the same steady state SL and realize the steady state languages that
have "extensionally equivalent systems of grammar"; while these I-languages may specify
different dynamic processes that reach SL. These processes differentiate I-languages one
another and some of them can be proved to be wrong theories regarding the language
acquisition process. Therefore, extensionally equivalent systems of grammar in the
traditional grammar sense is not necessarily equivalent in terms of I-language.
Nagel questioned whether the initial contribution of the organism to language-learning is
properly described as knowledge. (28) Dummett questions the concept of unconscious
knowledge. (29) He holds that there is an extremely important innate capacity but it would
not called innate knowledge in either case. Chomsky introduces "cognize" in trying to
resolve the issue, which we think it might be superficial. In computer science, a
computation can be either realized through software, which is written in computer
language, or through hardware, which is built by the logic circuits composed of physical
parts. Both functions exactly the same. If we can do an extrapolation or analogy, ideas
might be realized through abstract symbol systems or through neural-network. The two
mode of structures may have effects on the recognizability. This is a speculation. But our
point is that UG is proposed as hypothesis, and if the 'notion of structure' is correct, other
hypothesis may be assumed on what kind of structure is and how the structure operates.
The final settlement relies on new development of brain sciences.

UG as a hypothesis raises questions about to what extend the hypothesis correctly captures
the structure of brain. Danto says:

"...to what extent does the innate structure of language formation sink into the world,
giving it linguistic form, or the form of our language(s)? So far as LA is universal, we live
perforce in the same world if the structure of our world reflects the structure of language.
Obviously, something produced by means of a different LA would not be recognizably a
language, nor would the world correlative with this, if there is this correlatively, be
recognizably the world. A wholly different language or a wholly different world would be
unintelligible, but is the very idea unintelligible?". (30)

Chomsky treats the innate idea as a fixed form (common grammar hypothesis), which
resembles rationalist doctrine of ideas; while his attempts in providing a natural science of
language is not consistent with such hypothesis. In this aspect, Herbert Spencer (Principle
of Psychology) might be right that innate ideas, such as adopt form of thought, like the
perception of space and time, or the notions of quantity and cause, which Kant supposed
innate, are merely instinctive ways of thinking; and as instincts are habits acquired by the
race but native to the individual, so these categories are mental habits slowly acquired in
the course of evolution, and now part of our intellectual heritage. In Spencer's word, "the
inheritance of accumulating modifications". If this is correct, chimpanzee and human
ability in communication and maybe language can be bridged in principle, and the study of
chimpanzee's brain would help to discover the innate structure physically encoded in a
certain manner too.

Acknowledgments
The authors are grateful to Professor Philip L. Peterson, Syracuse University, for his many
comments and remarks.

References
Chomsky, Language and Mind, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1968.
Chomsky, N., "Methodological Preliminaries," Aspect of the Theory of Syntax, 1970,
pp.26-40.

Chomsky, N., Knowledge of Language, Praeger, 1986.

Danto, "Semantical Vehicles, Understanding, and Innate Ideas", Language and Philosophy,
New York University Press, 1969, pp.122-137.

Goldman, A.I., "Innate Knowledge", Innate Ideas, University California Press, 1966.

Goodman, N., "The Emperor's New Ideas", Language and Philosophy, New York
University Press, 1969, pp.138-142

Harman, "Linguistic Competence and Empiricism," Language and Philosophy, New York
University Press, 1969, pp.143-151.

Nagel, T., "Linguistics and Epistemology", Language and Philosophy, New York
University Press, 1969, pp.171-181.

Quine, W.V.O., "Linguistics and Philosophy", Language and Philosophy, New York
University Press, 1969, pp.95-98.

Quine, W.V.O., "Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory," Semantics of


Natural Language, Humanities Press, 1972.

Notes
(1) Chomsky, 1986, pp.8-9.

(2) Chomsky, 1986, pp.11-12.

(3) Chomsky (1968, p.ix) actually has a machine in his mind, which analogous to the
language acquisition device: "An engineer faced with the problem of designing a device
meeting given input-output conditions would naturally conclude that the basic properties of
the output are a consequence of the design of the device."

(4) Chomsky, 1986, p.22.

(5) Chomsky, 1986, p.40.

(6) Chomsky, 1970, p.341.

(7) Chomsky, 1986, pp.24-25.

(8) Chomsky, 1986, p.44.

(9) Chomsky, 1986, p. 222.

(10) "There does exist what we have called an internalized language and that it is a problem
of the natural sciences to discover it." "In the sciences, at least, disciplines are regarded as
conveniences, not as ways of cutting nature at its joints or as the elaboration of certain
fixed concepts; and their boundaries shift or disappear as knowledge and understanding
advance. In this respect, the study of language as understood in the discussion above is like
chemistry, biology, solar physics, or the theory of human vision." (Chomsky, 1986,
pp.33-35).

(11) Chomsky, 1986, p.38.

(12) "Linguistics, conceived as the study of I-language and So, becomes part of
psychology, ultimately sciences insofar as mechanisms are discovered that have the
properties revealed in these more abstract studies; indeed, one would expect that these
studies will be a necessary step toward serious investigation of mechanisms."( Chomsky,
1986, p.27).

(13) Chomsky's statements of past might be confusing, such as "NOT 'brain programmed',
rather mind has inborn capacities". We tend to interpret his theory based on his latest book
Knowledge of Language (1986).

(14) Chomsky, 1986, p.24.

(15) Chomsky, 1986, p.33. He obviously try to distance his theory from Plato's ideas: "One
is not mislead thereby into believing that the subject matter of rational mechanics is an
entity in a Platonic heaven, and there is no more reason to suppose that that is true in the
study of language." (1986, p.36) "There seems no obvious sense in populating the extra-
mental world with corresponding entities, nor any empirical consequence or gain in
explanatory force in doing so." (1986, p. 45).

(16) Danto, 1969.

(17) Philosophical grammar is "very much like current generative grammar, developed in
self-conscious opposition to a descriptive tradition that interpreted the task of the
grammarian to be merely that of recording and organizing the data of usage-a kind of
natural history." (Chomsky, 1970)

(18) Chomsky, 1968, p.15.

(19) Chomsky, 1968, p.15.

(20) "...the far-reaching studies of language that were carried out under the influence of
Cartesian rationalism suffered from a failure to appreciate either the abstractness of those
structures that are 'present to the mind' when an utterance is produced or understood, or the
length and complexity of the chain of operations that relate the mental structures expressing
the semantic content of the utterance to the physical realization." (Chomsky, 1968, p.25)

(21) It must be confusing why he chooses lining up with rationalism. His early paper talked
about Cartesian linguistics, but the latest book does not touches it at all, except the note
related so-called 'Cartesian problem'. We can only sense that he is shifting his claim from
the early ones.
(22) Goodman, 1969, p.138.

(23) Goodman, 1969, p.140. He misunderstands Chomsky's 'idea': "What Chomsky means
by 'idea' is hard to determine." schematisms? "And since a theory may be embodied in one
language or in many languages, but can hardly exist apart from languages, how could it be
in the mind prior to language? What are those ideas? (Goodman, 1969, p.141)

(24) He adds an interesting points: "Nevertheless, I think that what is significant in his
paper is the fact that he believes that a genetic account is relevant to certain fundamental
epistemological questions lying at the foundation of language." (Harman, 1969, p.170)

(25) Quine, 1969, p.95. Also Lewis, Davison, Searle (Chomsky, 1986).

(26) Quine, 1972.

(27) The state SL is attained by setting parameters of So in one of the permissible ways, this
is essential part of what is "learned," yielding the core, and adding a periphery of marked
exceptions on the basis of specific experience, in accordance with the markedness
principles of So.

(28) Nagel, 1969, p.172.

(29) Chomsky, 1986, p.269.

(30) Danto, 1969, p.136.

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