Noam Chomsky, Language and Thought - PhilPapers
Chomsky's ideas have exerted a powerful influence on the other disciplines by Chomsky, Noam. Language and Thought. Wakefield, R.I.: Moyer Bell. signed symbol for 'water' triggered thought processes that . ; Kellman, ; Baillargeon, ;. Gelman .. how language refers to the world (Chomsky ,. about the relationship between language and thought. What is the relationship between linguistic and nonlinguistic cognitive categories ? How space [Levine and Carey (), Needham and Baillargeon ()], event cognition Chomsky, N. (), "Language and nature”, Mind
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Language as an instrument of thought
University of Arizona at Tucson. The Faculty of Language: Source of flexibility in human cognition: Dual task studies of space and language.
Conceptual precursors to language.
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Language and Thought
The discrimination of visual number. American Journal of Psychology Core systems in human cognitions. Progress in Brain Research Language, Cognition, and Space. Thoughts on Intelligence, Identity and Consciousness.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. The Philosophy of Generative Linguistics. The Master and His Emissary. The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. A System of Logic. University Press of the Pacific. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: The Primacy of Grammar. Phase-Theoretic Investigations of Linguistic Interfaces. Biolinguistics, 4 4 Often this is the starting point of the discussion; it is an unquestioned working assumption that is not thought to be problematic.
Ellis is a further example: I think that the main argument that attempts to ground the claim that language is for communication is the constellation of related evolutionary arguments according to which the adaptive value of language use is its communicative function: Since the most popular way in which to ground functional attributions in general has been via evolutionary considerations, it is no surprise that arguments in favour of the function of language being communication also take this route.
Since natural selection is the best scientific explanation for the emergence of complex structures in organisms, they naturally use evolutionary considerations to ground their claim that the function of language is communication.
They do so by arguing that there was a selective advantage in human evolutionary history for using language for communication, and so its primary function must therefore be communication. However, I think that there are two issues here that need to be kept separate: In other words, suppose that we are studying an organism with structure S.
We can study the internal structure of S and how that organism uses S in its current environment. But such a study is separate to the further question of why S has remained in the species to which that organism belongs. For example, there could have been a change in the environment that made S useful for survival and thus it remained in the species. Or S could be part of a larger set of structures or mechanisms that together — but not individually — served a useful evolutionary purpose.
Or S could have remained in the species for internal biological reasons that had little to do with their interaction with the environment or with natural selection. We can imagine several other scenarios according to which S may or may not be useful to the organism in its particular environment. Now, such empirical questions are valid and interesting and by no means trivial, but they are different to the question of what S is.
To take a concrete example, knowing the biology of the mammalian lungs tells us very little about why they remained in the species in their current form. It is only by looking at the relation between the environment and the internal biology that we can figure out why the lungs are the way they are.
Conversely, knowing that mammalian lungs remained in the species because their function was to facilitate breathing and thus keep humans alive tells us little about the structure of the lungs.
We want to know how they achieve this for there is more than one way. Being told that the lungs facilitate breathing given the current state of our environment sets up the problem to be solved for biology. Again, the two questions are both valid and interesting, and both can be pursued in parallel and illuminate one another, but they are separate questions.
I think the same is true of generative linguistics and evolutionary theory. The latter argues that the language faculty remained in the species due to its selective advantage in fostering better communication and co-operation, 5 but this tells us little about the structure of the faculty itself. In fact, as I argue below, looking at the structure of the language faculty suggests that communication is a secondary aspect of language use. Another way to put the matter is that it is near impossible to derive the properties of the underlying computational mechanisms of language from functional accounts of language use.
This is because communicative systems are consistent with more than one sort of language faculty, but the question for the biolinguist is why we have this particular language faculty and not some other Reinhart The upshot of the above is that, as per the analytical strategy detailed above, functional attributions only make sense within an explanatory theory that makes use of such attributions in its explanations.
Generative linguistics and evolutionary theory are different theories giving different explanations of different phenomena.Noam Chomsky Interview on Limits of Language & Mind
Functions are not essential properties of organs or of biological mechanisms, they are attributed in a way that best fits the explanatory purpose at hand. It should be stressed that this is not the case for man-made objects, where the function is defined by reference to the intentions of the designer.
You can use a bread knife in any way you like as a paperweight, as a shoehorn, or as a murder weapon but there is no sense in which its main function and the reason for its existence is not for cutting bread. This is merely a definitional matter established by reference to the intentions of the designer of the object in question. The object would not exist if it were not designed and constructed with a specific function in mind.
But in regard to biological entities, like the language faculty in the mind, this pre-theoretical intuition does not help us.
There is no analogue in the biological realm to a designer of a man-made object: In other words, man-made objects have their functions essentially, whereas biological entities have their functions ascribed to suit the explanatory purposes at hand.
Thus, I argue below that the functional attribution that best fits the explanatory purposes of generative linguistics is that of language being an instrument of thought, and this linguistic theory is unswayed by the claim that within evolutionary theory the function of language is communication. I should note here that I do not wish to rehearse or to adjudicate on the debate in regard to the evolution of language.
Rather, I wish to point to what the motivations may be for making the claim that the function of language is communication. It seems to me that the main motivation perhaps the only fully articulated one for making this claim is that since there was a selective advantage in human evolutionary history for using language for communication, its primary function must therefore be communication. Of course, merely pointing to the fact that, as opposed to evolutionary theory, the functional attribution that best fits the explanatory purposes of generative linguistics is that of language being an instrument of thought does not mean that this attribution is correct or even helpful in improving linguistics as a scientifically fecund explanatory theory.
The question that must be faced is what explanatory scope does arguing that language is an instrument of thought buy us. To this end we now turn. This is the strong claim in regard to language being an instrument of thought. This is of course not to deny that animals can think without language, and this should not be taken to imply that all thought is due to the underlying mechanisms of language.
As mentioned above, animal cognition is impressive indeed but it is missing a specific kind of thinking that appears to be unique to humans. In order to fully understand the nature of these uniquely human thoughts, let us see what productivity and systematicity consist in.
It is the ability to produce and understand an unlimited number of sentences. This feature of language was noticed by Descartes, who viewed productivity in all domains — language, mathematics, vision, etc. In order for the underlying mechanisms of language to be able to produce from the set of finite primitive elements an infinite set of expressions they must allow for recursion.
For present purposes assume that recursion involves embedding a structural object within another instance of itself — as when a noun phrase is embedded within another noun phrase cf. Parker ; Tomalin ; Zwart Notice that an iterative procedure can of course also produce infinite expressions from a finite set, but iteration is not the same as recursion. While the two procedures are similar in that both can yield structural repetition and thus a potential infinite set, they differ in the way in which they do this and thus in the sorts of expressions they can produce.
A procedure is recursive if it builds structures by increasing embedding depth, whereas an iterative procedure can only yield flat structures that have no depth of this kind cf. Recursive procedures can therefore produce linguistic expressions that are, say, centre-embedded, and that lead to long-distance dependencies.
Iterative procedures, on the other hand, cannot produce such expressions. In other words, the indefinite repetition or concatenation of elements iteration is not the same as the indefinite embedding of elements within other elements of the same type recursion. Productivity, then, helps explain how we can deal with novel linguistic contexts and how we can produce and understand sentences that we have not previously encountered.
Linguistic systematicity, on the other hand, refers to the fact that our ability to produce and comprehend expressions of a certain kind guarantees that we can produce or comprehend other systematically related expressions. What accounts for this systematicity are our abstract linguistic structures, or, more specifically, our ability to construct structural representations of sentences — looking at the syntax, we have here the abstract syntactic structure [NP [V NP]].
Such abstract structures explain the systematic relation between expressions. Thus, productivity and systematicity are perhaps the best indicators of the creative and open-ended nature of human language.
That is, just like language is productive and systematic, so is thought. There is no non-arbitrary limit constraining the length of thoughts; like sentences, the number of different thoughts we can have is infinite. And just as sentences are related to each other in a systematic way, thoughts too are related to each other systematically. Note again that this is a difference in kind, not just a difference in degree.
Some human thoughts are not just more complicated than animal thoughts, they are structured in a productive and systematic way that is unavailable to non-human animals. It might seem paradoxical to try to express in language the sort of thoughts that would or would not be possible without the underlying mechanisms of language that generate them. But these underlying mechanisms are of course not linguistic in nature — for if they were they would be explanatorily vacuous in regard to how language and thought work.
As will be detailed in the next section, the underlying mechanisms of language include the process that creates recursive and hierarchically structured expressions — this process takes place before expressions are given a phonological or semantic interpretation in a particular natural language.
With that in mind, consider the thought experiment from Reinhart She imagines a primate that has acquired by some mystery of genetic development the full set of human cognitive abilities but that does not have the language faculty.
This fictitious primate would have, in addition to its cognitive abilities that allow it to think like its fellow primates, a set of concepts that is the same as that of humans and a set of sensorimotor systems that enable it to perceive and code information in sounds. Moreover, Reinhart imagines that this primate would also have the human system of logic, the abstract formal system that contains an inventory of abstract symbols, connectives, functions, and definitions necessary for inference.
Given the nature of this primate, then, what would it be able to do with these systems? That is, given all these additions but lacking the language faculty, can this fictitious primate add to its thinking abilities the sorts of thoughts that display productivity and systematicity and that at present appear to be unique to humans?
Reinhart argues that it could not. At first blush this seems to be a surprising claim. If the primate has acquired the rich conceptual system of humans then presumably its preexisting inference system should allow it to use these newly acquired systems to construct more sophisticated theories that it can then use to, say, better navigate a complex terrain or make better and more complex inferences about its world.
But this is not the case. What prevents this fictitious primate from making use of the new systems and concepts it has acquired is the fact that our inference system operates on propositions, not on concepts. The primate can of course communicate its preexisting concepts to its fellows, and it can make inferences typical of primates, but since it does not have the ability to create recursive and hierarchically structured expressions it cannot construct or comprehend propositions necessary for higher-order inference.
In other words, this imagined primate has concepts and knowledge of first-order logic, which it can use and comprehend, but that is not enough to produce and comprehend propositions nor to make second-order and higher-order inferences.
In order to be able to do the latter, the primate in the thought experiment must — but does not — possess recursion. A fortiori, this primate cannot comprehend the entailment relations between propositions — it cannot think those sorts of thoughts.
Now compare this fictitious primate to real world humans: This is because the way in which the underlying mechanisms of language work in humans is by providing us with higher-order logic cf. Crain on the relation between natural language and classical logicby providing us with a computational system that creates recursive and hierarchically structured expressions that display productivity and systematicity and that we use to, amongst other uses, talk and think about the world cf.
In what follows, then, I want to pursue the stronger claim in regard to language being an instrument of thought, and the evidence that may be adduced in its favour. The type of evidence and sorts of arguments can be divided into two kinds: The second is the design-features argument, according to which the design features of language, especially when seen from the perspective of their internal structure, suggest that language developed and functions for purposes that are not primarily those of communication.
Briefly, the idea is that the internal computational processes of the language faculty syntax in a broad sense generate linguistic objects that are employed by the conceptual-intentional systems systems of thought and the sensorimotor systems to yield language production and comprehension.
Notice that on this view the language faculty is embedded within, but separate from, the performance systems. Phon contains information in a form interpretable by the sensorimotor systems, including linear precedence, stress, temporal order, prosodic and syllable structure, and other articulatory features. Sem contains information interpretable by the systems of thought, including event and quantification structure, and certain arrays of semantic features.
The expression Exp is generated by the operation Merge, which takes objects already constructed and constructs from them a new object. If two objects are merged, and principles of efficient computation hold, then neither will be changed — this is indeed the result of the recursive operation that generates Exp. Such expressions are not the same as linguistic utterances but rather provide the information required for the sensorimotor systems and the systems of thought to function, largely in language-independent ways.
In other words, the sensorimotor systems and the systems of thought operate independently of but at times in close interaction with the faculty of language. A mapping to two interfaces is necessary because the systems have different and often conflicting requirements. That is, the systems of thought require a particular sort of hierarchical structure in order to, for example, calculate relations such as scope; the sensorimotor systems, on the other hand, often require the elimination of this hierarchy because, for example, pronunciation must take place serially.
Language and Thought
The instructions at the Sem interface that are interpreted by the performance systems are used in acts of talking and thinking about the world — in, say, reasoning or organising action. On this view, then, linguistic expressions provide a perspective in the form of a conceptual structure on the world, for it is only via language that certain perspectives are available to us and to our thought processes.
This is the sense in which I take language to be an instrument of thought. Language does not structure human thought in a Whorfian way, nor does it merely express pre-formed thoughts; rather, language with its expressions arranged hierarchically and recursively provides us with a unique way of thinking and talking about the world. Lexical items, then, and all expressions generated from them, are linguistic objects with a double interface property: Thought is determined by language.
A weaker view of determinism holds that thought is merely affected by or influenced by our language, whatever that language may be.
Differences in language reflect the different views of different people. This version of determinism is widely accepted today. Second, linguistic relativism states that language merely influences your thoughts about the real world.
The language we use, whichever it happens to be, divides our whole reality into completely arbitrary compartments. For Whorf, our understanding of the world is one that has been structured by the linguistic systems at work in our minds. Two sources of information are important for language.
First, lexically identified concepts that serve as the primitive elements of structure, and secondly, the culturally developed schema that guide in building the structure.
Structural meaning comes from the order, or pattern, in which the lexicons are placed. Chomsky theorized that children are born with some form of a language-acquisition device that enables them to analyze the speech they hear and derive the rules of that language. Anthropological studies of language propose that there is considerable diversity in world languages and therefore no underlying universal grammar structure. Chomsky believes that when we study the deep structures of the languages we see that there is very little differentiation in their fundamental mechanisms and principles.
This difference between anthropology and linguistics was not as sharply defined in America prior to Chomsky. Chomsky approaches the issues of linguistic structure as a part of human psychology. Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, unlike any communication systems in other animals. He disagrees with the argument that human language is simply a more complex form of communication found in the animal world. The possession of human language is connected with a specific type of mental organization, not merely an advanced level of intelligence.