Tag Archives: philosophy Descartes Chomsky

Descartes again


E B Bolles in Babel’s Dawn (here) has a good article on the problem of some linguist’s attitude to evolution by natural selection.

He states the problem: “I have often thought that if I could just get a grip on the reason Chomskyans have such a distaste for natural selection, I would have a much clearer grasp of what lies at the root of our disagreement. Chomsky is making an assumption; I hold a counter-assumption.” Bolles found a clue in Ferretti and Adornetti. They said, “As a good Cartesian, Chomsky has always expressed his complete aversion to the possibility of considering universal grammar as an adaptation of natural selection.” So Bolles looked at Descartes to see if his problem was answered. I recommend reading the posting for the full picture of what Bolles is saying.

I have had slightly different problems with Chomsky and the idea of a Cartesian outlook also illuminates them.

First is the denial that language is ultimately about communication. I find it difficult to see language in any other light. Second is the insistence that language comes in sentences, only sentences, and grammatically correct sentences at that. Third is the notion that language is a logical structure akin to symbolic logic or mathematics. (I know that it is moulded by generations of children learning their mother tongue, into grammatical forms that are easy to learn. But these are not always logical as such but rather they are smoothed of awkwardnesses that tax the memory.) Fourth is the notion that thought (other than semantic thought) depends on the internal use of language. This would imply the visual artists, musicians, athletes do not think about and ‘in’ their major activity. Fifth is the dislike of anything biological – no wet, squishy, warm ideas about the actual brain, environment, survival, only clean neat diagrams on white boards. There is little concern about how language is produced and whether it is the way the UG theory say it is. Also there is no concern with how people actually speak or why. Sixth is how hard is the fight against any idea that any animal might have any tiny bit of a language.

I always started with the last problem. My notion was that Chomsky is a person who holds that humans are uniquely unique and that is because only they have language which is so powerful as to make humans not just different from other animals but a new and different sort of animal. The result of this is to label anything that animals can do as ‘not real language’. So language cannot be about communication because almost all living things do some form of communication. Language cannot be an ordinary function of living things. Descartes held that only humans thought, animals didn’t. Thought was the primary thing to Descartes – I think therefore I am. This backward idea was his key – not I am but I think was where he started.

Once you are rid of animals having language or of language having survival functions like communication, you then have the awkward problem of how did it appear. Normal evolution would involve slow development of language in pre-human animals and its selection by how well it functioned in communication. As these are no-nos, you are left with an instantaneous creation by one or a few simultaneous mutations. That is really hard for a biologist to swallow. Descartes did not have that problem, he pre-dated the ideas of evolution and natural selection. There did not have to be a start to the characteristics of any animal or of humans.

Bolles’ look at Descartes also made him think about environment. Chomsky is not happy with language having a recent cultural evolution as well as being unhappy with a conventional biological one. That gets in the way of all-or-nothing language. It again points to a communication function. Chomsky wants language without the bother of an environmental reality. If language was independent of the body and its environment, then language could be immune to culture and the biological constraints of the body. Descartes does this nicely – there is no material mind. Mind and matter are separate. For Chomsky, language is firstly internal and independent of the environment and actual speech. Very much like Descartes mind.

Bolles uncovers something else, another type of Cartesian dualism. “There is also mathematical dualism, the belief that the mathematical world and physical world both exist and follow separate laws. Chomsky is definitely this kind of a dualist, and many other smart people agree with him. Mathematical dualism asserts the independence of its subject from the other reality. … Chomsky doesn’t mean merely self-governing or even self-developing. He means natural language occupies its own reality, just as the natural numbers do. Furthermore, they are independent of any meaning assigned to them culturally. Chomsky believes language (or at least its Universal Grammar) is the same way. So, of course, he is not going to expect much help from biological questions in trying to understand the nature of language. Who would turn to biology to understand mathematics?” This is interesting. I often find it amusing that some mathematicians insist that they discover pre-existing mathematical structures rather than invent them. How quaintly humble it sounds! This idea is older than Descartes. Oh, the things that Descartes and Plato have to answer for.