Sixty minutes into his Cologne lecture, Chomsky discusses the elementary unit of meaningful language. What is it? He says the standard answer is "comes from the referentialist doctrine." Tiger refers to a tiger. Chomsky surprised me by saying that this idea seems to be true for animals. A vervet monkey, for example, makes different calls in response to specific stimuli. Chomsky doesn't specify, but vervets are famous for making different calls in response to snakes, leopards, and eagles. (I don't know if referentialist doctrine really works when it comes to lion roars, wolf howls, zebra barks, etc.) But, says Chomsky, the referential doctrine does not "seem to be remotely true for the simplest elements of human language."
We do get a clue. "References of thought," Chomsky tells us, "are not independently linked to mind-external entities." I've encountered more cryptic assertions—someone once told me, 'The world is all that is the case'—but it's time to think some more.
The most ardent assertion on the other side came from Einstein who said that symbols worked like the number handed you at a coat check. The token with the number was nothing like the coat, but every token matched up with a coat. There's the reference doctrine with spirit. Thus, in Einstein's famous equation e refers to energy, which exists, m refers to mass, which also exists, and c2 refers to the speed of light squared, which, to Einstein's way of thinking is also out there in reality.
But Chomsky, as I divine his argument, might have had a retort to Einstein. "What," he could have asked, "matches up with another symbol in the famous equation, the equal sign?" There even Albert should have blushed. The equal sign is a token without a coat; it designates a relationship between things out there among the mind-external realities but is itself a mind-internal reality that cannot be detected by a sensor.
In his presentation Chomsky refers to gestalt, cause and effect, sympathy of parts, psychic continuity, and other "mentally imposed properties." From these clues, I take Chomsky's position to be that words are intimately entangled with thought processes and do not refer to just to the objects of the world. He does not spell out how it all works, probably because he doesn't know precisely.
Einstein is my hero, but I have to go with Chomsky on this one. In fact it was years of banging into the sorts of puzzles that Chomsky alludes to that made me an instant convert to the notion that words get their meaning by piloting attention.
Attention is often pointed outward, say at a tiger, so it is not at all surprising that one's first thought is that words refer to things. But attention can also be focused inward as well. The aspects of thought that Chomsky listed—gestalt, cause and effect, etc.—are part of perception. In his lecture Chomsky says it is impossible to know whether animals think or not/ However, it seems to me that it ought to be possible to design experiments to determine whether animals perceive these things or not. If they do, thinking about them is at least conceivable.
For example, it should be fairly straightforward to train an animal to respond one way to a moving object. Then show the animal the gestalt illusion in which one light goes off and immediately another goes on. Depending on the animal's response we should be able to say whether it did or did not see the light move. I suspect that gestalt psychologists have already conducted such experiments.
The working hypothesis of this blog is that language is a means of sharing perceptions by directing one another's attention. Sometimes the perception is concrete, sometimes imaginary. During the evolutionary period that concerns this blog, most of the perceptions were probably concrete. So it seems I agree with Chomsky that language is not independently linked to mind-external realities. It is intimately entangled with the way we perceive and experience life, and that's why we will never run out of new things to say.