Plato also believed that concepts are more real than reality.
I recently watched a long YouTube video of Chomsky speaking pretty familiar stuff. The part on language origins was especially trite; it left me unsure whether to laugh or shake my head. So much for that old man, thought I.
Then Christina Behme posted a comment on this blog with a link to her book review denouncing Noam Chomsky's The Science of Language. For a moment I thought perhaps the linguistics world had come full circle. Chomsky's stardom had begun with a take-down book review, so it might end. Of course the review does not satisfy those anticipations. I suppose it could not. Chomsky was reviewing a book that set forth a theory that, as Chomsky demonstrated, was inadequate to account for the facts of language. One of Behme's complaints is that Chomsky does not set forth a theory, so it couldn't be knocked down.
Yet Chomsky does have a theory. The language he describes is an internal process of generating strings of symbols. The brain contains a series of elementary concepts that are manipulated as symbols by a process called Merge. Merge creates strings by following the rules of a Universal Grammar for organizing symbols. Because Merge has a recursive function (i.e., strings can be embedded in existing strings), the potential length of these strings is unlimited. The brain system, or module, can pass these strings to at least two other modules: the semantic module that adds meaning and includes perception, and the externalizing module that translates the string into the public language of a particular culture.
Of special interest to this blog is Chomsky's implication for language origins: Language began as a system for thinking, not communicating. It appeared as the result of a single mutation that allowed the Merge operation. He has said many times that this power of sticking symbols together likely appeared as a mutation in the brain no more than 100 thousand years ago. Thus, the great growth in the human brain (occurring from 1.8 million to 200 thousand years ago), the introduction of fire, the use of tools to make tools, and the adaptation to savanna life all occurred without language and without sticking concepts together. The split-off of Neanderthals from our lineage also predates the introduction of Merge and Neanderthal cultures were all accomplished through the use of elementary concepts, none of which were shared via speech (externalized conceptualizing).
The theory's initial proposition of inborn elementary concepts is not unprecedented; it dates at least to Plato, but it is not the only suspicion about where we get our ideas. An alternate theory is that people base their ideas on experience.
Normally when there is a basic disagreement between scientists, the solution is to perform a series of experiments designed to find the correct idea. As far as I know, Chomsky has never done any experiments to prove that concepts are innate rather than derived from experience. The evidence that he routinely cites is purely logical and anecdotal, and Behme's review does a good job of demonstrating their inadequacy. Meanwhile a great deal of experimentation is being performed by the other side of the issue. (See my discussion of Benjamin Bergen's thesis that sentences are understood by activating our perceptual apparatus: Language Simulates Perception.)
Meanwhile, Chomsky might try to explain why concepts vary from language to language. A famous example is the way an English-speaker can say (1) I know London, and (2) I know accounting, while for a French speaker the verb in these two sentences will differ. If it is innate, why is the English concept of knowing so much broader than the French one? And there are many such examples when comparing the way words are used in different languages. It is not obvious from examining the various paroles that they are all based on the same elementary concepts.
So Chomsky's belief in innate concepts is not undisputed, not obvious, and poses a number of problems that at least need to be acknowledged. Perhaps even more disturbing is the way many of Chomsky's unusual doctrines depend on the existence of innate concepts:
- The primary function of language is thought, not communication.
- Meaning is less important than syntactic structure in sentence construction.
- Thoughts are applied to perceptions and not vice-versa.
- Language is an all or nothing phenomenon.
- The only thing that distinguishes human from animal thought is the presence of Merge and its recursive function.
- There is an internal language that is notably different from externalized language.
- All uniquely human thought is symbolic.
- The concepts never refer to actual things.
Taken together, the list seems like a lot to swallow when it cannot be defended by pointing to experiments, or some commonsense tradition. The latter, of course, is a poor reason to believe something and Chomsky has had many a good laugh at commonsense's expense. Even so, there seems to be no reason to embrace his metaphysics when, however plausible the first step may seem, you end up having to swallow so many implausible conclusions.
There is an alternate theory, which I will summarize in follow-up posts.