Kant combined Aristotle's dependence on the senses with a few Platonic prejudices.
Besides having the experimental evidence on its side, the alternate theory is more in keeping with what we have learned from natural history and its evolutionary backbone.
It seems impossibly naïve to rely on a single mutation to account for human uniqueness. Mutations occur all the time and are part of every generation. If a single mutation was all it took to produce Chomsky's Merge, we would be left wondering why the mutation had not happened millions of years sooner. The likely answer would be that in all probability the mutation had occurred, but the environment was not ripe for its selection. Chomsky does not like this answer because it gives power to externalities and he wants a complete, internal system. As the poet warns us, however: You can't always get what you want.
It also seems naïve to claim an interest in the biology of language, and yet pay no attention to the abundant fossil and tool evidence of the evolution of the human lineage. It shows that for the past 1.8 million years the lineage has gotten smarter, more cooperative, and more fertile. Human infants are much more burdensome than chimpanzees and other ape infants. We have a much longer period of helplessness, and yet we reproduce more quickly than the great apes and even without modern medicine and hygiene more of our infants survive to adulthood. This success has given us an adaptability unknown to other primate species and makes it impossible to argue reasonably that the only critical difference between humans and other apes arises from a one-time mutation that took place a mere hundred thousand years ago.
There is also the simple fact that languages vary tremendously. Why? The concepts they express differ enormously. The details of perception that they force speakers to express also vary, and there are plenty of completely arbitrary rules such as word-gender that languages enforce. Why? And double-why do we see this variation if, as Chomsky says, all languages express the Merges of a universally-shared, identical internal language module? Chomsky tries to offer reasons but they depend on complex and arbitrary rules that pay no attention to the external needs of survival or the capacities of the human body.
It seems a lot simpler to say that language serves a peculiarly human function, the sharing of perceptions and other ideas. The similarity of certain basics arise from the commonality of function and the shared powers of perception; the many differences reflect long histories of separate sharing by a species that acts not like its ancestors, but like its neighbors.
In the end, I have grown fed up with Chomsky's dogged refusal to take any idea seriously or respond honorably if it does not support internal autonomy. I have learned much more from people who learn from others: e.g., Giorgio Marchetti, Michael Tomasello, James Hurford, and Edward Wilson.
And yet by taking Chomsky seriously I have learned from him too. The alternate theory led me to scratch out most of Chomsky's surprising conclusions, but a couple were left standing:
- 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.
These are important ideas and their persistence suggests I have gotten more out of Chomsky than just somebody to quarrel with, but to really use these ideas I have to modify them in ways that I'm confident Chomsky himself would dismiss with a wave.
…the presence of Merge…: Humans and animals both rely on perception for their non-inborn knowledge of the world, but only humans can use language to share perceptions—that is to point things out, and name things we encountered while away from the listener. This sharing can be accomplished with words, phrases, and gestures alone, but the results can be much more profound when several perceptions are bound into a complete thought. And as Chomsky loves to point out, there is no automatic end to the Merging possible.
- …internal language…: Humans enjoy a subjective, sensory knowledge that language can evoke but not reproduce.
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Note: If you want a PDF file of all thrre posts combined into one essay, you can download it here: Tired of Chomsky