Sunday, September 13, 2015

WHAT THE AUGUST 30 POST SHOULD HAVE SAID!

In the August 30 post I attributed to Noam Chomsky views he disavowed in an e-mail to me (the  text of the message is my September 9 post). What follows is

HOW THE AUGUST 30 POST SHOULD HAVE READ:

In my next post I will say how the mistake came about, and why some of Chomsky's formulations did strike me as suggesting that he believes the "language organ" that he posits has to contain representations of all learnable meanings (which is the feature of Fodor's original "mentalese" hypothesis that I find unsupportable).

Innate language?
 I do not believe in “innate language”, (e.g., Fodor’s “mentalese”, which, when he wrote The Language of Thought, was supposed to have a built-in truth-conditional semantics, that is a semantics which fixes the meanings of all the sentences a human is capable is thinking (later Fodor moved to the position that “mentalese” has only a built-in syntax, and developed a causal theory of reference to account for content).  Here are my reasons for this rejection.
The decisive objection, in my view, is that the innate language that Fodor posited was supposed to be able to express all learnable meanings. If all possible meaningful terms were definable from a number of basic terms that might have been selected for by evolution (such as the logical positivists’ “observation terms”) , this would be compatible with Darwinian evolution.. But Fodor rejects logical positivism, and he suggested no alternative account of what the basic terms of “mentalese” might be. Nor did The Language of Thought tell  us what mechanism could have endowed the brains of primitive men and women with terms with such meanings as “quantum potential”  and “macroeconomic”, or with terms by means of which they could be defined, if, indeed, there are more elementary terms in which this could be done.
I am well aware that Fodor rejects Darwinian evolution. (Since that theory is highly successful, and constitutes the beating heart of population genetics, to mention just one part of biology, I would think that is already reason to dismiss talk of innate language.) But if we are to suppose that“mentalese” appeared in the brain serendipitously, that the makes the story even crazier. The story that the hundreds of thousands of terms in human languages, and the millions of terms in possible human languages, all correspond to terms in a master vocabulary of ‘Mentalese’ supplied to us by serendipity is precisely analogous to supposing that monkeys typed out Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Of course, to reject that story is not to deny that some aspects of language might be innate; that would not be incompatible with evolution.



66 comments:

  1. In your book Renewing Philosophy you try to reject the Chomsky’s doctrine of ‘innateness’ to argue that ‘The view that language learning is not really learning, but rather the maturation of an innate ability in a particular environment (somewhat like the acquisition of a bird call by a species of bird that has to hear the call from an adult bird of the species to acquire it, but which also has an innate propensity to acquire that sort of call) leads in its extreme form, to pessimism about the likelihood that human use to natural language can be successfully stimulated on a computer – which is why Chomsky is pessimistic about projects for natural language computer processing, although he shares the computer model of the brain, or at least of the “language organ”, with AI researchers.’ (1992:15)
    It seems to me very apt that you have not accepted the ideas of Artificial Intelligence on the topic neutral learning strategy in our natural language. Even Chomsky who believes in “the computer model of brain” to a particular case does not believe that artificial intelligence can succeed. For Chomsky, as Putnam mentioned that ‘language using’ is not a separate ability of human being like throwing a cricket ball. You are absolutely true that in the case of ‘language using’, an agent needs to undergo the process of total human intelligence capacity, but throwing a cricket ball does not stimulate on the total human intellect capacity.
    But I think in the following point your misunderstood Chomsky. Chomsky repeatedly clarifies his idea that “computational model” works only for generative grammar in I-language in the sense of parsing programme that determine the structure of presented expressions and it has no relation with language use system. Even Chomsky also thinks that the “creative aspect of language use” cannot be fitted with computer model of language processing. Another issue that I think you need to relook is the word “innateness propensity”. As far as my understanding goes I think that it would be highly contentious to call Chomsky’s doctrine of 'innateness' a “propensity” as you often argued; the reason seems to me that our language faculty has a genetic base that even does not challenge by the Biologists. So it would be mistaken if you put “propensity” in the place of genetic basis system.
    But I firmly believe that you have some more interesting arguments in your mind that we all admire highly and looking forward to know.


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  5. Chomsky in the note below accepts the dismissal of the idea of "innate language", presumably contrasting that with the idea of a "language faculty", the initial state of which is described by the theory of "Universal Grammar", and the main component of which takes the form of a "computational system for human language" and, for specific languages (i.e., subsequent states of the language faculty, with particular choices for parameter settings specified (the "switches")), an "I-language", composed of a lexicon and a system of generative rules that specify a set of structural descriptions for the sentences of the language, these structural descriptions being essentially hierarchical in nature. I am neither a Chomskyan nor a syntactician, and it's been a long time since I grappled with these ideas, but I think it is this language faculty, i.e., its initial state, that is genetically determined in Chomsky's view. Anyone can correct me if I am off the mark, in this admittedly crude overview description. BTW, when you refer to "innate language" and say you do not think such a thing exists, you seem possibly to be thinking of what Chomsky would refer to as "I-language", which indeed (I think) Chomsky does not consider to be innate. So, the question becomes, "What sort of a dependency relation obtains between the initial state of the language faculty and subsequent states? The question, "What is the nature, form and degree of specification (content) of the initial state of the language faculty?" I would regard as an open question awaiting evidence that would bear on it, but the question of the "ontogenesis" of the I-language is I think one that can be profitably pursued in the meantime.

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  7. As far as my understanding goes I think that it would be highly contentious to call Chomsky’s doctrine of 'innateness' a “propensity” as you often argued; the reason seems to me that our language faculty has a genetic base that even does not challenge by the Biologists.

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  15. R.I.P. Professor Putnam. I am so sad. My condolences to his wife Ruth Anna. I had questions only he could answer.

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