LINGUIST List 12.1816

Fri Jul 13 2001

Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Dan Everett, Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Message 1: Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

Date: Thu, 12 Jul 2001 12:28:53 -0500
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: Re: 12.1796, Disc: On Nonobjects of Syntactic Study

A couple of comments on a reply to my posting from:

 Jose-Luis Mendivil Giro <>

> The object of study of what you have inadequately called
> linguistics is a ***natural object***: i.e., a state, a property of the
> mind/brain.

Calling something beyond the senses, which can never be studied directly,
and which is only an abstraction useful to a particular theory, a 'natural
object' is a bit beyond my credulity threshhold. But I did that for long
enough myself to understand the appeal.

> Here is what Chomsky actually says...
> "The faculty of language can be regarded as a 'language organ' in the
sense in
> which scientists speak of the visual system, or immune system, or
> system, as organs of the body" (...)

Yes, this is the old story which everyone knows but which each new
generation of grad students reacts to as novel. Something doesn't become a
'natural kind' by calling it an 'organ' (modulo nominalism) any more than
calling Caspar the Friendly Ghost my friend makes him real.

> > What could count as evidence for
> >this Cartesian construct/grammar? All and only phenomena which have no
> >nongrammatical explanation.
> No. As Chomsky goes on saying, both the 'input' and the 'output' are open
> examination:

Your answer misses the point. This reply doesn't work for a few reasons.
Let's take one: neither the input nor the output is speaker competence or
UG. They are only items for discussion. UG is never studied nor even
evidenced directly (and, yes, I realize the implication that my objection
extends beyond this particular linguistic theory). When you look at the
input, you are looking at sentence-fragments generally. You are not looking
at UG, which remains abstract, disembodied, unstudiable in principle.

> "we can study the course of experience [the process of language
> JLM] and the properties of the languages that are acquired. What is
learned in
> this way can tell us quite a lot about the initial state that mediates
> them"

They tell us nothing about the cartesian grammarian until the historical,
functional, and sociolinguistic (inter alia) contaminants are filtered out.
Since this is impossible in principle, 'experience' can never provide direct
evidence for UG. Whether it provides any evidence is a matter of belief

> Then, there is no limit to the different types of data that may be useful
> such inquiry (grammatical, psychological, neurological, etc.). The only
> condition being falsability.

A little Popper has gone a bit too far here.

> I agree. We cannot know what is pure-grammatical a priori, but the notion
> 'pure grammar' does not appear in Chomsky's writings, to my knowledge.

No, of course it doesn't. If it did, the implications would be rather
obvious. I certainly would not claim that it did and would be astounded to
hear of it.

> >And the problem of recognition here is not merely hard. It is
> >impossible. This is because to know that this or that fact is 'pure
> >uncontaminated by nongrammatical factors, would require knowledge of
> >everything about that fact, i.e. just everything.
> Again I agree, but it is not the matter.
> You are constructing your thesis on the assumption that the object of
> of Chomkyan linguistics (let's dispense with Descartes by now) is an ideal
> pure grammar, but it isn't.

Uh, yes, it must be. UG is pure grammar. It cannot contain anything else.

> Let's see again what 'the Master' says about I-language and grammar:
> "The approach I have been outlining is concerned with the faculty of
> its initial state, and the states it assumes. Suppose Peter's language
> is in state L. We can think of L as Peter's 'internalized language'" (p.
> When Chomsky uses 'I' he is meaning internal, individual, and intensional
> (the characterisation of a function in intension), not 'purely
> nor 'uncontamined by nongrammatical factors':

Think again. It couldn't mean anything else.

> So, the object of study is not 'grammar' but some system of knowledge that
> uncontroversially lives in our minds, in our brains. A 'grammar' is a
> (idealised as all theories about something in nature) of that state of the
> mind/brain.

The system of knowledge just turns out to be required to be pure grammar.
And that just means uncontaminated by the sorts of things that it does not
intend to explain. The methodological idealization here has been wrongly
extended to the ontology.

> As I have shown a 'mental grammar' may be considered a natural object and
> then a licit object for scientific inquiry. But this is only true if we
> the word 'mental' in a proper sense (i.e. a non-dualistic,
> sense).

You didn't show me this. Just that you believe it to be so.

> As Chomsky again puts it:
> "The approach is mentalistic, but in what should be an uncontroversial
> It is concerned with 'mental aspects of the world', which stand alongside
> mechanical, chemical, optical, and other aspects. It undertakes to study
> real object in the natural world -the brain, its states, and its
functions -
> and thus to move the study of mind towards eventual integration with the
> biological sciences" (p.6).

In general, when Chomsky says 'uncontroversial' he means 'controversial'. I
think in his dialect the 'un-' prefix is a positive marker. There are many
views of the mental. It is inherently controversial. If the study of UG were
a study of the brain, syntactic trees could be seen in CAT scans.
Abstraction is taking place here, my friend. If you want to call that real,
that's fine. People can call things whatever they want. Must be a
dialectical difference again.

> What Chomsky is saying here is that the adjective 'mental' must be used
> as we use 'chemical', 'optical', etc.

Yes. I agree that that is what he is saying. I disagree with the content of
the assertion.

> Non sequitur.

Depends, doesn't it, then?

Dan Everett
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