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Date: Wed, 30 Jul 2003 00:07:27 +0530 From: sharbani Subject: Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought
Chomsky, Noam (2002) Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought, 2nd ed., Cybereditions Corporation, edited, with an Introduction, by James McGilvray.
Reviewed by Sharbani Banerji, Ghaziabad, India.
Noam Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics(CL) was first published in 1966, after the "Cognitive Revolution" had already begun. Some of the material in it was presented as a part of the Princeton University Christian Gauss lectures on Criticism early in 1964, when he was a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies. This second edition differs from the first in being entirely in English. All the quotations, which were originally in French or German, have been translated into English. Secondly, this edition has an additional introduction called `Introduction for Cybereditions' by James McGilvray, the editor of the book.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK
The book `Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the history of rationalist thought' has four chapters, besides an introduction and a summary. In addition,there is also the editor's introduction: INTRODUCTION FOR CYBEREDITIONS by James McGilvray (pp.7-44) The book is supposed to begin with the following remark by A.N. Whitehead, which was originally there in the first edition, but is unfortunately missing in the second edition.
"A brief,and sufficiently accurate,description of the intellectual life of the European races during the succeeding two centuries and a quarter upto our own times is that they have been living upon the accumulated capital of ideas provided for them by the genius of the seventeenth century". A.N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World.
In his concluding remarks in the summary, Chomsky returns to this very remark of Whitehead, having systematically surveyed the intellectual thought of 17th, 18th and early 19th century. Though Chomsky calls this book a survey,it is not exactly a survey. Despite the fact that in each and every chapter, Chomsky draws the `ideas' of other thinkers, spanning an approximate period from Descartes to Humboldt,and systematically proves that the concept of `innateness' of language', the `Universal Grammar'(UG) and the consequences thereof, viz.,in language acquisition etc., were part and parcel of the rationalist and to some extent romantics thought,it is not a survey for the following reason:
It must be remembered that in the pre-modern period, disciplines like philosophy, psychology, linguistics etc., had not been disconnected from eachother and thereby compartmentalized. As a result, many of the thinkers, scholars, philosophers, etc.,whom Chomsky quotes profusely in this book, were not all engaged in linguistic or grammatical studies. For example, Descartes, hardly paid much attention to language. Several of them were even antagonistic to the `Cartesian Doctrine'that Chomsky draws out from their works. For example, Vaugelas, de La Mettrie, J.G. Herder etc., were more of empiricists. They were also not part of a single tradition. Nor was there any person except Humboldt, who prescribed to all the views of this doctrine. Yet, when Chomsky is extracting the `relevant ideas' from the works of apparently disconnected works of various kinds of scholars, not just grammarians, the `ideas' themselves are knitted so well, and are strung together so logically and systematically, that they indeed turn out to be Chomsky's own ideas, and hence have contemporary significance. Thus,"Cartesian Linguistics", in Chomsky's words, is "A constellation of ideas, and interests, that appear in the tradition of "universal" or "philosophical grammar", which develops from the Port-Royal "Grammaire gnrale et raisonne"(1660); in the general linguistics that developed during the romantic period and its immediate aftermath; and in the rationalist philosophy of mind that in part forms a common background for the two".
Perhaps the choice of the word "Cartesian" by Chomsky has also been guided by the fact that the 17th century philosophical movement begun by Descartes was called "Continental Rationalism". And, Descartes's followers, who continued his teachings in Continental Europe were called "Cartesians".
To appreciate the depth and implications of CL, it is important to place the book in right context, and in its proper perspective. The additional introduction by the editor James McGilvray in the second edition is meant to serve that purpose.
Before presenting a synopsis of the book, I shall make a similar attempt, that is, to give a proper `perspective' of the book, by discussing the trends in linguistics which prevailed when CL was written, it's central tenets, and it's importance as a milestone in the "cognitive revolution". The central themes of CL have been adopted and extended in the studies in generative grammar, just as the studies in language acquisition have taken off from where CL left.Thus, the dramatic claims by Chomsky in the field of language acquistion especially with regard to the existence of a language organ have also been discussed in this introduction.
Cognitive science came into existence in the early 1950s, by breaking from the clutches of behaviorism which was reigning supreme then.It was a period which initiated collaboration amongst several disciplines, as used to be the case in the premodern era, amply demonstrated in CL.The cognitive revolution in theoretical Linguitics in the form of generative grammar,was initiated by Noam Chomsky's 1957 book `Syntactic Structures'. That was the time when a lot of work started on `theories of mind'.However, Chomsky's contributions had begun with his 1949 undergraduate thesis `Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew (1951/1979) and his 1955 `The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory' published 20 years later. But it was Chomsky's exhaustive 1959 review of B.F. Skinner's "Verbal Behavior" that ultimaltely turned behaviorist or rather empiricist assumptions into `reductio ad absurdum'.1950's mark the "second cognitive revolution", which revived and tried to make precise the insights of "the first cognitive revolution" of the 17th and 18th century, and which is what CL illustrates explicitly. Thus, one may say that CL is the mirror of "the first cognitive revolution", which recognizes that language involves "the infinite use of finite means", in von Humboldt's phrase.
The central tenets of CL as well as Chomsky's generative enterprise, ie., both of first and second Coginitive Revolutions, in other words, of Cartesian doctrine is that, humans are `thinking beings', biologically distinct from `non-humans'. The human faculty of language is `innate' and `creative'. It is a true "species specific property". Without this assumption, it is impossible to explain how children acquire language in the first place. Behavioristic concepts, like "stimulus control", "conditioning", "generalization and analogy","disposition to respond" etc., cannot explain language acquistion in children because, they know a lot more than what experience teaches them. Human speech is unbounded and stimulus free, which is what distinguishes them from non-humans or machines. Whereas both an automation and `animal behaviour' can show unbounded output, they are not stimulus-free, a characteristic directly linked to `creativity' of the human mind. The essential purpose of human language is not just communication. Rather, it serves as an expression of thought.Animal language in contrast, exists only for communication.eg., communication system in `bees', which though shares with human language the property of "displaced reference",is not `stimulus-free' or creative.
In the Rennaisance period, grammars were modeled mainly on the structure of Greek and Latin.The famous "Port Royal Grammar"(PRG), compiled by Claude Lancelot (1615-95) and Antoine Arnauld (1612-94) and first published in 1660, was written in French.It was part of a movement against the superiority of Latin in academic studies. However, it's real importance lies in the fact that it was the first comprehensive attempt to present a `mentalist-theory' of grammar, with a view to incorporate the universal properties of human language, viz., by postulating the levels of deep and surface structure, and which implicitly contained recursive devices providing for infinite use of the finite means, as any adequate theory of language must. An earlier attempt in this direction was the rennaisance grammar Sanctius's Minerva(1587). Noam Chomsky's transformational generative grammar was in fact a modern and more explicit version of the Port Royal Theory.As Chomsky points out, philosophical grammars lacked the intricacies of the mechanism that relate deep to surface structure, and there was no detailed investigation of the character of the rules that appear in grammars or the formal conditions that they satisfy.For example, it was by and large assumed that the deep structure consists of actual sentences in a simpler or more natural organization.
And, most important, word order was a topic completely ignored in the first Cartesian revolution, though it certainly has found its due place in the second Cartesian revolution.
The linguistics of Port-Royal and its successors developed also in reaction against the empiricist doctrines of Vaugelas. We thus find that both first and second cognitive revolutions developed as a reaction to empiricism.
In 1960s when Chomsky was arguing against the taxonomic methods of his predecessors, he meant the structuralists, and the decriptivists, who were concerned only with the `surface structures' of languages. That is,a structuralist grammar describes the `langue' (as against the `parole'),or the relationships that underlie all instances of speech in a particular language.
But this `langue' (in the sense of `Saussure') is very different from the universal grammar that is innate in the human brain. Firstly, `langue' is not universal, nor is it language independent. eg., there can be `langue' for French, Swahili, Bangla etc., and secondly, the structuralists think that instances of grammatical sentences of a particular language are inscribed as it is, in the memory of individuals, and when they speak,they draw on these sentences.
That brings us to Language Acquisition. A lot of work has been done on the topic since CL was first published and Chomsky has since made very bold proposals on the subject. Here is a discussion on that.
If UG is innate, it has to be physically pesent somewhere in the human body, and that can only be in the brain.The Cartesians had recognized this fact, and Humboldt had even postulated that there is a `critical period' of development, for acquisition of language. The ideas were however, not very precise. Chomsky has, over the period, given a more precise picture of this speculation. It is not just the UG which is determined `a priori', concepts too are. Kant(1787)in `Critique of pure reason' had claimed that there are some knowledge which are `a priori' knowledge, which are independent of experience and even of all impressions of the senses.For example, as Chomsky (1997) points out, the property of discrete infinity, which is exhibited in its purest form by the natural numbers 1, 2, 3,... , is not taught. The mind already possesses the basic principles,as part of our biological endowment.
Thus,Chomsky adopts the the rationalist hypothesis: the structure of the brain is determined `a priori' by the genetic code, the brain is programmed to analyze experience and to construct knowledge out of that experience.
Way back in 1983, in an extremely informative and enlightening interview with the psychologist and science journalist John Gleidman, Chomsky had the following to say about the `language organ'and the Universal grammar that he proposed exists in our brain.
1) Language acquisition critically depends on the existence of a genetically preprogrammed language organ in the brain. If the mind has very important innate structures,it must be physically realized in some manner.
2) It is a common practice to say that UG is innate. To be more precise, It is the mechanism of language acquisition that is innate.
3) In fact, language development really ought to be called "language growth" because the language organ grows like any other body organ. The following points further clarify what he means by "growth" of the language organ.
a)There seems to be a critical age for learning a language, as is true quite generally for the development of the human body,--for example, the onset of puberty is genetically determined, despite the fact that environmental factors do play a major role in physiological growth.Language growth then is simply one of these predetermined changes.
b)That is,"growth", to some extent, is "modification".The language organ interacts with early experience and matures into the grammar of the language that the child speaks.The brain's different linguistic experience, viz., English versus Japanese -- would modify the language organ's structure.
c)Still related to `growth', elsewhere, in an interview called `The Nancho Consultations',he has following to say: There is a significant change at about puberty,and which happens to the language organ too.As a result,acquiring a second language after that point is probably done by rather different mechanisms.
Functionalism has been strongly against the theory that grammar is a "mental organ". According to Chomsky(1979), Every organ has certain functions, but these functions do not determine the ontogenetic development of the organism.
Chomsky's ideas on language acquisition are totally opposed to the empiricist (structuralists and behaviorists alike),doctrines. Empiricists adopt a special form of dualism: they treat human bodies as biological organisms, but treat the human mind as somehow divorced from biology, a biological clean slate that can be written on in any number of ways.They view the mind as largely unformed and plastic at birth and take its concepts to be molded and in fact created anew through training, forming habits etc. ie., through `generalized learning procedures'.
The leading ideas of the book have already been discussed above. Hence, a lengthy exposition will follow only if necessary. The Chapters in the book are not numbered. The editor's introduction which may be called the first chapter in the book, is somewhat isolated from the actual book. The chapters of CL are enumerated after that.
I) INTRODUCTION FOR CYBEREDITIONS James McGilvray
It is an informative introduction, discussing the importance and relevance of Cartesian thoughts vis--vis the empiricist ideas.It has a lengthy expos on the creative aspect of language use,including nativism,and on rationalism vs romanticism vs empiricism. It also has a small write up on politics and education.
II) CARTESIAN LINGUISTICS
Following are the chapters of Chomsky's book `Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the history of rationalist thought'.
In the introduction Chomsky defines the term `Cartesian Linguistics', which is a return to the classical concerns of seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which have roots in earlier linguistic theories.
II) CREATIVE ASPECT OF LANGUAGE USE
In this chapter, Chomsky draws from wide ranging works of various philosophers spread over the rationalist and romantic period of history, and also dating back to the time of Aristotle,to prove that the "mentalist" or the "creative aspect" of human language faculty has been an idea long accepted through the ages, before the modern period. Even those who superficialy seem to oppose the idea, are actually arguing for it. A consequence of this idea would be the postulation of something akin to `Universal Grammar',and that is done only by Humboldt.
To illustrate, Descartes convinced himself that all aspects of animal behaviour can be explained on the assumption that an animal is an automation.But man has unique abilities that cannot be accounted for on purely mechanistic grounds. The essential difference between man and animal is exhibited most clearly by human language,which manifests itself as the "creative aspect" of language use, and which is unbounded in scope and is stimulus free. Thus, in addition to body it is necessary to attribute "mind" -a substance whose essence is thought,-to other humans.
Similarly, Cordemoy, James Harris,etc, emphasize the creative aspect of language use.In the romantic period, Rousseau, Herder, Schlegel, etc maintain similar views about the creative aspect of language use. Before Descartes, Juan Huarte's Examen de Ingenius (1575) made similar claims about "mind" and it's creative power.
La Mettrie and Bougeant apparently disagreed with the doctrine that human and animal languages or talking machines differed in any significant way.Chomsky however proves from their own arguments that this supposed counterargument merely reaffirms the Cartesian position regarding human and animal language.That is, they are saying the same things that Descartes and Cordemoy are saying.
Basing his arguments along Cartesian lines, Chomsky argues also against the position taken by modern linguists such as Ryle, Bloomfield, Paul, Saussure, Jesperson and others, who tend to attribuite the creative aspect of language use to "analogy" or "grammatical patterns".
It is Humboldt who tries to give a defining characteristics to the creative aspect of language use.He characterizes language as a "generative activity" rather than a "product". It indicates that there is a constant and uniform factor underlying this "mental labour"; it is this which Humboldt calls the "Form" of language.It is only the underlying laws of generation that are fixed in a language. Thus, language has the capacity to make infinite use of finite means. The concept of "Form" includes the "rules of speech formation" as well as the rules of "word formation" and the rules of formation of concepts that determine the class of "root words".
Humboldt's notion of `form' or `organic form' is parallel to Goethe's much earlier theory of "Urform" in biology."Urform" is a kind of generative principle that determines the class of physically possible organisms; It indicates that there is coherence and unity beneath all the superficial modifications determined by variation in environmental conditions.
Chomsky's points out that Humboldt leaves many questions unanswered. For example, he doesnot give a precise character of the "organic form" in a language. That is, he doesnot attempt to construct a particular generative grammar. He doesnot clarify the distinction between competence and performance, a distinction which dates back to Aristotle's first or second grade of actuality of form (De Anima, book II, Chap 1).Lastly, there is no mention of word order.
III) DEEP AND SURFACE STRUCTURE
It is Port-Royal Grammar (1660), which makes the most serious attempt to incorporate the idea of `creative asepct of language use", by postulating that the general form of all grammars have an universal underlying structure. According to them,there are three operations of our minds, "conceiving, judging and reasoning" ,of which the third is irrelevant to grammar (it is taken up in the Port-Royal Logic, which appeared two years later, in 1662).
James Harris's `Hermes', too attempts to incorporate the structure of the mental process in the structure of grammar. Similarly, Cordemoy and Lamy make a distinction between inner and outer aspect of language, which in the terminology of transformation generative grammar would be deep structure and surface structure, and which are not identical. The former is the underlying abstract structure that determines its semantic interpretation; the latter the superficial organization of units which determines the phonetic interpretation and which relates to the physical form of the actual utterance, to its perceived or intended form.The deep structure that expresses the meaning is common to all languages, so it is claimed, being a simple reflection of the forms of thought. The transformational rules that convert deep to surface structure may differ from language to language.This deep structure is nevertheless, related to actual sentences, in that each of its component abstract propositions could be directly realized as a simple propositional judgement.
An extensive study of relative clauses bring forth the distinction between meaning and reference, or "the comprehension of an idea" vs. "the extension of an idea" in the modern terms. PRG makes special reference to the "operations of our minds", viz.,the conjunctions, disjunctions and other similar operations of our minds, and also all the other movements of our souls, such as desires, commands, questions etc.
Besides the Port Royal Grammarians, other philosophical grammarains who contribute to similar study are the encyclopedist Du Marsais,Beauze etc. Even earlier grammarians provide additional instances of analysis in terms of deep structure, in their analysis of imperatives and interrogatives etc., which are analyzed in effect, as elliptical transformations.
Du Marsais follows Port Royal grammarians in regarding the theory of deep and surface structure as, in essence a psychological theory, not merely a means for the elucidation of given forms or for analysis of texts.
IV) DESCRIPTION AND EXPLANATION IN LINGUISTICS
A distinction between General(universal) Grammar vs Particular Grammar should be a natural corollary of Cartesian thought. Beauze , Du Marsais, D'Alembert contribute to this distinction, which Chomsky summarizes as follows: General grammar is therefore the rational science of the immutable and general principles of spoken or written language (Langage), whatever language (Langue) this may be. A particular grammar is the art of applying the arbitrary and usual conventions of a particular language to the immutable and general conventions of written or spoken language. There were however, counter currents too. Vaugelas's work,"Remarques sur la langue Franaise (1647)" had only one goal, to describe usage, but not to discover the underlying principles.He represented the empiricists of his time.
V) ACQUISITION AND USE OF LANGUAGE
The central doctrine of Cartesian Linguistics as has been sketched in the three chapters above, is that the general features of grammatical structure are common to all languages and reflect certain fundamental properties of the mind.If so, Chomsky's logical conclusion is that,there are then, certain language universals that set limits to the variety of human language.The study of the universal conditions that prescribe the form of any human language is "grammaire gnrale".Such universal conditions are not learned; rather they provide the organizing principles that make language learning possible, that must exist if data are to lead to knowledge. By attributing such principles to mind, as an innate property, it becomes possible to account for the quite obvious fact that the speaker of a language knows a great deal that he hasnot learned.
The earliest exposition expressing these thoughts is Herbert of Cherbury's `De Veritate (1624)'. Herbert expresses much of the psychological theory that underlies Cartesian Linguistics, just as he emphasized those aspects of cognition that were developed by Descartes and later, by English Platonists, Leibniz, and Kant.Leibniz emphasizes, in `Nouveaux Essatis'(1765) that what is latent in the mind requires external stimulation, to become active. Leibniz makes this explicit in many places. Thus he holds that "nothing can be taught us of which we have not already in our minds the idea". Similarly, Cordemoy concludes that language learning presupposes possession of "wholly developed reason"[la raison toute entire].Rationalist conclusions reappear with some of romantics as well.eg., A.W. Schlegel. According to Humboldt, a language "cannot properly be taught but only awakened in the mind; it is because of the fundamental correspondence of all human languages, because of the fact that "human beings are the same, whatever they may be", that a child can learn any language .Humboldt made another very important point that, the functioning of the language capacity is, furthermore, optimal at a certain "critical period" of intellectual development, an idea further developed by Chomsky in his theory of `language organ' (discussed earlier).
Chomsky points out that these ideas are in contrast to empiricist speculation of modern linguists. The strong assumptions about innate mental structure made by rationalistic psychology and philosophy of mind eliminated the necessity for any sharp distinction between a theory of perception and a theory of learning.Ideas of this sort regarding perception were common in the seventeenth century, but were then swept aside by the empiricist current, to be revived again by Kant and the romantics. Current work can be taken as a continuation of the tradition of Cartesian Linguistcs, and the psychology that underlies it.
Here Chomsky summarizes the work in the preceding chapters.
I think the greatest contribution of CL is that it brings out absolutely explicitly the fact that the ideas of generative grammar have existed for centuries. Work in this tradition, which is still going on and will continue to do so, has one primary aim-to make the ideas precise.
With regard to theory, I have the following points to make.
Chomsky adopts the rationalist doctrine "that language serves as an expression of thought", not denying that it also serves in communication. I don't think there can be any disagreement on that. However, not all `thoughts' require language. All our `unconscious' acts, which include our daily routines etc., are not done by means of `conscious language'.One might even term some of those actions as `habits', but there can also be `first-time-actions', which donot require a conscious use of language even in thought. That is, `language' is more at a `conscious level' of the cognitive domain. Then, it must be the `unconscious domain' which uses `mentalese',(exact nature of which is unknown), as language.In short, perhaps we have to posit different levels of consciousness to explain various cognitive processes.Thus, instead of saying that language is a module around a central seat of intelligence,in the Fodorian sense of the term,one would like to propose a `hierarchy' of `consciousness'.
The book is very readable, written in a very lucid style, without any technicalities. Hence, in my opinion, the book can be appreciated even by non-linguists, and may be even by high school children; and for linguists, it is just as relevant today as it was forty years ago, since work on Universal Grammar and language acquisition is far from over.
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Sharbani Banerji's research interests include morphology, Syntax, semantics, and their application in computational linguistics.