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Review of  Cartesian Linguistics

Reviewer: Sharbani Banerji
Book Title: Cartesian Linguistics
Book Author: Noam Chomsky James McGilvray
Publisher: Cybereditions Corporation
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.2061

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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.


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:
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
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",
Chomsky's words, is "A constellation of ideas, and interests, that appear
in the tradition of "universal" or "philosophical grammar",
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

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
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
rather empiricist assumptions into `reductio ad absurdum'.1950's mark the
"second cognitive revolution", which revived and tried to make
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",
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 system in `bees', which though shares with human language
the property of "displaced reference",is not `stimulus-free' or

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
first and second cognitive revolutions developed as a reaction to

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

But this `langue' (in the sense of `Saussure') is very different from the
universal grammar that is innate in the human brain. Firstly, `langue'
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
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

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
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.

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.


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
early nineteenth centuries, which have roots in earlier linguistic


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
and is stimulus free. Thus, in addition to body it is necessary to
attribute "mind" -a substance whose essence is thought,-to other

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
this supposed counterargument merely reaffirms the Cartesian
regarding human and animal language.That is, they are saying the
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

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
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
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

Chomsky's points out that Humboldt leaves many questions unanswered.
For example, he doesnot give a precise character of the "organic form"
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.


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
(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.
extension of an idea" in the modern terms. PRG makes special reference to
the "operations of our minds", viz.,the conjunctions, disjunctions
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

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.


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
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.


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, 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",
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,
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
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

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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Baker, Mark C.2001. The Atoms of Language. New York: basic Books.

Chomsky,N. Syntactic Structures.Mouton and Co. The Hague, 1957.

Chomsky,N."Review of B.F.Skinner,'Verbal behavior'", Language, vol
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ABOUT THE REVIEWER Sharbani Banerji's research interests include morphology, Syntax, semantics, and their application in computational linguistics.

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