Linguistic Contributions to The Study of Mind: Past By Noam Chomsky

By | Januari 1, 2017

I would like to focus attention on the question, What contribution can the study of language make to our understanding of human nature? In one or another manifestation, this question threads its way through modern Western thought.


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as linguistics, philosophy, and psychology have uneasily tried to go their separate ways, the classical problems of language and mind have inevitably reappeared and have served to link these diverging fields and to give direction and significance to their efforts. There have been signs in the past decade that the rather artificial separation of disciplines may be coming to an end.

In the postwar years, this was a dominant attitude in most active centers of research. I recall being told by a distinguished anthropological linguist, in 1953, that he had no intention of working through a vast collection of materials that he had assembled because within a few years it would surely be possible to program a computer to construct a grammar from a large corpus of data by the use of techniques that were already fairly well formalized.

Correspondingly, there was a striking decline in studies of linguistic method in the early 1950s as the most active theoretical minds turned to the problem of how an essentially closed body of technique could be applied to some new domain – say, to analysis of connected discourse, or to other cultural phenomena beyond language.

In the United States at least, there is little trace today of the illusions of the early postwar years. If we consider the current status of structural linguistic methodology, stimulus-response psycholinguistics (whether or not extended to “mediation theory”), or probabilistic or automata-theoretic models for language use, we find that in each case a parallel development has taken place: a careful analysis has shown that insofar as the system of concepts and principles that was advanced can be made precise, it can be demonstrated to be inadequate in a fundamental way.

I believe, become quite clear that if we are ever to understand how language is used or acquired, then we must abstract for separate and independent study a cognitive system, a system of knowledge and belief, that develops in early childhood and that interacts with many other factors to determine the kinds of behavior that we observe; to introduce a technical term, we must isolate and study the system of linguistic competence that underlies behavior but that is not realized in any direct or simple way in behavior.

And this system of linguistic competence is qualitatively different from anything that can be described in terms of the taxonomic methods of structural linguistics, the concepts of S-R psychology, or the notions developed within the mathematical theory of communication or the theory of simple automata. The theories and models that were developed to describe simple and immediately given phenomena cannot incorporate the real system of linguistic competence; “extrapolation” for simple descriptions cannot approach the reality of linguistic competence; mental structures are not simply “more of the same” but are qualitatively different from the complex networks and structures that can be developed by elaboration of the concepts that seemed so promising to many scientists just a few years ago.

When we turn to the history of study and speculation concerning the nature of mind and, more specifically, the nature of human language, our attention quite naturally comes to focus on the seventeenth century, “the century of genius,” in which the foundations of modern science were firmly established and the problems that still confound us were formulated with remarkable clarity and perspicuity. There are many far from superficial respects in which the intellectual climate of today resembles that of seventeenth-century Western Europe.

A similar realization lies at the base of Cartesian philosophy. Descartes also arrived, quite early in his investigations, at the conclusion that the study of mind faces us with a problem of quality of complexity, not merely degree of complexity. It is particularly interesting to trace the development of this argument in the works of the minor and now quite forgotten Cartesian philosophers, like Cordemoy, who wrote a fascinating treatise extending Descartes’ few remarks about language, or La Forge, who produced a long and detailed Trait´e de l’esprit de l’homme expressing, so he claimed with some reason, what Descartes would likely have said about this subject had he lived to extend his theory of man beyond physiology.

There are methodological parallels that have perhaps been inadequately appreciated between the Cartesian postulation of a substance whose essence was thought and the post-Newtonian acceptance of a principle of attraction as an innate property of the ultimate corpuscles of matter, an active principle that governs the motions of bodies.

Perhaps the most far-reaching contribution of Cartesian philosophy to modern thought was its rejection of the scholastic notion of substantial forms and real qualities, of all those “little images fluttering through the air” to which Descartes referred with derision. But Newton argued that Descartes’ mechanical physics wouldn’t work – the second book of the Principia is largely devoted to this demonstration – and that it is necessary to postulate a new force to account for the motion of bodies.

Some historians of science have suggested that Newton hoped, like Descartes, to write a Principles of Philosophy but that his failure to explain the cause of gravity on mechanical grounds restricted him to a Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

Similarly, Descartes’ postulation of mind as an explanatory principle was unacceptable to the empiricist temper. But the astonishing success of mathematical physics carried the day against these common-sense objections, and the prestige of the new physics was so high that the speculative psychology of the Enlightenment took for granted the necessity of working within the Newtonian framework, rather than on the Newtonian analogy – a very different matter.

A good place to begin is with the writings of the Spanish physician Juan Huarte, who in the late sixteenth century published a widely translated study on the nature of human intelligence. The understanding is a generative faculty.” Huarte’s etymology is actually not very good; the insight, however, is quite substantial.

Huarte goes on to distinguish three levels of intelligence. The lowest of these is the “docile wit,” which satisfies the maxim that he, along with Leibnitz and many others, wrongly attributes to Aristotle, namely that there is nothing in the mind that is not simply transmitted to it by the senses. The next higher level, normal human intelligence, goes well beyond the empiricist limitation: it is able to “engender within itself, by its own power, the principles on which knowledge rests.” Thus, normal human intelligence is capable of acquiring knowledge through its own internal resources, perhaps making use of the data of sense but going on to construct a cognitive system in terms of concepts and principles that are developed on independent grounds; and it is capable of generating new thoughts and of finding appropriate and novel ways of expressing them, in ways that entirely transcend any training or experience.

Huarte’s framework is useful for discussing “psychological theory” in the ensuing period. Typical of later thought is his reference to use of language as an index of human intelligence, of what distinguishes man from animals, and, specifically, his emphasis on the creative capacity of normal intelligence.

The discussion of what I have been calling “the creative aspect of language use” turns on three important observations. The first is that the normal use of language is innovative, in the sense that much of what we say in the course of normal language use is entirely new, not a repetition of anything that we have heard before and not even similar in pattern – in any useful sense of the terms “similar” and “pattern” – to sentences or discourse that we have heard in the past.

The rationalist philosophy of language merged with various other independent developments in the seventeenth century, leading to the first really significant general theory of linguistic structure, namely the general point of view that came to be known as “philosophical” or “universal” grammar. Unfortunately, philosophical grammar is very poorly known today.

The point of similarity has to do with precisely this matter of explanatory theory. Philosophical grammar, very much like current generative grammar, developed in self-conscious opposition to a descriptive tradition that interpreted the task of the grammarian to be merely that of recording and organizing the data of usage – a kind of natural history.

The deep structure is related to the surface structure by certain mental operations – in modern terminology, by grammatical transformations. Each language can be regarded as a particular relation between sound and meaning. Following the Port-Royal theory to its logical conclusions, then, the grammar of a language must contain a system of rules that characterizes deep and surface structures and the transformational relation between them, and – if it is to accommodate the creative aspect of language use – that does so over an infinite domain of paired deep and surface structures.

The theory of deep and surface structure seems straightforward enough, at least in rough outline. Nevertheless, it was rather different from anything that preceded it, and, somewhat more surprising, it disappeared almost without a trace as modern linguistics developed in the late nineteenth century.

There is a similarity, which I think can be highly misleading, between the theory of deep and surface structure and a much older tradition. The practitioners of philosophical grammar were very careful to stress this similarity in their detailed development of the theory and had no hesitation in expressing their debt to classical grammar as well as to such major figures of renaissance grammar as the Spanish scholar Sanctius.

There is no doubt that in developing his concept of ellipsis as a fundamental property of language, Sanctius gave many linguistic examples that superficially are closely parallel to those that were used to develop the theory of deep and surface structure, both in classical philosophical grammar and in its far more explicit modern variants.

The Port-Royal theory of deep and surface structure belongs to psychology as an attempt to elaborate Huarte’s second type of wit, as an exploration of the properties of normal human intelligence. The concept of ellipsis in Sanctius, if I understand it correctly, is one of many techniques, to be applied as conditions warrant and having no necessary mental representation as an aspect of a normal intelligence.

Modern structural linguistics has been faithful to these limitations, which were held to be necessary limitations. In fact, Saussure in some respects even went beyond this in departing from the tradition of philosophical grammar.

we enter the modern age of the study of language. The death-knell of philosophical grammar was sounded with the remarkable successes of comparative Indo-European studies, which surely rank among the outstanding achievements of nineteenth-century science. The impoverished and thoroughly inadequate conception of language expressed by Whitney and Saussure and numerous others proved to be entirely appropriate to the current stage of linguistic research.

In contrast, philosophical grammar did not provide appropriate concepts for the new comparative grammar or for the study of exotic languages unknown to the investigator, and it was, in a sense, exhausted. There was no clear understanding a century ago as to how one might proceed to construct generative grammars that “make infinite use of finite means” and that express the “organic form” of human language, “that marvellous invention” (in thewords of the Port-Royal Grammar ) “by which we construct from twenty-five or thirty sounds an infinity of expressions, which, having no resemblance in themselves to what takes place in our minds, still enable us to let others know the secret of what we conceive and of all the various mental activities that we carry out.”

Thus, the study of language had arrived at a situation in which there was, on the one hand, a set of simple concepts that provided the basis for some startling successes and, on the other, some deep but rather vague ideas that did not seem to lead to any further productive research.

To conclude, I think there have been two really productive traditions of research that have unquestionable relevance to anyone concerned with the study of language today. One is the tradition of philosophical grammar that flourished from the seventeenth century through romanticism; the second is the tradition that I have rather misleadingly been referring to as “structuralist,” which has dominated research for the past century, at least until the early 1950s. Children do learn a first language; the language that they learn is, in the traditional sense, an “instituted language,” not an innately specified system. The answer that was proposed in structural linguistic methodology has been shown to be incorrect, but this is of small importance when compared with the fact that the problem itself has now received a clear formulation.

Whitehead once described the mentality of modern science as having been forged through “the union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization.” It is roughly accurate to describe modern linguistics as passionately interested in detailed fact, and philosophical grammar as equally devoted to abstract generalization. It seems to me that the time has arrived to unite these two major currents and to develop a synthesis that will draw from their respective achievements. In the next two lectures, I will try to illustrate how the tradition of philosophical grammar can be reconstituted and turned to new and challenging problems and how one can, finally, return in a productive way to the basic questions and concerns that gave rise to this tradition.


Chomsky, Noam. (2006). Language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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