Noam Chomsky – Language and the Rest of the World – lecture transcript part two


If the minimalist approach to language has real prospects of success, we would expect to find that language crucially involves interface conditions and computational processes. Some of these at least may have homologous structures in other primates maybe even beyond. If thats the case than the study of language will involve in part the evolution of these elements, the evolution of the way they are organised in the language faculty and whatever may have evolved independently in the last flick of an eye in evolutionary time in human evolution. And its extremely short.

There is intriguing work on primate perceptual systems that could bear on the topic. For example a rather surprising discovery that untrained Tamarin monkeys distinguish among some language types in ways that are analogous to new born human infants. In all cases without every experience. But perhaps they use different cues, thats under investigation. Additional work is proceeding along similar lines also investigating what Harvard Primatologist Mark Hauser called “wild minds in natural settings“. Also experimental work he and his laboratory is doing on a number of topics including computational capacities of monkeys on language like problems. It could turn out that the core computational properties of natural language are found elsewhere in the animal world. Perhaps in what perceptual psychologists call the rules of visual intelligence that are used to create what we see.

Conceivably you might even find them in systems as remote as insect navigation. That possibility on others like them cant be excluded. And they do suggest avenues of research into the evolutions of some of the factors that enter into human language avenues that might be promising. If so, that would be the first time that the problems of evolution of language becomes a really serious problem. To proceed further in any of these areas would require a good deal of background discussion that I can’t take time for here. And of course this is where the topic gets interesting. But I put aside.

I just restate the guiding intuition of the minimalist program, basically Galilean. Insofar as this program succseeds we will be able to conclude that princibles of the kind that one finds, say the princible that hold for spheres packing in early cell division or formation of polar hydro cells or surfaces of viruses, or stability of body forms or symetries may be optimal wiring of neuron systems = general princibles of physical and mathematical laws…. may also hold for an organ thats a very recent product of evolution and appears to be crucial component of whatever it is thats specific about human beeings certainly at the core of their existence, their thought and their interaction. Although we have to bear in mind that the classical problems of the theory of mind, the ones that preoccupied Descart and Newton, they remain as obscure than ever. And the problem of unification takes a holly different form after the newtonian revolution. That problem remain unsolved. The gaps look unbridgeable today, as they did for chemistry and physics not many years ago. Well let me return to the initial question that I began with yesterday.

The question that are sometimes called, the problems of intentionality. That is how does language this biological entity how does it relate to the world. One of these problems is the unification problem. How do accounts of the brain in terms of computational systems relate to others? say in terms of cells. As long as that question is unanswered there is a crucial explanatory gap in accounts of behavior wether its insect navigation or human language. There is a gap in explaining accounting for how computations evantuates an action. Notice that this is over and above the questions that are not even posed. That is the question of choice of action. So like, why does a cricket turn left instead of right.

What about the second problem of intentionality. That is the use of language to talk about the world as when I say that I read Darwin’s descent of men referring to a book. There are parallel problems on the receptive side. But lets focus on attention on the questions as they arise for the speaker. These questions have two aspects. One is how does the sensory motor system use the instructions provided by the internal language to carry out gestures. That would be articulatory gestures in the case of spoken language. And second, How does the system of thought use these instructions to talk about a book, or river, or the crisis in Argentina or whatever it may be.

Its this second aspect thats hold to be particularly vexing. But perhaps one can gain some insight into it by asking about the less contentious interface with sensory motor systems. We now put aside the explanatory gap that holds for all animal behavior and we ask how the phonetic information thats generated by the internal language is accessed and used by the sensory motor system for articulation or perception (I am putting that aside). Lets adopt a conventional, but in fact non-trivial assumption, namely that the phonetic information of each expression is encoded in a single internal generated object, whats called its phonetic form or phonetic representation. Here you have to been careful to divorce the notion representation of any connotation drawn from other uses of the term as in the classical theory of ideas or in discussion of representational art.

These problems have been studied intensely with hightech equipment for half a century. And long before that in other ways. But understanding remains quiet limited. The problem are not easy. Well, maybe everybody has overlooked an easy solution that works like this. We all agree that the lexical item, any lexical item f.e. book, has a sound. And sounds are perfectly robust and familiar notions. So we can tell, without difficulty wether some event is the sound of book or the sound of river. Unproblematically we can speak of the various events that are sounds of the word book on various occasions of use. Lets just say that the internally generated phonetic representation of the word book just picks out a sound (or many sound). that relation we can give a name. Lets call it p denote, phonetic denote. That relation hold between the internal object and the sound. Its properties will be the properties of the technical notion p denote or refer thats deviced for formal systems, say the relation between the numeral three and the platonic entity three in a system of formal arithmetic of the fregian variety. For those of you who know some logic or metamathematics.

Further inquiry about the sound can be forwarded to the physics department. Perhaps they tell us that the sound is some indescribable four dimensional space/time construct based on motions of molecules. Perhaps inquiries can be forwarded to the sociologist department too if we wanna make the taks even more hopeless by introducing some unexplained notion of common language that involves norms and conventions, attitudes, experts, and so on. Well, however we proceed there arent any ontological problems, that is no problem about existence. No one doubts the existence of the particular motion of molekules that I produce when I say book. So there is no problem about the existence of sound. The notion is perfectly robust. To borrow the standard philosophical term. Problems of communication are very easily solved. You identify what I am saying, because your internal representation p(denote) denots the same sound as mine, or at least a sufficiently similar one. Without proceeding we solved the problems to which acoustic and articulatory phonology have devoted so much labour without much success.

Well its clear enough why this solution has never been proposed. Its a bad joke. The new theoretical notions sound and p(denote) are completely useless. They merely restate the problem in vacuous terminology leaving the problems in even worse shape than before. The proposal has all the virtues of theft over honest toil to borrow Bertrand Russels aphorism.

The actual course pursued is much harder. We have to discover the elements of the phonetic representation of the word book and others. Properties that constitute it. Those are commonly called its features. And we have to determine how featurecompelxes are accessed by the sensory motor systems and related to external events, maybe ultimately motions of molecules. There is no determinate mind external object that is picked out by an element of the phonetic representation as its sound. Rather, these internal objects provide information, its accessed by other systems to yield or interpret mind external entities in a variety of ways that depend on circumstances, expectations and a host of other factors. In fact the real world problem is so intricate and involves so many variables that nobody even contemplates studying it. The actual inquiry keeps to highly idealized experimental situations as always in the natural siences.

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