Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part one

Almost exactly 35 years ago I had the opportunity to give several lectures here, the same auditorium I think on the topic “language and mind”. And quiet a lot has been learned in the intervening years about language and the brain hence the mind, in the sense I used the term then, the term mind, mental and such terms.

Using these terms as just descriptive terms for certain aspects of the world. Pretty much on a par with such descriptive terms as chemical or optical, electrical and so on. These are terms used to focus attention on particular aspects of the world that seem to have a rather integrated character and to be worth considering for special investigation. But without any illusions that they “cut nature at the joints“.

In those earlier lectures I took for granted that human language can reasonable be studied as part of the world. Specifically as a property of the human organism, mostly the brain, and for convenience I keep to that. Both then and now, I am adopting what Lyle Jenkins called the BIOLINGUISTIC PERSPECTIVE. Thats the framework whithin which the approach to language that I am considering developed about 50 years ago. Also for convenience I use the term language to refer to human language. Thats a specific biological system. There is no meaningful question as to wether the communication system of bees or what might be taught to aps or mathematics or music are languages or wether airplanes really fly or submarines really swim or other wether computers think or translate languages or other comparably meaningless questions many of them based on a missinterpretation of an important paper by Alan Turing in 1950. Which respond a large and mostly misguided literature, despite Turings very explicit warning not to pursue that direction which has apparently been overlooked.

From the Biolinguistic perspective language is a component of human biology more or less a par with mammalian vision or insect navigation and other systems for which the best theories that have been deviced attribute computational capacity of some kind. Whats in informal usage sometimes called rule following f.e. a contemporary text on vision descripes the so called rigidity princible (was formulated about 50 years ago) as follows: “If possible the rules permit interpret image motions as projections of rigid motions in three dimensions.” In this case, later work provided substantial insights into the mental computations that seem to be involved when the visual system follows these rules in informal terminology. But even for simple organisms thats no slight task. Great many issues remain unresolved in these areas which are quiet obscure even for insects.

The decision to study language as part of the world, in this sense, should be in my view uncontroversial but it has not been. On the contrary. The assumption that this is legitimite enterprise was pretty forcefully rejected and continues to be rejected. Virtually all of contemporary philosophy of language and mind is based on rejection of this assumption. The same is true for what is called the computer model of mind. That underlays a good deal of theoretical cognitive science denied in this case not only for language but for mental faculties generally. Its explicitly denied in the technical, linguistic literature in what I call platonistic account of language and also in a different way denied in the conceptualism that is deviced by the same authors inaccurately attributed to many linguists including me.

It is also apparently denied by many sociolinguists, its incompatible with structural-behavioral approaches to language. Its, little to my surprise, rejected by current studies on language by leading neuro sciences. Most notably Terrence Deacon in recent work which has been favorably received by eminent biologist. The approach therfor seems to be controversal but I think the appearances are missleading. A more carefull look will show I think, that the basic assumptions are tacitly adopted even by those who strenuously reject them and indeed have to be adopted even for coherence.

I am put aside this interesting topic of contemporary intellectual history and I simply assume that lanugage can be studied as part of the world. I continue in other words to pursue the biolingusitic approach that took shape half a century ago, heavenly influenced by ethology, comparative psychology and intensifily pursued than along quiet a few different paths including much of the work that claims to reject the approach.


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Filed under The Biolinguistic turn - Noam Chomsky

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