What about Fregean systems? The ones we usually adopt. That is systems based on the relation on denote or refer holding between linguistic objects and extralinguistic entities. It seems to me that these are reasonable enough for Frege specific purposes. Most important for what really interested him, namely formal studies of mathematical objects, at least understood platonistically in his terms.
The ideas also seem appropriate as account of a normative ideal for the specific human enterprise of science. That is one hopes that such notions as say, black hole, or oxygen or electromagnetic field will pick out something in the world, in the mind independent world. And we hope that the same will be true of the internal entities and computational princibles that are postulated in the study of insect navigation or visual perception or human language. There is also some evidence that animal communication is based on a notion of representation that is similar to the invented technical concept of reference thats familiar in the study of formal systems. Here the concept of representation is understood as Isomorphism – that is a one to one relation between mind-brain processes and an aspect of the environment to which these processes adobt the animals behaviour. For example, when an ant picks out the corps of a conspecific by its odor. I am quoting here Randy Gallistel in the comprehensive introduction to a series of essays on animal representation.
If the picture I just briefly reviewed is any way near accurate it could turn out that the use of language – human language – to refer or in other ways is totaly different from animal communication systems. And this is in numerous other respects. Human language might not have any denotational semantics, just an intricate form of pragmatics, along with very rich internal syntax that includes what usually is called semantics but ought to be called syntax. Its the study of internal representation. Of this amalgam, the parts that we can currently hope to understand in most depths are the internal syntax, what is called semantics. A theory of human action that would bear in some revealing way on the act of refering is far more remote than comparable theories for much simpler organisms and actions, domains in which the problem is scarcely been entertained because its understood to be far too complicated.
Well, so far I have keept the language. But in princible everything I said should carry over to the study of other mental qualities. In practice the difficulties mount very quickly. Language appears to be relatively isolated from other cognitive capacities. Here refering to its structure not its use or particulare components which are integrated into the structure which could be individually shared with other cognitive faculties or even other species as I mentioned before. One of the reasons why language is a good topic for study for inquiry into the mind is its essential role in human affairs but another is that it is indeed or appears to be relatively isolated. When we turn to other aspects of mind, for example our moral nature. It is much harder to isolate components for seperate study. That means to abstract them from reflective thought and variety of other facturs.
Non the less those topics, study of our moral nature, have been subjected into investigation in various ways. There includes interesting thought experiments, actual experiments with children and comparative studies. Not uncommonly the real world offers illustrations of how these faculties function. Sometimes with very painful choices. Issues like that test our moral faculties. And may help us to discover something about their nature. Sometimes this perspective is counterposed to what is called a relativistic one which hold in an extreme form that appart from their basic physical structure humans have no nature. They have only history. Or that their thought can be modified without limit. Nothing like this can be even close to true if taken literaly. That seems to be what is sometimes said.
In a version due to Richard Rorty “history and anthropology” i am quoting him “show that humans have extraordinary malleability. We are comming to think of ourselves as the flexible protein self shaping animal rather then as having specific instincts. There can be no moral progress in human affairs. Just different ways of looking at things. We should put aside the vain effort of exploration of our moral nature or reason to argument about it.” We should keep to what he calls manipulating sentiments if we happen to be for or against torture or masaker f.e. Suspect I misinterpreting cause its hard to believe that the words are intended to mean what they seem to say. Well such proposal have evoked a good deal of criticism. Oxford Philosopher Galen Strawson quoting a related statments of Rorty on the irrelevance of the extralinguistic world to truth. He asks wether “the nonsense might be less bad if it didnd build in such an astonishing contempt for the reality of human suffering”. His conclusion is that it is just as bad.
A recent paper on the philosophical foundations of human rights by Mihailo Markovic discussing Rorty and others points out that “Nobody would have taken a Nazi seriously who had claimed in 1945 that the soul basis for the moral condemnation of the Holocoust by the rest of the world was just due to some kind of culturaly relative emotional manipulation based on scrudely deviced sentimental stories.”
If this is so we want to understand why? and if nobody really means no normal human beeing that leads us back to the hard questions of intrinsic human nature. This notion of unique human malleability is not at all novel. It is been a fairly conventional view at least back to the Beast-Machine controversies that where inspired by Descartes. F.e. The argument by James Harris (British Philosopher 1740) “Unlike animals and machines the leading princible of men is multiform, originally uninstructed, pliant and dozel.” The idea that human alleged weakness of instinct leads to vast variety and extreme mailability has had a long and in fact inglorious history ever since. With no metric and little understanding it is hard to know what to make of those judgments. But whatever merit they have, they cannot offer an alternative to the conception that I just outlined.
No one doubts that a persons understanding, judgments and values, goals reflect acquired cultures, norms, conventions and so on. But these are not mind external entities. They are not acquired by taking a pill. They are constructed by the mind on the basis of scattered and constructed experiments. And they are constantly applied in circumstances that are novel and complex. These facts, and their significants where discussed 250 years ago by David Hume, who observed “that the numbers of our duties is in a manner infinite therefor just as in other parts of th e study of nature we must seek a few general princibles upon which all our notions of morals are founded. Princibles of human nature that are origional instincts of the human mind. They are perhaps enhanced by reflection but stand fast and immutable as components of fixed human nature.”
Hume articulating the basic idea behind generative gramma in a different cognitive domain and centuries earlier. Like Adam Smith, Hume took sympathy to be what he called a very powerful princible in human nature – one of our origional instincts- and the grounding of much else. That idea was reconstructed in a darwinian framework by the Anarchist natural Historian Peter Kropotkin in what I think should be taken as the founding work in whats nowadays called evolutionary psychology. And there is recent work that suggests some possible evolutionary scenarious.
There is little reason to suppose that the variety of cultural outcomes reflect significant variety of genetic endownment. So we are back in the situation we face in the study of language or the physical system or any other basic properties of organisms. It is necessary to account for the richness and specificity of outcome on the basis of shared intrinsic nature tolerating variation but within a highly structured range as throughout the biological world.
To this picture we should add other conception that have been studied in recent years, also resurrecting the 17th century origins of modern science. One strand is the recognition that our innate capacity are only latent. That is they have to be triggered by experience to be manifested. Then they are manifested in ways determined by our intrinsic nature. Much as susceptibility to a disease is innate. Altho the disease requires a external trigger. Its actually the analogy that Descard suggested in discussing innate ideas. One of the reasons why Locks famouse critiques is besides the point. This is long recognized.
Another idea that was fruitfully examined in the 17th century is that the phenomena of the world around us do not in itself constitute experience. They become experience for us as they are constructed by our modes of cognition. They must therefor conform to these modes of cognition. (17th century picture came into modern thought with Kants version of it) This modes of cognition are distinctive property of our nature. They differ for different organisms. They are what Konrad Lorenz (evolutionary biologist) called a “biological a priori” in work that I in fact discussed here 45 years ago. This is also true of the rich mental construction that we call cultures, norms and conventions insofar as they are shared by groups that interact in complex ways. Still assuming that each child is intrinsically capable of acquiring any culture over a very broad range, the process of mental construction of experience and interpretation of it is based on the common genetic constitution which must be rich to the extend that the outcomes are highly structured and constrained in ways that do not simply reflect features of the environment. Basically Humes observation.
It seems unavoidable that the so called relativistic approaches must be profoundly inateist, at least if they are willing to address the issues of nature, aquisition, and use of attained systems. = Humes question. If so, than they fall together with the study of visual or linguistic systems or other properties of organisms. It is hard to see serious distinctions here. Or any interpretation under which relativistic approaches differ from the most highly innatist approaches.
One last word on the import on any conclusion, it has to be a very tentative conclusion about human nature. One way to assess the importance of such conclusion is to observe how deeply they enter into conceptions of right and justice and the struggels they engender. It is very easy to illustrate from personal relation to international affairs. More generally, every approach on how human relations should be aranged. Wether its is revolutionary, reformist or committed to stability. Every such approach is based on some conception of Human nature, at least implicity. If it has any claims to moral standing its advanced with the claim that its beneficial to humans, meaning because of their intrinsic nature at least as one of its crucial qualities.
We should face honestly the fact of our ignorance which is profound but yet recognized that we have no choice but to proceed on the best tentative assumptions we can reach. For many of the classical mysteries quiet extraoridnary bodies of doctrine have been developed in the past several hundred years. Some of the greatest achievements of the human intellect. They also have far reaching implications for human life. And there have been some remakable feeds of unification as well. Sometimes very suprising as they turn out as in the cases i discuss yesterdays.
How remote the remaining mountain peaks are. Even where they are one can scarcely guess. Within the range of feasable inquiry there is plenty of work to be done in understanding mental aspects of the world. We would do well however in my opinion to keep in some corner of our minds Humes conclusion about Nature ultimate secrets and the abscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain. And particulary the reasoning that lead him to that judgment and the confirmation of that reasoning in the subsequent history of the hard siences. These are matters that are to easily forgotten and that merit serious reflection. Perhaps some day even constructive scientific inquiry.
Category Archives: Language and the rest of the world – Noam Chomsky
What about Fregean systems? The ones we usually adopt. That is systems based on the relation on denote or refer holding between linguistic objects and extralinguistic entities. It seems to me that these are reasonable enough for Frege specific purposes. Most important for what really interested him, namely formal studies of mathematical objects, at least understood platonistically in his terms.
Perhaps the first study of these matters was by Aristotle. He asks for example whats the nature of a house? And he concludes “we can define a house as stones, bricks and timbers in terms of its material constitution or as a receptacle to shelter, chattels of living beeing in terms of function and design.” So I may think that the place that I call home is a house but I could be wrong it could really be a library in which some odd people spend much of their time. And in fact someone entering it for the first time might be parted for reaching the conclusion. The answer depends on choice of perspective and on circumstances, which I not might even know. So if that thing was designed to be a library and is characteristically used this way while I am gone, then it perhaps it really is a library. It is not a house. Contrary of what I though. Or perhaps its a garage. Or maybe it is an oddly constructed and missplaced paperweight belonging to a giant. There simply is no mind independend truth of the matter and material constitution as Aristotle recognized is only one factor in reaching answers.
We can also integrate the factors of material constitutions and function/design – thats in Aristotle terms combining “matter and form”. And we can bring in other factors to. Some of which he also explored. Well, for Aristotle, these where questions of metaphysics. That is the way the world is. Notice, he talks about house, the thing, not the word house. From the 17th century there has been a very reasonable tendency to reformulate such analysis in epistemological conceptual terms. That is as properties of something real named but as construction and interpretation of experience thats provided by our cognitive capacities. Thats our cognoscitive powers in 17th century terminology. Which include the internal semantics of the language.
And in fact it was quiet illuminating discussion of these issues by Hobbes, Locke and many others. Sometimes adopting David Humes’ princibles: “That the identity with which we ascribe to things is only a fictitious one established by the mind not a peculiar nature belonging to what we are talking about”. Well, and all of these matters textual and interpretation is uncertain. But the general idea seems clear enough and very plausible.
The house that Smith lives in or the books that he is reading surely do not have their strange and quiet intricate properties by virtue of some mind independent constitution. And the properties are really strange and intricate as soon as you look at the meanings of the words carefully. Dictionaries have nothing to say about this. Rather they have these properties by virtue of the ways Smith and others think in particular circumstances and the internal meanings of the terms in which these thoughts are internaly or sometimes externaly expressed. These devices in turn are a property of fixed and shared internal human nature as our other aspects of their lives and beeing. The semantic properties of expression are used to think and talk about the world in terms of perspectives that are made available by the ressources of the mind rather in a way the sounds of language seems to function in the latter case as everyone assumes.
I have tried to show elsewhere and wont review that these conclusions are supported by descriptive observations that are in a tradition that is much to long forgotten and greatly reinforced when we look more closly about the meaning of even the simplest words. Including those investigated in the 17/18th century british empiricist philosophy. Words like tree or river or person or names of substances like water or the most elementary devices of referance and anaphora. Probably every aspect of language. All are far more intricate that is commonly been supposed. So much so that they must come to use from the original hand of nature (David Hume) and hence must be fundamentaly be the same for all languages.
These topics have been addressed in iluminating work by Julius Moravcsik over in standford on what he calls the “Ideational Theory of Meaning” bringing classical sources to bear on contemporary issues of language and thought. [more information]Others have pursued them too. And the approach seems to me to have a lot to recommend it.
Now lets consider an easy answer to the problems that arise on the meaning side. Following point by point the proceeding ridiculous account of the sound side of language. I made up the other one, but the one I am going through now is real, unfortunately. We all recognise that the word book has a meaning, just as it has a sound. The entity book whatever it is has an internal semantic representation that incorporates all information about its meaning thats determined by the language, just as the internal phonetic representation incorporates all languagage determined information about sound. And we know exactly what the word book or its semantic representation picks out in the world.
Namely books, just as the phonetic representation picks out the sound or the sounds of the word book. So we can therefor set up a relation that is a counterpart of p denote lets call it Semantic(denote). S(denote) holds that relation between the internal semantic representation of the expression book and books. You understand that I am talking about books not tables because your word book S denotes the same things as mine and the child accquires the S denotation relation by virtue of causal properties of the world that relate external phenomena to mind internal entities. Lets call them concepts. Those who are concerned about the status of the external objects that are S denoted don’t have to have any qualms. These are some indescribable construction based on whatever physics tell us about the world. And we can forward further inquiries into the physics department or maybe the sociologist department. Again, if we wanna make it even more hopeless.
There are not any problems about the existence of books. Those are the things that are on bookshelves and tables. It is true that if you and I both took Darwins Decent of men out of the library there is a question about wether one book was taken or two. But we can settle this any way we like. And if someone is concerned that books are simultaneously abstract and concrete and have a host of other odd properties when you look closely. We can answer robustly that thats just what books are. These are problems of metaphysics and not semantics or cognitive science. Well, it should be clear that something is gone badly wrong. We are back to theft rather than honest toil. For one thing, referring is something that people do, not words. It was stressed 50 years ago by Oxford Philosopher Peter Strauss. And known before of course.
And like other human actions refering is a highly intricate action. It is specific to circumstances. It has normative aspects. The act of refering succeeds or fails in ways that depends on a wide variety of conditions. The act need not even involve terms that have some circumstance independent relation to the referential intention. F.e. I can refer to india without using any word or having any thought that has any independent connection to india. Whatever india is.
If such fundamental properties of refering – the act – are omitted from consideration, one may be studying something but its not the problem of intentionality or aboutness. Well, a fair response that could be given is that exactly in other cases we have to idealize if we hope to gain some grasp of reality. We have to abstract the way of a wealthier of complexity to focus on the properties of core notions. In this case s(denote) or p(denote). And thats a reasonable response. But its a promissory note. As in other cases it has to be justified by showing how the idealization yield some insight and explanatory power. And doesn’t merly reformulate the original dilemmas in missleading ways. That does not seem an easy task in the present case to put it rather mildly. In fact, I think it really is theft rather than honest toil in both cases. The case thats never even discussed – the sensory motor side – and the case thats pretty standard – the analog on the semantic side.
Well, how can we approach the problem of whats happening when we think or talk about the world. Its possible, and my view, likely that the study of sound provides some useful clues to that. In that inquiry there isn’t any reference like relation between an element of phonetic representation and a mind external entity. Rather the speaker/hearer employes the systems of language use to access the phonetic representation – the internal object – so as to produce and interpret organism external events. Perhaps something similar is true on the meaning side.
So, Smith uses an expression to refer when his attention is focused on some parts of the world which he views from the complex perspectives that are provided by internalists sematics very much as in the ways of sound. Features of the internal items in Smith’s internal language provide information thats used by other cognitive faculties constraining the ways that Smith uses it to talk about the world, think about the world differently from other worlds. Smith succseeds in communicating with Jones to the extend that Jones attends to related parts of the world and has appropriately related perspectives and understanding of circumstances and background.
Similarly Jones’s ability to perceive what Smith is uttering depends on his ability to map the noises that he hears to his own internal language. And this are all matters of more or less and not yes or no. That is the point of view that I personal regarded as reasonable since I have began thinking seriously about these topics about 50 years ago. At that time influenced by Oxford Ordinary language philosophy and the later Wittgenstein. But as I later learned the approach has traditional antecessor. There is an important 18th century critique of the theory of ideas based on the observation that the phrase “he has an idea” should not be understood on the model of he “has a diamond”. Invoking a reference like relation between the term idea and some extra mental entity.
Lets putting aside for the moment wether thats even a proper step in the case of diamond. I think its not. Rather the phrase he has an idea – 18th century commentators pointed out – The phrase he has an idea means something like he thinks. The phrase, what Gilbert Ryle called – a systematically misleading expression – in an influental contribution to 20th century ordinary language philosophy. Actually resurrecting traditional critique. And the same conclusion holds for believe, thought, desire and other terms of so called folk psychology as expressed in its english language version. Which is far from universal and in fact either idiosyncratic. The basic insights generalized to the whole vocabulary and even more dramatically to more complex expressions constructed from lexical items. If this is anything like correct most of the work thats going on in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and theoretical cognitive sciences is just off on totaly the wrong track. It is my opinion for years. The roots of these insights are far deeper, in fact they extend well beyond missleading analogic interpretation of surface form as in the case just mentioned. The 18th century case just mentioned by Ryle.
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.
I ended yesterday by describing the principle and parameter approach, which gave the first serious conception of how the tension between descriptive and explanatory adequacy might be resolved. In this sense its fair I think, to regard it as the first genuin proposal as to what a theory of language might be. Weather this step turned out to have been right or wrong it offered a liberating perspective which led to an explosion of highly productive inquirey and it opened new problems to investigation. It also revitalized the study of language aquisition along new lines and other language related areas of the cognitive sciences. To the extend that outstanding problems can be solved, we will have a conception of the initial conditions that map experience to the state thats attained by the faculty of language. That is the internal language, the i-language that determines the infinite array of sound-meaning combinations that the speaker of a language has available for use = The potential expression of a language. These initial conditions conclude but are not exhausted by the genetically determined state of the language organ. In addition, there is the third factor; general principles that are not coded in the initial state. Just as properties of protein folding are not coded in the gnome but are available to be exploited in the growth of the organism. There is some reason to believe that understanding of language has at last reached the level that make it feasible to address these questions. That is to pursue the Galilean intuition that nature is somehow perfect and in this case not only ask what the properties of language are, but why language has these properties and not others. That inquiry in recent years had been called the Minimalist program. Notice that the program is theory independent. Whatever you think is the right theory of language you may or may not decide to pursue this question. The initial state can be desegregated into elements that have a princibled explanations and others that remain unexplained at this level of analysis. They have to be attributed to something independend – perhaps evolutionary accident. Or properties of the brain that remain unknown and would have to be investigated along similar line.
The principled elements of the initial state are the conditions that are imposed on the faculty of language by the systems with which it interacts. These are interface conditions. If language is to be usable at all, its design must satisfy these conditions. That is the information that is in the internal expression that are generated by the language have to be accessable to other internal systems. That includes language external but person internal systems. Including sensory motor systems and conceptual systems that enter into thought and action.
We can therefor restate the deeper problem of determining why language has the peculiar properties that it does, insofar as the properties of an I-language can be accounted for in terms of interface conditions and general princibles of computational efficiency and the like. They have a princible explanation. And we have to verify the Galilean intuition of perfection of nature in this domain.
Well one proceeds this far you face a challenging task. The task is to examine every device, principle, idea, technique that is employed in characterizing languages and try to determin to what extend it can be eliminated in favour of a principled account in terms of general conditions of computational efficiencies and the interface conditions that the organ must satisfy to function at all. Thats been a focus of a good deal of work in the recent years. There are rather plausable accounts. In these terms, some basic processes of the computational system of language, systems that previously had been stipulated as descriptive technology but can now be reduced to princibles of computational efficiency. And also more complex properties of individual languages have to an interesting extend derived from close examination of the way principled mechanisms function.
Furthermore what appeared to be radical differences among languages have in a number of interesting cases been reduced to something close to the optimal conclusion. That would mean that the internal computational processes are identical, the phenomenal differences result not from how the mind computes but rather how the internal objects constructs are related to external events by sensory motor systems. The interesting cases involve, category of properties, features with no independend meaning that have not been realy noticed before. Differences in how the apparent diversity of languages seem to be traceable to very significant effect to slight differences in the way these uninterpretable features are externalized, or used by the sensory motor system. It is as if the mind computes in a fixed way but with varying effects of the mouth and the ear.
The general observation was a very natural consequence of the principle and parameters approach. It was recognized from the moment that it came to be formulated with at least some clearity. I discussed it near her, in 1979 at the Kant lectures in Standford. I refered to classic work on regulatory mechanisms by Jakob and Manow – two nobel laureate. Quoting their observations about how slight changes in regulatory mechanisms utilizing differently the same structural information might yield enourmous phenomenal differences. Differences between a butterfly and a lion or a worm and a whale. Basically identical organisms but with minor changes in how regulatory mechanisms function. Similarly slight changes in parameters left open in the fixed scematism of language migh lead to what appear to be very different systems.
Apology is here for quoting myself in 1979. It was actually in the years that followed that such ideas really did begin to bear fruit in the study of language. Similar in the biological sciences. There have been quiet dramatic progress along similar lines. Such conclusions would have greatly pleased Alan Turing I think. He is known to Philosophers, linguists, mechisms, computer scientists mainly for his work in other areas. But some of his best known work was on Morphogenesis and the effects of chemical and physical law and the possible course of evolution. These are matters on which he took a rather strong stand and have become a central topic in contemporary biology.
One fundamental problem that remains is why there is parametric variation at all in the computational system. Why isn’t there just one language? There are some possible answers that have been suggested but the general problem is still mysterious. It is a problem which eludes our grasp that you can think of possible answers. One might also hope to approach the question of evolution of language in these terms. It is rather curious to compare the enormous number of pages devoted to the evolution of human language with work on evolution of much simpler systems. Lets say bee communication. A couple of years ago I asked a biologist friend to do a database search on that topic and he could come up with very little. Appearently the subject is considered to difficult to pursue. Although bees are just wonderful subject. They only have 800.000 neurons, a brain the size of a grass seed, many different species that yield rich comparative data, very brief gestation period, life span, no need to obtain consent form for experiments and so on. Every conceivable advantage, but nevertheless the problem is considered far to hard to study.
The question of how the human language faculty might have evolved is vastly more obscure and hard to study. One can imagine various scenarios, a number have been proposed, some are maybe suggestive. But some leading evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin is the most prominent, have argued strongly that the problem is entirely beyond reach in terms of anything remotly like present to understanding. And he extends that to evolution of mental faculties generaly.
If we want to pose the problem of evolution of language we have to begin with the recognition shared by everyone that the faculty of language is not a distinct entity. Its not a box in the human brain with a single location or a single function whatever that term is supposed to imply. The faculty of language surely recruits processes, capacities, physiological mechanism that have evolved quiet independently. And it could turn out in princible that ther is nothing in the faculty of language thats specific to language. That the faculty is just a specific form of organisation of elements that are recruited to constitute this organ of the body. To borrow Randy Galisons’ term.