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A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics

The positions are in fact crucially different. Descartes thought of man as essentially a language-using animal who arbitrarily assigns verbal labels to an innate system of concepts. Chomsky, as remarked earlier, thinks of man as essentially a syntactical animal producing and understanding sentences by virtue of possessing an innate system of grammar, triggered in various possible forms by the different human languages to which he has been exposed. A better historical analogy than with Descartes is with Leibniz, who claimed that innate ideas are in us in the way that the statue is already prefigured in a block of marble. In a passage of Leibniz Chomsky frequently quotes, Leibniz makes

…the comparison of a block of marble which has veins, rather than a block of marble wholly even, or of blank tablets, i.e., of what is called among philosophers, a tabula rasa. For if the soul resembles these blank tablets, truth would be in us as the figure of Hercules is in the marble, when the marble is wholly indifferent to the reception of this figure or some other. But if there were veins in the block which would indicate the figure of Hercules rather than other figures, this block would be more determined thereto, and Hercules would be in it as in some sense innate, although it would be needful to labor to discover these veins, to clear them by polishing, and by cutting away what prevents them from appearing. Thus, it is that ideas and truths are for us innate, as inclinations, dispositions, habits, or natural potentialities, and not as actions, although these potentialities are always accompanied by some actions, often insensible, which correspond to them.8

But if the correct model for the notion of innate ideas is the block of marble that contains the figure of Hercules as “disposition,” “inclination,” or “natural potentiality,” then at least some of the dispute between Chomsky and the empiricist learning theorists will dissolve like so much mist on a hot morning. Many of the fiercest partisans of empiricist and behaviorist learning theories are willing to concede that the child has innate learning capacities in the sense that he has innate dispositions, inclinations, and natural potentialities. Just as the block of marble has the innate capacity of being turned into a statue, so the child has the innate capacity of learning. W. V. Quine, for example, in his response to Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis argues, “The behaviorist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning readiness.” Indeed, claims Quine, “Innate biases and dispositions are the cornerstone of behaviorism.”9

If innateness is the cornerstone of behaviorism what then is left of the dispute? Even after all these ecumenical disclaimers by behaviorists to the effect that of course behaviorism and empiricism require innate mechanisms to make the stimulus-response patterns work, there still remains a hard core of genuine disagreement. Chomsky is arguing not simply that the child must have “learning readiness,” “biases,” and “dispositions,” but that he must have a specific set of linguistic mechanisms at work. Claims by behaviorists that general learning strategies are based on mechanisms of feedback, information processing, analogy, and so on are not going to be enough. One has to postulate an innate faculty of language in order to account for the fact that the child comes up with the right grammar on the basis of his exposure to the language.

The heart of Chomsky’s argument is that the syntactical core of any language is so complicated and so specific in its form, so unlike other kinds of knowledge, that no child could learn it unless he already had the form of the grammar programmed into his brain, unless, that is, he had “perfect knowledge of a universal grammar.” Since there is at the present state of neurophysiology no way to test such a hypothesis by inspection of the brain, the evidence for the conclusion rests entirely on the facts of the grammar. In order to meet the argument, the anti-Chomskyan would have to propose a simpler grammar that would account for the child’s ability to learn a language and for linguistic competence in general. No defender of traditional learning theory has so far done this (though the generative grammarians do claim that their account of competence is much simpler than the diagram we drew in Section II above).

The behaviorist and empiricist learning theorist who concedes the complexity of grammar is faced with a dilemma: either he relies solely on stimulus-response mechanisms, in which case he cannot account for the acquisition of the grammar, or he concedes, à la Quine, that there are innate mechanisms which enable the child to learn the language. But as soon as the mechanisms are rich enough to account for the complexity and specificity of the grammar, then the stimulus-response part of the theory, which was supposed to be its core, becomes uninteresting; for such interest as it still has now derives entirely from its ability to trigger the innate mechanisms that are now the crucial element of the learning theory. Either way, the behaviorist has no effective reply to Chomsky’s arguments.


The weakest element of Chomsky’s grammar is the semantic component, as he himself repeatedly admits.10 But while he believes that the semantic component suffers from various minor technical limitations, I think that it is radically inadequate; that the theory of meaning it contains is too impoverished to enable the grammar to achieve its objective of explaining all the linguistic relationships between sound and meaning.

Most, though not all, of the diverse theories of meaning advanced in the past several centuries from Locke to Chomsky and Quine are guilty of exactly the same fallacy. The fallacy can be put in the form of a dilemma for the theory: either the analysis of meaning itself contains certain of the crucial elements of the notion to be analyzed, in which case the analysis fails because of circularity; or the analysis reduces the thing to be analyzed into simpler elements which lack its crucial features, in which case the analysis fails because of inadequacy.

Before we apply this dilemma to Chomsky let us see how it works for a simple theory of meaning such as is found in the classical empirical philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. These great British empiricists all thought that words got their meaning by standing for ideas in the mind. A sentence like “The flower is red” gets its meaning from the fact that anyone who understands the sentence will conjoin in his mind an idea of a flower with an idea of redness. Historically there were various arguments about the details of the theory (e.g., were the ideas for which general words stood themselves general ideas or were they particular ideas that were made “general in their representation”?). But the broad outlines of the theory were accepted by all. To understand a sentence is to associate ideas in the mind with the descriptive terms in the sentence.

But immediately the theory is faced with a difficulty. What makes the ideas in the mind into a judgment? What makes the sequence of images into a representation of the speech act of stating that the flower is red? According to the theory, first I have an idea of a flower, then I have an idea of redness. So far the sequence is just a sequence of unconnected images and does not amount to the judgment that the flower is red, which is what is expressed in the sentence. I can assume that the ideas come to someone who understands the sentence in the form of a judgment, that they just are somehow connected as representing the speech act of stating that the flower is red—in which case we have the first horn of our dilemma and the theory is circular, since it employs some of the crucial elements of the notion of meaning in the effort to explain meaning. Or on the other hand if I do not assume the ideas come in the form of a judgment then I have only a sequence of images in my mind and not the crucial feature of the original sentence, namely, the fact that the sentence says that the flower is red—in which case we have the second horn of our dilemma and the analysis fails because it is inadequate to account for the meaning of the sentence.

The semantic theory of Chomsky’s generative grammar commits exactly the same fallacy. To show this I will first give a sketch of what the theory is supposed to do. Just as the syntactical component of the grammar is supposed to describe the speaker’s syntactical competence (his knowledge of the structure of sentences) and the phonological component is supposed to describe his phonological competence (his knowledge of how the sentences of his language sound), so the semantic component is supposed to describe the speaker’s semantic competence (his knowledge of what the sentences mean and how they mean what they mean).

The semantic component of a grammar of a language embodies the semantic theory of that language. It consists of the set of rules that determine the meanings of the sentences of the language. It operates on the assumption, surely a correct one, that the meaning of any sentence is determined by the meaning of all the meaningful elements of the sentence and by their syntactical combination. Since these elements and their arrangement are represented in the deep structure of the sentence, the “input” to the semantic component of the grammar will consist of deep structures of sentences as generated by the syntactic component, in the way we described in Section II.

The “output” is a set of “readings” for each sentence, where the readings are supposed to be a “semantic representation” of the sentence; that is, they are supposed to be descriptions of the meanings of the sentence. If for example a sentence has three different meanings the semantic component will duplicate the speaker’s competence by producing three different readings. If the sentence is nonsense the semantic component will produce no readings. If two sentences mean the same thing, it will produce the same reading for both sentences. If a sentence is “analytic,” that is, if it is true by definition because the meaning of the predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject (for example, “All bachelors are unmarried” is analytic because the meaning of the subject “bachelor” contains the meaning of the predicate “unmarried”), the semantic component will produce a reading for the sentence in which the reading of the predicate is contained in the reading of the subject.

Chomsky’s grammarian in constructing a semantic component tries to construct a set of rules that will provide a model of the speaker’s semantic competence. The model must duplicate the speaker’s understanding of ambiguity, synonymy, nonsense, analyticity, self-contradiction, and so on. Thus, for example, consider the ambiguous sentence “I went to the bank.” As part of his competence the speaker of English knows that the sentence is ambiguous because the word “bank” has at least two different meanings. The sentence can mean either I went to the finance house or I went to the side of the river. The aim of the grammarian is to describe this kind of competence; he describes it by constructing a model, a set of rules, that will duplicate it. His semantic theory must produce two readings for this sentence.

  1. 8

    G. Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (Open Court, 1949), pp. 45-46.

  2. 9

    W. V. O. Quine, “Linguistics and Philosophy,” in S. Hook, ed., Language and Philosophy (NYU Press, 1969), pp. 95-96.

  3. 10

    I am a little reluctant to attribute the semantic component to Chomsky, since most of its features were worked out not by him but by his colleagues at MIT; nonetheless since he incorporates it entirely as part of his grammar I shall assess it as such.

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