The Thought Occurs

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Chomsky Confusing Biology With Language

Chomsky (1980: 48):
I have not hesitated to propose a general principle of linguistic structure on the basis of observation of a single language. The inference is legitimate, on the assumption that humans are not specifically adapted to learn one rather than another human language. … Assuming that the genetically determined language faculty is a common human possession, we may conclude that a principle of language is universal if we are led to postulate it as a 'precondition' for the acquisition of a single language.

 Blogger Comments:

[1] Genes are biological entities.  The expressions of genes are biological entities.  Any phenotypic traits whose genes have been selected because they are adaptive are biological entities.  Therefore, when Chomsky speaks of a genetically determined "language faculty", he is speaking about a biological entity.

[2] On the other hand,  linguistic structure and principles of language are properties of language, not biology, and so are not the expression of genes.

If a language faculty was "genetically determined", there would be genetic variation (alleles) for it in the population.  The language faculty of an adopted child would be less like the language faculty of its adoptive parent and more like the language faculty of a biological parent it had never met, such as a sperm donor.

Genes provide the biological capacity for children to learn the language whose expressions are perceivable phenomena in their material environment.  What children learn through a biological capacity and the biological capacity itself are distinct phenomena.

[3] Because the preconditions for the acquisition of language are biological, in contradistinction to principles of language, Chomsky's conclusion that a principle of language is universal because it is a precondition for acquisition is entirely spurious.

The problem Chomsky faces is trying to make 17th Century Cartesian 'innateness' scientifically credible as 'genetic inheritance' in the 21st Century.  Given the huge disjunct between the Cartesian Rationalism (non-Empiricism) of the 17th Century and empirical science of the 21st, he is forced to cherry-pick ideas from biology and present them in a way that disguises the inconsistencies.  In a linguistic community largely ignorant of biology and the history and philosophy of science, and whose institutional status and economic well-being depends on affiliating with his work, Chomsky, who in 1972 said that Natural Selection has 'no substance', remains a credible intellectual force.

By denying scientific principles, one may maintain any paradox.
— Galileo Galilei