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Knowledge and Mind - Knowledge of Language

Knowledge and Mind - Knowledge of Language

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Published by Rodericvs Martyr

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Published by: Rodericvs Martyr on May 25, 2014
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LinguisticChapter 3Knowledge of Language
The Nature of
: Knowledge
Language has been an object of study for a very long time. Indeed, bothPlato and Aristotle (b. ca. 384 B.C.) wrote on language as did the empiri-cists Hobbes and Locke. (See he suggested eadings or specific sources)In more recent times, however, there has been a veritable flood of work,especially on knowledge of language One key figure in this recent theo-rizing is N oam Chomsky.Theface ofa child can say t all, especially he mouth art of the ace. Jack HandeyThis book deals with two general ssues the nature of human knowledgeand the nature of the mind, i.e., the thing that has he knowledge. Some ofthe topics we discuss fall squarely under knowledge (e.g., skepticismabout the external world); other topics are mostly about the mind (e.g.,the relationship between mind and body). Other issues n the text enterboth domains.1 This is true of our next topic, knowledge of languageThough directly an issue of knowledge, it holds important implicationsfor the nature of mind. It would be good to keep this element of overlapin mind as we go through the discussionThere are many places in which issues about language connect withissues n epistemology and philosophy of mind. Here we will focus onthree: what knowledge of language s like, how it is acquired, and the re-lationship between anguage and thinking.Before beginning, a note on how to read this chapter. Many of theideas ntroduced are mutually supporting. In fact, you may best be able tounderstand he parts if you first survey the whole. Thus, it may be best toread through the whole chapter once, not worrying too much about thedetails, and then reread each section slowly and carefully.
Chomsky on Linguistic CompetenceChomsky's first important contribution to this area was an argument tothe effect that language theorists must not ignore the internal mentalstates of agents when trying to account for their "linguistic behavior." Heargued hat, contrary to what some BEHAVIORISTS laimed, language use s too complex to be described solely in terms of environmental stimuli andhabit-based responses What one must do instead, Chomsky said, is todescribe he language spoken by giving a grammar of it and then supposethat speakers acitly know this grammar. It is this internalized informa-tion, in the form of a grammar, which allows speakers o use and under-stand language It is this move that launches the topic of knowledge oflanguage And it makes possible our first two questions What is thisknowledge ike? How is it acquired?Of course speakers only "know" language n a special sense of 'know'. To begin with, as we'll see much of the knowledge is unconscious Totake one simple example in some sense all English speakers know thatthe verbs 'to sing and 'to bring' have dissimilar past tense conjugations,though neither of them is entirely regular. (Neither is entirely regularbecause heir past tense isn't formed by adding '-ed': one says neither'bringed' nor 'singed. But their irregularity is dissimilar because he pasttense of 'bring' is 'brought', whereas he past tense of 'sing' is 'sang.) Yetdespite hat fact that every speaker knows this, it doesnt follow that anyspeaker has ever been conscious of it. Besides it's not clear how thenotions of truth and justification apply to language A person who con-jugates 'bring' as 'brang' makes a mistake. But in what sense Is it thekind of mistake that is rightly called believing a falsehood? Surely not. Oragain, is she somehow unjustified?To sidestep such questions Chomsky coined some terminology. Hesuggested hat human beings come to have LINGillSTIC COMPETENCEessentially they internalize, in some sense of "internalize," a body of lin-guistic rules-and this linguistic competence contributes to the observedbehavioral PERFORMANCE (Put crudely, linguistic competence s the agentsinformation about grammar; linguistic performance is what the agentdoes with that information.) He insisted that positing such a competencewas necessary o explain the highly sophisticated inguistic performancethat we observe the behaviorist's stimulus and response patterns, whichfocus solely on performance n the environment, will not do the job. (Wediscuss BEHAVIORISM n chapter 4.)Chomsky adds that it is not the case hat the linguistic 'competence nand of itself gives rise to the linguistic performance. Rather, the compe-
An Objection to Chomskys Notion of Linguistic CompetenceSome philosophers purportedly following Wittgenstein, argue thatChomsky's notion of linguistic competence s founded on a bad picture.We can illustrate this complaint with an example. Suppose hat Rudy isgoing to the store because of his conscious ustified true belief that thestore is open, sells soda, etc. Once at the store, Rudy says "I want asoda." What explains this second piece of behavior, i.e., his utterance?Here is what these philosophers call the "bad picture": just as Rudy's
Knowledge of Language
tence s one causal force among others. For instance other causally rele-vant factors include attention, memory, physical tiredness backgroundbeliefs and desires etc. To take an example: someone may know sentence(1) but may not speak t even when asked because she s too tired or be-cause she believes t would be rude or because she is too interested inother matters or because he stutters, etc.(1) Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppersCauses of all these kinds and more can act in concert, interacting withones linguistic competence to yield the effect of linguistic performance,i.e., actual speechOne thing this means for the linguistic investigator i.e., the linguiststudying the speaker is that there is no direct route from the behavior sheobserves o the nature of the grammar she takes to be "known" by thespeaker being observed The nature of the speakers competence an onlybe inferred by the linguist, not directly observed Precisely because peechis the result of interacting causes what the scientist observes s not solely areflection of competenceit's a reflection of many factors mixed together.This didn't worry Chomsky, however, since he argued that sciences en-erally do more than simply make observations and catalogue the results:scientists are always n the business of inferring unobservable causes rom observable effects thereby explaining the observed effects Hence, heretoo what the linguists does is to infer the nature of (one of) the un-observable causes namely, the linguistic competence, on the basis of theobserved effects of its interaction with other causes e.g., tiredness stut-tering, distraction, etc.). The unobserved hen explains the observedOnce we're convinced that linguistic 'competence exists, even though itcannot be directly observed the next obvious question is how the com-petence came o be. And what exactly it looks like. Before turning to theseissues however, it's worth considering an objection that is sometimesmade to Chomsky's picture.

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