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Noam Chomsky on Mind Modules, Meaning and Wittgenstein

Noam Chomsky on Mind Modules, Meaning and Wittgenstein

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Published by: Emilio Rivano Fischer on Dec 11, 2009
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RLA Revista de lingüística Teórica y Aplicada, 38, 2000
Chomsky on mind modules, meaning, and Wittgenstein.Question and reply.
Noam Chomsky and Emilio Rivano
 The issues raised in the following exchange touch briefly and non-technically on somegeneral topics in current linguistic theory, such as external systems, design specifications,and legibility conditions. Other topics are function, meaning, and certain perspectives onWittgenstein. The question is raised by Emilio Rivano, the reply is by Noam Chomsky.A few suggested readings are: Language and Thought (1994, Wakefield, R.I., and London:Moyer Bell), "Language and nature" (1995, in Mind, 104, 1-61), The Minimalist Program(1995, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press), Nuestro Conocimiento del Lenguaje Humano(1998, Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Universidad de Concepción & Bravo y AllendeEditores. English-Spanish Bilingual Edition), all by Noam Chomsky. * * * 
A. Emilio Rivano:
There is a topic that came back to me the other day, as I was lecturingon Toulmin and Wittgenstein. It struck me also that I had mentioned the point to you in theform of a written question for the discussion session we had when you were here. And, if Iam not mistaken, this is an issue you wanted to address then, but we ran out of time. Theoriginal question was this: "When you say that the language faculty producesrepresentations conditioned by the design of other systems (the legibility conditions), whatkind of conditioning is operating here? (You also speak of imposition, force and motivationin this context). And do we need these representations at the language faculty level, sincewe must have them at the other levels anyway (for legibility)? Wouldn't they be producedtwice?"The topic now comes in the following form: I find it problematic, on the one hand, toconceive of human language as an organ, and, on the other, to have conditions imposed onit by external systems. Let's suppose that "uninterpretable formal features are the
mechanism that implements the displacement property". That, to the extent that it isconfirmed or accepted under current criteria, is OK. But it strikes me as a move of adifferent nature to go from that to conceiving "the displacement property as being forced bylegibility conditions". For it would seem to me that the legibility conditions are not"conditions" at all, but simply functions of the displacement feature on externalenvironments.I don't find it problematic to conceive of human language as an organ or system, but I findit problematic to conceive of functions of this organ as another organ or system. (I think this might remove the bothersome notion of "optimal design")More radically: is there any need for a conceptual system? Doesn't semantics, rather, dealwith a wild variety of functions performed by the language faculty? There is a visualsystem, but not a system of seeing. That is, the multiplicity of visual functions cannot bethe object of a theory, but, simply, or at best, of description. Vision is the organic system.The (endless variety of) visual performances, "seeing", are functions of the system.Likewise, language is the system and "meaning" names a wild variety of functions of thissystem.Roughly, this is how the topic connects with Wittgenstein. His insights, at times openlyframed as frustrations about the impossibility of being part of a theory of language, move inareas of linguistic functions. And we can't hope for any theory on functions of the humanfaculties, but mere descriptions. This fine analyst found himself in a world of fragments,specific meaning functions, meaningful in particular contexts; a world where no theory is possible. As the man of genius he was, he managed to say much about it, a matter we canset aside for now.
B. Noam Chomsky:
The way I've been looking at the matter is essentially this. I think there is by now overwhelming evidence that there is a distinctive faculty of language FL,one of the many modules of mind/brain, with its own specific properties. I'm taking a"language" L to be a state of FL. L generates an infinite set of expressions EXP, each astructured complex of representations of sound and meaning, let's say a (PF,LF) pair,"representation" of course not having the connotations of the philosophical literature and itsspecial usage -- there need not be anything (and indeed, there apparently isn't anything)"represented" in the sense, say, of theories of ideas.To be usable at all, the expressions (at least, a large enough set of them, which we can taketo be infinite) must be accessible to the systems of language use: at least, the sensorimotor systems and the systems of thought and conceptual organization. Conventionalassumptions, with traditional roots, are that PF is accessible to the sensorimotor systems,LF to the others (I think this is almost surely inadequate or wrong, but we can take it as astarting point, as has been done implicitly, in some form, for thousands of years). That is aminimal condition of usability for FL. These "external" systems (external to FL, not to the person) have their own properties, independently of language. These properties thereforeimpose "minimal design specifications" for FL: it must satisfy at least these, or it won't be
usable: PF and LF must be "legible" to the external systems. The "minimalist program"explores the possibility that these are also maximal conditions, in nontrivial respects -- thatis, that FL is in nontrivial respects an optimal solution to the minimal design specifications.Looked at this way, the program doesn't seem to me to be subject to the problems you raise.The only "conditioning" is that the external systems provide minimal design specifications.It's in principle possible (though empirically presumably not) that some organism O wouldhave something like FL (maybe our FL) that fails its legibility conditions, so that O wouldnot be aware that it has FL, nor would any conspecific (we might discover it by someindirect means). That doesn't seem to me problematic.There's no "motivation" except in the informal intuitive sense in which "functionalconsiderations" enter into cognitive psychology and the brain sciences, and discussion of evolution. Thus, informal description often speaks of the visual system, its nature andevolution, as "motivated" by the need to perceive important properties of the world. In their serious moments, biologists understand that this is informal exposition, not to be takenliterally.There is no redundancy. Thus, the sensiromotor system has its own properties, which mayor may not have been adapted for FL in the course of human evolution (there is muchdebate about that); same with "thought systems". These properties impose designspecifications for FL. Nothing is stated twice.To say that "the displacement property [is] forced by legibility conditions" is to say, lessinformally, that expressions generated by states of FL will not be (properly) accessible tothe external systems unless they satisfy this property. The thought systems, for example,require that expressions have certain properties: that they have phrases with certainrelations which can be interpretated as semantic relations. Maybe agent-patient, and maybetheme-rheme, new/old information, etc. Those of the former type seem to involve "deepstructure" (first Merge); those of the latter type seem to involve "displacement" (maybe thethought systems are designed to explore "edge of constructions" to detect these). If that'sthe way the thought systems work, then displacement is "forced by legibility conditions" inthe sense that unless FL provides for displacement, the expressions won't be legible -- properly legible, that is; they might be interpreted as some kind of word salad. Similar considerations hold at the sound side. Thus if FL provides PF without syllable structure, itcould well be that the sensorimotor systems could only give partial and distortedintepretation, as a kind of noise.Is there "any need for a conceptual system?" That seems to me a variant of an old questionabout whether there is thought without language. The questions are sufficiently murky sothat one cannot speak with too much conviction, but it seems to me pretty clear -- fromintrospection, efforts to understand what people are doing, comparative animal studies --that there is thought without language, and that it has systematic properties, varying withorganisms. As I understand the term "conceptual system," it is just a loose informaldesignation for whatever these systems turn out to be. I don't see the slightest reason tosuppose -- and in fact, very much doubt -- that common sense ordinary language judgmentswill survive inquiry into these matters (just as "life" or "motion" or "liquid" disappear as

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