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Biological Determinism and Epistemology in Linguistics: Some Considerations

on the "Chomskyan Revolution" [1]

Peter Jones

"Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet or Faust


0.1 The aim of this paper is to take a critical look, from a broadly Marxist
perspective, at the epistemological basis of Noam Chomsky's theory of
grammar and the implications of his work in linguistics for the human sciences
in general.[3] At the very least this critique might help to explain the reasons
why Chomsky's views should be regarded as incompatible with Marxism,
despite some recent claims (eg Newmeyer, 1986a,b). More importantly, I hope
the discussion may show that Chomsky's outlook on language poses a
challenge not only to Marxism but to any discipline in which the social and
historical are essential and irreducible categories in the understanding and
explanation of human behaviour, institutions, and thought. For Chomsky uses
his theoretical linguistic work, which has already had a profound influence on
other disciplines, particularly philosophy and psychology (cf Salkie, 1990) as
the ground on which to construct a rigid biological determinist ideology applied
to all aspects of human behaviour and mental activity. The main thrust of my
argument is that Chomsky's biological determinism, like biological determinism
in general, rests on an incoherent and self-contradictory epistemology and is an
inadequate foundation for the human sciences, including linguistics. In view of
these intended aims, I would like to think that what follows might be
considered as a further contribution to the critique of biological determinism
developed in Rose (ed) (1982) and Rose, Lewontin and Kamin (1990).

0.2 I do not claim any originality for philosophical opposition to Chomsky's work
and specifically Marxist criticism can be found elsewhere (eg Thompson, 1969;
Luria, 1975; llyenkov, 1977c; Panfilov, 1979; and cf the discussion in
Newmeyer, 1986a). What I hope to offer is a rather more fine-grained
philosophical analysis of aspects of Chomsky's approach along with a sketch of
an alternative perspective which I will refer to as the Vygotskian tradition of

Marxist research in psychology and linguistics.[4] While detailed scrutiny of the
technical linguistic facts and arguments used to support Chomsky's case would
be out of place here, I will make one or two observations on the status and
validity of such "evidence".

Since Chomsky has at the same time acquired an international reputation as a
courageous, outspoken, and radical political thinker and commentator (cf
Salkie, op.cit; Chomsky 1979, 1987b, 1989), the question inevitably arises of
the connection between his linguistics and politics. Some writers consider both
areas of his thought to be equally radical and progressive, eg Salkie (op.cit). I
share the view that his scientific and political views have certain philosophical
and ethical principles in common and, accordingly, I have raised some general
questions on his attitude towards social and political theory. However, I shall
not examine Chomksy's political contribution in any detail, nor do I wish to
denigrate that contribution in any way.

I should stress that not all linguists outside the Marxist tradition share
Chomsky's conception of language and mind. Some would challenge or reject
outright the innatist framework of Chomskyan generativism (eg Sampson,
1975; Moore and Carling, 1982; Halliday, 1978; Harris, 1980) and there are
many other linguists who, while working with Chomsky's grammatical theory,
would distance themselves from his biological determinism. Yet, there are few,
if any, modern approaches to language which remain uninfluenced by
Chomsky's work and ideas. Whether or not Chomsky's theoretical
achievements amount to a revolution will not, however, be of concern here,
although the question has generated some heat over the years (cf Koerner,
1983; Newmeyer, 1986b).

My plan of attack, then, is as follows: 1) an exposition of the key tenets of the
Chomskyan doctrine on grammar, 2) an analysis of the epistemological
foundations of this doctrine, 3) a critical appraisal of these foundations, and 4)
a brief exposition of the Vygotskian alternative.


1.1 Over the years, Chomsky has employed a rather effective expository and
rhetorical device which consists in imagining how a super-intelligent extra-

a persuasive and plausible picture of the nature of language and its structure. And yet. for every sphere of human mental activity. one may have doubts. something that might lead us to temper our enthusiasm for contact with other worlds. Of course. say. of reconciling the study of language with already established and respectable sciences. this is. The superorganism attacks language . one can hardly object to rational methods of enquiry. a "mental organ" which provides a grammatical blueprint for the "growth" of the grammars of particular languages in interaction with the linguistic (and general social) surroundings. the Martian attributes the human capacity for language to our biological make-up. 1991) has taken shape. to the surprise. thereby helping to promote a thorough-going scientific and philosophical realism.terrestrial being would go about the study of human language and its grammatical structure. quickly discovering beneath the apparent chaos of surface forms. not least. Accordingly. 1990). ibid). turns out to require a mental organ of its own. the general framework of assumptions and the methodology within which Chomskyan theoretical syntax. principles which are inviolable and yet have no functional motivation in the exigencies of social communication. perhaps. to the workings of an innate language faculty. subjected to such enquiry. a cultural form? I will return to the argument below. Here we have. Why does our Martian superorganism not entertain the possibility that language is. often referred to as "autonomous syntax" (Newmeyer. This faculty contains a "Universal Grammar. . word meaning is another. 1988: 41) . Chomsky's Martian gets to the bottom of things very quickly. structured and organised as they are" (1979: 230). Salkie. or to the demand for the same standards of rationality in linguistics as in the "hard" sciences. On the other hand. ideological distortions and downright stupidity that humans are prone to. a materialistic monism (or "scientific monism". To each domain Chomsky allots a dedicated biological substratum allowing species. 1986a.[5] Chomsky's rational methods entail drastic consequences for the human sciences as a whole.with natural scientific methods ("the methods of rational inquiry". Facts aside. It appears to have the merit. on first encounter. highly abstract principles of syntactic organization. unencumbered by the parochial earthbound attitudes.this "curious biological phenomenon" (Chomsky.specific mental activity to flourish over a certain highly restricted field "accessible" to the innate faculty while denying access to areas which "lie beyond the reach of our minds. Syntax is the province of one such organ. to assume in advance that linguistic facts are biological facts is hardly in keeping with the finest standards of terrestrial thought. in a nutshell.

2 Returning to the methodology of our Martian investigator. Thus. Chomsky believes that the speed and precision with which children pick up new words "leaves no real alternative to the conclusion that the child somehow has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already part of his or her conceptual apparatus" (1988: 28). 1. if form and content could so easily be dissociated. The same applies. speculating that we might have "a sort of 'universal grammar' of possible forms of social interaction. The very method of scientific thought is also fixed a priori in a "science-forming capacity" (1980: 250) which permits. while others are never considered or if explored. if we assume that human beings belong to the biological world. The outcome of this grandiose reductionism is the marginalisation of the effective domain of the historical. Chomsky is similarly convinced that "a certain range of possibilities has been explored to create structures of marvellous intricacy.. he claims. "even for the technical concepts of the natural sciences" (ibid: 32). ie those which conform to biologically determined specifications. physically realized in some manner .of those who think that Chomsky's innatism is restricted to the form of language . Chomsky has considered extending his innatist approach to the sphere of social interaction itself. then we must expect . and it is this system which helps us to organize intuitively our imperfect perceptions of social reality" while adding that "it does not follow necessarily that we are capable of developing conscious theories in this domain through the exercise of our 'science-forming faculties'" (ibid: 69-70). Indeed. only "accessible" theories.. On occasion. one might legitimately ask: why study language as if it were a physical organ of the body? To which Chomsky replies: why not? Why should we think that it should be studied differently? Chomsky's supporting arguments once more appeal to analogies between physical and mental structures: "A consistent materialist would consider it as self-evident that the mind has very important innate structures. the social and the cultural in human affairs. the very concept of "society" as a coherent systemic organism becomes problematic. He also believes that "the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty" (1988: 153). and in fact Chomsky makes no secret of his scepticism about the possibility of a genuine social science (1979: 56). As regards activity in the literary or musical spheres. lead to the production of work that does not conform to normal human capacities" (ibid: 252).

it's diffuse and unstructured. like religious dogma. which he regards as a variant of empiricist ideology: "The Marxist tradition too has characteristically held that humans are products of history and society. Well. of course this is not true of physical properties. Putting aside such prejudice... PEJ] is that the human brain is radically different from any other object in the physical world: namely. their organs. social. There's nothing else in the physical world like that. Everything we know points to the fact that it's like other physical objects that develop in the natural world... Chomsky uses this argument in an explicit attack on the Marxist tradition. Even though it is (or maybe because it is) the most complicated object that we know of in the universe. Their physical constitution. somehow it's unstructured . it is "quite natural and plausible" to regard "the growth of language as analogous to the development of a bodily organ" (ibid: 11). There is no reason for supposing the mental world to be an exception" (1979: 94). certainly in the biological world. the study of language thus "falls naturally within human biology" (ibid: 123).them to resemble the rest of the biological world. Well. we're not going to find that one system has the same structural properties as other systems" (Edgley et al. such as the possession of arms rather than wings . The very idea that mental and physical development should be treated separately he attributes to "the grip of empiricist doctrine" (1976: 12) which. not determined by their biological nature. 1989: 32-33). that just cannot be true . and general cultural life" (1988: 162). And if it is.. and the principles of maturation are genetically determined.. but it is held to be true of intellectual. Everything we know in the physical world. a standard picture is . etc . stands in the way of rational scientific enquiry: "The background myth [ie accepted by "empiricism".that the brain is different... is highly specific and structured and has components and intricate arrangements..and it's the same as the picture of human malleability . .

contrasting the knowledge acquired with its evidential base. reaching a high level of complexity that does not reflect the limited and degenerate environment" (Chomsky. which is the central epistemological pillar of his biological determinist edifice. and their independence of intelligence. rationally from experience alone. and emotional state" (ibid). ibid. and cf Hacker. This contrast is held to justify the postulation of highly specific and finely tuned innate principles which "permit the organism to transcend experience. In more traditional philosophical language. He notes the "striking uniformity of the resulting grammars. so to speak. 1990). motivation. 2. Chomsky. sees a solution to the Humean problem in a version of the doctrine of innate ideas: if knowledge cannot derive from experience then it must belong to the mind itself. THE EPISTEMOLOGY OF BIOLOGICAL DETERMINISM 2. The same argument in relation to children's learning of words is used to support a belief in the innateness of all concepts. in fact. Hume showed that the framing of general scientific laws cannot be justified logically. which led him to "the disastrous conclusion that from experience and observation nothing is to be learnt" (Russell. Chomsky's philosophical stance has much to do with his approval of the refutation of induction by the 18th century Scottish sceptical philosopher David Hume. all of which leaves little hope that much of the structure of the language can be learned by an organism initially uninformed as to its general character" (ibid). Thus.This skillful rhetorical maneouvre puts the ball firmly back into his "empiricist" opponents' court and allows Chomsky to cast himself as an open-minded seeker after truth in contrast to the Marxist dogmatists.1 The analogies Chomsky draws between mental and physical organs and their growth have a definite philosophical significance which he is keen to develop explicitly. what we call "knowledge" is produced in-house. Chomsky contrasts the "deep and abstract" nature of the grammatical knowledge acquired by the child with the "degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data" on which the child bases his/her grammar construction (1965: 58). however. the argument has to do with the problem of induction (sometimes referred to by Chomsky as "Plato's problem". entailing the rejection of the empiricist principle that experience is the source of human knowledge. It is this argument from the "poverty of the stimulus" (Chomsky. was solipsism. 1980: 340). caused by the internal structure and working of the mind .the physical constitution of the brain itself determines what is and . The logical outcome. 1986). 1991: 645) and from there to a denial of the possibility of rational belief tout court.

Physics. instead. may indeed be such an instance of a "lucky accident" (1980: 251). Chomsky has already argued that "we're not going to find that one system has the same structural properties as other systems" (Edgley et al. with Kant. and good reasons for believing that none of it is . For Descartes. a particular component of the human biological endowment. But now the twist. it is. then. But God. Chomksy. is not responsible. happens to yield a result that conforms more or less to the truth about the world" (1988: 156-157). what of "the relation between the class of humanly accessible theories and the class of true theories" (1980: 251)? On Chomsky's premisses. Here the influence of the Cartesian and Kantian traditions makes itself felt although the logic of Chomsky's position forces him to sharply distance himself from the Cartesian picture of the mind as a "universal instrument" (1988: 149). And. He is forced to conclude that there "is no particular reason to suppose that the science-forming capacities of humans or their mathematical abilities permit them to conceive of theories approximating the truth in every (or any) domain. of "a remarkable historical accident resulting from chance convergence of biological . the possibility of real knowledge of things. or to gain insight into the laws of nature" (1980: 251). what. then. with physics being the prime example (1979: 66). believes that true knowledge exists. However. there must necessarily be "sharp limits on attainable knowledge" (1979: 64). of truth? In Chomskyan parlance. he cannot attain real knowledge beyond that intersection" (1979: 66). if it is the structure of the brain itself which determines the content and possibilities of human knowledge. see above) from which it follows that "there is no particular biological reason why such an intersection should exist" (1979: 66).2 And so to the main epistemological conundrum at the heart of the Chomskyan doctrine: if knowledge is some kind of physical substance grown in the brain. since. too.a radical scepticism foreign to Descartes but acceptable to Kant who believed that the world of real things outside the mind ("Things-in-themselves") was in principle unknowable. the worlds of thought and matter. Chomsky gives the epistemological screw an extra turn.what is not thinkable and knowable. nevertheless corresponded exactly. "just blind luck if the human science-forming capacity. a human being can attain real knowledge. 1989. conversely. despite having diametrically opposed properties. In other words. able to know anything and everything. there is no reason for believing that any "knowledge" we have is true knowledge. apparently. because God made them coincide. Instead of denying. 2. professing a Cartesian faith in the power of human knowledge. truth can only arise via a coincidence or intersection of mental (ie brain) properties with properties of reality: "Where such an intersection exists.

on a "kind of biological miracle" (1979: 66). "world". However. with all forms of biological reductionisrn. 3. as Russell argues.1 How should one characterize Chomsky's position on language and human mental capacities in the most general philosophical terms? The biological determinist idiom in which his ideas are couched is suggestive of what would be called "mechanical" or "vulgar" materialism within the Marxist tradition (eg Engels. as in. then there are quite simply no grounds for claiming either that one's ideas about the world and the world itself actually correspond. a rather curious and simplistic hotch-potch of Kantian scepticism and Cartesian dualism. etc . If we believe. and as Chomsky must. and can be refuted by Humian arguments" (ibid: 646). Kant's theory contained similar inconsistencies and ultimately proved to be untenable. Dialectics).between the "Things-in-themselves" and the workings of the mind. the concepts and technical terms of his . as Kant did. One of the difficulties lies with its assertion of a causal link . as essentially idealist.a "triggering" perhaps in Chomskyan terms . But in fact it is very easy to see that this leap of faith from accessible theories to true theories is quite irrational and illegitimate. as can Chomsky's theory. or indeed that there is a real world outside the brain at all. its vulgarity in the simple reduction of the mental to the material (the biological). then. then we contradict ourselves in simultaneously asserting both that "Things" are unknowable and that they have causal powers. Its materialism lies in the acceptance of the existence of a mind-independent material reality. that the category of causality is an inherent mental phenomenon in principle inapplicable to the "Things". "person". their philosophy was not an answer to Hume's but "represent[ed] a pre-Humian type of rationalism. I believe it would be more accurate to see Chomskyan innatism. The credibility of Chomsky's epistemology depends crucially on the plausibility of the appeal to a chance convergence of mind (brain) and matter (external world) as an explanation of the possibility of true knowledge. A CRITIQUE OF CHOMSKYAN EPISTEMOLOGY 3. "reality". One cannot frame a coherent philosophical outlook around the claim to have knowledge of that which one declares to be unknowable! In any case. in common. Truth depends. for example Keat and Urry (1975). "mind". I would argue. despite what the Kantians might have thought.including those of "brain". In the light of these points it seems slightly perverse to paint Chomsky as a realist. If one accepts that all concepts .properties of the human mind with some aspect of the real world" (ibid).are forced on our thinking by the brain. By his own arguments. whatever the world itself is actually like.

then. geological. 1978. Moreover. Bruner. by hypothesis. Worse still. chemical. Wells. the chances of such coincidences are reduced to zero if. in general. therefore. as he supposes. 1985). or even within the same sphere. an innate entity for which one must also be prepared to sanction a similar biological miracle. borne out Chomsky's claims. he asserts. . and linguistic.2 Deserting for a moment the realm of philosophical abstraction. whether such "things" really exist cannot be known. scientific and conceptual systems. 1981. Chomsky's invocation of biological miracles indicates the acuteness of his epistemological dilemma. However. "modern physics" comprises many theories about many different objects. particularly in relation to his early allegations about the meagreness and degeneracy of the environmental input and about the speed of language acquisition. While the possibility of true knowledge. etc phenomena. Brain states will have to cause mental properties which converge with all these objects and states simultaneously. the brain is a unique physical system. There are also some tricky questions to answer concerning the processes of historical development of theoretical. 1990). We will then need to go on to explain similar and simultaneous convergences of brain and biological. should we attribute the "failure" of ancient physics?). we are asked to believe that the success of modern physics is due to a "chance convergence" between the properties of the brain and the physical world (to what. The very theory of mind which Chomsky accepts precludes the claim that the mind is real. For example. Let us briefly explore some of the implications of the ploy. epistemological miracles will have to multiply exponentially in order to cope with the convergence of human thought with properties of reality in different spheres. 3. states of matter and their interactions under different conditions. it is interesting that empirical studies of children's language learning have not. each science is built from systems of concepts. depends on chance homologies between the brain and other physical systems in the universe. each individual concept. contexts in which the child's carers tailor their language to the child's level of communicative competence (Halliday. a great volume of work shows language developing in contexts of social interaction around joint practical activity. While Chomsky paints a picture of the individual child growing a grammar through a purely intellectual process of analysis and sifting of poor quality data. insofar as they are meaningful (on this Hacker.linguistic theory must be considered the product of an innate conceptual scheme and.

3. at least in public. Cartesian rationalism. 1962.3 One may wonder how Chomsky's radical politics could be squared with his views on human mental capacities. Nevertheless. notably Cartesian. a thousand objections immediately spring to mind. or the place of women in society. The whole matter clearly requires detailed investigation and discussion. . even advances. to disarm potential critics. 1985). Hacker admits the possibility of innate ideas. some of them very ably put by Hacker (1990). something which is outside the scope of this paper. changes he attributes to "an advance towards understanding of our own nature and the moral and ethical principles that derive from it" (ibid). or conversely" (Edgley et al. Luria. 1981. the facts of children's learning of words would appear to contradict Chomsky's assertion (Vygotsky. must be based on some conception of human nature. some conception of how social arrangments or interpersonal relations ought to be conducted in such a way as to be conducive to human needs" (ibid).. The connections between Chomsky's political and social views and his linguistic and philosophical views certainly deserve more detailed examination.As for Chomsky's remarks on the innateness of concepts. the latter dogma is not typically associated with liberal. with its belief in innate reason and in the creativity and freedom of human thinking is counterposed to an "empiricist" picture of people as "completely malleable and lacking in characteristics" which he claims is used to justify techniques of manipulation and control of the masses by "ideological managers" (ibid). as distinct from the position defended here. although no evidence is offered in support of the assertion. 1989: 31). describing them as "extremely tenuous" since "one can't infer anything about politics from what you know about universal grammar. Chomsky refers to his own conception as a kind of libertarian socialism. On the other hand. Here again.. one may still feel that the "rationalist" vocabulary of freedom and creativity sits rather uncomfortably with a biological determinist view of human nature. he acknowledges that "any attitude that one takes towards social issues or towards human relations . with its roots in the liberalism which he claims developed from certain.[6] He also claims to detect historical changes. trends of Enlightenment thinking. Chomsky claims to find a "modest conceptual barrier against racism in his approach (1979: 92-3). Chomsky himself is quick to concede that the possession by the child of all concepts in advance of experience is "a condition that is so surprising as to seem outrageous" (1988: 134) while the idea appears to be "essentially correct nevertheless" (ibid). Wells. Indeed. plays down such connections. Chomsky himself. although. for example (1988: 154). In an attempt. perhaps. in moral consciousness in relation to attitudes towards slavery.

and others discussed in Newmeyer. These political implications have not been missed by Chomsky's critics. perhaps. Thompson (1982). quite wrongly in my view. does not have its own determining influence on human behaviour" (ibid. then we could hardly rid ourselves of oppressive social and political institutions by mere political debate or action. can modify or even contain the operation" of the causal. their critique does not extend to linguistics and to Chomsky. Chomsky has the same problem: if it is the case that our behaviour and beliefs. on the other hand. Chomsky does not fit the equation since he is a fierce opponent of racism and New Right ideology. and cf the notorious Thatcherite dictum: "there's no such thing as society"). Perhaps it is this fact that has helped to shield his linguistic and philosophical speculations from attack from other liberal and left-wing intellectuals. biological mechanism (ibid: 34) and adds: "But this admission is a dangerous one. including our basic moral judgements. some of whom who have.. 'immorality' and poverty within the individual and individual psychology and not in society which. Politically. Lewontin and Kamin (1990). Exploring the connection between "the rising tide of biological determinist writing" (ibid: ix) since the early 70's and "the New Right Ideology" (ibid: 5) epitomised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. 1969. of course. ludicrously. Lewontin and Kamin. with its emphasis on the priority of the individual over the collective. 1990) and in . are biologically fixed. a tradition appropriated by the 'New Right' eager to place the causes of social inequality. The result of such attempts to marry biological causation with conscious modification of behaviour is an implausible dualism typical of biological determinism both in modern form (cf Rose. in their informed and well-researched critique of biological determinism also draw rather different conclusions from Chomsky about its political possibilities. She notes that some sociobiologists accept that "an adherence to social norms . and the idea that our present attitudes and behaviour are at odds with our biologically determined nature surely contradicts the basic premisses on which the whole argument is built. the resulting behaviour cannot be said to be caused directly by the mechanism" (ibid). Sadly. Rose. a fascist or an apologist for imperialist exploitation (eg Thompson.let alone socialist views. 1986a). tried to paint him as a racist. crime. is keen to exempt Chomskyan linguistic universals from her sustained and thorough attack on biological determinist constructs. Nevertheless her arguments point to the fundamental contradictions within biological determinist accounts of moral and political structures. for instance.. For to the extent that consciouness is able to alter the way a biological mechanism operates. they argue that biological determinism continues and feeds "a philosophical tradition of individualism.

think and believe in the existence of the external world. as Hume said" (Plekhanov. But life has to go on: "Man has to act. to make out of scepticism a philosophy that one can live by. are used. methodological and philosophical problems. the main issue is not the particular ideological form in which those in power seek to justify their exploitation and manipulation of others (one can surely find "rationaiist" as well as "empiricist" dictatorships). making this separation of thinking and being into two mutually unintelligible realms an evident absurdity. LANGUAGE AND THE MARXIST TRADITION 4. development and supersession of social structures? If there are chains of cause and effect at the societal level.cit: 521). Humean. introspective philosophising whose starting point is the inner mental phenomena of the individual subject. of course. this philosophical stance transfers directly into a particular methodology employed by generative linguists and others in which introspection and intuition concerning. 1975). Kantian. the character of human . neo-Kantian tradition of subjective. The issue is: how do social formations arise? How can we explain the origin. individualist approach in its various guises creates more epistemological difficulties than it purports to resolve. 4. Chomsky's approach to these issues lies squarely within the Western. and of the material to the mental. at the level of relations and interactions between people. 1982) that this subjective. With Marx. notably the problem of induction. the approach itself is part of the problem and underlies the various forms of idealist rationalism or scepticism of the Cartesian. of the individual to the social. Indeed. idealised artificial and decontextualised sentences. It is impossible. The Monist View). From the Marxist point of view. and which are responsible for the shaping and structuring of societies. Indeed. typically. and Chomskyan varieties. It has frequently been claimed within the Marxist tradition (eg llyenkov. The Marxist tradition accordingly approaches the whole problem of human knowledge from the opposite end to subjectivist philosophy. which are irreducible to individual mental or behavioural properties. often as the sole investigative tool (cf Sampson.1 The discussion so far demonstrates that the problem of giving a scientific account of language and its structure is inextricably wedded to other scientific. as Hume himself recognised. op. then the determining forces in socio-historical evolution are these social processes and not "human nature" in the sense of inborn qualities. the relationship of the socio-cultural to the biological. 18th and 19th century versions (cf Plekhanov.earlier.

Of course. Without such a coincidence of the mental (or "ideal") and the real.thinking is to be investigated in its connections with the social practices in which it is embedded. then. Rather. it is "precisely the alteration of nature by men. still less the physical constitution of that person. but in "the ensemble of the social relations" (Marx. which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought. ibid: 229).. to stake everything on induction is no solution either. ie apart from the social nexus. all ideal forms including language. but emphasises that this is because human knowledge does not derive solely or mainly from observation or contemplation of the natural world. let alone two thousand years or two hundred thousand.2 Vygotsky's achievement (1962. The content of thought. In addition. be taken from life and must reflect the reality of human relations with the real world and the real relations between people themselves.existing only in and through the concerted effort of the many individuals who make up the collective . Chomsky makes it impossible to account for the content and origins of mental processes. are seen primarily as a property and product of the life-process of the whole community. by cutting the relations between the mind and social activity. induction is inseparable from deduction. and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased" (ibid: 231). 1978) was to help create a perspective on human language. Engels referring to it as "the whole swindle of induction" deriving "from the Englishmen" (Dialectics: 227). In any case. and the essence of humanity located not in the individual person. and is itself a form of deduction (ibid: 226-229). and in fact the Marxist tradition has always recognised the shortcomings of empiricist epistemology. must. if not inborn. Engels is by no means denying a role to induction in the development of thought but proposing that it must be considered as only one side of the many-sided socio-historical process of generation of knowledge in practice and generation of practice from knowledge. as he shows. But the activity of human beings forms the test of causality" and "the proof of necessity lies in human activity. not solely nature as such. in experiment. Theses: 14) From the Marxist point of view. In these passages. Thus. mentality and personality on the epistemological and . in its role in transforming the world and in creating an environment adequate for human needs. in work" (ibid: 229-230).neither human activity nor thinking can be a property of an individual considered naturalistically. human existence would not be possible for two minutes. Observation of the regularities in experience "affords no proof .[7] 4. Engels accepts that the "empiricism of observation alone can never adequately prove necessity" (Engels.. as activity and the thinking it generates are social in essence .

seen as the contemplating individual.language interpenetrates with the "natural" psychological and biological processes present in the new-born child leading to the formation of "verbal thought" which "is not an innate. to acquire the mental wealth so central to the Chomskyan view involves entering this historically determined and developing world of human activity. and only as a result thinking and speaking as a community member. independent of his consciousness and will" (ibid: 197). engaging in common practices with the community first and foremost. while yet rejecting the possibility of innate ideas or Chomskyan biological programming. provides an elegant materialist solution to the problem in showing that "what lends the object of experience structure is not the mind of the individual subjects.cit) shows. categories and norms of the surrounding culture assimilated through joint action. In this process.methodological ground of historical materialism.The Kantian categories and concepts. Thus. Vygotsky stressed the centrality of the study of language and its development to the explanation of the unique properties of the human could even say to "filter it" . the child is an active participant in the recreation of the material and mental practices already existing outside and around him/her. within him/herself in the form of inner speech and consciousness itself. The work of llyenkov (eg 1977a. but the forms of the activity of the community" (ibid: 197). Therefore. Shaped in the whole life history of the community as an instrument of communicative mediation of practical activity and a form of generalising thought -"the social means of thought" (1962: 5 1) . This framework indeed . One can even accept with Kant and Chomsky that the data of experience are somehow organized prior to their representation to the subject" (Bakhurst. as Bakhurst (op. but are "the forms of self-consciousness of social beings (understood as the historically developing 'ensembles of social relations')" which have to be "assimilated by the individual from without (and confronting him from the very beginning as 'external' schemas [patterns] of the movement of culture. A child must be part of a human community. basing himself on the primacy of social practical activity in relation to individual thinking and on the interpenetration of the natural and the cultural-historical in the development of language and all mental processes. recreating them at first in forms of interaction with things and other people and then internally. and to a scientific understanding of human society as a specific form of material organisation. the individual human being comes to interpret the data of experience . Chomskyan innate ideas. From this perspective. are not.through the framework of meanings. essentially properties of the subject. understood simply as the raw data of sense perception immediately accessible to that individual.b). then. natural form of behaviour but is determined by a historical-cultural process" (ibid). on one question Chornksy is undoubtedly correct: the richness of thought which an individual comes to possess is indeed underdetermined by experience. 1991: 196).

materialist standpoint. nor activity guided by thought. 4. But the material being of the ideal is not itself ideal but only the form of its . it allows the child to relate to the world and to others in a real.3 If the character of human mental activity is not inborn. nor the social relations through which activity is effected could have a biologically determined character. for example.. Furthermore. How then are we to reconcile the view of man's higher psychic functions as having their morphological. is 'coded'. is one of the trickiest of all and it is beyond the scope of this paper to tackle it in detail. physiological basis. a position eloquently explored by llyenkov (1977a: 261): "It is clear that the ideal. because it is not some arbitrary mental scheme imposed adventitiously on the data of sense. Thus. neither human thought. It is this system of social life. it is impossible. tried and tested. the "mind-body" problem. ie quite materially. or as it is now fashionable to say. of their relative independence of the brain's morphological features" (ibid: 315). Leontiev. ie the active form of social man's activity. He goes on to argue that the "acknowledgement of the socio-historical nature of mental capacities leads to the acceptance. which provides the basic socio-cultural and practical "rules" within which the child's creative imagination can take shape and work. is immediately embodied.transcends experience because it represents a distillation and summation of the historical experience of the community itself. the productive activity responsible for the human environment.. poses the problem in the following way: "From a scientific. with the assertion that these functions are not morphologically fixed and are transmitted solely by way of their social 'inheritance'?" (1981: 426). No biologically fixed conceptual scheme could allow us to operate and survive in such an environment. meaningful and purposive way. In short. a human way of life would not be possible if the content and categories of thinking were genetically inherited. what is its material basis and what is the role of the brain? The problem of coherently theorizing the interrelation of biological and mental properties. of course to assume the existence of capacities or functions that do not have their specialised organs . at first glance paradoxical. determines the social structure of the producing community itself. But for that very reason. and not raw grey matter. if we accept the premisses of historical materialism. in the form of the neuro-cerebral structures of the cortex of the brain.

let us turn to some allegedly "Marxist" arguments put forward by Newmeyer (1977.expression in the organic body of the individual.4 Finally. In the process the brain becomes a kind of "socio-natural" or "socio-biological" organ. His reasons for claiming this are not explicitly stated but presumably involve the assumption that language structure. From this point of view. op.1986a) in support of the Chomskyan view of language and mind... must itself adapt to the cultural environment. Rather. on the philosophical bones of the argument in the form of the key concept of a "functional organ" (Leontiev. but forms "simultaneously with the forming of higher. when formed. "then function as a single organ" (ibid). The significance of this is that the brain can no longer be considered as a biological given to which cultural phenomena must conform. the result of the integration and organisation of neuro-physiological structures and processes into a unique system of connections involving the whole brain. unlike economics. but argues that the syntactic rules governing the combination of words into sentences belongs to an autonomous mental domain. The psychological and neuropsychological work of Leontiev and Luria (eg 1973) has helped to put some flesh. the internalisation of language and its conversion into a phenomenon of individual mental life happens through the formation of such a functional organ. Such systems. is a biological phenomenon and consequently. To try and explain the ideal from the anatomical and physiological properties of the body of the brain is the same unfruitful whim as to try and explain the money form of the product of labour by the physico-chemical features of gold". in order to become the vehicle of thought for a human individual. 4. so to speak. culture and history write themselves organically into the brain. like biology. that "it is as senseless to speak of a Marxist theory of language structure as it would be to speak of a Marxist theory of genetic or atomic structure" (ibid). Newmeyer is prepared to concede that there is one aspect of "a language's grammatical system that . of what Newmeyer calls "autonomous . namely vocabulary (1986: 136). creating a biological base adequate to them. In itself the ideal is the socially determined form of man's life activity corresponding to the form of its object and product. Despite a minimalist engagement with the Marxist philosophical and linguistic traditions. Newmeyer feels able to assert that "a Marxist theory of language IN NO WAY precludes the existence of competence models and biologically-linked linguistic universals" (1977: 256) and. the brain. In a sense. then. specifically human psychic processes in a child" (ibid: 427). is outside the province of historical materialism. indeed. depends on the objective conditions of life".cit: 427). a system of connections within the brain which is not pre-formed in the child. The central plank.

1981). Furthermore. How would such substances meet and interact? How and why could the brain. It is this thesis that Newmeyer is so concerned to protect against the hostile hordes of Marxist critics. which allows us to give full . Finally. entirely free of any meaning or content. the "poverty of the stimulus" arguments used by Chomsky in support of formal universals are also applied to support the position that the conceptual content of language. and. words. From the Marxist point of view Newmeyer assumes metaphysical dualism of form and content on a par with the Cartesian dualism of mind and body: on the one hand pure forms. recognise such empty formal structures as having anything to do with language at all? What. meaning so pure that it is entirely devoid of any hint of form or structure. There is an alternative in the tradition of materialist investigation of language and mental phenomena associated with the name of Vygotsky and others. therefore. while professing to be a Marxist himself. indeed. makes them forms of language? The alleged autonomy of grammar. I have argued that the biological determinist framework of Chomsky's theory is an unsound philosophical and methodological foundation for the scientific investigation of human affairs in general and language in particular. is based on a distinctly dubious methodology and ontology. the dialectical relationship of form and content is not so easy to ignore. a relationship and dependency between the categories of form and content at odds with Newmeyer's conception. is innate. etc while remaining a Chomskyan in relation to the linguistic form such content assumes. Principles of Universal Grammar are invoked in relation to such semantic relations as "agency" and to the referential properties of names and pronouns (cf Radford. CONCLUSION In this paper I have tried to outline the basic philosophical and methodological assumptions behind Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar and the main objections to the theory from within the Marxist tradition. as we have seen. 5. Is Marxism necessarily incompatible with this view of a biologically determined language faculty? I believe it is. let us say. too.linguistics" is the view that "the form of language exists independently of its content" (ibid: 143). as a general methodological or philosophical assumption. The significance of the argument appears to be that it allows one to be a Marxist in relation to the content of ideas. not least because Marxism requires. on the other. In practice. in the grammatical theory defended by Newmeyer there is actually no such clear-cut separation of formal and semantic dimensions. If we wish to avoid this latter outcome then we must also contest the case in relation to form.

Since these issues have been discussed without consideration of the linguistic facts. biological natures without at the same time preventing us from appreciating the essentially socio-cultural determination of our activity and thinking. 31: 103-29 . then the viability of the linguistic theory is called into question. London: Lawrence and Wishart The Monist View . eg Salkie. which in philosophy means idealist. And if we cannot find at once all the answers to the structural puzzles Chomsky's theory purports to solve. Moscow: Progress. pp13-15 Bakhurst. 1991).G Plekhanov (1961) "The Development of the Monist View of History". If we judge this ideological framework to be untenable.F Engels (1941) Dialectics of Nature. like Chomsky's Martian. Vol 1. D (1986) 'Thought. the assumptions Chomsky makes. Studies in Soviet Thought. Vol 1. London: Lawrence & Wishart. One could counter by saying that the theory of innate linguistic universals is far from forcing itself on the impartial scientific investigator through the sheer weight of empirical evidence (as implied by. in K Marx and F Engels Selected Works. Marxism & Psychology Index Bibilography Dialectics . the case I have made will undoubtedly be insufficient to impress those who find Chomsky's technical arguments more persuasive.due to our material. pp 542-782 Theses . As we have seen. one must already have made some powerful assumptions about the nature of humanity and of human mental activity to be willing to accept the formalist methodology as well as the innatist conclusions of Chomskyan linguistics. on which his whole research programme rests. in Selected Philosophical Works. we would do better to be cautiously sceptical about the data than to be bounced into embracing a set of assumptions which have devastating consequences for the human sciences. are biological determinist. On the contrary. Speech and the Genesis of Meaning: On the 50th Anniversary of Vygotsky's "Myshienie i rech"'.K Marx (1969) "Theses on Feuerbach".

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J V (ed) (1981a) The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. Mikhailov. 1985a. Wertsch. J V (ed) (1985b) Culture. 1978.Wertsch.b. 1981.1991). Communication and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives.1990. Keith Green. and Gill Musson. Summer 1991. J V (1985a) Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. 4 I am referring here. 1981a. to the work of L S Vygotsky (eg 1962. firstly. Luria. 1977. 3 See Chomsky (1987a) for a succinct and readable account of his approach to language and mind. 1977a. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press Wertsch. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Peter Jones 5 January 1994 Footnotes 1 I would like to thank the following friends and colleagues for their critical comments and/or encouragement: Terry Moore. Jill Le Bihan. 2 T H Huxley.b. 1981) as well as to more recent work broadly within that tradition within the former USSR and in the West (eg llyenkov. J V (1981b) 'The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology: An Introduction'. An early version of part of this paper was given in a workshop at the "Realism and the Human Sciences" conference at Sussex University. 1978) and close associates (eg Leontiev. in Desmond and Moore (1991). New York: ME Sharpe Wertsch. 1991).b. in Wertsch (ed) Wertsch. 1986. Some of the key issues in this paper are discussed at greater length in Jones (1982. Bakhurst. 1980. .

Engels (Dialectics). 7 There is no time here to give a full account of the Marxist critique of empiricism. 1979).1988.5 This view of language acquisition as biological growth produces some rather interesting and provocative comparisons. Plekanov (The Monist View) and llyenkov (1982). however. stressing that these comparisons are no mere analogies. therefore. that those people who have racist. Such attitudes are not. sexist or pro-slavery views are insane or suffering from some kind of mental dysfunction (Chomsky. perhaps. 6 Chomsky seems to imply. 1991). likens the acquisition of grammatical competence to the production of antibodies in the immune system. known as the method of the ascent from the abstract to the concrete (on this. The main texts to consult on this are. cf Bakhurst. suggests that grammars as conceived in the Chomskyan paradigm are "about as social and no more social than infectious diseases". for example. the latter developing at length an account of the Marxist "method of cognition". . Pateman (1987: 92). Lightfoot (1989). considered as socially produced but as stemming from disordered individual brains.