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End of the Revolution
FEBRUARY 28, 2002

John R. Searle New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky Cambridge University Press, 230 pp., $60.00; $20.00 (paper) 1. Almost three decades ago I reviewed in these pages a striking development in the study of language that I called “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics.” 1 After such a long time it would seem appropriate to assess the results of the revolution. This article is not by itself such an assessment, because to do an adequate job one would require more knowledge of what happened in linguistics in these years than I have, and certainly more than is exhibited by Chomsky’s new book. But this much at least we can say. Judged by the objectives stated in the original manifestoes, the revolution has not succeeded. Something else may have succeeded, or may eventually succeed, but the goals of the original revolution have been altered and in a sense abandoned. I think Chomsky would say that this shows not a failure of the original project but a redefinition of its goals in ways dictated by new discoveries, and that such redefinitions are typical of ongoing scientific research projects. The research project of the revolution was to work out for each natural language a set of syntactical rules that could “generate” all the sentences of that language. The sense in which the rules could generate the infinite number of sentences of the language is that any speaker, or even a machine, that followed the rules would produce sentences of the language, and if the rules are complete, could produce the potentially infinite number of its sentences. The rules require no interpretation and they do more than just generate patterns. Applied mechanically, they are capable of generating the infinite number of sentences of the language. Syntax was regarded as the heart of linguistics and the project was supposed to transform linguistics into a rigorous science. A “grammar,” in the technical sense used by linguists, is a theory of a language, and such theories were called “generative

that nouns can be “woman. the sentence The man hit the ball. S ! NP + VP VP ! V + NP NP ! Det + N N ! man. determiners can be “the. To account for this ambiguity it seems. Thus. that a verb phrase can consist of a verb plus a noun phrase and that a noun phrase can be composed of a “determiner” plus a noun.” “ball. that we have to suppose that the sentence is the surface expression of two different . Such rules can be represented formally in the theory as a set of instructions to rewrite a symbol on the left side as the symbols on the right side. verbs can be “see. Thus.” “man. throw… Det ! a. Chomsky argued. woman.” “chair”…. or the chicken is ready for something to eat it. ball… V ! hit.” The sentence can mean either the chicken is ready to eat something. the… This small fragment of an English grammar would be able to generate. see.” Stated informally. for example. the sentence as a whole is syntactically ambiguous depending on whether “chicken” is the subject or the object of “eat.” “hit. some rules of English are that a sentence can be composed of a noun phrase plus a verb phrase.grammars. because some sentences require that a rule apply to an element not just in virtue of its form. the history of how it was derived.” “throw”…. for example. Chomsky argued that such rules are inadequate to account for the complexities of actual human languages like English. Such rules are sometimes called “rewrite rules” or “phrase structure rules” because they determine the elementary phrase structure of the sentence. in the sentence The chicken is ready to eat even though the words are not ambiguous. but in virtue of how it got that form.” “a”….

structures. Chomsky’s answer was that the surface variety of languages concealed an underlying structure common to all human languages. or deep. one passive. In the example of the chicken above. are not rules we can consciously follow when we acquire or use language. and Chomsky’s version of generative grammar was often called “transformational grammar” because of the argument for the necessity of transformational rules. It was a beautiful theory. The innate mechanism in the brain that enables us to learn language is so constituted that it embodies the rules of UG. the phrase structure rules determined the “deep structure” of the sentence. something that could be uttered. Small children pick up a highly competent knowledge of a language even though they get no formal instruction and the utterances they hear are limited and often not even grammatical. the transformational rules converted deep structure into surface structure. one active. but it seems reasonable enough) was that languages were too various to be accounted for by a single brain mechanism. the bearer of meaning. Such rules are called transformational rules. This common structure is determined. by an innate set of rules of Universal Grammar (UG). given that a normal infant will acquire a remarkably complex system of rules at a very early age with no systematic teaching and on the basis of impoverished and even defective stimuli. such as the rule for forming passive sentences from active sentences. and those rules. But the effort to obtain sets of such rules that could generate all and only the sentences of a natural language failed. But seen from outside a striking feature of the failure is that in Chomsky’s later work even the apparently most well-substantiated rules. have been quietly given up. The relation between “John loves Mary” and “Mary is loved by John” seemed elegantly explained by a transformational rule that would convert the first into the second. The traditional objection to this “innateness hypothesis” (Chomsky always objected to this term. the sentence I have quoted. Another feature of the early days was the conviction that human beings were born with an innate brain capacity to acquire natural human languages. I think the official reason for the abandonment of the research program was that the sheer complexity of the different rule systems for the different languages was hard to square with the idea that they are really all variations on a single underlying set . and two deep structures. according to Chomsky. The sentence is the result of applying rules that transform two different underlying.underlying sentences. In the classical versions of the theory. Why? I don’t know. This traditional view—it goes back at least to the seventeenth century—seemed inescapable. there is one surface structure. he wrote. Apparently nobody thinks that anymore. though I will suggest some explanations later.

We can think of the initial state of the faculty of language as a fixed network connected to a switch box. I. conception of language: the infant is indeed born with an innate language faculty. as well as in other works (most importantly. we should be able literally to deduce Swahili from one choice of settings. Japanese from another. had been given to the idea of rules so deeply buried in unconscious brain processes that they were not even the sort of things that could be consciously followed. including the book under review. precisely to the extent that the mechanism was innate and applied automatically. when they are set another way. Chomsky advances the following. There were.. Each possible human language is identified as a particular setting of the switches—a setting of parameters. we have Swahili.e. the network is constituted of the principles of language. made up of—rules. rather it is an organ in the brain that operates according to certain principles. Just as a child does not follow a rule of “Universal Visual Grammar” that prohibits it from seeing the infrared or ultraviolet parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. in technical terminology. I also argued that. but it is not made up of any set of rules. we have Japanese. a number of objections to Chomsky’s proposals. The possibilities of vision and language are already built into the structure of the brain and the rest of the nervous system. There are no rules of universal grammar of the sort that Chomsky claimed. argued that the innate mechanism that enables the child to acquire language could not be “constituted” by—i. while the switches are the options to be determined by experience. much more radical. Chomsky attempted to answer my arguments in a number of places. If the research program succeeds. The Minimalist Program 2 ). In his recent book. I wrote. so the child does not follow rules of Universal Linguistic Grammar that prohibit it from acquiring certain sorts of languages but not others. the chief being that no sense had been given to the idea that there is a set of rules that no one could possibly consciously follow: if you can’t follow them consciously then you can’t follow them unconsciously either. and so on through the languages . I argued this on a number of grounds. for one. When the switches are set one way. No sense. But in the case of UG he has given up the idea that there are rules of universal grammar.of rules of UG. Chomsky writes. it was empty to suppose that its application consisted in rule-governed behavior. because in an important sense it does not so much acquire as produce any possible human language in an appropriate environment. This organ is no longer thought of as a device for acquiring language. as might be expected.

In an important sense there aren’t even any languages. then. as it has been called. verb phrases in Swahili. French. for example the transformational rules I earlier described. What happens. rejected the concept of rule and grammatical construction entirely: there are no rules for forming relative clauses in Hindi. 3 Now he has given all that up.” “I” for internal. and so on. The computational procedures map strings of lexical elements onto a sound system at one end and a meaning system at the other. [my italics] According to this view. but it is pretty clear that he thinks the original project of thirty-five years ago has failed. The child does not learn English. respectively. they are purely formal and syntactical. “might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language. individual. passives in Japanese. For years he has told us that the interest of the study of language was that it was a “window on the mind” and that from it we could identify a great many of the mind’s properties.” The overall conception of language that emerges is this: a language consists of a lexicon (a list of elements such as words) and a set of computational procedures. its experiences of English set the switches for English and out comes English. but we should bear in mind that all of this is pure syntax and completely internalist. As Chomsky says. 4 A neutral scientist. They have something like the status of “terrestrial mammal” or “household pet. Languages are neither learned nor acquired. All each person has is what he calls an “I-language. One of his favorites: the mind uses “structure-dependent” rules. to the rules of grammar? Chomsky writes that This “Principles and Parameters” approach. with differences only at the . Language is a specific faculty with no general mental implications. But the procedures themselves don’t represent anything. Chomsky is eager to emphasize that the principles and parameters approach is a tentative research project and not an established result. hence no structuredependent rules. a “Martian scientist” in Chomsky’s thought experiment. and intensional. the possibility of all human languages is already in the human brain before birth. rather. useful for informal description perhaps but with no theoretical standing. The computational procedure maps an array of lexical choices into a pair of symbolic objects…. or Chinese. The familiar grammatical constructions are taken to be taxonomic artifacts.that humans can acquire. and there are no rules. The elements of these symbolic objects can be called “phonetic” and “semantic” features. In an important sense they are already in the “mind/brain” at birth.

So the scientist’s first step is to compare our languages with her own. The scientist will find that we all speak the same language. and all of us would still have them even if carburetors had never been invented and bureaucrats had never existed. Chomsky speculates.margins. indeed children born to the cave men twenty thousand years ago had these concepts. his. and that the child’s task is to discover their labels. by figuring out how to translate her expressions into English and English expressions into Martian. No language. no science. First. the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities. scientist or otherwise. So why not a huge stock of innate concepts. literally millions. the only part of language that depends on stored conventions is the sounds of the words used to label the innate concepts. what was the “evidence” evidence for? Let us start with Chomsky’s idea of a neutral Martian scientist arriving on Earth and finding our languages an object of study for “natural science.” What about words and their meanings? Well. to take two examples discussed by Chomsky. is to free us of our local prejudices. on this view every human child that ever lived had at birth the concepts of “bureaucrat” and “carburetor”. Nature has provided us with the capacity to produce a huge stock. In the face of the sheer implausibility of this claim Chomsky likes to appeal to the example of the immune system.” So. any such scientist has to have a language of her. She does that as anyone. or its own. of antibodies. ready for any word we could conceivably invent? On this view. except “at the margins. say English. he said. How are they like and unlike Martian? The only way I can imagine the scientist doing this is to imagine that she learns one of our languages. Does that sound right to you? It doesn’t to me. 2. maybe all possible concepts are also in the brain and what we call learning the meaning of a word is really just learning a label for a concept we have always had.” and that the I-language with its variations is the proper object of study for natural science.” The point of imagining a Martian. “However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts. . What happened to all that evidence? If the rules are all thrown out. and that we even had evidence about which rules they were following. would. even antibodies against antigens that have been artificially synthesized. For all those years he was telling us that we had overwhelming evidence that speakers of a language were following certain types of rules. To people who take the study of language seriously I think all this ought to seem more disquieting than it does to Chomsky.

and. or Japanese. the human brain with its specific language components. Is there really only one language on earth? Not in her experience. or a word. or other element of a language only relative to some set of users of the language. The distinction. Where. They are creations of human beings. And the same sequence repeats itself when she tries to converse in Arabic. All the same. between the so-called “natural” sciences and the “social” sciences is based on a more fundamental distinction in ontology. marriage. Worse yet. mass. The point has to be stated precisely. Natural sciences like physics. “Juoksentelisinkohan. Knowledge of English is not much use to her when she is confronted with monolingual Finnish speakers. translates into English as “I wonder if I should run around a little bit without a particular destination. Of course. rough as it is. then. do language and linguistics fit in? I think it is obvious that a group of letters or sounds can be called a word or a sentence of English or Finnish only relative to the attitudes of English and Finnish speakers. the point remains: a group of letters or sounds is a sentence. yet I cannot understand some currently spoken dialects of English. those whose existence depends on human attitudes. Pick up a text of Chaucer and you will find sentences that are no longer a part of English. But the actual social organizations they .Let us suppose she is so good at it that soon she is bilingual. between those features of the world that exist independently of human attitudes. political science. and sociology are about features of the world that are what they are because we think that is what they are. and you can produce English sentences that were not part of Chaucerian English. between those features of the world that are observer-independent and those that are observer-relative or observer-dependent. on the other. There is a distinction. like force. For example she will eventually find out that the Finnish single-word sentence. and biology are about features of nature that exist regardless of what we think. property. on the one hand. Then she will discover an interesting fact. she will soon discover that language is not an object of “natural” science and could not be. Analogously humans have a natural capacity to socialize and form social groups with other humans. There is indeed an object of study for natural science. and government. Swahili. You can see this quite clearly in the case of linguistic changes. and photosynthesis. But the actual languages that humans learn and speak are not in that way natural objects. I am a native English speaker. like money.” So to learn Finnish she has to start all over again. though they once were. Chomsky is right to insist that “English” is not a well-defined notion. gravitational attraction. chemistry. that the word has all sorts of looseness both now and historically. and social sciences like economics. to put it in very simple terms.” appropriately pronounced.

and government. marriage. require systems of rules (conventions. But why did the attempt by linguists to get descriptively and explanatorily adequate generative grammars fail? I said I did not know. or private property). Being a sentence of English is not a natural fact like being a mountain or a waterfall. without any need for interpretation and without any “other things being equal” conditions. like the rules of driving. observer. i. as now Chomsky tries to do.dependent existence. US congressmen. property. property. chairs. only relative to the attitudes people have within systems of rules. 5 The second class. but they create the very possibility of such activities. and those like money. which function the way they do because we assign to them a certain status and with that status a function that can only be performed because of the collective acceptance of the entities as having a certain status and with that status a function. and tables. the status functions. it is relative to the observer. those like knives.e. But if so. The model was based on the formation rules for . There are no purely physical properties that are sufficient to determine all and only sentences of English (or money. accepted procedures. etc. and government. a sentence of English. Something is money. years ago.” 6 Such rules do not merely regulate existing activities. baseball. according to a set of precisely statable steps. are constituted by certain sorts of rules that. They wanted rules of a very unrealistic kind. There is a deep reason why languages like English or Finnish must be rule-governed. like money. language. but here is one hypothesis. married couples. languages change or die out.. That language is constituted by rules cannot be legitimately denied. since all these are physical phenomena? Because the physical phenomena satisfy these descriptions only relative to some set of conventions and of people’s attitudes operating within the conventions. Functional phenomena that are relative to an observer divide into two kinds. on the theoretical ground that it is hard to square with a certain conception of the innate language faculty. baseball games.. etc. which can function as such because of their physical structure. there must be some principles by which we regard some strings as sentences of English and others not. Human languages. But why not. principles.create. such as governments and corporations. The sentences and other elements only exist as part of the language because we regard them as such. they are human creations and have an observer. As their speakers develop or disappear. Language is in an important sense a matter of convention.independent phenomena. are not natural. They wanted rules for sentence formation that could be stated without any reference to the meanings of words or sentences and they wanted rules that generated sentences algorithmically.). I baptized “constitutive rules.

seeing.” and “desires” but you can’t turn sentences into the passive voice with “weighs” and “resembles. You can formulate a transformational rule that converts sentences of the form NP1 verbs NP2 into NP2 is verbed by NP1.artificially created logical and mathematical systems. So you can passivize sentences with “loves. hitting.” “sees. Why not? I think any child recognizes that the passive does not work in these cases because of the meanings of the words. The history of the passive transformation is illustrative.” Perhaps in other languages sentences with verbs synonymous to these . These do not yield One hundred and sixty pounds is weighed by John or Eisenhower is resembled by John. Thus it converts John loves Mary into Mary is loved by John. But what about sentences like John weighs one hundred and sixty pounds or John resembles Eisenhower. and desiring can be. But human social rules are almost never like that.” “hits. Resembling and weighing are not things that can be done by someone to someone or something in the way that loving.

It is as if he supposed that learning the meanings of these words would have to consist in having one’s nerve endings stimulated by passing bureaucrats and carburetors. you know that something has gone radically wrong.permit conversion into the passive. Natural human phenomena almost never have rules like that. bureaus. any more than seeing something is a matter of following rules of Universal Visual Grammar. precisely because the aim was to obtain rigorous. There are indeed innate mechanisms in the human brain for acquiring and using language. and there will in general be an “other things being equal” clause understood in the application of the rule. A child does not learn a set of discrete concepts. and a host of other things. but learns to master a culture. it looks like the meanings must be innate. This argument is called the argument from the “poverty of the stimulus” and it occurs over and over in Chomsky’s work. a culture that includes governments. The correct picture seems to me this. it is not difficult for him to understand the word “bureaucrat. and such rules make no reference to what the entities were to be used for. But a more realistic conception is the following: in order to understand. employment. for example. but the effort to find generative grammars for these languages is bound to fail. When Chomsky suggests that the concepts expressed by words like “carburetor” and “bureaucrat” must be innately known by every child. like any other organ. or axiomatic set theory. do not. and learning a language is not a matter of following rules of Universal Grammar.” a child has to be introduced to a culture. strict. That is why we have languages and our close relatives. He has a very unrealistic conception of learning. The rules were to be stated without any reference to the meanings or the uses of the sentences generated. The proponents of generative grammar required explanations using only syntactical rules—no meanings allowed—operating on syntactical entities. the word “bureaucrat. The mechanisms work according to certain principles. There will often be exceptions to a rule. The point is not that I have given a correct explanation. powers. but rather that this sort of explanation was not permissible in generative grammar. the chimpanzees. there will typically be semantic considerations in the formulation and application of the rule. There are indeed rules of specific languages. exceptionless rules of the sort that you get for constructing formal systems such as the predicate calculus. and that learning the meanings of the words is just a matter of applying labels to concepts the child already has.” Similar remarks could be made . and once that culture is mastered. but not in English. But it is not a matter of rules. and because there is no way such passing stimuli could ever give us the meanings of these words. departments.

which is related to the question of language.about “carburetor. you find that unconscious rules have to be the sort of things that at least could be conscious. is to claim that we are unconsciously following rules. for example. On the contrary. and there is no way you can have a concept without having many other concepts. the question of unconscious rules of human cognition. But chemical compounds are both all-or-nothing and discrete. In order to make an explanation of behavior as following rules work. If you spell out those conditions. we have a very rich explanatory apparatus that differs dramatically from the explanatory apparatus of the natural sciences. One condition of rule-guided explanations is that the rules have to be the sorts of things that one could actually follow. we need to be able to distinguish cases which are guided by a rule from cases which are merely described by a rule. 3.hand side of the road. Chomsky’s analogy with the immune system thus seems grossly inadequate. we have a mode of explanation that is quite different from saying that the car follows the rule “Force equals mass times acceleration. I can follow the rule “Drive on the right” unconsciously.” even when I am following this rule unconsciously. For concepts you can have a partial grasp of the concept. Each antibody is distinct from every other antibody. we are accepting the notion of mental causation and the attendant notions of rationality and existence of norms. The importance of this can hardly be overestimated. So. You cannot have the concept of “carburetor” or “bureaucrat” without having a great many other logically related concepts. A standard explanatory device in Chomsky’s earlier work.” This concept only makes sense within the context of some knowledge of internal combustion engines. So. one often has a partial or imperfect knowledge of a concept. The content of the rule does not just describe what is happening but plays a part in making it happen. and they are almost always systematically related to other concepts. Once you have the basic understanding of how such engines work it is not hard to understand that a carburetor is a device for mixing air and fuel. and for any antibody you either have it or you don’t. but only the first actually is a case of following a rule. I do not wish to give the impression that Chomsky’s entire book is concerned with these issues. most of the book is concerned with debates about current issues in philosophy. When we say we are following rules. I will discuss one of them. . Concepts are seldom all or nothing. if we explain my driving behavior by saying that I am following the rule “Drive on the right. and in cognitive science in general. for example. Once we have the possibility of explaining particular forms of human behavior as following rules.” Both “rules” describe what is happening. Furthermore.

according to which. and thus we can get the same results as human rule-following behavior. such as brain damage or repression. This is an absolutely crucial point at issue and I want to make it completely clear. but what exactly is the definition of computation. The stone falling off a cliff computes the function “The distance I fall has to equal half the square of gravity multiplied by the . As such it is entirely relative to the observer. If we are to think of computation in the common-sense meaning. we are to think of computations as reducing to vast sets of zeroes and ones zapping through the computer. then the unconscious rules do not meet the condition of being thinkable. for example. and in some cases. But my objection to this is that computation is not a notion of natural science like force. mass. according to which these rules are computational? On the standard definition of computation. that the child computed the meaning of the sentence we just mean that he figured it out. then there is literally no rule-following independent of an observer and we have lost the explanatory power of psychological explanation. a language consists of a lexicon plus computations. But an unconscious rule has to have the kind of content which could be consciously understood. In actual commercial computers. Commercial computers don’t literally follow rules because they do not have the mental apparatus necessary for rule-following. any system whatever can be described as performing computations. interpreted. but the difficulty about computation remains. the only reality independent of the observer consists of rapid— millions per second—transitions in complex electrical circuits. Is that how we are to think of unconscious rule-following on Chomsky’s model? Lots of zeroes and ones in the child’s head? That can hardly be right because the zeroes and ones are in the mind of the programmer. or violated. when we say. Chomsky insists that the study of language is a branch of natural science and the key notion in his new conception of language is computation. On his current view. or photosynthesis. a person may be unable to bring the rule to consciousness. For him the rules of language are “computational” rules. For a number of reasons rules may be unconscious. And so defined.but it is the sort of rule I could bring to consciousness. Computation is an abstract mathematical notion that we have found ways to implement in hardware. Chomsky’s rules do not meet that condition. So there is a dilemma: if we are to think of computational rule-following in the technical sense of reducing to binary symbols. We program the computers to behave automatically as if they were following rules. followed. in this observer-relative sense. Chomsky has now given up on the idea that there are rules of particular languages.

Chomsky has now given up on the idea that Universal Grammar is a matter of unconscious rule-following. 1. before the invention of “computing machinery” by Alan Turing and others. But he also dismisses the idea that real human languages are governed by rules. Natural processes can be interpreted or described computationally. the project is no longer natural science and the computations do not explain the phenomena but merely describe processes whose causal explanation has to be found in neurobiology. then the unconscious rules don’t meet the conditions necessary for rule-following explanations. 8 —This is the first of two articles about linguistics. June 29.” Indeed. Is it the observer-independent sense in which human beings figure things out? If so.” and “postmodernism” it is worth emphasizing that his work in linguistics is at the highest intellectual level. and so on with everything else in the world. And I expect the discussions to continue. electrical charge. In this observer-relative sense there cannot be a natural science of computation.function “The distance I fall has to equal half the square of gravity multiplied by the time I fall”: S = 1/2(gt2). as I noted above. say. I believe. ↩ . 1995. “John Searle and I have discussed these issues for some years. cannot be right. That. Chomsky says. The water flowing over a dam at the rate of one gallon per second computes the addition function 2 + 2 = 4 every four seconds. At a time when various embarrassingly incompetent accounts of language are widespread in university humanities departments under such names as “literary theory. rather it is assigned to physical processes. 1972. MIT Press. In any case. Unlike. The New York Review . I would not wish my criticisms of Chomsky to be misunderstood. 7 “computing” meant figuring something out in arithmetic or mathematics. computation is not discovered in nature. when Chomsky says that language is a matter of computation.” “deconstruction. ↩ 2. In the original definition of computation. Now. which is it? Is it the observer-relative sense of zeroes and ones? If so. In the sense in which I solve mathematical problems I really am intrinsically computing and the attribution of computational features to my conscious thought processes is not relative to an observer. In neither case do we get an account of language that is at all like natural science. and a “computer” was a person who computed.

For more on this point see John R. 31–33. 433–460. Searle. ↩ 6. ↩ 4. See "How to Derive 'Ought' from 'Is. Vol. pp. By "intensional" he means that the language is identified not by the sentences it produces (the extension) but by the means according to which they are produced (the intension).'" Philosophical Review . ↩ 7. 1975)." Mind . 43–58. ↩ 5. Vol. In principle two different I-languages might produce the same sentences. 73 (January 1964). 59 (1950). ↩ Copyright © 1963-2010 NYREV. and Dagmar Searle for criticisms of an earlier version of this article. . pp.3. Alan Turing. pp. All rights reserved. Inc. Reflections on Language (Pantheon. 1995). ↩ 8. I wish to thank Stephen Neale. Barry Smith. "Computing Machinery and Intelligence. The Construction of Social Reality (Free Press.

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