Sunday, August 30, 2015

I first criticized the "Innateness Hypothesis" in 1967, in a paper I collected in Mind, Language and Reality, vol. 2 of my 1975 Philosophical Papers.  That paper was delivered in a debate with my friend, Noam Chomsky, and we have been debating the issue ever since. The following remarks will be included in a lecture I will give via Skype to a conference in Mumbai in October.
Innate language?
 I think it is worth while to say again, here, why I reject the “innateness hypothesis”. Since the most famous advocate of that hypothesis is Noam Chomsky, I will use his version as my target.
The decisive objection, in my view, is that the “universal grammar” that Chomsky postulates has to provide for all possible meanings. Chomsky likens his hypothetical “language organ” to a switch box, and he tells us that when the switches in a child’s brain are appropriately set, “the child has command of a particular language and knows … that a particular expression has a particular meaning and so forth.”[1]  If all possible terms were definable from a number of basic terms that might have been selected for by evolution (such as the logical positivists’ “observation terms”) , this would be compatible with Darwinian evolution.. But Chomsky certainly rejects logical positivism, and he has suggested no alternative account of what the basic terms of “mentalese” might be. Nor has he ever told  us what mechanism could have endowed the brains of primitive men and women with terms with such ‘particular meanings’ as “quantum potential”  and “macroeconomic”, or with terms by means of which they could be defined, if, indeed, there are more elementary terms in which this could be done.
I am well aware that  both Chomsky and Fodor reject Darwinian evolution. (Since that theory is highly successful, and constitutes the beating heart of population genetics, to mention just one part of biology, I would think that is already reason to dismiss their talk of innate language.) Chomsky apparently thinks that the “language organ” appeared in the brain serendipitously, but that the makes the story even crazier. The story that the hundreds of thousands of terms in human languages, and the millions of terms in possible human languages, all correspond to terms in a master vocabulary of ‘Mentalese’, or to a a set of "switch"-settings, supplied to us by serendipity is precisely analogous to supposing that monkeys typed out Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. (Of course, to reject that story is not to deny that some aspects of language might be innate; that would not be incompatible with evolution.)

[1] Chomsky, Language and the Problems of Knowledge (Cambridge,MA, MIT Press, 1988), pp. 62–63.