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Cartesian LinguisticsReview - Cartesian Linguistics
A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought
by Noam Chomsky
Cambridge University Press, 2008
Review by Christina Behme
Sep 1st 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 36)

Cartesian Linguistics was originally published with the purpose of deepening "our understanding of the nature of language and the mental processes and structures that underlies its use and acquisition"  (Chomsky, 1966, p. ix). When I heard that a third edition (2009) had followed so shortly after the second (2002) I wondered about several things. First, would it finally address the long standing criticisms (e.g. Miel, 1969; Lakoff, 1969; Aarsleff, 1970, 1971; Percival, 1972; Gipper&Schmitter, 1979) regarding the accuracy of tracing the history of Chomsky's linguistic theorizing to alleged Cartesian antecedents? Second, would it eliminate the 'polemic elements' that "elevate 'Cartesian' approaches to the study of language and ...depreciate [all other approaches]" (Aarsleff, 1971, p. 570)? And third, would it be more than just another virtually unchanged reprint of Chomsky's 40+ year old work? Clearly, these questions have been answered, albeit rather differently from what I had hoped for. In this review I will focus on these three points and have little to say about the content of Cartesian Linguistics. This unusual approach is justified by the facts that (i) the main work, which is reprinted here virtually unchanged, has been reviewed extensively (e.g., Lakoff, 1969; Aarsleff, 1970; Percival, 1972, Bracken, 1982, 1984; Barsky, 1997; Sharbani, 2003) so it is pointless to add yet another descriptive review and (ii) much of the original content has undergone thorough theoretical reformulations (e.g., Chomsky 1980, 1986, 1995, 2002, 2005). Therefore, I want to focus on what has not been said about the Cartesian connection before and on what is new in the third edition (McGilvray's introduction).


Undoubtedly, Chomsky's methodology as a historian is questionable. First, as editor McGilvray explains in a footnote (p. 109f), Chomsky advocates what could be called the 'selective-history-approach' (SHA) : "One might say that I'm looking at history ... from the point of view of … an art lover who wants to look at the 17th century to find in it things that are of particular value and that obtain part of their value … because of the perspective with which he approaches them." (Chomsky, 1971). And, in case a critic might still complain that art-lovers frequently agree on which pieces by an artist are worth collecting, Chomsky added later what I would call the 'rewrite-history-approach' (RHA): "The first [question], the actual sequence of events, is not in itself very interesting in my opinion; it's a story of chance events and personal accidents, accidents of personal history.  The second question, namely, how it should have happened, is far more interesting and important, and that certainly has never been told or even investigated." (Chomsky, 1997, emphasis added). Combined SHA and RHA allow Chomsky to pick and choose what he considers of value in Descartes' (and other rationalist/romantic predecessors') writings and to transform other passages into 'what Descartes/Rationalists should have written'. This might seem to justify the artistic freedom Chomsky applies to history. However, since Chomsky advocates this approach to history as superior, he cannot complain if someone else (a behaviourist, say) uses the same method (choosing some suitable bits from Descartes and re-writing some other passages) in support of her claim that Descartes really was foreshadowing her view and using this as justification for calling her linguistics "Cartesian". In the process it becomes entirely irrelevant what Descartes said. He has been relegated to the sidelines of a battle that (were he still alive) he might watch in utter bewilderment. 

When we allow Descartes to speak on his own behalf it becomes dubious that Chomsky's work can be traced back to a coherent rationalist tradition of which Descartes was one important founder. On the one hand we find statements from Descartes that appear to support a very different judgment regarding his views of language acquisition:


When for example on hearing that the word "K-I-N-G" signifies supreme power, I commit this to my memory and then subsequently recall the meaning by means of my memory, it must be intellectual memory that makes this possible For there is no relationship between the four letters (K-I-N-G), which would enable me to derive the meaning from the letters. It is intellectual memory that enables me to recall what the letters stand for (CSM III, pp. 336-7)

Here Descartes' emphasis is on associationist learning of the sort usually associated with empiricism, not on innate knowledge (for several similar examples see Behme, 2009). Similarly, there is little indication that Descartes would support a domain-specific language faculty. For him minds are indivisible: "we cannot understand a mind except as being indivisible. For we cannot conceive of half a mind" (CSM II, p. 9). Furthermore, Descartes states that our knowledge depends only on a purely spiritual power which is "one single is one and the same power. ...According to its different functions... the same power is called either pure intellect or imagination or memory or sense perception" (CSM I, p.42, emphasis added). Finally, when we look closely at some of the passages cited by Chomsky, it becomes evident that Descartes focuses not only on creativity of language use but also on behaviorist criteria for testing whether or not an organism is intelligent. For example "men born deaf and dumb...usually invent their own signs to make themselves understood by those who being regularly in their company have the time to learn their language" (CSMK, III, p. 303; cited without reference on p. 60 of CL). Here, clearly, the emphasis seems to be on communication because the success criterion is "being understood" (for more similar examples see Behme, 2009).

On the other hand, the fundamental distinction between human and animal communication is brought out equally forcefully by John Locke

          Brutes abstract not. If it may be doubted whether beasts compound and enlarge their ideas that way to any degree; this, I think, I may be positive in,- that the power of abstracting is not at all in them; and that the having of general ideas is that which puts a perfect distinction betwixt man and brutes, and is an excellency which the faculties of brutes do by no means attain to. For it is evident we observe no footsteps in them of making use of general signs for universal ideas; from which we have reason to imagine that they have not the faculty of abstracting, or making general ideas, since they have no use of words, or any other general signs. (Locke, Book 2, Chapter XI, 10)

And in the writings of another empiricist we find a more succinct expression of the belief in language universals than in Descartes' writings:

         Among different languages, even where we suspect the least connexion or communication, it is found, that the words, expressive of ideas, the most compounded, do yet nearly correspond to each other: a certain proof that the simple ideas, comprehended in the compound ones were bound together by some universal principle, which had an equal influence on all mankind (Hume, 1777/1958, p. 22-3)

Obviously, from these few examples we cannot conclude that there was no specifically and uniquely rationalist linguistic tradition. However, they suggest that there was a much richer and more diverse tradition of linguistic thought in the Cartesian and Romantic period and that the divide between rationalists and empiricists was by no means as 'hard and fast' as suggested by Chomsky. Probably, then, renaming of Cartesian Linguistics into Chomskian Linguistics would be appropriate. This would allow keeping the familiar CL abbreviation, avoid further debates about issues that are only tangentially important to Chomsky's project and also meet a requirement that Chomsky applies to others when he cautions that we need to adhere to agreed upon conventional usage of terms because "description in [certain] terms is incorrect if these terms have anything like their technical meanings, and highly misleading otherwise" (p. 65). Last but not least it would give credit to whom credit is due: Noam Chomsky.

     Undoubtedly, there is more to Cartesian Linguistics than the historic aspect. Even if it is neither a good history book nor an accurate depiction of a singular Cartesian or even rationalist linguistic research strategy it still could be a valuable contribution. This much has been suggested: "[Chomsky] was just providing a source book for transformational linguists to see how their work manifested important philosophical currents ... Judged as spade work in a neglected (indeed, rejected) area of language philosophy in order to inform current practice, it's very fine indeed, even thrilling" (Harris, 1998). Can we confirm Harris' claim? Obviously, Harris refers to the 1966 edition; what has been an informative 'even thrilling' source book then may not be of equal value 43 years later. Is Cartesian Linguistics like wine getting better over the years or is it more like bread becoming stale, maybe even moldy? In other words, can and should it still 'inform current practice'?

Editor McGilvray resolutely attempts to steer us to the wine rack by providing a 52-page introduction (massive, considering that CL itself is only 50 pages short). Unfortunately, this introduction re-introduces the polemics of earlier editions with a vengeance. Beginning with the definitions of the competing linguistic research strategies we find the battle lines drawn: "Those who Chomsky thinks can plausibly deal with the issues that linguistic creativity poses for the mind he calls "rationalists"; those who cannot, he calls empiricists" (p. 1). According to McGilvray this divide separates the 'good guys' from the 'bad guys' not only in regard to a correct understanding of the nature of language but extends to the areas of language acquisition, language evolution, determinism/free will, externalism/internalism and even politics, education and arts. For the purpose of this review I will focus on only two out of these: computational models of language acquisition and language evolution. This choice is motivated by the newly emerging biolinguitsic enterprise (Di Sciullo & Boeckx, in press) and recent publications in Cartesian biolinguistics (Boeckx, 2009, in press).

McGilvray is anything but tentative when he describes the success of the 'rationalist-romantics' (RR)   and the failure of the empiricist research programs. RR researchers are innatist, internalist, and nativist  and this combination allows them to account for 'everyday linguistic creativity' which is acquired by children at an early age (four years according to McGilvray, p. 7). Innate concepts alone can account for the uniform acquisition of language across human populations in spite of poverty of stimulus facts, or so McGilvray claims. On this account the child does not learn language but accesses what is innately available to her: "...the mind's concepts and the way of putting them together in language and thought are largely innate" (p.6), "the only way to explain the early appearance of creativity is to assume innateness of both concepts and combinatorial principles" (p. 7). "Innateness provides a basis for understanding one another even at a young age" (Ibid.) and again "concepts and language are somehow implicit in some kind of natural 'mechanism' of the human body-mind, under (partial) control of the genome and the course of development it controls" (p. 18f). McGilvray asserts that Chomsky's beautiful theory is simple, objective, descriptively and explanatorily adequate. It accommodates the science of language to biology and makes steady progress. What else could one ask for? Maybe an example or two for exactly what the progress is would have been helpful. But, seemingly, this is not a reasonable request. Instead of boring the reader with such trivialities McGilvray moves to his demonstration that "empiricists seem to have added little [to the study of language since Locke] ... like Locke's efforts, theirs generally fail to meet the conditions of adequacy of a naturalistic theory" (p. 20, original emphasis). McGilvray claims that this failure is not merely contingent but necessary because the models used by connectionists (the only empiricists he considers) are inadequate: "[Connectionists'] claim that the mind is made up of 'neural nets' is innocuous; it is their claim about the initial state of the net (undifferentiated, approximating Locke's 'blank slate') and their view about how this net gets its 'content' (by training, learning) that place them firmly in the empiricist camp" (p. 110). Obviously, the 'blank slate' view is indeed problematic but McGilvray does not provide any examples of connectionists and/or empiricists who hold such an extreme view. My survey of recent literature found no evidence for such positions. It revealed, instead, that several researchers have explicitly or implicitly rejected completely unconstrained 'blank slate' views of language acquisition (e.g., Hare & Elman, 1995; Elman et al., 1996; Redington & Chater, 1998; MacWhinney, 2000; McDermott, 2001; Zolan et al, 2005; Edelman & Waterfall, 2007; Christiansen & Chater, 2008; Chater & Christiansen, 2009*).

To demonstrate the inadequacy of connectionist modeling McGilvray does provide at least one specific example. On page 23 he quotes from a personal letter Chomsky sent him: "Elman's famous paper - the most quoted in [cognitive science,]... - on learning nested dependencies. Two problems: (1) the method works just as well on crossing dependencies, so doesn't bear on why language near universally has nested but not crossing dependencies. (2) His program works up to depth two, but fails totally on depth three." However, no reference to the 'famous paper' could be found in McGilvray's bibliography. Further, a direct inquiry to Elman indicated that no such paper existed. Elman suggested 'most cited' might refer to his 1990 paper 'Finding structure in time' and he sent me references to a couple of papers he co-authored that deal with recursion. None of them dealt with crossing dependencies or 'total failure of models on depth three'. Undaunted, I contacted Chomsky and McGilvray to obtain information about the elusive paper. Chomsky replied immediately that he had made reference to this paper in a personal letter to his editor and that he would attempt to provide me with a reference. Later he sent me reference to four papers (Elman, 1990, 1991, 1993; Christiansen & Chater, 1999) and a book (Elman et al., 1996). None of these fully fits his description. Additionally, McGilvray provided reference to two different papers (Weckerly & Elman, 1992; Morris, Cottrell, & Elman, 2000), again not fully fitting the description. While I appreciate the assistance I wish the team had spend a fraction of this effort on checking this reference before the new edition of Cartesian Linguistics went in print. In the process they might have discovered that the far-reaching claims that are based on this one reference are unsupported. But making this discovery is left to the reader. McGilvray suggests that "with common sense concepts, and especially language, there is no reason to take empiricist speculations at all seriously" (p. 23). He never tells us what exactly these speculations amount to. Instead, he continues "No one finds children subjected to the training procedures for concepts or language explored by connectionists, for example" (Ibid.). When I confronted some computational and experimental language researchers with this claim they asked whose work was referenced. But no example supported McGilvray's 'for example' and, given the trouble I encountered with the alleged Elman reference, that might have been a good thing. Again, I easily found evidence suggesting that researchers are paying close attention to the conditions under which children acquire language (e.g., Morgan, & Demuth, 1996; Cartwright & Brent, 1997; Redington et al., 1998; Christiansen et al., 1998; Hausser, 1999; Lewis & Elman, 2001; Christiansen & Chater, 2001; Sagae et al., 2004; Botvinick & Plaut, 2004; Zolan et al., 2005; Perruchet & Pacton, 2006; Brodsky et al. 2007; Edelman & Waterfall, 2007; MacWhinney, 2008, Monaghan & Christiansen, 2008; Christiansen & MacDonald, 2009; Bod, 2009; Perruchet & Tilman, in press). There is a similar problem with McGilvray's assertions that "dogma, not reason drives the empiricist research strategy" (p. 23) and that "empiricist efforts like these make no contribution to sciences of the mind" (p. 24). What is upsetting to computational and experimental language researchers is not that their work is being critiqued but that the critique is seemingly not based on knowledge of their work but on the a priori assumption that "there is no reason to take empiricist speculations seriously at all" (p. 23).

     The situation regarding language evolution closely mirrors the foregoing. Again, we find McGilvray's enthusiastic support for the Chomskian hypothesis that "language could have come about as the result of a single mutation...[as] side result ... of a modification in some other system. It must, though, be 'saltational' - happen in a single jump - for otherwise we would have to suppose that language developed over millennia, and there is no evidence for that" (p.34). To understand why McGilvray calls this somewhat controversial account 'naturalistic' we need to remember that, like Chomsky, he denies that communication is an important function of language. It is from this perspective that he assumes that only Merge is in need of an evolutionary explanation (see also Chomsky, 2007; Berwick & Chomsky, forthcoming, for a defense of this view). When discussing language evolution, McGilvray does not refer to any competing accounts which may leave the reader with the impression that there are none. This is far from the truth. On the one hand, we find specific criticisms of the single jump saltational evolution hypothesis (e.g., Pinker & Bloom, 1990; Deacon, 1997; Studdert-Kennedy, 1998; Botha, 1999; Briscoe, 2003; MacWhinney, 2005, 2009; Arbib, 2005a; Lieberman, 2006; Deacon, 2007; Hurford & Dediu, 2007; Christiansen & Chater, 2008; Tomasello, 2008; Arbib 2008). On the other hand, the last decades have seen a wealth of work regarding language evolution resulting in numerous suggestions that are supported by extensive theorizing (Deacon, 1997; Dunbar, 1997; Knight et al., 2000; Botha, 2001, 2003; Wray, 2002; Givon & Molle, 2002; Christiansen & Kirby, 2003; Wildgen, 2004; Arbib, 2005b; Burling, 2005; Johannson, 2005; Tallerman, 2005; Lyon et al., 2007; Hurford & Dediu, 2007; Hurford, 2007; Tomasello, 2008), computational modeling (Briscoe, 1999; Christiansen et al., 2002; Zolan et al., 2005; Chater et al., 2009), comparative empirical research of different aspects of language components (Deacon, 2000, 2004; Arbib, 2005a; Arbib et al. 2008; Tomasello, 2008; Botha, 2009) and of language related brain evolution (e.g., Deacon, 1997; 2000; 2007; Lieberman, 2002, 2007; Aboitiz et al., 2006; Arbib, 2007). It is not for me to judge whether or not all these accounts of language evolution are correct. But it seems they deserve to be at least considered and, if found problematic, exposed to targeted criticism. Unfortunately, none of this is done in the introduction to Cartesian Linguistics.

Given the richness and diversity of the work completed by 'empiricists' that has been largely neglected by RR theorizers I think it is high time to close a chapter of linguistic warfare (Harris, 1993) and turn the page towards an inclusive collaboration in the exciting quest for a better understanding of the nature of human language. Those who believe that cooperation with 'the other side' is impossible may want to remember that 25 years ago only very few people believed that the Cold War would ever end but by now it has become a distant memory. It is my hope that the future of linguistic research will be equally 'peaceful'. When researching this review I encountered incredible helpfulness on both sides of the 'Cartesian divide' and consider this an encouraging sign that progress towards a critical dialogue can be made. Read on its own Cartesian Linguistics is too one-sided to make a substantial contribution to a more inclusive study of language and it can no longer inform current practices. But it could become an excellent course material for upper level/graduate seminars if it is used to motivate students to explore competing accounts and engage critically with them. Maybe surprisingly this would be quite Cartesian in spirit. Descartes was by no means the fanatical rationalist he is often caricatured as. In fact he was quite wary of those "who take no account of experience and think that truth will spring from their brains like Minerva from the head of Jupiter" (CSM I, p. 21). Cartesian science relied on sense experience (empiricism) and deduction (rationalism; for details on Cartesian Method see Flage & Bonnen, 1999) and it would be desirable to revive this part of Cartesian tradition.




* Here as below I have only selected a very small sample from the huge amount of available literature. My aim is not to give a comprehensive overview of all research conducted in the respective areas. I merely provide some representative samples showing that such research exists. In most cases, I confirmed with the researchers that I understand the results of their work correctly.




I would like to thank Noam Chomsky for responding extensively to my numerous inquiries. Further, I thank Michael Arbib, Paul Bloom, Rudolph Botha, Ted Briscoe, Nick Chater, Morten Christiansen, Terrence Deacon, Shimon Edelman, Jeff Elman, Daniel Flage, Randy Allen Harris, James Hurford, Philip Lieberman, Brian MacWhinney, Robert Martin, William Martin, Drew McDermott, James McGilvray, Gordon McOuat, Keith Percival, Pierre Perruchet, Michael Studdert-Kennedy, Michael Tomasello, and Thomas Vinci for generously providing assistance and/or clarifying issues regarding their research. This review would not have been possible without their contributions.




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