From Kant to Chomsky (with a plug for Fr–d)

h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken

Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.

Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.

Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.

As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”

I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.

In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.

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Carving conceptual space: into rivers and blocks

This is about how we carve up conceptual space, but first it’s about language. In my case, teaching English as a second language (ESL). Why did my Mexican students have so much trouble with run-on sentences, whereas this was not an issue for my German students? Don’t get me wrong. Every student has their problems. But this difference really stood out. Sure, the German language is in some ways more closely related to English, but German word order and sentence structure can also be quite different than in English. But comma splices and run-on sentences seem to be something of a national pastime in Mexico – four, five, or six complete English sentences joined only with commas or with nothing at all. If we did an exercise, they could all grasp the concept of how to punctuate correctly with periods. But then in the midst of writing or speaking, they would revert to the endless flow without periods.

I concluded, based on my zero hours of training in psycholinguistics, that I was up against their intuition. And their intuition in this case was their way of carving up conceptual space. I tried to compare to my experience watching films in German and Spanish. I’m intermediate in German and upper intermediate in Spanish, but I can follow German dialogue better. Why? Because German is more like English? Yes, but only in a specific way. I definitely have a larger vocabulary in Spanish than in German. But the Germans pronounce every word, with clear edges at beginning and end, whereas the spoken language in Spanish flows like a river. Spanish subtitles can tell me that I know 90% of the words, but I understand 10% in the oral flow. I never know where one word ends and the next begins.

Coupled with my Mexican students’ style of writing full paragraphs with only commas along the way, I decided this is not just a speaking style. It’s the way they carve up conceptual space. Conceptual space is like a flowing river for them, whereas conceptual space for Germans is arranged into building blocks. And you can hear it in the oral flow of the language. Based on the way sentences are arranged into building blocks for paragraphs, English speakers would seem to carve up conceptual space as Germans do, into building blocks. The oral flow of English, however, may strike second language speakers differently than German, as there are so many more pronunciation peculiarities in English. I actually don’t know – I am too “at home” in English – but if any ESL speakers or psycholinguists out there want to chime in, I’m all ears.

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