Thursday, January 1, 2009

My views on the NATURE-NATURE debate - part 2


Concerning the theory of knowledge, there are two prominent schools of thought which go by the names of rationalism and empiricism. Empiricism can be described as a meta-theoretical school which illustrates how knowledge is acquired (from sensory experience) via inductive reasoning. Innate mental mechanisms are not denied, but restricted to domains for inductive generalization, and hence contribute nothing to knowledge content per se. Rationalism is the name of the opposing meta-theoretical paradigm. The actual schema of our knowledge is dictated by our innate cognitive structures; the content of our knowledge is to be found in the mind prior to sensory experience. The rationalist, then, defends nativism: the view that certain perceptual and conceptual capacities are innate. Chomskyan linguistic theory cannot be empiricist because it allows for unobservable grammatical properties to be stated as part of the speaker’s internalized linguistic competence. Also, empiricism cannot be equated with rationalism simply because they postulate innate mechanisms that enable the subject to apply procedures of hypothesis formation and inductive generalization.

These capacities may, however, lie dormant until the appropriate conditions for their manifestation arise; and the innate principles which determine the nature of thought and experience may be applied at an unconscious level of mind. Even the principles “of language and natural logic” are said to be known unconsciously at birth, and are “in large measure a precondition for language acquisition”, to quote Chomsky.

One of my freshman philosophy lecturers, Darrel Moellendorf, once told me that Chomsky sees himself as the heir to the rationalist’s throne. Indeed, he [Chomsky, not Darrel!] explicitly accepts their doctrine of innate ideas. Despite the great many languages spoken in the world, Chomsky says that they sufficiently resemble each other syntactically to suggest that there must be a universal schema, which he refers to as Universal Grammar (or UG). These are determined by the genetic constraints in the human mind. These innate constraints set the pattern for all experience, and fix the rules for the formation of meaningful sentences, and also explain why languages are readily translatable into one another. But I will return to Chomsky’s theory in more detail later.

The issue of innate knowledge vs empirical knowledge (with regards to language learning) is clearly a matter of degree. If all knowledge was derived from sensory experience, then a parrot that grew up in the same environment as a human child (and, ideally, went through the same experiences) should eventually acquire a level of language proficiency tantamount to that of the child. This clearly does not happen, even though the parrot is physiologically able to produce sounds, as Chomsky (quoting Descartes) points out in his famous book, Cartesian Linguistics, published in 1966. On the other hand, if all the details of our linguistic knowledge were hard-wired into our genes, then all humans would speak one language throughout the world. Chomsky believes that the environment does play a role in language acquisition, but it is only there to manifest the dormant linguistic principles that are latent in the acquiring child’s mind, and to set the language specific parameters. On the other hand, the empiricist holds that there are no domain specific structures extant at birth: their innate machinery is restricted to hypothesis formation and inductive reasoning, and this may well be a faculty unique to human beings.

Both Pinker and Chomsky are guilty of arguing against straw-man versions of empiricism, based on the long out-dated school of behaviourism. B. F. Skinner, for example, was of the opinion that we did not even have to postulate innate mechanisms of any kind. A living organism is a living organism. We do not have any reason to believe that there is something other than environmental conditioning that distinguishes them. If a pigeon is able to play ping-pong, he reasoned, why must we believe that there is something about the organism (other than the obvious phenotype) which categorically distinguishes it from a human being? I do not think any theorist, who also calls himself an empiricist, would agree that Skinner accurately represents what empiricism purports. Linguists tend to think so because in Chomsky wrote a scathing and influential review in 1959, where Skinner, who happens to be the leading exponent of classical Behaviourism, was the victim of Chomsky's venom; the review was of Skinner’s book entitled Verbal Behavior, published in 1957. He had been wise enough not to take issue with, say, the school of child psychology pioneered in the Soviet Union by Lev Vygotsky, or the subtle and fruitful approach adopted by the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. I contend that Chomsky chose his target deliberately here, as he characteristically does – this is why you never find Chomsky making any references to those who oppose his theories. He is well aware of Popper, for example, but does not apply his standards of testability; when I asked him what he thought of the nascent field of Cognitive Linguistics, he curtly said that he didn’t “know much” about it! Does he really, or is it the case that if Cognitive Linguistics were to take off, that would be the end of Generative Grammar as we know it? In acknowledging this, Chomsky would have to either concede that his empire is crumbling, or he would have to radically review his theory, neither of which are viable alternatives for him. I also think this is the reason why he is writing less and less about linguistics, and more about politics of late. And this is also why I think Steven Pinker has suddenly hit the brakes and made a hundred and eighty degree turn in his latest book, THE STUFF OF THOUGHT. However, that’s a topic for another discussion, so let me stop digressing now and get back to the topic at hand...

My point here is simply that despite major differences with psychoanalysis, these psychologists like Vygotsky and Piaget had echoed Freud in taking as read that humans, like other animals, must have deep-rooted instincts of some relevance to a study of the mind. Chomsky, however, refrained from acknowledging the existence of such scientists. By singling out behaviourism for attack and ignoring everything else, he succeeded in arranging the battleground to suit his own needs.

One gets the impression that Chomsky always conceives of behaviourism in the image of Skinner. In fact, Quine’s behaviourism, for example, only remotely resembles what is usually referred to as behaviourism. Quine did not advocate the view that things can or should be explained in terms of correlations between stimuli and subsequent responses to these stimuli. Quine is even quoted as saying, in his contribution to the symposium on linguistic rationalism and innateness: “It may well turn out that processes are involved that are very unlike the classical processes of reinforcement and extinction of responses. This would be no refutation of behaviourism, in a philosophically significant sense of the term; for I see no interest in restricting the term ‘behaviourism’ to a specific psychological schematism of conditioned response”.

Not only are Chomsky and Pinker wont to capitalize on the fact that most academics are reluctant to peruse in great detail the relevant source texts, but pro-Chomskyans also cover up for untenable statements make by Chomsky in his earlier writings. In an understandably irritated tone, Peter Carr writes in his 2003 paper on Chomskyan rationalism and its problems, where he refers to Smith, who claims that we are all mistaken in attributing the notion that language is a set of well-formed sentences to Chomsky, since that was apparently put forth by Chomsky as a view that he was attacking. Carr then asks us to consider what Chomsky could have meant when he said that “From now on, I will consider language to be a set of (finite or infinite) sentences”, and furthermore when Chomsky said in a later work that “A fully adequate grammar must assign to each of an infinite range of sentences a structural description indicating how this sentence is understood by the ideal speaker-hearer”. Carr then sarcastically concludes that “If this amounts to outlining a position to be attacked, it certainly does not read that way”!

Sampson is not guilty of the rhetoric that is so rife in many of the nativist's manifestos. He says that he has tried to represent the nativist’s case fairly and without distortion, and I think he has indeed succeeded. Sampson concedes that Chomsky was quite justified in his criticism of Skinner. However, to quote Sampson: “to treat Skinner’s unreasonable theories as representative of the centuries-old tradition of empiricist thought is a travesty”, and to expect the world to believe in innate knowledge because “some half forgotten psychology professor did not believe in minds is a bit rich”.

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