Saturday, 18 February 2017

Transitional Linguistics - Are Language Skills Innate?

Some children have innate grammatical abilities that outperform their language skills
Photo copyright Janet Cameron

Is the Human Mind Hardwired with Innate Rational Knowledge?

Radical philosopher Noam Chomsky, born in 1928, believes that language reveals the nature and the essence of the human mind through the vehicle of thought.  His views are unpopular with many thinkers, and yet, despite the controversy, most agree his contribution to the subject has been revolutionary. Chomsky denies the empiricist view of the mind as a “blank” or “clean” slate, informed by experience. 

According to Chomsky, all languages share a “fundamental universal grammar, which is hardwired into the human brain.”  This grammar does not need to be learned.

Transformational grammar, according to Chomsky, contains two elements:

The surface structure – this applies to the specific language spoken or written.
The deep structure – this is hardwired into the human brain.

Studies of Children “Prove the Rule” According to Chomsky.

Eventually “transformational grammar” became known as “transitional linguistics.”  It had been observed by child psychologists that some very young children develop an ability to apply grammar in advance of their language skills and Chomsky took this to prove his argument that these did not have to be learned, because they are innate.  Following on from this came an event weightier concept, that our innate properties predict and determine everything that we are and know. For Chomsky there is absolutely no such thing as free will.

Another advocate of the theory is the psychologist and philosopher, Jerry Fodor who, according to the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, claims that "...mental properties are functional and defined by their role in a cognitive system and not by the physical material that constitutes them."  He insists, also, that our minds possess innate concepts.

A Notorious Theory, says Steven Pinker

In his book, The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker says, of Fodor:  "His (Fodor's) notorious theory that we are born with some fifty thousand innate concepts... makes an appearance here, not as a player in the nature/nurture debate, but a player in the debate over how the meanings of words are represented in people's minds."  Pinker continues by explaining how Fodor regards words to relate to "atoms" that cannot be split. The meaning of kill is "kill" - and not "cause to die." The meanings beneath words are not assembled of parts. Therefore, Fodor concludes, they must be innate.

According to the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:  "Fodor has articulated and defended an alternative, realist conception of intentional states and their content."  The article continues by explaining Fodor's nativism, which opposes empiricist theories, arguing that all lexical concepts are innate.  

Even here there is a difficulty, since the term "innate" can mean: a part of one's nature, or hard-wired into one's mind from the beginning.  This, the article points out, "is reminiscent of Descartes' position that some ideas are innate, such as the idea of God, of infinity, etc."  

Harwood, Jeremy, Philosophy – 100 Great Thinkers, Quercus Publishing Plc, London, 2010.

Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, Peer Reviews

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