What Kinds of Creatures are We?: Noam Chomsky on the Scope and Limits of Human Knowledge

Noam Chomsky

British biologist Charles Darwin (1809–1882) laid the foundations of the theory of evolution and transformed the way we think about the natural world. Few books have influenced human thought more than his On the Origin of Species. Published in 1859, it expounded his theory of natural selection, shocking society and revolutionized science.

Noam Chomsky is a contemporary psychologist, linguist, and political activist known both for his theory of innate grammar and for his political activism.

Q: The notion that certain mental structures are inborn and not derivable from our environments is one that goes back to the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato who first raised this question in his works Meno and Phaedo. Much later, 17th-century rationalists like René Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz further developed this area of inquiry. In fact, you have referred to your enterprise as Cartesian Linguistics. But while Descartes discussed the creative use of language, it’s unclear if he thought that language was itself an innate trait like mathematics or the idea of God. Can you elaborate?

A: Just to clarify, I never referred to what I do as “Cartesian Linguistics,” and in fact explained at the beginning of my book Cartesian Linguistics (CL) that I am using the term as a cover for a set of ideas that are related to (and sometimes influenced by) Cartesian thought but are often developed by critics of Descartes. There is, strictly speaking, no Cartesian Linguistics. As discussed in CL, though Descartes’s usage of the term “idea” is not fully clear, he appears to use it broadly enough so that linguistic expressions generally, not just the individual concepts of which they are constituted, are within the range of ideas. If so, then language would fall under his dispositional concept of innateness—and it’s hard to see how the properties he alludes to in his scanty references to language could be acquired otherwise.

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