Noam Chomsky: the innateness of language

Noam Chomsky (1928 -) is an American philosopher who would go on to be a major thinker in the school of analytic philosophy. Many have gone so far as to call Chomsky the father of modern linguistic theory. He was also instrumental in founding the scientific discipline of cognitive science, where the processes of the mind are viewed as subjects of modern scientific inquiry.

Chomsky begins with a criticism of the proponents of the behaviorist school of linguistics, such as B.F. Skinner and Quine. According to this school, the human mind begins as a blank slate and language is a completely learned behavior of each individual. One may notice the correlation to the modern empiricism.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates interrogates a slave boy regarding some simple geometry. The slave boy is able to answer Socrates’ questions despite having never been taught about geometry. Socrates take this to demonstrate the innateness of geometric ideas. Similarly, Chomsky argues for a type of universal grammar, citing as evidence the enormous gap between the linguistics that children are exposed to and that which they can perform.

To explain this, Chomsky invokes an innate linguistic capacity. However, while your typical rationalist will insist on the necessity of non-physical innate ideas, Chomsky rather turns to the modern theory of evolution and inheritable genetics. That is to say, Chomsky’s innate linguistics (to whatever capacity they are argued) are physical and passed from parents to children through procreation.


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