Chomsky, Noam (1928–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U053-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 07, 2020, from

2. Knowledge of language

According to Chomsky, the three fundamental epistemological questions in the domain of language are ‘What constitutes knowledge of language?’, ‘How is knowledge of language acquired?’ and ‘How is this knowledge put to use?’. The answer to the first question is given by a particular generative grammar. Harold’s knowledge of English is identified with Harold’s being in a particular mental/brain state. A descriptively adequate grammar characterizes this part of Harold’s mental/brain make-up. An answer to the second question is provided by a specification of UG and the principles that take the initial state of the language faculty to the knowledgeable state on exposure to PLD. Harold knows English in virtue of being genetically endowed with a language faculty and having been normally brought up in an English-speaking community. Beyond this, further issues of grounding are unnecessary. Issues of epistemological justification and grounding in the data are replaced by questions concerning the fine structure of the initial state of the language faculty and how its open parameters are set on the basis of PLD. The third question is answered by outlining how linguistic knowledge interacts with other cognitive capacities and abilities to issue in various linguistic acts such as expressing one’s thoughts, parsing incoming speech and so on (see Chomsky 1986).

How much does the language case tell us about epistemological issues in other domains? In other words, should knowledge of quantum mechanics be analysed in a similar vein, that is, being in a particular mental state, grounded in specific innate capacities and so on. Chomsky only makes sparse comments on this general issue, but those he advances suggest that he believes that knowledge in these domains should be approached in much the same way they are approached in the domain of language. This suggests that humans have an innate science-forming capacity that underlies our success in the few domains of inquiry in which there has indeed been scientific success. As in the domain of language, this capacity is focused and modular rather than being a general all-purpose tool and this, Chomsky speculates, might well underlie the patchiness of our successes. Where we have the right biological propensities, we develop rich insightful theories that far outpace the data from which they are projected. Where this mind/brain structure is lacking, mysteries abound that seem recalcitrant to systematic inquiry. Stressing our cognitive limits is a staple of Chomsky’s general epistemological reflections. If humans are part of the natural world we should expect there to be problems that fall within our cognitive grasp and mysteries that lie outside it. The rich theoretical insights allowed in the natural sciences are the result of a chance convergence between properties of the natural world and properties of the human mind/brain (see Chomsky 1975).

Citing this article:
Hornstein, Norbert. Knowledge of language. Chomsky, Noam (1928–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U053-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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