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Chomsky, Noam (1928–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U053-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved July 17, 2024, from

Article Summary

Fish swim, birds fly, people talk. The talents displayed by fish and birds rest on specific biological structures whose intricate detail is attributable to genetic endowment. Human linguistic capacity similarly rests on dedicated mental structures many of whose specific details are an innate biological endowment of the species. One of Chomsky’s central concerns has been to press this analogy and uncover its implications for theories of mind, meaning and knowledge.

This work has proceeded along two broad fronts.

First, Chomsky has fundamentally restructured grammatical research. Due to his work, the central object of study in linguistics is ‘the language faculty’, a postulated mental organ which is dedicated to acquiring linguistic knowledge and is involved in various aspects of language-use, including the production and understanding of utterances. The aim of linguistic theory is to describe the initial state of this faculty and how it changes with exposure to linguistic data. Chomsky (1981) characterizes the initial state of the language faculty as a set of principles and parameters. Language acquisition consists in setting these open parameter values on the basis of linguistic data available to a child. The initial state of the system is a Universal Grammar (UG): a super-recipe for concocting language-specific grammars. Grammars constitute the knowledge of particular languages that result when parametric values are fixed.

Linguistic theory, given these views, has a double mission. First, it aims to characterize the grammars (and hence the mental states) attained by native speakers. Theories are ‘descriptively adequate’ if they attain this goal. In addition, linguistic theory aims to explain how grammatical competence is attained. Theories are ‘explanatorily adequate’ if they show how descriptively adequate grammars can arise on the basis of exposure to ‘primary linguistic data’ (PLD): the data children are exposed to and use in attaining their native grammars. Explanatory adequacy rests on an articulated theory of UG, and in particular a detailed theory of the general principles and open parameters that characterize the initial state of the language faculty (that is, the biologically endowed mental structures).

Since the mid- 1990s Chomsky has emphasized a third mission: to explain how the capacity for language could have arisen in the species. Chomsky (2004) has described theories that address this third concern as going “beyond explanatory adequacy,” meaning that they not only attain explanatory adequacy, but also provide a plausible path for the emergence in humans of the “Faculty of Language” (the name given to whatever it is that allows humans to acquire language in the way that they do).

Chomsky has also pursued a second set of concerns. He has vigorously criticized many philosophical nostrums from the perspective of this revitalized approach to linguistics. Three topics he has consistently returned to are:

  • Knowledge of language and its general epistemological implications

  • Indeterminacy and underdetermination in linguistic theory

  • Person-specific ‘I-languages’ versus socially constituted ‘E-languages’ as the proper objects of scientific study.

Citing this article:
Hornstein, Norbert. Chomsky, Noam (1928–), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U053-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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