- Capitalism and Alternatives -

My Last Bit on This

Posted by: Hank on February 10, 19100 at 12:05:59:

In Reply to: rejoinder posted by Piper on February 10, 19100 at 10:48:19:

: : So, Mad Dog, after two posts in which I showed that the 43 year old debate between debate Skinner and Chomsky is long over and CHOMSKY WON, you give me this? I'm disappointed in you, Mad Dog. Furthermore, the second of my responses was pretty much conciliatory, but you nevertheless took one of my topic sentences out, call it a 'slithering retreat', then disengenuously suggested that I suggested Chomsky's Nazi allusion was a coincidence.

: Piper: Did Chomsky win? Skinner never replied and Chomsky was pretty inaccurate in his representation of Skinner's views. That sounds like a pretty dubious victory to me.

: I've seen papers that purport to show how laNGUAGE IS ACQUIRED VIA sKINNERIAN METHODS.

I don't know where you've seen these papers, but I'd to see them.

Please be patient, McSpotlight, I promise this will be the last bit. And it ties in to capitalism and politics as I'll show later.

Behaviorism, by definition, denies anything to the mind beyond dispositions to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli. This includes the Behavioralist view of linguistic competetence, stated in Skinner's book. In contrast, Chomsky says that every human mind has a MENTAL ORGAN SPECIFIC TO LANGUAGE which is INTRICATELY STRUCTURED. It is structured (or, to use a computer metaphor, 'hard-wired') PRIOR TO ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONING.

Chomsky rejected Skinner's view of language acquistion and was uncategorically correct. For example, as I showed in my first Behaviorism cannot answer for STIMULUS INDEPENDENT BEHAVIOR; Behaviorism cannot answer for universal "rules" such as the fact that NO HUMAN LANGUAGE forms questions by inverting the declarative.

Despite the Empricists' dislike of things unseen, we must posit theoretical, innate entities to explain knowledge of a language. Skinner and Behaviorism are vivid in their failure to explain how it is that we can learn a language.

The Human species is unique among animals for its language ability. Before I get in trouble with some animal lovers on the board (and I'm one too) I should very quickly outline what are some of the features of human language. Taken from Quine (reprinted) in Rosenberg's and Travis' "Readings in the Philosophy of Language" some of these unique features are:

1) Stimulus independence which I mentioned before. We can say things independent of our physical environment, whereas animals (even up to non-human primates) have a relatively limited repertoire.

So, out of nowhere I can say to you "Irish are my favorite people" or "Hey, Piper, Australia is the most beautiful land on the planet!"

Animals can't do that.

2) Abstractness/Modality/History/Speculation: Humans can abstract details from the situation and say "If Luke were president, he'd set the country right. But he's so fat nobody would ever vote for him in this tv society. I wonder why he's so fat? I think it started when he was 10 years old."

Animals cannot do this.

3) Medium Independence: Humans can express their language in a variety of mediums (the Internet, writing on the beach, sky-writing, etc.) whereas animals are limited. (Chimps can't communicate with each other under water, whales can't use sign-language)

4) Functional Versatility: We can discuss an enormous variety of topics, Quine says, "tables, people, molecules, light rays, retinas air waves, prime numbers, infinite classes, joy and sorrow, good and evil."

No animal, from bees all the way to chimps and whales, can do that.

What are Chomsky's theses? I'll break them down into three:

1) Humans are equipped with a special ability to learn language.

Well, of course. Only the most crude empiricist would disagree with that. How else is it that your pet Fido or Frisky hasn't learned the language? I think even Skinner and Mad Dog would agree with that.

2) Humans have a special "mental organ" dedicated to learning language.

Well, behaviorists could attack this as unprovable, or they could remain neutral. Most behaviorists remain neutral on this question. Some recent neurolinguistic inquiry seems to locate this LAD in the cerebral cortex, but (last I heard) the location is still in question. Maybe it runs throughout the brain, I don't know. At any rate, the notion of a Languag Acquisition Device is not disputed by serious scientists.

(Behaviorist university psyche professors yammer on about boys living and being raised by wolves, but that's the extent of it.)

3) Chomsky says the LAD is intricately structured, equipped with PROPOSITIONAL KNOWLEDGE (!!!!!!) Here is our big dispute, which still continues.

So, Piper, to answer your question: Chomsky won the debate. But that doesn't mean that Chomskyan linguistics is the only alternative to Behaviorism. Today, that's where the debate lies.

So, finally, on the question of first language acquisition, Chomsky was right, Skinner was wrong.

Now, along with Chomsky's notion of the human LAD (innate rules of language), are humans also born with a moral device? That's the question I want to begin to explore.

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