Archive for: October, 2010

A Chomsky Reader

Oct 01 2010 Published by under Quotable

"Questions of fact cannot be resolved on the basis of ideological commitment." --Noam Chomsky

Not familiar? Not a problem. Here, in much abridged form, are some of the main ideas from "Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures," one of the most accessible of Chomsky's texts on language, and a clear, cogent and articulate elaboration of his views.

Why post this? I frequently receive comments on my posts accusing me of caricaturing Chomsky's position.  "Chomsky didn't say that!" the standard line goes (and sometimes, more vehemently: "Chomsky wouldn't say that").  There's really no good response to this except to say, "yes he did, it says so right here, on page..." which strikes me as annoyingly pedantic.  While I would encourage all my readers who have more than a passing interest in the debate to read the original texts, this compilation of quotes should serve as a helpful introduction (or refresher) on Chomsky's ideas.  Of course, The Managua Lectures are a concise elaboration of Chomsky's theoretical stance, rather than arguments for or against it -- but this is actually quite helpful, since it allows me to present short, well-formulated excerpts, without doing a hack-job on an extended piece of reasoning.

Of the excerpts that follow, there are some that I think are reasonable, some absurd, and some simply amusing. In the upcoming months, I hope to provide a similar treatment for some of Chomsky's other books and for Wittgenstein and Skinner.

On innate concepts:

"The speed and precision of vocabulary acquisition leaves no real alternative to the conclusion that the child somehow has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already part of his or her conceptual apparatus. This is why dictionary definitions can be sufficient for their purpose, though they are so imprecise. The rough approximation suffices because the basic principles of the word meaning (whatever they are) are known to the dictionary user, as they are to the language learner, independent of any instruction or experience."

"Now that can only mean one thing. Namely, human nature gives us the concept "climb" for free. That is, the concept "climb" is just part of the way in which we are able to interpret experience available to us before we even have the experience. That is probably true for most concepts that have words for them in language. This is the way we learn language. We simply learn the label that goes with the preexisting concept. So in other words, it is as if the child, prior to any experience, has a long list of concepts like "climb," and then the child is looking at the world to figure out which sound goes with which concept."

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