Chomsky and Dreyfus

My understanding of Noam Chomsky's work, or at least the essence of it, relates to his pursuit of one central question: Given the "poverty" of linguistic experience a child has, how is it possible for it to learn so much about the language he or she masters? To make his point, Chomsky gives examples of sentences which we have not heard before with grammatical subtlties that we have never been taught before—and yet, we can understand these sentences, and our sense of these sentences agree with the corresponding subtle grammatical points.

Chomsky concludes that we must have some innate faculties, which are tuned by the little experience we have for a particular purpose—in this case the mastery of a particular human language. He then explores whether the same mechanisms are involved in other sorts of mental faculties.

Of course, Chomsky is also interested in the syntactic structure of spoken language, but I don't think he believes that the child actually learns the rules. In fact, what drives his research is the fact that these rules cannot often be articulated by speakers, all of whom agree about the logical sense of a particular sentence. In a sense, and in accord with Hubert Dreyfus' wishes in his American Philosophical Association Pacific Division Presidential Address, Chomsky fits among the analytical philosophers who try to connect the foundation of perception with the higher, abstract modes of conception.

The question remains whether Chomsky believes the perceiving individual needs to grasp (i.e. think in the terms of) the higher level concepts in order to be able to cope with the world of language. It is this question, along with Chomsky's emphasis on logic and his early inspiration from Quine, that might set him widely apart from Dreyfus.

I would love to see Chomsky and Dreyfus to lead a seminar together, or at least their works to be presented side-by-side. The debates, the varying perspectives and concerns should lead to a great dialogue.

Note: A comment by Robin Wilton on my last post has led me to write this bit about the variation between Chomsky's and Dreyfus' takes on what it means to learn. I think there's a lot more to say about how the work and practice of these two American philosophers differ.

Comments:

I've thought this would be interesting too. I am myself a fan of dreyfus. From time to time I think of what a "phenomenology of language" would be, in accordance with Dreyfus and Merleau-Ponty. There is definitely an "intentional arc" when learning language...and maybe every "element" of a sentence is not "intentional". Interesting post!

Posted by Tom Ball on October 18, 2005 at 11:57 PM PDT #

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