Saturday, May 29, 2021

Conceptualizing language

[This piece was published at The Electric Agora earlier this year. Chomsky's ideas on linguistics are very polarising and even my qualified endorsement of some of his central ideas prompted some animated exchanges.]

Complex language is a precondition not only for the kinds of interaction which characterize human societies but also for many kinds of thinking. It is both social and biological. A language only develops in a context of social continuity over an extended period of time, though it is typically learned very quickly by infants who are exposed to it. There is still controversy about the extent to which natural language is shaped and constrained by the structure and physiology of the human brain, but it is clear that the advent of complex human language was associated with genetic changes which impacted on various aspects of human physiology (including brain function).

What, then, is language? How should we conceptualize it? The approach I am outlining (and recommending) here is strongly idiolectal.

The term “idiolect” can be understood in different ways and taken more or less seriously in the study of language. Taken in a strong sense, it inclines us to see the individual rather than the language or linguistic community as the primary focus of study. As I see it, language only exists insofar as it is used (or instantiated) by individuals. A social context is a given. But speaking and writing and listening and reading and the thinking (or cognitive processing) which supports these activities or which impinges in some other way on linguistic forms or structures are all things which are done by, or (in the case of cognitive processing) occur within the brains of, individuals.

I don’t deny having been greatly influenced by Noam Chomsky’s ideas in my thinking about language. I was first introduced to linguistics by a former student of Chomsky’s who followed a broadly (but by no means doctrinaire) Chomskyan approach. This general approach appealed to me. Chomsky put the focus firmly on what he originally called (linguistic) “competence” (the individual speaker’s internal intuitions about grammar etc.) rather than “performance” (as a behaviorist might). This distinction was developed over time into one between I-language and E-language. For Chomsky the focus was on the former and consequently on idiolects rather than languages.

The entry for “idiolects” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (credited to Alex Barber and Eduardo Garcia Ramirez) highlights the philosophical implications of the concept and some of the confusions which surround it. Those who claim that idiolects (in any strong sense of the term) do not exist or that such a notion is useless or incoherent “are nonetheless happy to use the word ‘idiolect’ to describe a person’s partial grasp of, or their pattern of deviance from, a language that is irreducibly social in nature.”

But nobody is denying the social dimension of language. Of course a language is a social product, but “partial grasp”? Of what exactly? And (as I see it) any attempt to define idiolects in terms of patterns of deviance from a norm is likely to be arbitrary or trivial unless the norm itself is defined in terms of idiolects.

In what sense does a language exist as distinct from particular instances of language use? Spoken words and written texts are generally assignable to this language or that, but precise boundaries are impossible to draw. Grammars and dictionaries try to do this but they can never reflect the constantly shifting contours of actual linguistic practice which always depend on the knowledge and behavior of individual speakers. In the final analysis, then, what we have is a set of unique and (to a greater or lesser extent) overlapping idiolects. We find it convenient, however, to group sets of idiolects into what we call dialects or languages.

“The substantial debate,” Barber and Ramirez explain, “is not over how to define [the word ‘idiolect’]. It turns, rather, on whether an idiolectal perspective on language is to be preferred to a non-idiolectal one. Someone taking an idiolectal perspective on language treats idiolects […] as having ontological or investigative priority and [sees languages as] nothing but more-or-less overlapping idiolects. […] At issue, then, is what we should take languages to be.”

They go on to explain that Chomsky does not deny that language is at least in part a social product. But he is skeptical of E-language-based approaches. The term “E-language” is used by Chomsky to refer to those things (whatever they might be) that are the target of study for those who take languages and their properties to be external to the mind.

“Chomsky’s case for introducing and using the notion of an I-language is, in the end, indistinguishable from his case for a cognitivist approach to the study of language as a natural phenomenon. And his case against E-languages is that there is no scientifically coherent project to which they belong as posits.”

Chomsky does not deny the existence of some linguistic arbitrariness (emphasized by Ferdinand de Saussure and David Lewis, for example). But he sees the core aspects of language as being constrained by the specifics of our biological nature and the (undoubted) arbitrary and contingent aspects of language as operating within these constraints.

The facts of first language acquisition arguably demonstrate this. It is clear that language learning in infants represents a special kind of learning. Infants are not like little scientists observing and inferring the linguistic conventions prevailing among adult users. And even if they were, even if they were masterminds, they would still be unable, on the basis of the fragmentary, flawed and often inconsistent evidence which the typical linguistic environment provides, to zero in on an appropriate grammar. Logically speaking, there would be countless possible languages which would be compatible with the data. (This is the “poverty of stimulus” argument.) What we see in fact is very rapid, and apparently effortless, linguistic progress. And it calls for an explanation.

According to Chomsky, language acquisition can be thought of as a series of brain states, developing from an initial state, S0 [S zero], through intermediate states to a relatively stable mature state, SM.

From the SEP: "S0 is the initial state common to all humans, idealizing away from individual linguistic impairments and the like. Subsequent states arise through exposure to a particular linguistic environment. Nothing said so far requires that these states be thought of as representational states we could call “knowing a language”. […] [L]anguage acquisition can be described—usefully—as a matter of children evolving through various stages of knowledge en route to acquiring adult competence. This description is useful because the empiricist/nativist debate can now be couched as a debate over what linguistic information must already be known by someone in S0 if information supplied by the linguistic environment is to culminate in knowledge of the mature language M. Empiricists claim that nothing much is needed, that S0 is a “blank slate” to be filled in using environmental data. Nativists claim that plenty of information must already be provided, in the form of innate knowledge of a language dubbed Universal Grammar (UG) by Chomsky. We each come predisposed to acquire only certain languages, the humanly possible ones that can grow out of UG."

Despite the controversies surrounding the notion of Universal Grammar, I tend to agree with Barber and Ramirez that nothing much is added to this account, as an account of language learning, by describing it as development towards the learning of an externalistically specified social language (as opposed to some specific mature linguistic state (SM) of an individual). On this view, the primary target of investigation is the human language faculty, its nature and limits. Of course, other approaches to language are possible but, to the extent that they have scientific pretensions, they will probably be in tension with an idiolectal approach.

"Because there is considerable variety […] in the underlying conceptions of languages, Chomsky’s criticisms can seem sweeping, but the underlying thought is that, because E-languages are less “real” than I-languages, the concept [of an E-language] appears to play no role in the theory of language. […] Linguistic behaviour is the product of both the language faculty on the one hand and external influences—performance systems in the mind/brain of the individual and social factors—on the other. At issue is not whether anything at all can ever be said, usefully, about these “downstream” effects, but whether the notion of an E-language has any pivotal explanatory role to play in saying it (save as a useful shorthand)."

This is well put.

It is worth noting also that Barber and Ramirez explicitly recognize the challenges that idiolectal (or I-language-focused) approaches pose to traditional approaches in the philosophy of language.

"One apparent corollary of [Chomsky’s view of language] is significant for those many philosophers of language who have agonized over how to construct a theory of meaning for English. A common thought is that such a theory ought to take the form of a statement of the referential properties of the expressions of English—a link between words and objects in the world—from which the truth conditions of all English sentences can be derived (e.g., [Donald] Davidson, [Richard] Montague). Echoing P. F. Strawson, Chomsky suggests that referring is something people do. They use words in doing so, it is true, but referring is not something that words somehow do by themselves, through some fantastical medium, English. If referential properties of expressions amount to anything, rather than being relational properties between expressions and external objects (or “word-world” relations) they should be thought of as embodying instructions to the individual’s conceptual system, one of the performance systems with which the language faculty interfaces. If Chomsky is right, a great deal of the philosophy of language is either radically off beam or needs considerable re-interpretation."

I have barely scratched the surface here and don’t have a fully worked out position. But I am convinced that an idiolectal perspective has been and will continue to be extremely useful in the quest to develop a truer and more parsimonious account of human language.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Epistemic relativism in a digital world

Extracts (slightly revised) from an essay of mine which appeared earlier this year at The Electric Agora under the title "Thought control and cultural decline".

[...] One consequence of the cultural and technological changes we are seeing is that the line between political activism and research and knowledge sharing has been erased – at least in many areas. Journalistic and publishing standards have plummeted, obviously. But it is the failure of the universities and other institutions of science and scholarship which is particularly galling for me. The institutions which I most respected – and to which I devoted many years of professional life – are being compromised and debased. Whatever could be politicized has been politicized and in very boring and predictable ways. The trends have been obvious for decades, but I had no idea just how fragile the commitment to science, scholarship and truth-seeking was, both within academia and in the broader community.

At the heart of the problem, as I see it, are postmodern and pragmatic views on truth and history. For whatever reason or reasons, such views have been energetically promoted by academics and school teachers, and they now pervade the broader society, contributing to the failure of political discourse. Everything is being reduced to rhetoric and the here and now.

I am not saying that there are not serious flaws in traditional ways of seeing the world. There are. But, for me, it’s a baby and bathwater thing. If we abandon the path of consilience and convergence in the realm of knowledge, we are ultimately condemning ourselves to intellectual impotence and irrelevance.

This is just rhetoric, you may say, and so it may be. I have not proved anything here. But my claim is a substantive one. It is a claim about the past and a prediction concerning the fate of cultures which abandon traditional epistemic values. The basic idea or intuition behind it is that epistemic relativism facilitates ideological fantasies which in turn lead to a disconnect between cultural and economic realities.

With respect to our future, time will tell. The intellectual fashions of which I speak could conceivably pass as the generation that has promoted and popularized them slowly dies off. But the signs are not good. Great damage has been done.

Maybe these tendencies of thought (mutating now in grotesque and seemingly crazy ways) are best seen as epiphenomena driven by economic forces or by the physics of complex systems. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense to claim that certain ways of thinking caused or contributed to this or that. Nonetheless, we can always observe and describe. Clarity and perspicacity are possible even when we cannot see into the heart of things or identify the root causes of the changes which we observe.


The advent of digital technologies has compounded the problem and given added traction to relativistic and ahistorical modes of thought. Traditional scholarship was developed within the context of linguistically sophisticated cultures and centered around paper documents which persisted over time. A sense of history was built in. You held firm evidence of the past in your hand, and many of the most important and influential fields of scholarly research dealt with historical (and historico-linguistic) questions. Objective evidence was painstakingly marshalled and deployed. And, over all and over time, epistemic progress occurred. There was a convergence of views on central questions.

The savagery with which scholars were treated during Mao’s Cultural Revolution or by the Khmer Rouge can be seen in this context. It showed how seriously scholars were still taken in the Far East less than fifty years ago. They were perceived as a real threat to forcibly imposed radical ideas.

We are now in an utterly different world, of course. Today’s all-enveloping digital environment makes it relatively easy for history to be rewritten, for minds to be molded at will and at scale. What could be more insidious – and more destructive of individual autonomy – than opaque, monopolistic systems skewing searches for information in order to promote particular views and agendas, and using AI to monitor personal communications and manipulate what people will and won’t see on their screens?

I would like to resist, but don’t see how I could do so effectively. Institutions of learning have been hijacked by ideologues and self-serving bureaucrats. More generally, the common ground which makes effective discourse possible has all but disappeared.

What, then, can one do? Join a rhetorical battle which by its very nature will never result in a clear or decisive outcome? Or withdraw, watch and wait – while cultivating one’s garden?