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Evaluating Cartesian Linguistics

From Historical Antecedents to Computational Modeling


Christina Behme

This book evaluates Noam Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics and focuses on the historical justification for Cartesian Linguistics, the evolution of Chomsky’s theorizing, empirical language acquisition work, and computational modeling of language learning. Chomsky claims that his view is situated within a rationalist Cartesian tradition and that only rationalists can account for all aspects of language. The work challenges both claims. Chomsky projects his own convictions onto Cartesians and his recent work has not lived up to early promises. The Minimalist Program has failed to produce scientific results, and empirical work in developmental psychology and computational modeling further challenge Chomsky’s rationalist dogma.
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Acknowledging adequately all the help and support I received while writing this book would require writing another book. Therefore, I shall keep the following brief and incomplete. First, and foremost I want to thank Thomas Vinci for infecting me with his appreciation of Cartesian scholarship. I benefited from his detailed knowledge, and unconventional interpretation, of historic texts, and from his encouragement to tackle a very complex and demanding, yet rewarding project. Special gratitude is owed to Jeffrey Elman for explaining (and re-explaining) the fundamentals of connectionist modeling, and for his help in uncovering that ‘the famous paper’ referred to in Cartesian Linguistics is an imaginary object. Further, I have greatly benefitted from patient and often very detailed responses to my never-ending questions from Darren Abramson, Nick Chater, Morten H. Christiansen, Hélène Deacon, Shimon Edelman, Daniel Everett, Daniel Flage, Michael Hymers, David Johnson, Robert Levine, Brian MacWhinney, Robert Martin, W. Keith Percival, Geoffrey Sampson, and Pieter Seuren. Furthermore, I am greatly indebted to Paul M. Postal for replying in an incredibly helpful manner to an almost non-finite number of questions, for explaining with clarity the fundamentals of linguistics proper, for making me aware of the work of Jerrold J. Katz, and for invaluable pragmatic advice. Finally, I would like to thank Peter Kosta for his generous support and persistent reminders, both of which were essential for turning a manuscript into a book.

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