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Evaluating Cartesian Linguistics

From Historical Antecedents to Computational Modeling

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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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Preface

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Noam Chomsky’s Cartesian Linguistics frames this inquiry into his linguistic work and the resulting debates between rationalists and empiricists. The focus will be on the following key aspects: (i) the historic connection of Cartesian Linguistics to previous linguistic theorizing, (ii) the evolution of Chomsky’s own theorizing, (iii) the empirical work addressing the problem of language acquisition, and (iv) the problem of computational modeling of language learning. Chomsky claims that his view is situated within a rationalist Cartesian tradition and that only rationalists will be able to account fully for all aspects of human language. This work challenges both claims.

There are only remote similarities between Cartesian and Chomskyan commitments. Chomsky holds that (i) language is species-specific, (ii) language is domain-specific, and (iii) language acquisition depends on innate knowledge. Descartes accepted (i), but argued that language is an indicator of domain-general intelligence. Innate resources play a different role for language acquisition for Chomsky and for Descartes.

Chomsky’s innovative proposals revitalized linguistics during the 1950s, and he has been credited with launching the second cognitive revolution. However, to date, his work has not fulfilled many of the early promises, and recent work has contributed little to a scientific understanding of language acquisition and use. Key concepts like “innateness”, “Universal Grammar”, “I-Language” and “Language Acquisition Device” remain in need of precise definition, the internal coherence of his ontological commitments has been challenged, and the Poverty of the Stimulus Argument does not rule out data-driven domain-general language acquisition....

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