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Chomsky between revolutions

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Abstract

The revolutionary nature of Chomskyan linguistics must be considered within the framework of another ‘revolution’, in psychology, from behaviorism to cognitivism. George Miller dates this paradigm shift to a conference held at MIT in 1956, in which Chomsky participated. This change of focus is, in turn, related to the development of the digital computer and the promise of understanding and modeling thought using the techniques of computer science. Chomsky evolves from behaviorism to mentalism between Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965). This led psycholinguists to consider the relationship between deep structure and surface structure in processing. However the results were not very promising, and Chomsky himself seemed to abandon psychological reality as a relevant consideration in linguistic analysis. His focus on intuition favored rationalism over empiricism, and innate structures over acquired behavior. This biological turn – the search for the language ‘organ’, the ‘language acquisition device’, etc. – became the new foundation for a science of linguistics. This, however, leads to problems with evolutionary biology, and Chomsky’s appeal to biology has explained little and created serious conundrums. The biological approach is linked to the claims of the ‘poverty of the stimulus’, i.e. the claim that children learn the structures of language with remarkably little input, and therefore must have innate structures that explain this human capability. This has been attacked from two fronts: first, suggestions that the stimulus is not as poor as claimed, and second, hypotheses that language learning does not require a richly structured and highly restricted learning mechanism. These approaches divorce cognitivism from Chomskyan linguistics, and pursue instead such language acquisition theories as statistical language learning, latent semantic analysis, and agent-based modeling. Chomsky’s resolute antiempiricism ends up isolating his linguistic theory from the forefront of current trends in biology and psychology.

References

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