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Universalism and human difference in Chomskyan linguistics

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Abstract

Chomskyan linguistics is defined by its commitment to universalism and to belief in the existence of a shared species-wide language faculty grounded in human biology. The claim is that all human beings are linguistically one, and that human unity is the product of biological endowment. This paper argues that there is a profound contradiction at the heart of this project, which can be seen in the tension between universalism and rationalism on the one hand, and Romantic notions of mother tongue, native speaker, and intuitions about biological structure, on the other. There is one feature in common, however, between the universalistic framework and the Romantic-intuitive one. Neither is easily reconcilable with mainstream evolutionary theory. Conventional evolutionary theory is based on natural selection acting on intra-species variation, but Chomskyan linguistics seeks to avoid at all costs a characterization of humankind that includes any significant differences in biological inheritance or variation. In order to defend this core postulate of identity Chomsky is willing to present as reductionalist a view of the subject matter of linguistics as is necessary. Having linked language to biology, Chomsky must bracket out all forms of variation from his model in order to sustain this vision of human equality. But this idealization is only required because of the biolinguistic framework itself, and the insistence that there is a deterministic relationship between human biology and language. Ultimately the theory is driven by an ideological or political ideal of absolute human equality, a concept completely alien to the biological sciences. By linking human linguistic endowment to biology, Chomskyan linguistics is in danger of lending support to an idea quite antithetical to its universalism, namely that human beings and human societies are shaped by profound differences in their biolinguistic heritage.

References

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