Chomsky and Plato compared

Lisa asked:

The philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky argues for the existence of innate mental structures that provide for the potential of language development. In what ways do you think that his concept of these structures is similar to Plato’s theory of innate ideas? In what ways do you see his conception as a departure from Plato’s theory?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Lisa, this an interesting question in that Chomsky calls his treatise on language Cartesian Linguistics, thus inferring that there is a connection between his approach to language and Descartes ‘clear and distinct ideas’ as expounded in his Discourse on Method and Meditations, and yet, for anyone who has taken time to study both these works and that above mentioned theory of Plato, it is evident that what seems at first reading to be similarities between all three theories, in fact Chomsky can be said to follow Kant more than Descartes or Plato.

Let me explain. For Plato, as it would be for Descartes, the mind contains ideas that do not derive from sensory experience but exist in the mind before or apart from any engagement with the world outside the mind. In a similar way, but not the exactly the same, Chomsky holds that the mind contains, as you say, ‘innate mental structures that provide the potential for language development’. Thus, one can say that where all three thinkers find common ground is in their conviction that there is, within the mind, certain, let’s call them, ‘properties’ that are not sensory dependent.

However, where Plato and Descartes hold that the mind possesses innate ‘clear and distinct’ ideas, it must be understood that Chomsky only argues that the mind possesses an instinct to structure language in an ordered and grammatically correct way. It is in this way that Chomsky can be seen not alone to depart from Plato and Descartes, but to echo Kant. Remember, for Kant, whereas he agrees with Hume that ideas derive from sensory experience, he argues that it because the mind holds a priori (innate), not only the intuitions ‘space and time’, but also ten categories which were meant to define every possible form of prediction: substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, possession, action, and passivity. These categories are reorganised to consist of four types: quantity, quality, relation, and modality. In short, everything we, as humans, experience we can be certain will be imposed within the a priori framework of the intuitions space and time, and subject to the law of causality – the law of cause and effect.

Thus, it can be said that whilst both Kant and Chomsky, in that they argue that the mind holds, a priori, certain ‘mental ‘properties’, it must be argued that in both instances, the mind does not operate in isolation but depends on empirical experience to make sense of, or put order on, that which it perceives. Whilst Chomsky’s argument that the contribution of experience is somewhat superficial, it should be stressed that, like Kant, he does accept that there is a correlation between that which is a priori and a posteriori.

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