Inicio > Psicología marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > «Biological Determinism and Epistemology in Linguistics: Some Considerations on the «Chomskyan Revolution»»: Peter Jones

«Biological Determinism and Epistemology in Linguistics: Some Considerations on the «Chomskyan Revolution»»: Peter Jones

Biological Determinism and Epistemology in Linguistics: Some Considerations on the «Chomskyan Revolution» [1]

«Given the molecular forces in a mutton chop, deduce Hamlet or Faust therefrom».[2]


0.1 The aim of this paper is to take a critical look, from a broadly Marxist perspective, at the epistemological basis of Noam Chomsky’s theory of grammar and the implications of his work in linguistics for the human sciences in general.[3] At the very least this critique might help to explain the reasons why Chomsky’s views should be regarded as incompatible with Marxism, despite some recent claims (eg Newmeyer, 1986a,b). More importantly, I hope the discussion may show that Chomsky’s outlook on language poses a challenge not only to Marxism but to any discipline in which the social and historical are essential and irreducible categories in the understanding and explanation of human behaviour, institutions, and thought. For Chomsky uses his theoretical linguistic work, which has already had a profound influence on other disciplines, particularly philosophy and psychology (cf Salkie, 1990) as the ground on which to construct a rigid biological determinist ideology applied to all aspects of human behaviour and mental activity. The main thrust of my argument is that Chomsky’s biological determinism, like biological determinism in general, rests on an incoherent and self-contradictory epistemology and is an inadequate foundation for the human sciences, including linguistics. In view of these intended aims, I would like to think that what follows might be considered as a further contribution to the critique of biological determinism developed in Rose (ed) (1982) and Rose, Lewontin and Kamin (1990).

0.2 I do not claim any originality for philosophical opposition to Chomsky’s work and specifically Marxist criticism can be found elsewhere (eg Thompson, 1969; Luria, 1975; llyenkov, 1977c; Panfilov, 1979; and cf the discussion in Newmeyer, 1986a). What I hope to offer is a rather more fine-grained philosophical analysis of aspects of Chomsky’s approach along with a sketch of an alternative perspective which I will refer to as the Vygotskian tradition of Marxist research in psychology and linguistics.[4] While detailed scrutiny of the technical linguistic facts and arguments used to support Chomsky’s case would be out of place here, I will make one or two observations on the status and validity of such «evidence».

Since Chomsky has at the same time acquired an international reputation as a courageous, outspoken, and radical political thinker and commentator (cf Salkie, op.cit; Chomsky 1979, 1987b, 1989), the question inevitably arises of the connection between his linguistics and politics. Some writers consider both areas of his thought to be equally radical and progressive, eg Salkie (op.cit). I share the view that his scientific and political views have certain philosophical and ethical principles in common and, accordingly, I have raised some general questions on his attitude towards social and political theory. However, I shall not examine Chomksy’s political contribution in any detail, nor do I wish to denigrate that contribution in any way.

I should stress that not all linguists outside the Marxist tradition share Chomsky’s conception of language and mind. Some would challenge or reject outright the innatist framework of Chomskyan generativism (eg Sampson, 1975; Moore and Carling, 1982; Halliday, 1978; Harris, 1980) and there are many other linguists who, while working with Chomsky’s grammatical theory, would distance themselves from his biological determinism. Yet, there are few, if any, modern approaches to language which remain uninfluenced by Chomsky’s work and ideas. Whether or not Chomsky’s theoretical achievements amount to a revolution will not, however, be of concern here, although the question has generated some heat over the years (cf Koerner, 1983; Newmeyer, 1986b).

My plan of attack, then, is as follows: 1) an exposition of the key tenets of the Chomskyan doctrine on grammar, 2) an analysis of the epistemological foundations of this doctrine, 3) a critical appraisal of these foundations, and 4) a brief exposition of the Vygotskian alternative.


1.1 Over the years, Chomsky has employed a rather effective expository and rhetorical device which consists in imagining how a super-intelligent extra-terrestrial being would go about the study of human language and its grammatical structure. Chomsky’s Martian gets to the bottom of things very quickly, unencumbered by the parochial earthbound attitudes, ideological distortions and downright stupidity that humans are prone to. The superorganism attacks language – this «curious biological phenomenon» (Chomsky, 1988: 41) – with natural scientific methods («the methods of rational inquiry», ibid), quickly discovering beneath the apparent chaos of surface forms, highly abstract principles of syntactic organization, principles which are inviolable and yet have no functional motivation in the exigencies of social communication. Accordingly, the Martian attributes the human capacity for language to our biological make-up, to the workings of an innate language faculty. This faculty contains a «Universal Grammar, a «mental organ» which provides a grammatical blueprint for the «growth» of the grammars of particular languages in interaction with the linguistic (and general social) surroundings. Here we have, in a nutshell, the general framework of assumptions and the methodology within which Chomskyan theoretical syntax, often referred to as «autonomous syntax» (Newmeyer, 1986a; 1991) has taken shape.

Facts aside, this is, on first encounter, a persuasive and plausible picture of the nature of language and its structure. It appears to have the merit, not least, of reconciling the study of language with already established and respectable sciences, thereby helping to promote a thorough-going scientific and philosophical realism, a materialistic monism (or «scientific monism», Salkie, 1990). On the other hand, one may have doubts. Of course, one can hardly object to rational methods of enquiry, or to the demand for the same standards of rationality in linguistics as in the «hard» sciences. And yet, to assume in advance that linguistic facts are biological facts is hardly in keeping with the finest standards of terrestrial thought, something that might lead us to temper our enthusiasm for contact with other worlds. Why does our Martian superorganism not entertain the possibility that language is, say, a cultural form? I will return to the argument below.[5]

Chomsky’s rational methods entail drastic consequences for the human sciences as a whole, for every sphere of human mental activity, subjected to such enquiry, turns out to require a mental organ of its own. To each domain Chomsky allots a dedicated biological substratum allowing species- specific mental activity to flourish over a certain highly restricted field «accessible» to the innate faculty while denying access to areas which «lie beyond the reach of our minds, structured and organised as they are» (1979: 230). Syntax is the province of one such organ, word meaning is another, to the surprise, perhaps, of those who think that Chomsky’s innatism is restricted to the form of language – as if form and content could so easily be dissociated. Thus, Chomsky believes that the speed and precision with which children pick up new words «leaves no real alternative to the conclusion that the child somehow has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already part of his or her conceptual apparatus» (1988: 28). The same applies, he claims, «even for the technical concepts of the natural sciences» (ibid: 32). The very method of scientific thought is also fixed a priori in a «science-forming capacity» (1980: 250) which permits, again, only «accessible» theories, ie those which conform to biologically determined specifications. As regards activity in the literary or musical spheres, Chomsky is similarly convinced that «a certain range of possibilities has been explored to create structures of marvellous intricacy, while others are never considered or if explored, lead to the production of work that does not conform to normal human capacities» (ibid: 252). He also believes that «the moral and ethical system acquired by the child owes much to some innate human faculty» (1988: 153).

The outcome of this grandiose reductionism is the marginalisation of the effective domain of the historical, the social and the cultural in human affairs. Indeed, the very concept of «society» as a coherent systemic organism becomes problematic, and in fact Chomsky makes no secret of his scepticism about the possibility of a genuine social science (1979: 56). On occasion, Chomsky has considered extending his innatist approach to the sphere of social interaction itself, speculating that we might have «a sort of ‘universal grammar’ of possible forms of social interaction, and it is this system which helps us to organize intuitively our imperfect perceptions of social reality» while adding that «it does not follow necessarily that we are capable of developing conscious theories in this domain through the exercise of our ‘science-forming faculties'» (ibid: 69-70).

1.2 Returning to the methodology of our Martian investigator, one might legitimately ask: why study language as if it were a physical organ of the body? To which Chomsky replies: why not? Why should we think that it should be studied differently? Chomsky’s supporting arguments once more appeal to analogies between physical and mental structures:

«A consistent materialist would consider it as self-evident that the mind has very important innate structures, physically realized in some manner … if we assume that human beings belong to the biological world, then we must expect them to resemble the rest of the biological world. Their physical constitution, their organs, and the principles of maturation are genetically determined. There is no reason for supposing the mental world to be an exception» (1979: 94).

The very idea that mental and physical development should be treated separately he attributes to «the grip of empiricist doctrine» (1976: 12) which, like religious dogma, stands in the way of rational scientific enquiry:

«The background myth [ie accepted by «empiricism», PEJ] is that the human brain is radically different from any other object in the physical world: namely, it’s diffuse and unstructured. There’s nothing else in the physical world like that. Everything we know in the physical world, certainly in the biological world, is highly specific and structured and has components and intricate arrangements, etc … Well, a standard picture is – and it’s the same as the picture of human malleability – that the brain is different. Even though it is (or maybe because it is) the most complicated object that we know of in the universe, somehow it’s unstructured …. Well, that just cannot be true … Everything we know points to the fact that it’s like other physical objects that develop in the natural world. And if it is, we’re not going to find that one system has the same structural properties as other systems» (Edgley et al, 1989: 32-33).

Putting aside such prejudice, it is «quite natural and plausible» to regard «the growth of language as analogous to the development of a bodily organ» (ibid: 11); the study of language thus «falls naturally within human biology» (ibid: 123). Chomsky uses this argument in an explicit attack on the Marxist tradition, which he regards as a variant of empiricist ideology:

«The Marxist tradition too has characteristically held that humans are products of history and society, not determined by their biological nature; of course this is not true of physical properties, such as the possession of arms rather than wings … but it is held to be true of intellectual, social, and general cultural life» (1988: 162).

This skillful rhetorical maneouvre puts the ball firmly back into his «empiricist» opponents’ court and allows Chomsky to cast himself as an open-minded seeker after truth in contrast to the Marxist dogmatists.



2.1 The analogies Chomsky draws between mental and physical organs and their growth have a definite philosophical significance which he is keen to develop explicitly. Thus, Chomsky contrasts the «deep and abstract» nature of the grammatical knowledge acquired by the child with the «degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data» on which the child bases his/her grammar construction (1965: 58). He notes the «striking uniformity of the resulting grammars, and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state» (ibid), all of which leaves little hope that much of the structure of the language can be learned by an organism initially uninformed as to its general character» (ibid). It is this argument from the «poverty of the stimulus» (Chomsky, 1986), contrasting the knowledge acquired with its evidential base, which is the central epistemological pillar of his biological determinist edifice. This contrast is held to justify the postulation of highly specific and finely tuned innate principles which «permit the organism to transcend experience, reaching a high level of complexity that does not reflect the limited and degenerate environment» (Chomsky, 1980: 340). In more traditional philosophical language, the argument has to do with the problem of induction (sometimes referred to by Chomsky as «Plato’s problem», ibid, and cf Hacker, 1990). The same argument in relation to children’s learning of words is used to support a belief in the innateness of all concepts.

Chomsky’s philosophical stance has much to do with his approval of the refutation of induction by the 18th century Scottish sceptical philosopher David Hume, entailing the rejection of the empiricist principle that experience is the source of human knowledge. Hume showed that the framing of general scientific laws cannot be justified logically, rationally from experience alone, which led him to «the disastrous conclusion that from experience and observation nothing is to be learnt» (Russell, 1991: 645) and from there to a denial of the possibility of rational belief tout court. The logical outcome, in fact, was solipsism. Chomsky, however, sees a solution to the Humean problem in a version of the doctrine of innate ideas: if knowledge cannot derive from experience then it must belong to the mind itself; what we call «knowledge» is produced in-house, so to speak, caused by the internal structure and working of the mind – the physical constitution of the brain itself determines what is and what is not thinkable and knowable. Here the influence of the Cartesian and Kantian traditions makes itself felt although the logic of Chomsky’s position forces him to sharply distance himself from the Cartesian picture of the mind as a «universal instrument» (1988: 149), able to know anything and everything, since, if it is the structure of the brain itself which determines the content and possibilities of human knowledge, there must necessarily be «sharp limits on attainable knowledge» (1979: 64).

2.2 And so to the main epistemological conundrum at the heart of the Chomskyan doctrine: if knowledge is some kind of physical substance grown in the brain, what, then, of truth? In Chomskyan parlance, what of «the relation between the class of humanly accessible theories and the class of true theories» (1980: 251)? On Chomsky’s premisses, truth can only arise via a coincidence or intersection of mental (ie brain) properties with properties of reality: «Where such an intersection exists, a human being can attain real knowledge. And, conversely, he cannot attain real knowledge beyond that intersection» (1979: 66). However, Chomsky has already argued that «we’re not going to find that one system has the same structural properties as other systems» (Edgley et al, 1989, see above) from which it follows that «there is no particular biological reason why such an intersection should exist» (1979: 66). He is forced to conclude that there «is no particular reason to suppose that the science-forming capacities of humans or their mathematical abilities permit them to conceive of theories approximating the truth in every (or any) domain, or to gain insight into the laws of nature» (1980: 251). In other words, there is no reason for believing that any «knowledge» we have is true knowledge, and good reasons for believing that none of it is – a radical scepticism foreign to Descartes but acceptable to Kant who believed that the world of real things outside the mind («Things-in-themselves») was in principle unknowable.

But now the twist. Instead of denying, with Kant, the possibility of real knowledge of things, Chomsky gives the epistemological screw an extra turn, professing a Cartesian faith in the power of human knowledge. For Descartes, the worlds of thought and matter, despite having diametrically opposed properties, nevertheless corresponded exactly, because God made them coincide. Chomksy, too, believes that true knowledge exists, with physics being the prime example (1979: 66). But God, apparently, is not responsible; it is, instead, «just blind luck if the human science-forming capacity, a particular component of the human biological endowment, happens to yield a result that conforms more or less to the truth about the world» (1988: 156-157). Physics, then, may indeed be such an instance of a «lucky accident» (1980: 251), of «a remarkable historical accident resulting from chance convergence of biological properties of the human mind with some aspect of the real world» (ibid). Truth depends, then, on a «kind of biological miracle» (1979: 66).


3.1 How should one characterize Chomsky’s position on language and human mental capacities in the most general philosophical terms? The biological determinist idiom in which his ideas are couched is suggestive of what would be called «mechanical» or «vulgar» materialism within the Marxist tradition (eg Engels, Dialectics). Its materialism lies in the acceptance of the existence of a mind-independent material reality, its vulgarity in the simple reduction of the mental to the material (the biological). However, I believe it would be more accurate to see Chomskyan innatism, in common, I would argue, with all forms of biological reductionisrn, as essentially idealist, a rather curious and simplistic hotch-potch of Kantian scepticism and Cartesian dualism.

The credibility of Chomsky’s epistemology depends crucially on the plausibility of the appeal to a chance convergence of mind (brain) and matter (external world) as an explanation of the possibility of true knowledge. But in fact it is very easy to see that this leap of faith from accessible theories to true theories is quite irrational and illegitimate. If one accepts that all concepts – including those of «brain», «mind», «reality», «person», «world», etc – are forced on our thinking by the brain, whatever the world itself is actually like, then there are quite simply no grounds for claiming either that one’s ideas about the world and the world itself actually correspond, or indeed that there is a real world outside the brain at all. Kant’s theory contained similar inconsistencies and ultimately proved to be untenable. One of the difficulties lies with its assertion of a causal link – a «triggering» perhaps in Chomskyan terms – between the «Things-in-themselves» and the workings of the mind. If we believe, as Kant did, and as Chomsky must, that the category of causality is an inherent mental phenomenon in principle inapplicable to the «Things», then we contradict ourselves in simultaneously asserting both that «Things» are unknowable and that they have causal powers. One cannot frame a coherent philosophical outlook around the claim to have knowledge of that which one declares to be unknowable! In any case, as Russell argues, despite what the Kantians might have thought, their philosophy was not an answer to Hume’s but «represent[ed] a pre-Humian type of rationalism, and can be refuted by Humian arguments» (ibid: 646), as can Chomsky’s theory. In the light of these points it seems slightly perverse to paint Chomsky as a realist, as in, for example Keat and Urry (1975). By his own arguments, the concepts and technical terms of his linguistic theory must be considered the product of an innate conceptual scheme and, therefore, whether such «things» really exist cannot be known. The very theory of mind which Chomsky accepts precludes the claim that the mind is real.

Chomsky’s invocation of biological miracles indicates the acuteness of his epistemological dilemma. Let us briefly explore some of the implications of the ploy. While the possibility of true knowledge, he asserts, depends on chance homologies between the brain and other physical systems in the universe, the chances of such coincidences are reduced to zero if, as he supposes, the brain is a unique physical system. Moreover, epistemological miracles will have to multiply exponentially in order to cope with the convergence of human thought with properties of reality in different spheres, or even within the same sphere. For example, we are asked to believe that the success of modern physics is due to a «chance convergence» between the properties of the brain and the physical world (to what, then, should we attribute the «failure» of ancient physics?). However, «modern physics» comprises many theories about many different objects, states of matter and their interactions under different conditions. Brain states will have to cause mental properties which converge with all these objects and states simultaneously. We will then need to go on to explain similar and simultaneous convergences of brain and biological, chemical, geological, and linguistic, etc phenomena. Worse still, each science is built from systems of concepts, each individual concept, by hypothesis, an innate entity for which one must also be prepared to sanction a similar biological miracle. There are also some tricky questions to answer concerning the processes of historical development of theoretical, scientific and conceptual systems.

3.2 Deserting for a moment the realm of philosophical abstraction, it is interesting that empirical studies of children’s language learning have not, in general, borne out Chomsky’s claims, insofar as they are meaningful (on this Hacker, 1990), particularly in relation to his early allegations about the meagreness and degeneracy of the environmental input and about the speed of language acquisition. While Chomsky paints a picture of the individual child growing a grammar through a purely intellectual process of analysis and sifting of poor quality data, a great volume of work shows language developing in contexts of social interaction around joint practical activity, contexts in which the child’s carers tailor their language to the child’s level of communicative competence (Halliday, 1978; Bruner, 1981; Wells, 1985).

As for Chomsky’s remarks on the innateness of concepts, a thousand objections immediately spring to mind, some of them very ably put by Hacker (1990), although, as distinct from the position defended here, Hacker admits the possibility of innate ideas. In an attempt, perhaps, to disarm potential critics, Chomsky himself is quick to concede that the possession by the child of all concepts in advance of experience is «a condition that is so surprising as to seem outrageous» (1988: 134) while the idea appears to be «essentially correct nevertheless» (ibid), although no evidence is offered in support of the assertion. Here again, the facts of children’s learning of words would appear to contradict Chomsky’s assertion (Vygotsky, 1962; Luria, 1981; Wells, 1985). The whole matter clearly requires detailed investigation and discussion, something which is outside the scope of this paper.

3.3 One may wonder how Chomsky’s radical politics could be squared with his views on human mental capacities. The connections between Chomsky’s political and social views and his linguistic and philosophical views certainly deserve more detailed examination. Chomsky himself, at least in public, plays down such connections, describing them as «extremely tenuous» since «one can’t infer anything about politics from what you know about universal grammar, or conversely» (Edgley et al, 1989: 31). On the other hand, he acknowledges that «any attitude that one takes towards social issues or towards human relations … must be based on some conception of human nature, some conception of how social arrangments or interpersonal relations ought to be conducted in such a way as to be conducive to human needs» (ibid). Chomsky refers to his own conception as a kind of libertarian socialism, with its roots in the liberalism which he claims developed from certain, notably Cartesian, trends of Enlightenment thinking. Cartesian rationalism, with its belief in innate reason and in the creativity and freedom of human thinking is counterposed to an «empiricist» picture of people as «completely malleable and lacking in characteristics» which he claims is used to justify techniques of manipulation and control of the masses by «ideological managers» (ibid). Chomsky claims to find a «modest conceptual barrier against racism in his approach (1979: 92-3).[6] He also claims to detect historical changes, even advances, in moral consciousness in relation to attitudes towards slavery, or the place of women in society, for example (1988: 154), changes he attributes to «an advance towards understanding of our own nature and the moral and ethical principles that derive from it» (ibid).

Nevertheless, one may still feel that the «rationalist» vocabulary of freedom and creativity sits rather uncomfortably with a biological determinist view of human nature. Indeed, the latter dogma is not typically associated with liberal, let alone socialist views. These political implications have not been missed by Chomsky’s critics, some of whom who have, ludicrously, tried to paint him as a racist, a fascist or an apologist for imperialist exploitation (eg Thompson, 1969, and others discussed in Newmeyer, 1986a). Rose, Lewontin and Kamin (1990), on the other hand, in their informed and well-researched critique of biological determinism also draw rather different conclusions from Chomsky about its political possibilities. Exploring the connection between «the rising tide of biological determinist writing» (ibid: ix) since the early 70’s and «the New Right Ideology» (ibid: 5) epitomised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, they argue that biological determinism continues and feeds «a philosophical tradition of individualism, with its emphasis on the priority of the individual over the collective, a tradition appropriated by the ‘New Right’ eager to place the causes of social inequality, crime, ‘immorality’ and poverty within the individual and individual psychology and not in society which, perhaps, does not have its own determining influence on human behaviour» (ibid, and cf the notorious Thatcherite dictum: «there’s no such thing as society»). Sadly, their critique does not extend to linguistics and to Chomsky. Politically, of course, Chomsky does not fit the equation since he is a fierce opponent of racism and New Right ideology. Perhaps it is this fact that has helped to shield his linguistic and philosophical speculations from attack from other liberal and left-wing intellectuals. Thompson (1982), for instance, quite wrongly in my view, is keen to exempt Chomskyan linguistic universals from her sustained and thorough attack on biological determinist constructs. Nevertheless her arguments point to the fundamental contradictions within biological determinist accounts of moral and political structures. She notes that some sociobiologists accept that «an adherence to social norms … can modify or even contain the operation» of the causal, biological mechanism (ibid: 34) and adds:

«But this admission is a dangerous one. For to the extent that consciouness is able to alter the way a biological mechanism operates, the resulting behaviour cannot be said to be caused directly by the mechanism» (ibid).

Chomsky has the same problem: if it is the case that our behaviour and beliefs, including our basic moral judgements, are biologically fixed, then we could hardly rid ourselves of oppressive social and political institutions by mere political debate or action, and the idea that our present attitudes and behaviour are at odds with our biologically determined nature surely contradicts the basic premisses on which the whole argument is built. The result of such attempts to marry biological causation with conscious modification of behaviour is an implausible dualism typical of biological determinism both in modern form (cf Rose, Lewontin and Kamin, 1990) and in earlier, 18th and 19th century versions (cf Plekhanov, The Monist View). From the Marxist point of view, of course, the main issue is not the particular ideological form in which those in power seek to justify their exploitation and manipulation of others (one can surely find «rationaiist» as well as «empiricist» dictatorships). The issue is: how do social formations arise? How can we explain the origin, development and supersession of social structures? If there are chains of cause and effect at the societal level, at the level of relations and interactions between people, which are irreducible to individual mental or behavioural properties, and which are responsible for the shaping and structuring of societies, then the determining forces in socio-historical evolution are these social processes and not «human nature» in the sense of inborn qualities.


4.1 The discussion so far demonstrates that the problem of giving a scientific account of language and its structure is inextricably wedded to other scientific, methodological and philosophical problems, notably the problem of induction, the relationship of the socio-cultural to the biological, of the individual to the social, and of the material to the mental. Chomsky’s approach to these issues lies squarely within the Western, neo-Kantian tradition of subjective, introspective philosophising whose starting point is the inner mental phenomena of the individual subject. Indeed, this philosophical stance transfers directly into a particular methodology employed by generative linguists and others in which introspection and intuition concerning, typically, idealised artificial and decontextualised sentences, are used, often as the sole investigative tool (cf Sampson, 1975).

It has frequently been claimed within the Marxist tradition (eg llyenkov, 1982) that this subjective, individualist approach in its various guises creates more epistemological difficulties than it purports to resolve. Indeed, the approach itself is part of the problem and underlies the various forms of idealist rationalism or scepticism of the Cartesian, Humean, Kantian, and Chomskyan varieties. It is impossible, as Hume himself recognised, to make out of scepticism a philosophy that one can live by. But life has to go on: «Man has to act, think and believe in the existence of the external world, as Hume said» (Plekhanov, op.cit: 521), making this separation of thinking and being into two mutually unintelligible realms an evident absurdity. The Marxist tradition accordingly approaches the whole problem of human knowledge from the opposite end to subjectivist philosophy. With Marx, the character of human thinking is to be investigated in its connections with the social practices in which it is embedded, in its role in transforming the world and in creating an environment adequate for human needs. The content of thought, if not inborn, must, then, be taken from life and must reflect the reality of human relations with the real world and the real relations between people themselves. Without such a coincidence of the mental (or «ideal») and the real, human existence would not be possible for two minutes, let alone two thousand years or two hundred thousand. In addition, as activity and the thinking it generates are social in essence – existing only in and through the concerted effort of the many individuals who make up the collective – neither human activity nor thinking can be a property of an individual considered naturalistically, ie apart from the social nexus. Thus, all ideal forms including language, are seen primarily as a property and product of the life-process of the whole community, and the essence of humanity located not in the individual person, still less the physical constitution of that person, but in «the ensemble of the social relations» (Marx, Theses: 14)

From the Marxist point of view, by cutting the relations between the mind and social activity, Chomsky makes it impossible to account for the content and origins of mental processes. Of course, to stake everything on induction is no solution either, and in fact the Marxist tradition has always recognised the shortcomings of empiricist epistemology, Engels referring to it as «the whole swindle of induction» deriving «from the Englishmen» (Dialectics: 227). Engels accepts that the «empiricism of observation alone can never adequately prove necessity» (Engels, ibid: 229), but emphasises that this is because human knowledge does not derive solely or mainly from observation or contemplation of the natural world. Rather, it is «precisely the alteration of nature by men, not solely nature as such, which is the most essential and immediate basis of human thought, and it is in the measure that man has learned to change nature that his intelligence has increased» (ibid: 231). Observation of the regularities in experience «affords no proof … But the activity of human beings forms the test of causality» and «the proof of necessity lies in human activity, in experiment, in work» (ibid: 229-230). In these passages, Engels is by no means denying a role to induction in the development of thought but proposing that it must be considered as only one side of the many-sided socio-historical process of generation of knowledge in practice and generation of practice from knowledge. In any case, as he shows, induction is inseparable from deduction, and is itself a form of deduction (ibid: 226-229).[7]

4.2 Vygotsky’s achievement (1962, 1978) was to help create a perspective on human language, mentality and personality on the epistemological and methodological ground of historical materialism, basing himself on the primacy of social practical activity in relation to individual thinking and on the interpenetration of the natural and the cultural-historical in the development of language and all mental processes. Vygotsky stressed the centrality of the study of language and its development to the explanation of the unique properties of the human psyche, and to a scientific understanding of human society as a specific form of material organisation. Shaped in the whole life history of the community as an instrument of communicative mediation of practical activity and a form of generalising thought -«the social means of thought» (1962: 5 1) – language interpenetrates with the «natural» psychological and biological processes present in the new-born child leading to the formation of «verbal thought» which «is not an innate, natural form of behaviour but is determined by a historical-cultural process» (ibid).

From this perspective, to acquire the mental wealth so central to the Chomskyan view involves entering this historically determined and developing world of human activity. A child must be part of a human community, engaging in common practices with the community first and foremost, and only as a result thinking and speaking as a community member. In this process, the child is an active participant in the recreation of the material and mental practices already existing outside and around him/her, recreating them at first in forms of interaction with things and other people and then internally, within him/herself in the form of inner speech and consciousness itself. Therefore, on one question Chornksy is undoubtedly correct: the richness of thought which an individual comes to possess is indeed underdetermined by experience, understood simply as the raw data of sense perception immediately accessible to that individual. One can even accept with Kant and Chomsky that the data of experience are somehow organized prior to their representation to the subject» (Bakhurst, 1991: 196), while yet rejecting the possibility of innate ideas or Chomskyan biological programming. The work of llyenkov (eg 1977a,b), as Bakhurst (op.cit) shows, provides an elegant materialist solution to the problem in showing that «what lends the object of experience structure is not the mind of the individual subjects, but the forms of the activity of the community» (ibid: 197).The Kantian categories and concepts, Chomskyan innate ideas, are not, then, essentially properties of the subject, seen as the contemplating individual, but are «the forms of self-consciousness of social beings (understood as the historically developing ‘ensembles of social relations’)» which have to be «assimilated by the individual from without (and confronting him from the very beginning as ‘external’ schemas [patterns] of the movement of culture, independent of his consciousness and will» (ibid: 197). Thus, the individual human being comes to interpret the data of experience – one could even say to «filter it» – through the framework of meanings, categories and norms of the surrounding culture assimilated through joint action. This framework indeed transcends experience because it represents a distillation and summation of the historical experience of the community itself. But for that very reason, because it is not some arbitrary mental scheme imposed adventitiously on the data of sense, it allows the child to relate to the world and to others in a real, tried and tested, meaningful and purposive way. It is this system of social life, and not raw grey matter, which provides the basic socio-cultural and practical «rules» within which the child’s creative imagination can take shape and work. Furthermore, the productive activity responsible for the human environment, if we accept the premisses of historical materialism, determines the social structure of the producing community itself. No biologically fixed conceptual scheme could allow us to operate and survive in such an environment. Thus, neither human thought, nor activity guided by thought, nor the social relations through which activity is effected could have a biologically determined character. In short, a human way of life would not be possible if the content and categories of thinking were genetically inherited.

4.3 If the character of human mental activity is not inborn, what is its material basis and what is the role of the brain? The problem of coherently theorizing the interrelation of biological and mental properties, the «mind-body» problem, is one of the trickiest of all and it is beyond the scope of this paper to tackle it in detail. Leontiev, for example, poses the problem in the following way:

«From a scientific, materialist standpoint, it is impossible, of course to assume the existence of capacities or functions that do not have their specialised organs … How then are we to reconcile the view of man’s higher psychic functions as having their morphological, physiological basis, with the assertion that these functions are not morphologically fixed and are transmitted solely by way of their social ‘inheritance’?» (1981: 426).

He goes on to argue that the «acknowledgement of the socio-historical nature of mental capacities leads to the acceptance, at first glance paradoxical, of their relative independence of the brain’s morphological features» (ibid: 315), a position eloquently explored by llyenkov (1977a: 261):

«It is clear that the ideal, ie the active form of social man’s activity, is immediately embodied, or as it is now fashionable to say, is ‘coded’, in the form of the neuro-cerebral structures of the cortex of the brain, ie quite materially. But the material being of the ideal is not itself ideal but only the form of its expression in the organic body of the individual. In itself the ideal is the socially determined form of man’s life activity corresponding to the form of its object and product. To try and explain the ideal from the anatomical and physiological properties of the body of the brain is the same unfruitful whim as to try and explain the money form of the product of labour by the physico-chemical features of gold».

The psychological and neuropsychological work of Leontiev and Luria (eg 1973) has helped to put some flesh, so to speak, on the philosophical bones of the argument in the form of the key concept of a «functional organ» (Leontiev, op.cit: 427), a system of connections within the brain which is not pre-formed in the child, but forms «simultaneously with the forming of higher, specifically human psychic processes in a child» (ibid: 427). Such systems, when formed, «then function as a single organ» (ibid). From this point of view, the internalisation of language and its conversion into a phenomenon of individual mental life happens through the formation of such a functional organ, the result of the integration and organisation of neuro-physiological structures and processes into a unique system of connections involving the whole brain. The significance of this is that the brain can no longer be considered as a biological given to which cultural phenomena must conform. Rather, the brain, in order to become the vehicle of thought for a human individual, must itself adapt to the cultural environment. In a sense, culture and history write themselves organically into the brain, creating a biological base adequate to them. In the process the brain becomes a kind of «socio-natural» or «socio-biological» organ.

4.4 Finally, let us turn to some allegedly «Marxist» arguments put forward by Newmeyer (1977,1986a) in support of the Chomskyan view of language and mind. Despite a minimalist engagement with the Marxist philosophical and linguistic traditions, Newmeyer feels able to assert that «a Marxist theory of language IN NO WAY precludes the existence of competence models and biologically-linked linguistic universals» (1977: 256) and, indeed, that «it is as senseless to speak of a Marxist theory of language structure as it would be to speak of a Marxist theory of genetic or atomic structure» (ibid). His reasons for claiming this are not explicitly stated but presumably involve the assumption that language structure, unlike economics, is a biological phenomenon and consequently, like biology, is outside the province of historical materialism. Newmeyer is prepared to concede that there is one aspect of «a language’s grammatical system that … depends on the objective conditions of life», namely vocabulary (1986: 136), but argues that the syntactic rules governing the combination of words into sentences belongs to an autonomous mental domain. The central plank, then, of what Newmeyer calls «autonomous linguistics» is the view that «the form of language exists independently of its content» (ibid: 143). It is this thesis that Newmeyer is so concerned to protect against the hostile hordes of Marxist critics, while professing to be a Marxist himself. The significance of the argument appears to be that it allows one to be a Marxist in relation to the content of ideas, words, etc while remaining a Chomskyan in relation to the linguistic form such content assumes.

Is Marxism necessarily incompatible with this view of a biologically determined language faculty? I believe it is, not least because Marxism requires, as a general methodological or philosophical assumption, a relationship and dependency between the categories of form and content at odds with Newmeyer’s conception. From the Marxist point of view Newmeyer assumes metaphysical dualism of form and content on a par with the Cartesian dualism of mind and body: on the one hand pure forms, entirely free of any meaning or content, and, on the other, meaning so pure that it is entirely devoid of any hint of form or structure. How would such substances meet and interact? How and why could the brain, let us say, recognise such empty formal structures as having anything to do with language at all? What, indeed, makes them forms of language? The alleged autonomy of grammar, therefore, is based on a distinctly dubious methodology and ontology. Furthermore, in the grammatical theory defended by Newmeyer there is actually no such clear-cut separation of formal and semantic dimensions. Principles of Universal Grammar are invoked in relation to such semantic relations as «agency» and to the referential properties of names and pronouns (cf Radford, 1981). In practice, the dialectical relationship of form and content is not so easy to ignore. Finally, as we have seen, the «poverty of the stimulus» arguments used by Chomsky in support of formal universals are also applied to support the position that the conceptual content of language, too, is innate. If we wish to avoid this latter outcome then we must also contest the case in relation to form.


In this paper I have tried to outline the basic philosophical and methodological assumptions behind Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar and the main objections to the theory from within the Marxist tradition. I have argued that the biological determinist framework of Chomsky’s theory is an unsound philosophical and methodological foundation for the scientific investigation of human affairs in general and language in particular. There is an alternative in the tradition of materialist investigation of language and mental phenomena associated with the name of Vygotsky and others, which allows us to give full due to our material, biological natures without at the same time preventing us from appreciating the essentially socio-cultural determination of our activity and thinking.

Since these issues have been discussed without consideration of the linguistic facts, the case I have made will undoubtedly be insufficient to impress those who find Chomsky’s technical arguments more persuasive. One could counter by saying that the theory of innate linguistic universals is far from forcing itself on the impartial scientific investigator through the sheer weight of empirical evidence (as implied by, eg Salkie, 1991). On the contrary, like Chomsky’s Martian, one must already have made some powerful assumptions about the nature of humanity and of human mental activity to be willing to accept the formalist methodology as well as the innatist conclusions of Chomskyan linguistics. As we have seen, the assumptions Chomsky makes, on which his whole research programme rests, are biological determinist, which in philosophy means idealist. If we judge this ideological framework to be untenable, then the viability of the linguistic theory is called into question. And if we cannot find at once all the answers to the structural puzzles Chomsky’s theory purports to solve, we would do better to be cautiously sceptical about the data than to be bounced into embracing a set of assumptions which have devastating consequences for the human sciences.


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Peter Jones
5 January 1994


1 I would like to thank the following friends and colleagues for their critical comments and/or encouragement: Terry Moore, Keith Green, Jill Le Bihan, and Gill Musson. An early version of part of this paper was given in a workshop at the «Realism and the Human Sciences» conference at Sussex University, Summer 1991. Some of the key issues in this paper are discussed at greater length in Jones (1982, 1991).

2 T H Huxley, in Desmond and Moore (1991).

3 See Chomsky (1987a) for a succinct and readable account of his approach to language and mind.

4 I am referring here, firstly, to the work of L S Vygotsky (eg 1962, 1978) and close associates (eg Leontiev, 1977, 1978, 1981; Luria, 1981) as well as to more recent work broadly within that tradition within the former USSR and in the West (eg llyenkov, 1977a,b; Mikhailov, 1980; Wertsch, 1981a,b, 1985a,b; Bakhurst, 1986,1990,1991).

5 This view of language acquisition as biological growth produces some rather interesting and provocative comparisons. Pateman (1987: 92), for example, suggests that grammars as conceived in the Chomskyan paradigm are «about as social and no more social than infectious diseases». Lightfoot (1989), stressing that these comparisons are no mere analogies, likens the acquisition of grammatical competence to the production of antibodies in the immune system.

6 Chomsky seems to imply, however, that those people who have racist, sexist or pro-slavery views are insane or suffering from some kind of mental dysfunction (Chomsky,1988, 1979). Such attitudes are not, therefore, considered as socially produced but as stemming from disordered individual brains.

7 There is no time here to give a full account of the Marxist critique of empiricism. The main texts to consult on this are, perhaps, Engels (Dialectics), Plekanov (The Monist View) and llyenkov (1982), the latter developing at length an account of the Marxist «method of cognition», known as the method of the ascent from the abstract to the concrete (on this, cf Bakhurst, 1991).


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