Platonic Chomsky?

Scott Martens smartens at
Thu Mar 30 09:53:53 PST 2000

> We will never know how language works in the brain, not because it's some
> sort of impenetrable mystery, but because language does not work in the
> brain. Language works in the mind. The mind can be equated with the brain
> only if neuroscientists can isolate memory in the brain. No memory, no
> mind.

Ah, Cartesianism!

I'm a materialist. To whatever extent minds exist, they exist in the human nervous system. There is evidence to support this idea, for example how behaviour and personality traits change when the brain is damaged sometimes, and specifically how language ability can change or be completely eliminated by brain damage. Memories can be lost or changed by physical damage to the brain. Language and linguistic abilities can be changed by messing with the brain.

> Neuroscientists assume that memory lurks somewhere in the arrangement of
> neurons and synapses. The paradox is that once they find it, it will no
> longer exist. Memory is recall. To remember is to retrieve something which
> has been lost to the present. So, computers don't actually have memory. If
> the sought-after information has been stored all this time, then there's no
> need to recall it. It's as if every particular thing you would ever need to
> remember is written down on a little scrap of paper somewhere, and it's
> simply a matter of finding the piece of paper so you don't have to remember
> it. If we really do have memory, and we have no reason to assume it's a
> hallucination, then it can't be found in the brain.

You have defined memory in such a way that it can't be stored in any form. If so, how does memory persist in time? It must be encoded into some sort of physical medium in order to be accessible at a later time.

> Memory is intrinsic to language. To understand a statement, we have to
> remember the preceding statements. Like music, language is essentially
> temporal. It exists in time but not in the same way that objects exist in
> time. For an object, time is passage. For language, time is accumulation.

Huh? Okay, memory is intrinsic to langauge. To understand a statement, we must be able to use a stored algorithm to parse the statement and construct meaning from it. The rest of this doesn't even make sense.

> So, language exists *across* time, just as the brain exists across space.
> The brain does not contain language; it merely facilitates its operations.
> The brain is the playing out of the mind; it's the moment-to-moment
> materialization of mentality. It doesn't contain the secrets of language or
> its rules. It just facilitates speech and comprehension in the moment. I'm
> not suggesting that the mind exists on some higher plane, imposing its
> "rules" onto matter. The mind is merely the "echo" of the brain. It
> informs the brain based on the brain's own past activities.

Okay, so you're saying minds do exist in the brain? I'm confused. As for language existing "across time" in what sense does it do so that the brain doesn't?

> This leads to a question: Is Chomsky a Platonist? These rules that generate
> and govern languages sound similar to transcendent Ideas. Do these rules
> vary at all over time? Or are they static and essentially eternal?

Whether Chomsky is a Platonist isn't of the slightest interst to me, however, language does change in time if that's what you mean. What bearing this has on the mind/body problem eludes me.

Scott Martens


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