Platonic Chomsky?

Ken Hanly khanly at
Thu Mar 30 11:14:27 PST 2000

Well, he may not admit to being a Platonist but he certainly gives credit for his views on innateness to Descartes, even going so far as to call one of his books Cartesian Linguistics. Innate ideas, could be "hardwired" into the brain but yet require input to activate them. The innate rules are only syntactical The rules are assumed to be innate because children are able to interpret numerous sentences representing propositions of which they have had no experience at all-or that is part of the story I believe. Scott can correct this if it is wrong. Good children's books typically make use of this fact--as in Dr. Seuss.

I believe, meanings of particular words and of course what words mean what vary from language to language and are learned from experience according to Chomsky. Even syntax at the surface level varies from language to language as contrasted to deep structures. I don't think that CHomsky thinks that "dog", "chien" and "Hund" refer to some transcendent form "dog" or that the idea of a dog is innate as Plato seems to hold.

Cheers, Ken Hanly

Gordon Fitch wrote:
> Dace:
> > ...
> > 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?
> > ...
> As I recall he avoids answering such questions. He says only
> that it is clear to him from the evidence that there is some
> biologically innate language-processing ability in humans,
> not that it is a manifestation of form from a higher realm.
> No stepping up to the plate and swinging for the bleachers,
> as with, say, Goedel.
> Noam is a rather cagey fellow. "Animal rights" came up on
> Z-net a few years ago and he started out disparaging the
> movement rather heartily; but he didn't do an "animal rights
> is a Nazi idea" number as hereabouts recently. This allowed
> him to retreat gracefully under fire, finally harrumphing
> that he didn't know much about it after all, and had other
> things on his mind. So you see he is cleverer than some
> people, even if he is not a great genius. He's not going
> to get his tail caught in the Platonic ice, either.
> Gordon

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