Language and Thought
Noam Chomsky, 1993

Language and Thought
Denying any hope that he might do more than chip away at the rather grandiose themes suggested by the title, Chomsky begins by reconsidering the framework constructed by Gottlob Frege just a hundred years ago. Frege's basic assumption is that "mankind possesses a common treasure of thoughts which is transmitted from generation to generation," something that "cannot well be denied." Were it not the case, "a common science would be impossible."

But it cannot be that a public language -- such as English -- exists "independently of any particular speakers"; that each of us has only a partial, and partially erroneous, grasp of the language." "Languages" or "dialects" are complex amalgams determined by colors on maps, oceans, political institutions, and so on. And there is no explanatory gap that such a construct might fill if it were devised. The language of southern Sweden was once Danish but became Swedish a few years later without changing, as a result of military conquest.

As for communication, it does not require shared "public meanings" any more than it requires "public pronunciations." Communication is a more-or-less matter, seeking a fair estimate of what the other person said and has in mind. It could turn out that there really is something like "public shared meaning," because the highly restrictive innate properties of the language allow so little variation; that would be an interesting (and not surprising) empirical discovery, but there is no conceptual requirement that anything of the sort be true.

Discussion

Eric Wanner (Moderator)

Akeel Bilgrami

George Miller

James H. Schwartz

Conclusion

Noam Chomsky

Ruth Nanda Anshen


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