Chomsky Amid the Philosophers


Some Biographical Facts

(1) As an undergraduate at Pennsylvania, Chomsky studied philosophy and mathematics.


(2) From 1951-55, Chomsky (while at Harvard) developed friendships with Goodman, Quine, Scheffler, Bar-Hillel, and Putnam. The first four are mentioned by Chomsky in the preface to Syntactic Structures.


(3) In 1960, Chomsky attracted Fodor and Katz (both then at Princeton) to come to MIT. They formed the philosophical point, as it were, of the generative enterprise, although Fodor was involved in some interesting empirical work - e.g., the ‘click’ experiments - and Katz was an accomplished syntactician. Both significantly departed from Chomsky in the 1970s/80s. Chomsky has often highlighted this split. Many philosophers, though, persist in reading Chomsky through Fodor.


(4) Over the years, Chomsky has responded (mostly in detail) to the following contemporary philosophers:

Alston, Barnes, Burge, Bilgrami, the Churchlands, Cohen, Danto, Davidson, Dennett, Devitt, Dummett, Fodor, Foster, Grice, Harman, Higginbotham, Hintikka, Horwich, Katz, Kenny, Kripke, Lear, Lewis, Ludlow, Lycan, McGinn, Milikan, Moravcsik, Nagel, Putnam, Quine, Rey, Rorty, Searle, Soames, Sterelney, Stich, (Peter and Galen) Strawson, M. Williams, Wright,… 


(5) Chomsky has often positively appealed to non-contemporary philosophers (the ‘Cartesians’ apart):

Hume, Kant, Peirce, Austin, Wittgenstein.


“I assumed from my earliest writings in the mid-1950s a kind of “use theory of meaning,” not in Wittgenstein’s terms but perhaps not inconsistent with them.”

— ‘Reply to Horwich’ (2003). In Chomsky and his Critics, eds. L. Antony and N. Hornstein, 2003, p.295.


“Perhaps one might argue that recent semantic theories supersede the intuitions of Wittgenstein… because of their Explanatory success. That does not, however, seem a promising idea; explanatory success will hardly bear that burden. In general, we have little reason now to believe that more than a Wittgensteinian assembly of particulars lies beyond the domain of internalist inquiry [JC: basically, syntax].

— ‘Explaining Language Use’ (1992). In New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 2001, p.45.


“As for semantics, insofar as we understand language use, the argument for a reference-based semantics seems to me weak. It is possible that natural language… has a “semantics” only in the sense of “the study of how this instrument, whose formal structure and potentialities of expression are the subject of syntactic investigation, is actually put to use in a speech community,” to quote from the earliest formulation in generative grammar 40 years ago, influenced by Wittgenstein, Austin and others.” [The quotation is from Syntactic Structures (1957).]

— ‘Language as a Natural Object’ (1994). In New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, 2001, p.132.


“[F]actual beliefs and common-sense expectations also play a role in determining that a thing is categorizable and hence namable. Consider Wittgenstein’s disappearing chair. In his terms, we have no “rules saying whether one may use the word ‘chair’ to include this kind of thing” [PI, p.38, as Noam quaintly references it]. Or to put it differently, we keep certain factual assumptions about the behaviour of objects fixed when we categorize them and thus take them as eligible for naming or description.”

Reflections on Language, 1975, p.45.


Chomsky’s Attitude to Philosophy

Chomsky not only appeals to the ‘rationalist’ tradition, he also shares their conception of philosophy being simply a more a more foundational aspect of inquiry, not essentially separable from what we would think of as empirical inquiry:


(1) “Philosophy is a somewhat artificial discipline. It didn’t really exist until fairly recently. Until about the 19th century, there was no real difference between science and philosophy. It’s not clear that the distinction makes sense. I don’t have any philosophical view, and I don’t think there are such views. I think we ought to try to understand the world, understand ourselves, society, and do it by whatever methods there are… Physics has been changing to accommodate new phenomena. But either you succeed or you fail. If you fail you’ve got problems. If you succeed, it’s part of physics. I don’t see any other question”.

— ‘The Cognitive Revolution, II’ (1988). In Language and Politics, ed. Carlos Otero, 1988, pp.753-4.


By no means, though, does Chomsky  see science as offering an account of ‘everything’. Science progresses along quite narrow paths, perhaps for essential reasons:


(3) “Plainly, such an approach [as articulated above] does not exclude other ways of trying to comprehend the world. Someone committed to it (as I am) can consistently believe (as I do) that we learn much more of human interest about how people think and feel and act by reading novels or studying history than from all of naturalistic psychology, and perhaps always will; similarly, the arts may offer appreciation of the heavens to which astrophysics cannot aspire. We are here speaking of theoretical understanding, a particular mode of comprehension. In this domain, any departure from a naturalistic approach carries a burden of justification. Perhaps one can be given, but I know of none. Departures from this naturalistic approach are not uncommon, including, in my opinion, much of the most reflective and considered work in the philosophy of language and mind, a fact that merits some thought, if true”.

Language and Thought, 1993, p.42.


Equally, Chomsky doesn’t have a technocratic understanding of science. Before we are scientists, we are humans; we should be sensitive to the social and political impact of our theorising:


“A scientist, like anyone else, is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his acts… The scientist who undertakes this inquiry [into race and IQ] must therefore show that its significance is so great as to outweigh its costs… [In fact], the inquiry has no scientific significance and no social significance, apart from the racist assumption that individuals must be regarded not as what they are but rather as standing at the mean of their race category, it follows that it has no merit at all…What we do as scientists, as scholars, as advocates, has consequences, just as our refusal to speak or act has definite consequences. We cannot escape this condition in a society based on concentration of power and privilege… We may and should recommend the simple virtues: honesty and truthfulness, responsibility and concern. But to live by these precepts is often no simple matter.”

 ‘Equality: Language Development, Human Intelligence, and Social Organization’ (1976). In Chomsky on Democracy and Education, ed. Carlos Otero, 2003, pp. 117-9.



Some of Chomsky’s ‘Philosophical’ Views

(1) Dissolution - not solution - of the mind/body problem.

Unlike Descartes, we now have no clear sense of what a body might be.


(2) Rejection of materialism/physicalism as empty.

There are no a priori constraints on what would count as physical.


(3) Rejection of reductionism as a misunderstanding of scientific methodology.

Lower level sciences typically have to be modified to accommodate higher theories.


(4) Rejection of the problem of intentionality.

There is no conceptually independent description of what mental states are supposed to be about.


(5) Rejection of functionalism in the philosophy of mind.

There is no a priori or empirical reason to want or expect a theory of mentality as such.


(6) Rejection of all would be substantial claims that language is for X.

Language is ‘for’ whatever we can make of it; there is nothing about the mathematical structure of language which makes it appear to be designed for one particular thing or another, and all the uses of language appear not to be reducible to, or explicable in terms of, just the one or a few.


(7) Rejection of  representation as re-presentation in regards to both mind and language.

External relations may or may not be germane to an understanding of linguistic structure, but there is no clear sense in which the structures carry information about external relata.


(8) Rejection of indeterminacy proposals.

One should approach above the neck phenomena with the same methodology as applies below the neck. Indeterminacy is just familiar underdetermination.


(9) Clear separation of  colloquial concepts from scientific ones.

Science invents its own concepts; science doesn’t discover essences, not of water, mountains, beliefs, or meanings. In particular, there is no prospect of a science of mind or language that will reduce or eliminate our ‘ethno’ understanding.


(10) Rejection of non-theoretical ontological questions.

Outside of narrow theoretical avenues, there is no ‘interest-independent’ inquiry into how the world is.


(11) Rejection of all claims that language acquisition is a matter of training/teaching.

Such claims are empirically false.


(12) Rejection of ‘theories’ of meaning or content.

The notions are colloquial and nebulous; there is no a priori or empirical demand to have a theory of such ‘things’.


(13) Rejection of all abstract/Platonist understandings of language and thought.

Essentially incapable of entering into a theory of acquisition.


(14) Rejection of causal explanations of behaviour or mental states.

There is no clear sense in which behaviour/mental states have causal antecedents. No-one has yet to imagine even an adequate science in this area.


(15) Separation of language from the ‘use’ of language.

Language is a commonsense term. For theoretical purposes, we target the mathematical structure that is realised in the human mind/brain - call this I-language.


(16) Rejection of all analogies between language and X.

Analogies are not explanatory. Aspects of language might be like football. Other aspects are like snowflakes. So what?


(17) Rejection of propositional knowledge of language.

The speaker/hearer knows a language to the extent that she is able to speak and understand in a systematic way. A theory may target the structure that enables such systematicity, but there is no a priori reason to think that the structure will be propositional. To think otherwise is to read the colloquial idioms of our ‘ethno’ concepts into the posits of the scientific theory.


(18) Rejection of the autonomy of meaning.

Sentences and words don’t carry their full ‘meanings’ with them. Meaning is inseparable from matters of fact, belief, and context. However, aspects of ‘meaningfulness’ are at least determined by linguistic structure, which has no observable correlates.


(19) Rejection of psychological reality.

Linguistic structures are psychologically real in no greater sense than their being posited by successful theories of the mind/brain.


(20) Rejection of ‘rules’ as constitutive of linguistic understanding.

There are rules to the extent that they enter into a theoretical understanding of linguistic capacity. This doesn’t seem to be the case.


(21) Rejection of communication as a nebulous concept .

Any system whatsoever communicates.


(22) Rejection of public languages.

Vague political, geographical notions which possess no explanatory value.


(23) Rejection of any notion of correctness in speech or meaning.

Correctness is a normative, social notion, which has no role to play in the determination of linguistic competence.


It will be noted that these views are all negative. Chomsky has no philosophical views beyond those views articulated in his detailed work in linguistics and their consequences, and the working methodological assumptions which govern that work.


Chomsky’s nativism and internalism are not philosophical views. They are metatheoretical hypotheses that are confirmed to the extent that the object-level theories remain progressive. As a point of fact, no explanatory theory in the area of language or mind has met with any success which has rejected nativism and internalism.


Chomsky’s ‘Tactics’ with the Philosophers

Chomsky has four general tactics against his philosophical interlocutors.


(1) Expose the false empirical assumptions in the work of the philosopher.

The list here is vast, and tends to include any philosophy who talks about training, encultureation, teaching, word learning, triangulation, context, feedback, dispositions…


(2) Confrontation of a priori claims about language with syntactic results.


(3) Deconstruction, as it were.

This is employed against those who see a departure from common idiom as signaling a conceptual howler. Chomsky points out that they themselves are departing from common idiom in an effort to save a piece of high metaphysics to do, say, with the publicity of meaning or language being a capacity. Kenny, Dummett, Strawson, Lear and others fall victim.


(4) Ignorance

With a few notable exceptions (Soames, and, to an extent, Harman, Putnam and Stich), Chomsky’s philosophical interlocutors have not concerned themselves with linguistic theory, still less psycholinguistics. Chomsky, however, has always made clear that his apparent philosophical views are wholly parasitic on theoretical work done by him and others. The results are less than flattering for philosophy. Things have improved, but not greatly, Fiona Cowie’s recent book length attack on Chomsky - What’s Within (1999) - is marked throughout by fundamental ignorance and confusion, and a lack of basic intellectual integrity. A more recent book by Jesse Prinz - Furnishing the Mind (2003) - affects to be technically sophisticated but makes elementary errors at every turn.

       It remains easy to find supposedly cutting edge works of philosophy of language which are premised on claims that have been known to be false for decades - a particularly egregious example is Brandom’s Making It Explicit.

       Chomsky doesn’t think that philosophy of language should become linguistics. Chomsky’s praise for Austin and Wittgenstein is precisely based on the thought that in the area of meaning, it is more important to have a clear conception of the phenomena, than to develop theories which are transparently inadequate. See quotations above.



There’s No Such Thing as ‘Chomskyanism’

Chomsky has always fiercely rejected the personalisation of linguistics around himself. We don’t talk of ‘Einsteinianism’. Personalisation is a mark of organised religion, not intellectual inquiry. It exists where there are no results.


No-one in linguistics talks of ‘Chomskyanism’, and for good reason. Most of generative linguistics doesn’t originate with Chomsky. For example,


Deep Structure - Katz and Postal

Movement conditions - Ross

C-command - Reinhart

Parametric conditions - Rizzi

Phrase structure elimination - Lasnik/Stowell

LF movement - May

Little v - Hale/Keyser

Arg heads - Kayne/Pollock

Level free architecture - Uriagereka/Epstein



Chomsky’s influence on philosophy has been as great as any one’s of the past 50 years. In the 1960s, empiricism, behaviourism and off the shelf ‘Wittgensteinianism’ reigned. That such views are now largely considered absurd is due mostly to Chomsky. Unfortunately, a new set of doctrines dominate: functionalism, causal theories of content and behaviour, truth conditional theories of meaning, etc.


Some Nice Things Said about Chomsky

“Chomsky’s work is one of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of the present era… In the long run, I believe [Chomsky’s] greatest contribution will be that he has taken a major step toward restoring the traditional conception of the dignity and uniqueness of man”.

— John Searle, ‘Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics’ (1972)


“Philosophers have much admired him [Chomsky] but have also criticized some features of his work. Here he examines their arguments. It is like watching the grand master play, blindfolded, thirty-six simultaneous chess matches against the local worthies. He almost always wins.”

— Ian Hacking, ‘Chomsky and his Critics’ (1980)


 “Noam is, of course, a major philosopher and a great linguist… In the end… I think Noam Chomsky is right in making his rejoinder to Quine’s claims.”

— Hilary Putnam, ‘Model Theory and the ‘Factuality’ of Semantics’ (1989)


“… Noam Chomsky, for whose accomplishments, both intellectual and political, I have the deepest admiration”.

— Crispin Wright, ‘Wittgenstein’s Rule following Considerations and the Central Project of Theoretical Linguistics’ (1989)


“He [Chomsky] cannot be charged with lack of diligence in the study and assimilation, when relevant, of the work of mathematicians, scientists and philosophers available to him, or with not having tried to stand on their shoulders whenever possible. Regretfully, some philosophers, like some of their fellow scientists, particularly biologists, have yet to study and assimilate his groundbreaking discoveries. The price has been high in embarrassment.”

— Akeel Bilgrami, in Chomsky, Language and Thought, 1993, p.58-9.


“Not many scientists are great scientists, and not many great scientists get to found a whole new field, but there are a few. Charles Darwin is one; Noam Chomsky is yet another… In 1960, my sophomore year at Harvard, I asked Quine what critics of his views I should be reading. He immediately suggested that I should look at the work of Noam Chomsky”.

— Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995)


“One would therefore expect that any philosopher of mind or language would make it his or her business to understand the basic methodology and some of the results of this subject. But many philosophers of mind and language proceed in utter ignorance of the subject.”

— Gilbert Harman, Review of Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind 2001.