[xmca] Language as a Biological Function

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Sun Sep 09 2007 - 01:00:41 PDT

In 2005 a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut published a book (mis?)titled "Language: A Biological Model" (Millikan, R.G. Oxford: OUP). It's actually VERY good--much better than the Piatelli-Palmarini volume of the debates between Piaget and Chomsky.
  Actually, in Piatelli-Palmarini, BOTH Chomsky and Piaget agree that there is a "biological" core, by which they understand something completely hardwired in the brain. BOTH Chomsky and Piaget see this as "rules", and the famous example is this one:
  The man who is here is tall.
  Is the man who is here tall?
  (Piatelli-Palmarini, 1979: 71)
  How do kids know where to find the main verb when they make questions? Both men agree that children cannot figure this rule out pragmatically; there must some sense in which the hierarchical compositionality of clause structure is part of the child's biological endowment.
  If anything, Piaget is MORE biologically oriented than Chomsky, because he is trying to demonstrate that semiosis is the outcome of sensori-motor intelligence (and children do not really use symbols in any real sense), while Chomsky holds that language is a highly abstract function from the very onset. The one who really fights against Chomsky's rhetorical excesses ("le langage est un organe") is not Piaget but Bateson.
  The great thing about Millikan's book is that she essentially does away with rules. Instead of language being "rule governed", it is all negotiated in situ as we go along. The appearance of rules simply comes about because some interactions are more satisfactory than others, and satisfactory interactions tend to survive "biologically" (of course, you and I would say socioculturally).
  Millikan, then, would say that "The man who is tall is here" is not derived from a hardwired hierarchical compositional structure at all, but rather from conversations that go something like this:
  He's here.
  Who's here?
  The man...you know...the tall one.
  Oh...the man who is tall is here? I thought he left....
  Right now, all over Korea, fourth grade teachers are teaching the following grammar lesson.
  Mina: Is this your cap?
  Julie: No. My cap is red.
  Minsu: Is THIS your cap?
  Julie. Yes.
  So I tried Chomsky's experiment with some fourth graders. I gave them the following sentence, and asked them to make a question:
  The cap which is red is Julie's cap.
  According to Chomsky, children should make no errors. But I got no correct sentences. Instead, I got a lot of sentences like this:
  Which is the red cap?
  I tried changing "which" to "that", and the kids said:
  "That cap is red is your cap?"
  Well, you can see what's going on here! The kids are confusing the demonstrative use of "which" and "that" ("That cap" and "Which cap") with the hypotactic use ("the cap that/which").
  Now, maybe the children (and Millikan) are absolutely right, and the hypotactic use is derived from the demonstrative. I rather think they are. But in that case Chomsky and Piaget are absolutely wrong: it's not hardwired at all, but learned from conversations like this:
  Is that cap red?
  Yes, it is. Is it yours?
  Yes, it is.
  In this conversation, the interest in the color is clearly PRAGMATICALLY subordinated to the interest in ownership. And of course to derive "The cap that is red is your cap" from this inter-mental exchange just takes a single, simple application of Vygotsky's genetic law, whereby intramental functions like grammar have their origins in inter-mental ones like discourse.
  Millikan's model is "biological" only in the sense that people are animals. I can live with that!
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: Andy: I'm not so sure I can live with your hand-raising example. Of course, we cannot control our behavior any more than a shadow can carry stones, but surely there is a difference--a dialectically QUALITATIVE difference--between a hand waving and a flag waving! According to chaos/complexity theory, neither one is really random, but one is surely deterministic in a sense the other is not.

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Received on Sun Sep 9 01:05 PDT 2007

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