Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Linguistic creativity 2

Here’s part 2. See here for part 1.

L&M identifies two other important properties that were central to the Cartesian view.

First, human linguistic usage is apparently free from stimulus control “either external or internal.” Cartesians thought that animals were not really free, animal behavior being tightly tied to either environmental exigencies (predators, food location) or to internal states (being hungry or horny). The law of effect is a version of this view (here). I am dubious that this is actually true of animals. And, I recall a quip from an experimental psych friend of mine that claimed that the first law of animal behavior is that the animal does whatever it damn well pleases. But, regardless of whether this is so for animals, it is clearly true of humans as manifest in their use of language. And a good thing too, L&M notes. For this freedom from stimulus control is what allows “language to serve as an instrument of thought and self-expression,” as it regularly does in daily life.

L&M notes that Cartesians did not take unboundedness or freedom from stimulus control to “exceed the bounds of mechanical explanation” (12). This brings us to the third feature of linguistic behavior: the coherence and aptness of everyday linguistic behavior. Thus, even though linguistic behavior is not stimulus bound, and hence not tightly causally bound to external or internal stimuli, linguistic behavior is not scattershot either. Rather it displays “appropriateness to the situation.” As L&M notes, it is not clear exactly how to characterize condign linguistic performance, though “there is no doubt that these are meaningful concepts…[as] [w]e can distinguish normal use of language from the ravings of a lunatic or the output of a computer with a random element” (12). This third feature of linguistic creativity, its aptness/fit to the situation without being caused by it was, for Cartesians, the most dramatic expression of linguistic creativity.

Let’s consider these last two properties a little more fully: (i) stimulus-freedom (SF) and (ii) apt fit (AF).

Note first that both kinds of creativity though expressed in language, are not restricted to linguistic performances. It’s just that normal language use provides everyday manifestations of both features.

Second, the sources of both these aspects of creativity are, so far as I can tell, still entirely mysterious. We have no idea how to “model” either SF or AF in the general case. We can, of course, identify when specific responses are apt and explain why someone said what they did on specific occasions. However, we have no general theory that illuminates the specific instances.[1] More precisely, it’s not that we have poor theories, it’s that we really have no theories at all. The relevant factors remain mysteries, rather than problems in Chomsky’s parlance. L&M makes this point (12-13):

Honesty forces us to admit that we are as far today as Descartes was three centuries ago from understanding just what enables a human to speak in a way that is innovative, free from stimulus control, and also appropriate and coherent.

The intractability of SF and AF serves to highlight the importance of the competence/performance distinction. The study of competence is largely insulated from these mysterious factors.  How so? Well, it abstracts away from use and studies capacities, not their exercise. SF and PF are not restricted to linguistic performances and so are unlikely intrinsically linked to the human capacity for language. Hence detaching the capacity should not (one hopes) corrupt its study, even if how competence is used for the free expression of thought remains obscure.

The astute reader will notice that Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior (VB) leaned heavily on the fact of SF. Or more accurately, the review argued that it was impossible to specify the contours of linguistic behavior by tightly linking it to environmental inputs/stimuli or internal states/rewards. Why? Cartesians have an answer: the Skinnerian project is hopeless. Our behavior is both SF and AF, our verbal behavior included. Hence any approach to language that focuses on behavior and its immediate roots in environmental stimuli and/or rewards is doomed to failure. Theories built on supposing that SF or AF are false will either be vacuous or evidently false. Chomsky’s critique showed how VB embodied the twin horns of this dilemma. Score one for the Cartesians.

One last point and I quit. Chomsky’s expansive discussion of the various dimensions of linguistic creativity may shed light on “Das Chomsky Probleme.” This is the puzzle of how, or whether, two of Chomsky’s interests, politics and linguistics, hook up. Chomsky has repeatedly (and IMO, rightly) noted that there is no logical relation between his technical linguistic work and his anarchist political views. Thus, there is no sense in which accepting the competence/performance distinction or thinking that TGG is required as part of any solution to linguistic creativity or thinking that there must be a language dedicated FL to allow for the facts of language acquisition in any way imply that we should organize societies on democratic bases in which all participants robustly participate, or vice versa. The two issues are logically and conceptually separate.

This said, those parts of linguistic creativity that the Cartesians noted and that remain as mysterious to us today as when they were first observed can ground a certain view of politics. And Chomsky talks about this (L&M:102ff). The Cartesian conception of human nature as creative in the strong Cartesian sense of SF and AF leads naturally to the conclusion that societies that respect these creative impulses are well suited to our nature and that those that repress them leave something to be desired. L&M notes that this creative conception lies at the heart of many Enlightenment and, later, Romantic conceptions of human well-being and the ethics and politics that would support expression of these creative capacities. There is a line of intellectual descent from Descartes through Rousseau to Kant that grounds respect for humans in the capacity for this kind of “freedom.” And Chomsky is clearly attracted to this idea. However, and let me repeat, however, Chomsky has nothing of scientific substance to say about these kinds of creativity, as he himself insists. He does not link his politics to the fact that humans come with the capacity to develop TGGs. As noted, TGGs are at right angles to SF and AF, and competence abstracts away from questions of behavior/performance where SF and AF live. Luckily, there is a lot we can say about capacities independent of considering how these capacities are put to use. And that is one important point of L&M’s extended discussion of the various aspects of linguistic creativity. That said, these three conceptions connect up in Cartesian conceptions of human nature, despite their logical and conceptual independence and so it is not surprising that Chomsky might find all three ideas attractive even if they are relevant for different kinds of projects. Chomsky’s political interests are conceptually separable from his linguistic ones. Surprise, surprise it seems that he can chew gum and walk at the same time!

Ok, that’s it. Too long, again. Take a look at the discussion yourself. It is pretty short and very interesting, not the least reason being how abstracting away from deep issues of abiding interest is often a pre-condition for opening up serious inquiry. Behavior may be what interests us, but given SF and AF is has proven to be refractory to serious study. Happily, studying the structure of the capacity independent of how it is used has proven to be quite a fertile area of inquiry. It would be a more productive world were these insights in L&M more widely internalized by the cog-neuro-ling communities.

[1] The one area where SFitude might be relevant regards the semantics of lexical items. Chomsky has argued against the denotational theories of meaning in part by noting that there is no good sense in which words denote things. He contrasts this with “words” in animal communication systess. As Chomsky has noted, how lexical items work “pose deep mysteries,” something that referential theories do not appreciate. See here for references and discussion.  

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