Cartesian Linguistics by Chomsky


Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966), is explictly based on Descartes' philosophical notions. For Descartes, Reason is the essential element that makes us human and as he believed that Mathematics is Ideal Reason, correct human reasoning has the same characteristics as mathematical reasoning. Chomsky transposes this to Language which aquires the cartesian idea of reason and is the chomskyan essence of humanity. Language has a mathematical nature which give it a formal aspect. So language becomes form. It is also universal and innate, independent of the external world. The essence of language itself is universal grammar which is formal and mathematical.

However, Chomsky rejects Descartes' notions of the existence of mental substance and the belief that reason/language is conscious and can be readily accessed by conscious reflection. 

On the other hand the author's version of cartesianism retains aspects of formalist philosophy. One of these is the metaphor Thought is Language where reason is visualised as linguistic in nature. Another is the Thought As Mathematical Calculation metaphor. These images encourage the use of languages to define reason as a manipulation of symbols without reference to their meaning.

Chomsky's inspiration for the mathematical theory of formal language was Emil Post. The symbols of a formal language are considered meaningless and they need interpretation. This means that syntax is independent of semantics and meaning cannot influence syntactic rules. Thus a sentence is a string of symbols; a language is a set of symbols; a grammar is rules for generating the set. Chomsky took this metaphorical structure as a truth. 

Chomsky's theory of language has two parts. On the one hand it is a philosophical worldview based on cartesianism and formalist philosophy: "the generative enterprise" which requires acceptance of the philosophical perspective. The second part of his theory is his changing linguistic approaches over time.

The essence of language, for Chomsky, is pure form. Syntax is an autonomous creation of the mind and, independently of anything external, generates the structure of human rationality. Humans have an innate universal syntax ("universal grammar") which defines the essence of language. He opposes the notion that this extends from animals through evolution, arguing that it is uniquely human.

Chomsky understood science as the study of essence: physics deals with the essence of matter, energy, force, space and time. Linguistics deals with the essence of language: pure syntax. Any language phenomena outside this essence is not worthy of consideration. So this excludes semantics, pragmatics, discourse, linguistic processing, the neural support of language, cultural linguistic differences, and animal communication. 

Criticism of Chomsky's linguistic theory centres on the claim that his theories are inconsistent with empirical research on language and mind. Contrary to the author's affirmations, cognitive science investigation reveals that language syntax is structured to express meaning, to enable communication, is deeply cultural and is physically dependent on the sensorimotor system.


Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics refers to the history of linguistics from the 1660 edition of the Port-Royal Grammar and ends at the beginning of the 19th. century with the Romantic period and Humboldt. The author's aim is to revindicate the pre-rationalist period of descriptive and comparative approaches. 

In chapter one Chomsky explains the creative aspect of language in Descartes because the French philosopher defined it as of unlimited range, not requiring external stimuli and useful for self-expression:

“The essential difference between man and animal is exhibited most clearly by human language, in particular the faculty of man to form new statements that express new thoughts and that are adapted to new situations.”

Skinner criticised Chomsky's use of cartesian assumptions arguing that language acquisition was effected through stimulus-response mechanisms. The author's counter arguments emphasised that the creative aspects of language could not be explained by behavioural models. Chomsky admits the concepts of stimulus-response, but only in the case of non-humans:

"Control of behaviour through stimulus-response is characteristic of automats; it's the appropriateness of behaviour to situations that is outside the limitations of the mechanical explanation..."

Much of the discussion in the book is based on the assumption that linguistic processes are practically identical to mental ones. This allows the author to explain the free expression of thought and creative imagination. It also provides a basis for the notion of universal grammar.

The second chapter of Cartesian Linguistics refers to the double linguistic structure: deep and surface. Chomsky recognises that this concept is anterior to Descartes:

"Apart from its Cartesian origins, Port-Royal's theory of language, with its distinction between deep and surface structure, can be traced back to scholastic and Renaissance grammar;"

Explicitly based on the Port-Royal Grammar Chomsky's goal was to divide language study into two interpretations: semantic (deep) and phonetic (surface) structures.

In his third chapter Description and explanation in linguistics Chomsky explains how his notion of descriptive grammar deals with sound and meaning. A complete grammar would entail envisaging a finite rule-based system which generated infinite sets of paired structures using finite means to express infinite mental states.

Cartesian linguistics did not reduce itself to this type of descriptive grammar but amplified its search to find the universal principles of language structure.

In the fourth chapter Acquisition and use of language relies on the central doctrine of the book which states that the general characteristics of grammatical structure are common to all languages and are reflections of basic mental functions. This led the Port-Royal grammarians to attend rather to "grammar générale" rather than "grammaire particulière". This coincided with Humboldt's belief that deep analysis would reveal common forms which lay below apparent varieties. These underlying universal conditions offer organisational principles which enable the translation of data to knowledge in learning.


Man vs. Animal

It is true that certain mechanical characteristics of language like stimulus-response are common to both humans and animals. However, in the 17th. century experimenters had ascertained that language creation is unique to humans. This became the cartesian belief about language production. Chomsky cites these experimental conclusions as the difference between humans and animals:

" fundamental contribution of what we have been calling 'Cartesian linguistics' is the observation that human language, in its normal use, is free from the control of independently identifiable external stimuli or internal states and is not restricted to any practical communicative function, in contrast, for example, to the pseudo-language of animals"...In short, animal 'language' remains completely within the bounds of mechanical explanation as this was conceived by Descartes and Cordemoy."


One of Chomsky's foundational ideas in Cartesian Linguistics is the philosophical assumption of the innate nature of language. This notion is based on Descartes' idea that thinking is the most reliable reality available to humans: "I think therefore I exist." This basic reality of cartesian thinking is filled with innate ideas, is independent of experience and is self-evident.

Descartes' idea of innate knowledge can be traced back to Plato who argued that it was rooted in the forgotten knowledge of the perfect soul before the birth of the body. Descartes argues further that these innate ideas were were placed in our minds by God who cannot deceive us. Writing in the 20th. century Chomsky replaced the concept "God" by "Nature", not unlike Spinoza. 

Chomsky's basis for the innate nature of language is neither psychological nor biological, but philosophical. It is certainly part of a long tradition in thinking, but it remains an assumption, not a scientific fact.


Theories of universal order were held by several philosophical writers such as Humboldt, Goethe or Herder, following Descartes. For example, in an effort to link cartesian and modern models of linguistics, Chomsky points to Humboldt's endeavor to discover the organic form of language. 

Humboldt wrote, too, about the organic unity of language which ties in with Chomsky's universal generative grammar. The notion that the energies which generate language and thought are the same is also a humboldtian idea 

Language learning

The 17th. century perception of language learning was that knowledge was based on separate, meager data. It was the mind that processed the information.

A common cartesian idea was that an object could be stamped on the soul by the comprehending power of the intellect. It was Humboldt, connecting the Enlightenment and Romanticism, that proposed the idea of a generative system in language perception. Chomsky claims to prolong this idea in his linguistics through transformational grammar:

"contemporary research in perception has returned to the investigation of internally represented schemata...". 

Philosophical assumptions

Chomsky's linguistics are based on cartesian and formalist philosophies. 

Chomsky takes the cartesian idea of reason and gives language that role so that it becomes the essence defining a human. Language is is also universal and innate, independent of the outside world. The essence of language itself is "universal grammar" and its nature mathematical and formal. Like Descartes, Chomsky proposes study through introspection, not based on data from the brain and body. Where he disagrees with cartesian theory is in the idea that reason/language is open to completely conscious reflection. In this recognition of the role of the unconscious he comes closer to cognitive science.

Since for Chomsky language is considered the essence of being human, it automatically eliminates the possibility of its presence in animals. It must appear all at once, not through genetic evolution by natural selection. Chomsky therefore rejects any animal capacity at all in animals and regards that type of study as irrelevant.

Chomsky's version of cartesianism includes formalist philosophy elements. The Thought as Language metaphor conceptualises reason as linguistic. The Thought as Mathematical Calculation metaphor characterises language as symbols, without reference to their meaning. Language, for Chomsky, is a system of formal strings of symbols. Formalist philosophers, Chomsky, included, accepted this as the nature of language, when it was actually a conceptualised metaphor of language.

Chomsky uses cartesian essences in a double format: language capacity defines the essence of human nature; universal syntax defines the essence of language. For the author syntax is also the creative part of the mind since it creates the structures of human rationality, mentally. (From this comes his notion that there is an internal structure in the human mind that can learn and generate and reason through language.)

Neuroscience contradicts Chomsky's idea of syntax, since it declares that it cannot take any input from outside syntax itself. However, there is no neural network in the brain that does not receive input from other parts of the brain. 

Chomsky concerns himself with Universal Grammar, an essentialist, platonic grammar, whereas in fact most linguists study a language-specific grammar. If his grammar were found it would only consist of a small number of core constructions and would not include many characteristics of most human languages. In fact Chomsky's idea of syntax is too limited to include what would be necessary to learn to know another language.

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