A computational approach to linguistic knowledge

Language and Communication 1 (22):211-229 (2002)
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The rejection of behaviorism in the 1950s and 1960s led to the view, due mainly to Noam Chomsky, that language must be studied by looking at the mind and not just at behavior. It is an understatement to say that Chomskyan linguistics dominates the field. Despite being the overwhelming majority view, it has not gone unchallenged, and the challenges have focused on different aspects of the theory. What is almost universally accepted, however, is Chomsky’s view that understanding language demands a theory that posits mental states that represent rules of language. Call this claim, following Cowie (1999), Representationalism or (R). According to (R), ‘‘[e]xplaining language mastery and acquisition requires the postulation of contentful mental states and processes involving their manipulation’’ (Cowie, 1999, p. 154). Although (R) is nothing more than the general assumption on which cognitive psychology is founded applied to the case of language, even it has had its detractors. Critics have argued that linguistic competence should not in fact be thought of as based on the possession of a body of linguistic knowledge but should be thought of, rather, as a kind of skill. This is an important challenge because one might be inclined to think that no recognizable form of Chomskyan linguistics could withstand the falsification of (R). In this paper we attempt to show that in fact (R) could be false without doing much damage to Chomskyan linguistics at all. Indeed, it is possible that the Chomskyan position could be made more coherent by adopting the view we will sketch. Our claim, therefore, is that critics of (R) might be right, but that this does not obviously make them serious critics of the Chomskyan program.



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Author Profiles

Ian Gold
McGill University
Sandy C. Boucher
University of New England (Australia)

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Vision.David Marr - 1982 - W. H. Freeman.
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.Noam Chomsky - 1965 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
The logical basis of metaphysics.Michael Dummett - 1991 - Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
The Perception Of The Visual World.James J. Gibson - 1950 - Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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