On Language and Culture
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Wiktor Osiatynski
In Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101
QUESTION: You represent an anthropological approach to linguistics. Do you think that linguistics can contribute to the understanding of the philosophical problems of human nature and culture?
CHOMSKY: My feeling is that a human being or any complex organism has a system of cognitive structures that develop much in the way the physical organs of the body develop. That is, in their fundamental character they are innate; their basic form is determined by the genetic structure of the organism. Of course, they grow under particular environmental conditions, assuming a specific form that admits of some variation. Much of what is distinctive among human beings is a specific manner in which a variety of shared cognitive structures develop.
Perhaps the most intricate of these structures is language. In studying language we can discover many basic properties of this cognitive structure, its organization, and also the genetic predispositions that provide the foundation for its development.
So in this respect, linguistics, first of all, tries to characterize a major feature of human cognitive organization. And second, I think it may provide a suggestive model for the study of other cognitive systems. And the collection of these systems is one aspect of human nature.
QUESTION: Language, then, is a key to human nature?
CHOMSKY: In Western scientific thought of the last several centuries there has been a tendency to assume that human nature is limited to the immediately observable physical structure of the organism. And that for other aspects of human nature, specifically for behavior, there are no genetically determined structures of comparable complexity to the directly observable physical organization of the body. So human physical structures and intellectual structures are generally studied in different ways. The assumption is that physical structures are genetically inherited and intellectual structures are learned.
I think that this assumption is wrong. None of these structures is learned. They all grow; they grow in comparable ways; their ultimate forms are heavily dependent on genetic predispositions. If we understood, as we do not, the physical bases for these structures, I have little doubt that we would find structures in the brain for social interactions, or language, or analysis of personality — a whole variety of systems developed on the basis of a specific biological endowment.
QUESTION: Do you mean that all our behavior is innate, genetically determined?
CHOMSKY: No, but the basic structures for our behavior are innate. The specific details of how they grow would depend on interaction with the environment.
QUESTION: Supposing linguistics could describe one such structure, would the findings apply to all our intellectual activities? Do we think only in language? Or do there exist nonlinguistic forms of thinking too?
CHOMSKY: The analysis of linguistic structures could help in understanding other intellectual structures. Now, I don’t think there is any scientific evidence about the question of whether we think only in language or not. But introspection indicates pretty clearly that we don’t think in language necessarily. We also think in visual images, we think in terms of situations and events, and so on, and many times we can’t even express in words what the content of our thinking is. And even if we are able to express it in words, it is a common experience to say something and then to recognize that it is not what we meant, that it is something else.
What does this mean? That there is a kind of nonlinguistic thought going on which we are trying to represent in language, and we know that sometimes we fail.
QUESTION: I’ve read several times that we think in language but “feel” in nonlinguistic ways.
CHOMSKY: I know that it’s false of me, at least if “language” refers (in my case) to English, and I assume that it’s false of everyone else. I don’t think you would have any trouble at all in deciding that you are thinking of some event and then visualizing it happening with its consequences, and constructing a rational analysis of it without being able to verbalize it adequately in anything like its full complexity.
QUESTION: You used the expression “rational analysis.” Do you believe that all our thinking is rational and linear?
CHOMSKY: I don’t think all thinking is a kind of rational structure. But I don’t think it is correct to identify the rational-nonrational dichotomy with the linguistic-nonlinguistic dichotomy.
QUESTION: Can language be nonrational?
CHOMSKY: Yes; so those are two dimensions that do not correlate. It’s true that language is in a sense linear but that is as obvious as perceptual space is three-dimensional.
QUESTION: As I understand, language has an innate biological basis. Its use, however, is social. What do you think of the social functions of language? Is it primarily an instrument of communication?
CHOMSKY: I think a very important aspect of language has to do with the establishment of social relations and interactions. Often, this is described as communication. But that is very misleading, I think. There is a narrow class of uses of language where you intend to communicate. Communication refers to an effort to get people to understand what one means. And that, certainly, is one use of language and a social use of it. But I don’t think it is the only social use of language. Nor are social uses the only uses of language. For example, language can be used to express or clarify one’s thoughts with little regard for the social context, if any.
I think the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people. It doesn’t have much to do with communication in a narrow sense; that is, it doesn’t involve transmission of information. There is much information transmitted but it is not the content of what is said that is transmitted. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the social uses of language, for communication or for other purposes. But at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware.
QUESTION: What, then, in the field of linguistics, are the greatest achievements?
CHOMSKY: I think the most important work that is going on has to do with the search for very general and abstract features of what is sometimes called universal grammar: general properties of language that reflect a kind of biological necessity rather than logical necessity; that is, properties of language that are not logically necessary for such a system but which are essential invariant properties of human language and are known without learning. We know these properties but we don’t learn them. We simply use our knowledge of these properties as the basis for learning.
QUESTION: Do we genetically inherit this knowledge?
CHOMSKY: Yes, we must. In fact, by universal grammar I mean just that system of principles and structures that are the prerequisites for acquisition of language, and to which every language necessarily conforms.
QUESTION: Does it mean that this genetic basis of language is universal?
CHOMSKY: Yes, that’s right. But we are only one species. You can imagine a different world in which a number of species developed with different genetically determined linguistic systems. It hasn’t happened in evolution. What has happened is that one species has developed, and the genetic structure of this species happens to involve a variety of intricate abstract principles of linguistic organization that, therefore, necessarily constrain every language, and, in fact, create the basis for learning language as a way of organizing experience rather than constituting something learned from experience.
QUESTION: Would such knowledge also be helpful in understanding human nature?
CHOMSKY: It would, in two respects. For one thing, it is by itself a part of a study of human intelligence that is, perhaps, the central aspect of human nature. And second, I think, it is a good model for studying other human properties, which ought to be studied by psychologists in the same way.
QUESTION: Do you mean that psychology could benefit from linguistics? Could you explain how?
CHOMSKY: One thing that you and I know is language. Another thing that you and I know is how objects behave in perceptual space. We have a whole mass of complex ways of understanding what is the nature of visual space. A proper part of psychology ought to be, and in recent years has been, an effort to try to discover the principles of how we organize visual space. I would say that the same is true of every domain of psychology, of human studies. To understand, for example, how people organize social systems, we have to discover the principles that we create to make some societies intelligible.
QUESTION: I understand that we could have a kind of universal grammar of nonlinguistic forms of human behavior as well. But if, as you say, our behavior and language are heavily guided by universal principles, why, then, do they differ so much all around the world?
CHOMSKY: I don’t think they differ so much. I think that as human beings, we quite naturally take for granted what is similar among human beings and, then, pay attention to what differentiates us. That makes perfect sense for us as human beings. I suppose frogs pay no attention to being frogs. They take it for granted. What interests a frog are differences among frogs. From our point of view they are more or less the same, from their point of view they are all radically different.
Similarly with us. For us, we are all very different, our languages are very different, and our societies are very different. But if we could extract ourselves from our point of view and sort of look down at human life the way a biologist looks at other organisms, I think we could see it a different way. Imagine an extrahuman observer looking at us. Such an extrahuman observer would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same. And then he would notice we do not pay any attention to that because for the purpose of human life it is quite natural and appropriate just to take for granted everything that is common. We don’t concern ourselves with that, all we worry about are differences.
QUESTION: Would this extrahuman observer think the same way about our symbols, ideas, needs, and values?
CHOMSKY: Absolutely. I think he would be struck by the uniformity of human societies in every aspect. And there is more than that. Let’s imagine again an observer looking at us without any preconceptions. I think he would be struck by the fact that although human beings have the capacity to develop scientific knowledge, it must be a very limited capacity because it is only done in very narrow and specific domains. There are huge areas where the human mind is apparently incapable of forming sciences, or at least has not done so. There are other areas — so far, in fact, one area only — in which we have demonstrated the capacity for true scientific progress.
CHOMSKY: Physics and those parts of other fields that grow out of physics — chemistry, the structure of big molecules — in those domains, there is a lot of progress. In many other domains, there is very little progress in developing real scientific understanding.
QUESTION: Isn’t it because man wants to exercise control over the physical world?
CHOMSKY: I don’t think so. I think it probably reflects something very special about the nature of our minds. There is no evolutionary pressure to create minds capable of forming sciences; it just happened. Evolutionary pressure has not led to higher rates of reproduction for people capable of solving scientific problems or creating new scientific ideas. So if, in fact, the science-forming capacities evolved for other reasons, it would not be too surprising if those particular structures that have developed proved to be rather special in their nature, reflecting the contingencies of their evolution or the working of physical law.
QUESTION: Do you mean that we may be, by virtue of this accidental origin of science, capable of development of some disciplines of science and incapable of others? And that we are not conscious of that?
CHOMSKY: Yes, as human beings we are not too conscious of that because we naturally assume that our mental structures are universal. But I suppose an outside biologist looking at us would see something very different. He would see that, like other organisms, we have a narrow sphere within which we are very good, but that sphere is very limited. And that, in fact, the very achievements we can have within that sphere are related to lack of achievements in other spheres.
To construct a scientific theory from the data and to be able to recognize that it is a reasonable theory is possible only if there are some very sharp restrictive principles that lead you to go in one direction and not in another direction. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have science at all, merely randomly chosen hypotheses. Then, human genius may have limitless opportunities to develop in one direction, but at the same time this genius will not go in other directions. And those two considerations are related. The very properties of the human mind that provide an enormous scope for human genius in some domains will serve as barriers to progress in other domains, just as the properties that enable each child to acquire a complex and highly articulated human language block the acquisition of other imaginable linguistic systems.
QUESTION: What domains do you consider the most backward and neglected?
CHOMSKY: I think that we have basically nothing in the field of human behavior. Maybe that is just a condition of temporary ignorance. But it may be that we are simply not intellectually equipped to develop such a theory.
QUESTION: Do you mean that not only do we not have tools to develop such a theory but we are incapable of creating the necessary tools?
CHOMSKY: Yes, intellectual tools. Our minds are specifically adapted to developing certain theories, and we have a science if the theories that are available to our minds happen to be close to true. Well, there is no particular reason to suppose that the intersection of true theories and theories that are accessible to the mind is very large. It may not be very large.
QUESTION: Can we know, at least, how large it is?
CHOMSKY: It is a question of biology how large that intersection is. And if humans are organisms like every other organism — which they are — then we should expect that if there are some domains where real scientific progress is possible, then there are others where it is not.