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Grammar and Understanding

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Paul Yu*
Affiliation:
Central Michigan University

Extract

Despite significant advances in various special areas in the study of language, the question of what the basic nature of the theory of a language is remains controversial and unclear. In this paper we propose to rectify this situation and argue for a general perspective — one which only a few theorists have explicitly endorsed — by showing that it is at once theoretically illuminating and empirically plausible. This perspective consists of the following claims: (1) that the most basic theory of a language is a theory of communication viz., of understanding and production; (2) that a theory of communication in this sense presupposes a theory of thought; (3) that a grammar is most fruitfully thought of as (in a suitable sense) a component of a theory of communication; and (4) that so-called theories of meaning form a rather heterogeneous group, some of which being fragments of grammars, others being theories of thought, and still others being what are sometimes referred to as theories of reference. We shall be particularly concerned with (1) and (3) here.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors 1979

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References

1 The best formulation of this general sort of view is to be found in The Language of Psychology, by J. Fodor, T. Bever, and M. Garrett and in J. Fodor, The Language of Psychology, although some at least of the main elements can be found in earlier writings such as: H., Grice, “Meaning,” The Philosophical Review 66 (1957); pp. 377·88Google Scholar; N. Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, chap. 1; G. Harman, Thought, chap. 4.

2 We shall try to facilitate discussion further by talking mainly about understanding.

3 S., Stich; “Grammar, Psychology, and Indeterminacy,” The journal of Philosophy 69 (1972); pp. 799818Google Scholar; M., Dummett; “What is a theory of meaning? (II),” in G., Evans and J., McDowell (eds.), Truth and Meaning.Google Scholar

4 N., Chomsky and J., Katz, “What the linguist is talking about,” The journal of Philosophy 71 (1974), pp. 347-67Google Scholar, and many other publications. It may be worthwhile to note that in Syntactic Structures (1957) Chomsky's conception of grammar was still traditional, in that grammar was viewed as comprising just phonology and syntax. Since Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), however, Chomsky has regarded grammar as including semantics as well.

5 See reference in note 1.

6 This is meant to be an aid to locating the kind of view in question, not a serious proposal at classification. See Fodor et al., chap. 2.

7 W. V. Quine, Philosophy of Logic, pp.15-16; see also Quine, The problem of meaning in linguistics,” in From a Logical Point of View.

8 Philosophy of Logic, p. 22.

9 This is, of course, just the kind of view Grice has urged. See Grice, “Meaning.“

10 W. V. Quine, Word and Object, section 45.

11 W. V. Quine, Ontological Relativity, essay 6.

12 Stich, pp. 800-801; for a related criticism see j. Bennett, Linguistic Behavior, sections 74, 75.

13 Fodor, p. 103; Dummett, compare M., “What is a theory of meaning?,” in S., Guttenplan (ed.), Mind and Language.Google Scholar

14 It may be objected that there is at least equal warrant to the claim that a theory of language is a theory of thought. As we shall show, this is not incompatible with our conception, since on our view a theory of communication presupposes a theory of thought.

15 See Fodor, p. 56.

16 Fodoret al., pp. 376-77: see also Fodor, pp. 83f.

17 See Fodor, 106-7.

18 Compare Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, chap. 1; G., Harman, “Psychological aspects of the theory of syntax,” The journal of Philosophy 64 (1967); pp. 7587Google Scholar; and Fodor et al., chap. 6.

19 See H. Putnam, “Minds and machines,” in 5. Hook (ed.), Dimensions of Mind; D. Dennett, Content and Consciousness, chap. 4; and Fodor, pp. 73f.

20 Thus a theory of meaning describes the dotted area in the figure above. The difference between a theory of meaning in this sense and ordinary theories of meaning can be made to appear less extreme if we note that (1) by taking more things for granted, we can for certain purposes think of a theory of meaning as a mapping from phonetic sequences or even phonemic sequences into thoughts and (2) ordinary theories of meaning employ orthographic representations of phonemic sequences.

21 See Katz, J. and Fodor, J., “The structure of a semantic theory,” Language 39 (1963), pp. 170210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Stich, “Grammar, psychology, and indeterminacy”, and Dummett “What is a theory of meaning? (II)”. Actually Stich does not mention meaning. But it is not clear how one can reasonably avoid doing so while claiming to present an account of a speaker-hearer's language ability.

23 Stich, p. 816, emphasis mine.

24 Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, chap. 1; Katz, J., “Mentalism in linguistics,” Language 40 (1964), pp. 124-37;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Chomsky and Katz, “What the linguist is talking about.” We shall confine our attention mostly to the last item since it is fairly recent and since it directly addressed itself to the issue of concern.

25 Chomsky and Katz, p. 364.

26 Katz, p. 133.

27 See Chomsky, sections 5 and 6.

28 Chomsky and Katz, p. 347.

29 Stich, p. 818. Dummett makes much the same point in “What is a theory of meaning? (II),” p. 70.

30 See Fodor et al., pp. 367-72.

31 Chomsky and Katz, pp. 359-61. 273

32 See Fodor et al., pp. 235f. We rely on their report on this and other psycholinguistic research. It should be noted that this interpretation of the results is by no means uncontroversial.

33 Ibid., pp. 323f.

34 Ibid., pp. 313f.

35 Ibid., pp. 328f.

36 Ibid., pp. 509-10.

37 Chomsky, section 2.

38 This conception has been argued for convincingly by Fodor et al., chap. 1, and by Fodor, chap. 1 and conclusion.

39 Thus Fodor aruges that there must exist an innate internal language (or code), distinct from any natural language and more powerful than any, in terms of which structural descriptions are internally represented, and which enables us to learn our (first) language. On this view to learn a natural language is to acquire a compiler or interpreting device, one which translates sentences in a language whose types describe wave forms into sentences in the internal language (and conversely). See Fodor, especially 116f.

40 Compare the discussion in Chomsky and Katz, pp. 349-51 and 354-56.

41 See Chomsky, N., “Knowledge of language,” in Gunderson, K. (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge, pp. 318-20Google Scholar, and “Linguistics and philosophy,” in S. Hook (ed.), Language and Philosophy.

42 Stich, S., “What every speaker knows,” The Philosophical Review, 80 (1971), pp. 476-96;CrossRefGoogle Scholar G., Harman, “Language, thought, and communication,” in K., Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge.Google Scholar

43 Given the opacity of “know,” we shall drop the phrase “what amounts to a structural description” in favor of, simply, “structural description.“

44 This is just the too neglected distinction which Dennett has drawn between the personal and the subpersonal levels of explanation. See D. Dennett, Content and Consciousness, chap. 4.

45 This paragraph is thus both an endorsement and a justification of the conclusion Stich reaches in “What every speaker knows,” section VI. Compare also Harman, Thought, pp. 88·92.

46 Chomsky and Katz, pp. 347·54.

47 Fodor et al., pp. 436-62. By claiming that what innate language learning mechanisms there are must be language specific we mean, of course, that the mechanisms must be specific to the learning of languages (rather than common to both language learning and the learning of nonlinguistic cognitive skills).

48 Ibid., pp. 494-95, 502-3.

49 Ibid., pp. 468-79

50 W. V. Quine, Word and Object, section 15.

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