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Is Grammar Innate?
by Mark Lowe
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Let us now examine Wittgenstein’s analysis of the issues involved. There are two central points. The first is technical, concerned with following a rule. The second is general, related to Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of language. We consider these points in turn.

Wittgenstein thought long and hard about the central claim that is made by the innate grammar hypothesis: namely, that we follow unconscious mental rules, including the rules of grammar. The conclusions that follow are based on the sections of Philosophical Investigations devoted to following a rule (paragraphs 185 – 242) and from Hacker and Baker’s Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations (vol. 2).

The conclusions may be summarized by saying that Wittgenstein’s analysis of what it means to follow a rule reveals deep confusions in the theory of innate grammar. That theory posits hidden rules that are innate and ‘known’ implicitly, even though nobody knows them explicitly. These ‘rules’ are supposed to be encoded in the brain, so people follow rules of which they have never heard and which they could not understand if they knew them.

Here are three key problems identified by Wittgenstein in the theory of rule-following:

1. The theory is not conclusive. Alternative theories fit the facts equally well, if not better. There is thus no convincing proof that makes the innate hypothesis preferable to other hypotheses. (Halliday’s theory is one example)

2. The theory is confused and it leaves key questions unanswered. Are these rules merely part of the description of how language works? Or are they part of the software of the biological computer in our brains? How exactly do we have knowledge of these rules, which though innate and tacit, are not accessible to conscious understanding? Where do these rules come from, anyway? Did God put them there as a sign of special favour to human beings, as it were? (as some theologians have maintained) What is the ontological status of these rules? And so on. The theory is entangled in a net of unanswered and unanswerable puzzles and confusions.

3. Expressibility. How are these rules ‘realised’ in the brain? If a child’s ability to master a language presupposes the child tacitly ‘knowing’ a complex array of grammatical rules, how are these rules represented to the child’s mind? Are they written in DNA letters? Can there be rules at all, which have never been and can never be expressed?

‘These questions are merely conceptual confusions dressed up as theoretical problems’, write Hacker and Baker. They derive from muddles about the status of ‘rules’. A proper understanding of rules and rule-following, Wittgenstein argues, depends on the following principles:

  • Any rule can be expressed. There is no such thing as a rule that cannot be formulated. Rules must be available for guidance, cited in justification or criticism, used as a benchmark for evaluation, etc. On these grounds, the theory of unconscious and innate rules is incoherent.
  • It must be possible not only to follow a rule, but also to violate a rule. Rules which cannot be followed or violated are merely pseudo-rules, like scales on which nothing can be weighed, or yardsticks against which nothing can be measured.
  • Rules are created by human beings. They are not to be confused with the laws of nature, such as the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.
  • Rules must, in principle, be transparent in order to participate in a rule-governed activity. One can no more follow an opaque rule than one can see an invisible object
  • At the heart of the problem over rules is a linguistic confusion. In ordinary language, the word ‘rule’ is used in activities like games, driving, financial transactions, legal disputes, social etiquette etc. All these rules are man-made, accessible to rational understanding, and used for making judgements. The rules of language are in principle the same: they are man-made, not innate.

If Wittgenstein’s analysis of following a rule is valid (and few would question it today), then Chomsky’s theory is invalid. Wittgenstein’s analysis leads to the conclusion that the innate grammar hypothesis is nothing but a linguistic muddle masquerading as a theory

Let us now consider Wittgenstein’s general theory of language and whether it is consistent with the innate grammar hypothesis. The view of language presented in his Philosophical Investigations (and elsewhere in the many posthumously published collections of Wittgenstein’s notes) is permeated with the idea that language evolved in order to meet pragmatic human needs, and was not generated by abstract forms in the brain. This view is argued all the more persuasively because Wittgenstein had earlier espoused the opposite theory. In his early Tractatus, language was thought to reflect the logical form of the world: in the later Philosophical Investigations, language was thought to reflect human needs. There are suggestive parallels between Chomsky’s innate grammar theory and the Tractatus theory of language: both posit idealized abstract forms that in some sense generate language. The reasoning which caused Wittgenstein to repudiate the Tractatus view also leads to the repudiation of the innate grammar hypothesis. Language simply does not work that way. ‘The meaning of a word is its use’, to quote Wittgenstein’s well-known aphorism. Language reflects practical use, not abstract form. So Wittgenstein’s mature philosophy of language is not consistent with the innate grammar hypothesis, and Wittgenstein’s philosophy in general finds much that is unsatisfactory and confused in the theory.

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