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Is Grammar Innate?
by Mark Lowe
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In the next section we see how the American philosopher John Searle has developed Wittgenstein’s ideas into a comprehensive and coherent theory of language and mind, and how Chomsky’s ideas look in the light of this theory.

John Searle, professor of philosophy at Berkeley, University of California, has made many important contributions to our understanding of language and the mind. His first book, Speech Acts (1969), provided a framework for the profound and brilliant, but often rather unsystematic insights of his Oxford philosophy teacher, J.L.Austin, and of Wittgenstein. Intentionality (1983) explored the relationship between language and the outside world it seeks to understand and to mediate. The Construction of Social Reality (1991) relates language to man’s social life, and especially to the many organizations and institutions man has created, such as governments, marriage, financial systems, law, sport and games – and how language makes such activities and systems possible. The Rediscovery of the Mind (1994) both summarises his previous work and adds insights from neurophysiology into the workings of the brain. These themes are further developed in recent books such as Consciousness and Language (2002) and Mind (2004). Searle writes with matchless vigour and clarity, and his books are a joy to read. His contributions to our understanding of language and the mind are unsurpassed among thinkers active today.

Searle’s theory of mind starts from an analysis of the language that we commonly use to talk about mental activity. Most of our problems in talking about the mind stem, Seale believes, from the fact that this language is saturated with the notion that there are two separate domains in our heads: mental and physical, mind and matter, eternal soul and mortal body. This duality derives from ancient and primitive philosophico-religious ideas about the mind, which have deeply influenced the way our language has evolved. Searle believes that the language generally used today to discuss the mind still contains these fossils, which lead to underlying confusions, and which muddle our thinking and obscure our picture of reality. The reality is that our minds are made of the same stuff as our bodies: the mind is a biological organ like any other. Searle’s philosophy of mind seeks to explain language and the mind in terms of neuro-physiological structures such as synapses and connections, and to eliminate metaphysical ghosts from the machine. This is the scientific foundation on which Searle’s more detailed studies are built.

Searle has discussed Chomsky’s theories in many books, articles and reviews. The analysis that follows is taken from The Rediscovery of the Mind and from Intentionality.

In The Rediscovery of the Mind Searle writes: ‘Chomsky claims that innate, unconscious rules cause verbal behaviour. In other words, there is a cause/effect relationship between ‘rule’ and language. But studies of neuro-physiology indicate that language is caused not by ‘deep unconscious rules’ but by neuro-physiological structures that have no resemblance to the patterns of language at all. The brain’s hardware produces patterns, but these patterns are not causally related to language produced by humans: they merely delineate the possible forms that human languages can take.’

Searle goes on to argue that such evidence as exists for ‘innate grammar’ and the LAD that supposedly contains it can be explained more satisfactorily and more simply by an alternative hypothesis. The so-called Language Acquisition Device is not a discrete part of the brain. Rather, the whole brain is a Language Acquisition Device. Language is a complex affair, requiring the participation of every part of the brain to master. Moreover, the brain is a biological organ like any other, except that it is more complex. The physical components ands structures of the brain – its synapses and connections – account for the sorts of languages that can be learned by human beings. There is no need to postulate, in addition, rules of innate grammar. Such a postulation is redundant and incoherent.

Searle also analyses the notion of ‘unconscious’ employed in the theory of ‘unconscious rules of grammar’. He finds that the notion is confused and the cause of theoretical muddles. The term ‘unconscious’, as used in Freud’s theory of the structure of the mind, relates to what is repressed, not to what is in principle unavailable to conscious knowledge. Searle adopts the term ‘non-conscious’ to denote mental and physical biological processes that cannot be known consciously, such as the systems of digestion, balance-while-walking, the workings of the brain’s synapses, and so on. He thus avoids ontological confusions about the status of the mental and physical constraints that are caused by the structure of the brain. They are simply part of our biological systems.

A further basic point relevant to the theory of innate grammar is made in Searle’s book Intentionality. According to that work, the whole Chomskyan focus on the inner linguistic workings of the brain is back to front. We understand language rightly not by peering into the entrails of the brain, but by studying how language helps us to deal with life: to predict, to organize, to make sense of things, to make things happen in coherent ways, to handle conflict and to love another person. We can better understand how language really works, Searle maintains, by seeing how it helps us to live than by looking for imaginary rules in the head. This view is similar to Wittgenstein’s and to Halliday’s: it is essentially a functional rather than a systemic view of language.

Chomsky’s theory is ‘a stunning mistake’, to quite Searle’s words. Where we are unable to find meaningful conscious processes, we posit meaningful unconscious processes, even deep unconscious ones. But such processes do not exist. They are a meaningless chimera.

The reasoning that leads to the rejection of the innate grammar hypothesis also leads to the rejection of those other bastions of the Chomskyan edifice: deep structures and universal grammar. They are myths. The whole Chomskyan castle in the air begins to disintegrate.

Let us conclude. Positivist philosophy, Wittgenstein’s language analysis, and Searle’s philosophy of language and the mind all reach the same conclusion: Chomsky’s innate grammar theory is not valid. So? In the words of David Hume: ‘if a theory cannot be measured, and if there is no evidence for it, consign it to the flames.’

If the innate grammar theory is invalid, then language teaching methods that depend on it are also invalid. If grammar has to be mastered through use and practice and understanding - and is not innate - then language teaching methods that teach grammar through use and practice and cognitive understanding are valid. And that is the main practical conclusion of this enquiry into the question: ‘is grammar innate?’ Grammar is not innate: it has to be learned. Sound language teaching methods start here.

(a version of this article was first published in Modern English Teacher in July 2004)

Further Reading:

Language, Truth and Logic
Baker and Hacker:
An Analytical Commentary on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
Learning how to Mean
An Introduction to Functional Grammar
Karl Popper:
The Logic of Scientific Discovery
John Searle:
Speech Acts
The Construction of Social Reality
The Rediscovery of the Mind
Language and Consciousness
The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Philosophical Investigations


Mark Lowe studied philosophy at Cambridge University. He has maintained his involvement with the subject, and is particularly interested today in the uses of philosophy in sorting out real-world problems. He likes to play the piano in his free time

He is currently Director of Studies at International House, Tbilisi, Georgia.

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