Chomsky-- On Language and the Essential Chomsky



I have taken an interest in the philosophy of language and have studied on my own the equivalent of a undergrad course in the philosophy of language.

I want to know if Chomsky's On Language is accessible to someone at my level and whether it would help me better to understand the philosophy of language? If there is some other book you feel is better, I would welcome the suggestion.

Also if you have read the Essential Chomsky, is it likewise a good introductory guide to his philosophy on language ? And are there better alternatives to it? I would be interested in an introductory text that connected Chomsky's views on language with his politics if there is a philosophical connection.

Barinder Singh

Posted 2017-09-08T22:53:22.027

Reputation: 1 282


Maybe useful: James McGilvray (editor), The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky as well as Neil Smith & Nicholas Allott, Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, Cambridge University Press (3rd ed 2016).

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-09-09T10:47:50.537


Also The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray.

– Mauro ALLEGRANZA – 2017-09-09T10:50:49.470

2Chomsky is at a lot of times adverse to philosophy and he views the study of language to be more fruitful when it's borne out of science instead of philosophy, i.e. linguistics over philosophy of language. What the demarcation is between those two fields is obviously hard to make clear, but it is clear on the polar ends that they are different in goals and techniques. So that being said, I don't think Chomsky is in particular a source of elucidation for the field of philosophy of language, but he is obviously important for the study of language as a whole. – Not_Here – 2018-04-28T12:33:36.837

1@Not_Here I don't think it's accurate to say that Chomsky is adverse to philosophy. True, he's skeptical of many of the representationalist assumptions underwriting much work in the philosophy of language. But that's hardly enough to count as adverse. Moreover, I would have thought that his criticisms are worth considering if one wants to comes to grip with contemporary philosophy of language, e.g., his comments on Burge in "Internalist Explorations." – possibleWorld – 2018-04-28T16:16:15.337

@possibleWorld I said a lot of the time, not consistent and as a rule. He has spoken many times, publicly and in print, that philosophers are misguided in how they approach subjects and that real intellectual progress in areas need to be done with better methodology than philosopher can offer. I didn't say that he has only said those things or that he has said them consistently and shut down or never partaken in philosophical discourse, bu he absolutely is on record as criticizing philosophy as a practice, especially in regards to the philosophy of language. – Not_Here – 2018-04-28T16:35:00.743

@possibleWorld and the entire point of my comment was to let the OP know that Chomsky's work in this particular section of philosophy is not philosophical disposed and therefore does not serve as material that will help the OP to "better to understand the philosophy of language" which is explicitly what they asked. – Not_Here – 2018-04-28T16:36:29.237

@Not_Here Fair enough about the adversity point. But I would have thought that having some perspective on whether or not a field is part of an effective research program or not would help one to better understand it. That's the perspective Chomsky would give. I suppose we could with different conceptions of what it takes to 'understand' the philosophy of language, though. – possibleWorld – 2018-05-02T12:53:49.593

@possibleWorld I guess that I took "get a better understanding" as what someone would want after reading a textbook, not what someone would want after reading a polemic. I agree with you that it's good to get a diversity of views on a subject but what I interpreted their desire to be for is for something that says "hey this is the argument and here are both sides" not "this is what is wrong with the differing view" since that doesn't give the whole story and I think wouldn't give a better picture of the field as a whole. – Not_Here – 2018-05-02T13:25:16.040

My first introduction to Chomsky was being part of a volunteer network in 1987. The people I was part of that with, referred to Chomsky as an essential read for engaging with other volunteers and promoting the specific ideas of 'grass roots' action. So, I will recommend, Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use 1986. Linguistics was an area I had no idea existed, but came to love because of this. (and modern philosophy) – Norman Edward – 2018-05-03T01:16:57.793



I would argue that these answers can be substantiated through Chomsky's essay: Language and Freedom.

Q: [...]whether it would help me better to understand the philosophy of language?

In the first few paragraphs Chomsky writes about "theoretical work", "formal grammatical structure" and "universal grammar". Although he doesn't explicitly write so, it is clear that his work entails the theoretical side of language and not the philosophical. However, he also writes:

The subject is of particular importance. It is appropriate to regard universal grammar as the study of one of the essential faculties of mind. It is, therefore, extremely interesting to discover, as I believe we do, that the principles of universal grammar are rich, abstract, and restrictive, and can be used to construct principled explanations for a variety of phenomena. At the present stage of our understanding, if language is to provide a springboard for the investigation of other problems of human nature, it is these aspects of language to which we will have to turn our attention, for the simple reason that it is only these aspects that are reasonably well understood.

From this we can deduce that he is not participating in the philosophy of language. Rather he is providing tools to do so because his goal is to "construct principled explanations for a variety of phenomena" which includes language.

So, the answer there would be yes. He helps you to better understand (through construct principled explanations [of language]) the philosophy of language.

Q: [...]Also if you have read the Essential Chomsky, is it likewise a good introductory guide to his philosophy on language?

The nature of this question begs a subjective answer, but I would argue no because of the reasons mentioned in the previous answer.

Q: [...]in introductory text that connected Chomsky's views on language with his politics.

Here are three quotes taken from the essay:

In what way are language and freedom to be interconnected?

I would argue that this article is a great starting point. Although "freedom" obviously isn't necessarily connected to politics, it doesn't take Chomsky too long to start intertwining them.

Sophistic politicians and intellectuals search for ways to obscure the fact that the essential and defining property of man is his freedom: “They attribute to men a natural inclination to servitude, without thinking that it is the same for freedom as for innocence and virtue – their value is felt only as long as one enjoys them oneself and the taste for them is lost as soon as one has lost them.”

From there he weaves an argument by using Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality which he explains further in this video to come to a "connection between language and freedom".

Were we to combine these speculations, we might develop an interesting connection between language and freedom. Language, in its essential properties and the manner of its use, provides the basic criterion for determining that another organism is a being with a human mind and the human capacity for free thought and self-expression, and with the essential human need for freedom from the external constraints of repressive authority. Furthermore, we might try to proceed from the detailed investigation of language and its use to a deeper and more specific understanding of the human mind.


To conclude I think this one essay not only answers both of your questions, but it also functions as a great introduction to Chomsky's views on language and his politics.

Bob van Luijt

Posted 2017-09-08T22:53:22.027

Reputation: 131

1I made some edits which you are welcome to roll back or further edit. Welcome to this SE. – Frank Hubeny – 2018-06-24T22:36:39.773