Pinker on Grammar and an Update on Human Nature

The Hub and I do the New York Times crossword puzzle in the evenings (since we do not have a television) and the Thursday Lewis Carroll theme provides the perfect opportunity to add to the last post on Pinker by briefly addressing his thesis on grammar which is related to his arguments in favor of a universal human nature. In The Language Instinct, Pinker quotes Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Pinker writes:

“As Alice said, ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!’ But though common sense and common knowledge are of no help in understanding these passages, English speakers recognize that they are grammatical, and their mental rules allow them to extract precise, though abstract, frameworks of meaning. Alice deduced, ‘Somebody killed something; that’s clear, at any rate–.’ And after reading Chomsky’s entry in Barlett’s [“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”], anyone can answer questions like ‘What slept? How? Did one thing sleep, or several? What kind of ideas were they?'”

Pinker’s point is that human beings are born with an innate capacity for language, and despite the great differences in language, share a common biologically-determined grammar, a point originally made by Noam Chomsky. As the title of the book suggests, Pinker sees language as a characteristically human instinct, analogous to geese flying south for the winter. We are creatures who have evolved to use language. Even children born deaf will draw on this universal grammar to “babble” with their hands.

Like The Blank Slate, the arguments in The Language Instinct point to the evidence for some sort of universal human nature, a human nature which can be explored scientifically through genetics and evolutionary biology. However, there are implications for philosophy too. For example, by drawing on such evidence for a universal grammar or an evolutionarily-evolved shared human nature, can we enhance attempts to use natural law reasoning as the basis for cross-cultural dialogue on such issues as human rights? Can we provide scientifically-backed evidence for normative claims about what it means for individuals–and entire societies–to flourish? Can we talk about the virtues as a sort of “moral grammar” with differing and distinct content in different societies but sharing the same underlying structure? Does the universal ability to read and understand “Jabberwocky” point to the possibility not only of a universal grammar, but possibly a universal ethic?

On Wednesday, the Gasson Chair Professor for 2009-2010, Andrea Vicini, presented the annual Chair Lecture on the topic of natural law and possibility of a universal ethic. Although he gave only passing mention to the fields of cognitive psychology, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology, it seems to me that collaboration with such fields will be critical for Vicini’s project–establishing natural law as the basis for cross-cultural and interreligious moral conversations. Natural law ethicists need to start reading Chomsky and Pinker in addition to Aquinas and MacIntyre.

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3 comments so far

  1. Ludwig W. on

    No, no, no.

    “But though common sense and common knowledge are of no help in understanding these passages, English speakers recognize that they are grammatical, and their mental rules allow them to extract precise, though abstract, frameworks of meaning.”

    English speakers recognize them as grammatical because we have been taught the rules for precise use. These aren’t inherent, we’ve learned them over years and years.

    “Even children born deaf will draw on this universal grammar to “babble” with their hands.”

    I haven’t read Pinker so maybe what I’m drawing from this is unclear — is Pinkers saying there is a grammar to the motions of a deaf child that is the same as the grammar of this sentence I’m writing right here? That is similar? That it reflects it? That is at all comparable?

    To be honest, these days I’m unsure whether the grammar of what I’m writing “reflects”, let alone “is the same as”, the grammar of the thoughts “in my head” (wherever that is).

    Just because we interpret the movement of a deaf child as “I want X” certainly doesn’t mean this is the same as what the child meant, or is trying to communicate, or actually thought. How could we possibly know this? We can describe, we can make comparisons perhaps; we can perform certain action Z that makes the child’s movement stop or calm or become a different movement. But how can we ascertain that, because our reaction Z altered child’s action Y, what the child meant throught their gestures is “I want X”

    we can, years later, once the child has learned language, ask her “When you made this movement Y, did you mean ‘I want X’?” And perhaps she will say yes, but what will that mean? After she has passed through years of language training and learning, once language has captured her communicating apparatus, how can she even know if what she says or means now, what she remembers, is the same as what she actually meant in the past, before language?

    Language and grammar point to human nature, perhaps, but they are pointing at Nothing.

    • everydaythomist on

      Good questions. In all fairness to Pinker (and to Chomsky) I don’t think they are saying the brain evolved with a highly specific grammar but rather more generally that the brain evolved to do language. In other words, both simply want to say that the brain does not just absorb or mimic the language of its environment but that the language of the environment reflects what the brain has evolved to do. However, this does not negate the necessity of culture to provide content to that universal grammar. To provide meaning to the phrase “I want a green Easter peep” might make some sort of grammatical sense across culture, but substantively needs a culture of fluffy-eared marshmallow goodness to give it any content. However, across cultures and even in deaf communities, human beings use a VERY basic grammar which allows them at a most basic level to understand all forms of human communication.

      Sort of anecdotally, and not related so much to verbal language, it seems that across cultures, facial cues indicating joy (smiles), fear (wide eyes) and anger (furrowed brows) are universally recognized and interpreted in the same way. It seems a stretch to say that this content comes from the culture rather than the reverse, that the culture emerges from the content. Why wouldn’t we assume the same with language?

      The larger question you raise, whether the words you write reflect the words in your mind is not so much an issue with a language instinct or a universal grammar but rather with consciousness and epistemology. How do you know? And moreover, how do you know you know? How does the mental immaterial become material? Recent developments in cognitive science suggest that the process is not as arbitrary or as metaphysical as one might suppose. The brain is a physical unit and processes information physically by the firing of neurons in certain parts of the cortex that create corporeal changes in the person. For answers to such questions, I would recommend Antonio Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Creation of Consciousness.”

  2. Ludwig W. on

    “However, across cultures and even in deaf communities, human beings use a VERY basic grammar which allows them at a most basic level to understand all forms of human communication.”

    I guess it depends on what we mean by “understand.” I certainly don’t understand even the basics or grammar of this form of communication:

    中文学习

    I assume there is probably an object and a subject, and it forms a complete thought. (But really, I just copied & pasted something I found off google, so this could just be one word or part of a word for all I know).

    What I understand (though I’m not sure if I know it) is that there is a thought… err, some thing… being expressed. But that’s also implied by the conditions in which I’ve found it — on the internet, not scrawled on a wall in a cave. I understand the practice of using symbols to communicate across the internet, and since this is where we are, I am assuming these symbols make sense to someone somewhere.

    I am able to decipher some modicum of understanding from these four symbols not “across culture” but because I and whoever wrote them occupy a common form of life (using computers). My understanding of them is still firmly implanted within my own culture (thought culture I don’t think is the best word).

    “Sort of anecdotally, and not related so much to verbal language, it seems that across cultures, facial cues indicating joy (smiles), fear (wide eyes) and anger (furrowed brows) are universally recognized and interpreted in the same way. It seems a stretch to say that this content comes from the culture rather than the reverse, that the culture emerges from the content. Why wouldn’t we assume the same with language?”

    The argument, rather, is that recognition and interpretation (heretofore: “understanding”) arise from forms of life, not merely culture. Smile, wide eyes and furrowed brows are not even universally understood within a single culture (consider: a knowing smile; a flirty simle; an awkward smile; an uncomfortable smile: we have misunderstandings with just these everyday).

    From this line, a common understanding “across cultures” signifies a common form of life (I interpret others smiles through my own use of smiles and how I have seen others smile). This doesn’t need to seem to be pointing at a human nature.

    -my cpu time is up, wish I could respond more. I’m glad you brought this up, I haven’t had space to clarify thoughts on Wittgenstein elsewhere! thx


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