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Two views of linguistic science and its data

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According to the increasingly radical view of Noam Chomsky and his followers, the only proper object of a truly scientific biolinguistics is the ‘I-language’; the internal neurological structures possessed by individual mature speakers, and realised in their substantially-overlapping idiolects. According to a rival view, advanced by Stephen Anderson, Eva Jablonka, and myself, it makes neither conceptual nor evolutionary sense to think about the I-language in isolation from the public language object – corresponding more or less to Saussure’s langue – of which it forms part.

As I further argue here, we cannot even have a coherent science concerned solely with idiolects. Chomsky advocates a ‘Galilean’ understanding of science, in which no individual datum or observation need tally exactly with the predictions of ‘idealised’ covering laws; but the idea that linguistics is concerned only with the I-language is belied by linguists’ real-life methodology, which could not even make sense of linguistic data considered independently of the wider, norm-giving, linguistic community. Specifically, the ubiquitous process of identifying aberrant or ‘ungrammatical’ utterances presumes a normative status for grammatical rules which is explicitly eschewed by Chomsky, and available to linguists only on a communitarian understanding of language as a necessarily public phenomenon.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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