Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Sidebar on Searle

So in theory I’m supposed to be writing on Chomsky, but in practice I seem to keep writing about odd elements that crop up in critiques of Chomsky. Note that criticising Chomsky’s critics isn’t quite the same as defending Chomsky – I still don’t know enough about his argument to affirm or deny it. My goal is simply to get a bit closer to understanding what you would need to criticise, if you wanted to tackle Chomsky’s core theoretical claims…

My current concern is directed to a point that Searle has brought up, in slightly different ways, in both his 1972 and 2002 critiques – a point relating to the… onotological and causal status of linguistic “rules” within Chomsky’s framework. I’ll reproduce a couple of passages to try to communicate what troubles me – and to make it easier for others to decide whether I’m just midunderstanding Searle, or whether Searle is misunderstanding Chomsky – or whether both Searle and I are equally confused…

In the 1972 article, Searle seems to feel that it is a problem for Chomsky’s account that Chomsky cannot say clearly how underlying grammatical rules come to be known by actual speakers of particular languages:

[Chomsky] is not, of course, claiming that a speaker actually goes consciously or unconsciously through any such process of applying rules of the form “rewrite X as Y” to construct sentences. To construe the grammarian’s description this way would be to confuse an account of competence with a theory of performance.

But Chomsky does claim that in some form or other the speaker has “internalized” rules of sentence construction, that he has “tacit” or “unconscious” knowledge of grammatical rules, and that the phrase structure rules constructed by the grammarian “represent” his competence. One of the chief difficulties of Chomsky’s theory is that no clear and precise answer has ever been given to the question of exactly how the grammarian’s account of the construction of sentences is supposed to represent the speaker’s ability to speak and understand sentences, and in precisely what sense of “know” the speaker is supposed to know the rules of the grammar.

If I’m understanding correctly, a similar issue arises in the 2002 debate, in what, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, seems to be a somewhat confused passage relating to the relationship of Chomsky’s rules to the causes of linguistic behaviour:

1. Rules. Chomsky thinks that I suppose the rules of grammar are regulative rules like the rule “drive on the right.” That is not true. In my article, I introduced a reference to driving on the right as an example to show how rules can function causally in behavior; but in the article I also distinguish between “regulative” and “constitutive” rules. Regulative rules regulate antecedently existing activities like driving. Constitutive rules create the very possibility of the activities they regulate, for without the rules there is no activity to regulate. Human languages—like chess, money, private property, and government—are matters of constitutive rules, because to speak English—or play chess—for example, one must follow (at least a large subset of) the rules.

The rules of generative grammar were intended to be constitutive in this sense. The chief difference between me and Chomsky was not over whether there really were constitutive rules of generative grammar, but their relation to consciousness. I thought that unconsciously functioning rules had to be the kind of rules that could be conscious; Chomsky disagreed. Indeed, four of the features of rules in Chomsky’s early work were that the rules functioned unconsciously, were not even accessible to consciousness, were constitutive, and functioned causally. The rules have to be causally real in order to explain linguistic behavior. The speaker’s competence consists in a mastery of the rules and his competence gives rise, though often imperfectly, to his performance. Competence is the competence to perform. And in order to function causally the rules have to be constitutive in my sense, because prior to the rules there is nothing to operate causally on. There is no set of physical properties sufficient to determine all and only English sentences (or games of chess or married couples or governments), because such things exist only within systems of rules.

What puzzles me about these statements is that they seem to imply that, if you posit the existence of generative rules that describe regularities or patterns within observed practice, then:

(1) there is no value to defining such rules, unless you can also explain where they currently “reside” and/or how they come to be “internalised” so that they can then be expressed in practice; and

(2) you must necessarily accord such generative rules an ontological status that allows them to function as causal forces.

For the moment, I want to bracket the issue of whether Chomsky might, e.g., regard the linguistic rules he has identified as causal (Chomsky’s responses, to me, suggest that Searle may be mistaken in this point, but my main concern here is to approach this problem in at a more abstract level, separate from the specific claims of Chomsky’s work, on which I’m not qualified to comment at this point).

The first objection – that it is problematic to talk about generative rules unless you can explain how these rules have come to be internalised – seems an odd critique, mainly because it seems unnecessarily to bind together two distinct objects of inquiry: it’s certainly an interesting question, why regularities of practice come into being and how they are maintained, but it’s an analytically distinct question from what regularities might exist – what patterns we might be able to identify when we abstract from the thicket of rich experience that can obscure practitioners’ awareness that their behaviour demonstrates previously unrecognised order. Having made a case that a particular pattern exists, we can then of course begin to inquire into what causes this particular pattern of practice to occur: whether we can best make sense of the patterns we observe by appealing to notions of innate capacities, internalisation of social rules, etc. But it seems to me quite possible – and perhaps even quite likely – to be correct in our argument that a particular pattern of behaviour exists, while being completely incorrect in our explanation of why this pattern arises. These are two separable issues – whose investigation, I suspect, would generally involve quite different forms of research.

I find it similarly problematic to insist that generative rules, if they exist, must necessarily be conceptualised as ontologically-existent causal forces (rather than, say, as descriptions of empirical regularities, or as themselves the products of other causes, etc.). Certainly in other forms of social research, there are a number of traditions that attempt to map patterns of social practice – a process that can be useful for all sorts of reasons, among them clarifying the complexity of what we may need then to explain on a causal level – that would never assume the pattern has some separate ontological existence, isolated out from the social practices that express it and causing those practices to take a specific form. The search for causes can be understood as a distinct research problem, separate from the search for patterns within social practice. Take the simple, intuitive example of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulating market exchange: the proximate causes of market behaviours are incredibly complex and multifaceted. This causal complexity, however, by itself does nothing to undermine the validity of claims that there might be certain aggregate patterns of behaviour that result from these complex causes, patterns that we can define, measure and analyse – patterns that, perhaps, we must define, measure and analyse if we ever hope to tackle the far more complex question of what causes this pattern to arise…

Searle is, of course, criticising Chomsky – not some hypothetical concept of how one might approach the search for linguistic rules. It may well be that, in context, the critique applies as written (or, perhaps even more likely, that I’m missing the point…). My question is whether it is for any reason impossible to apply to the search for linguistic rules a distinction between the search for patterns, on the one hand, and the attempt to explain those patterns causally, on the other?

4 responses to “Sidebar on Searle

  1. Liam October 20, 2006 at 12:34 am

    From a fellow possibly confused reader of Searle, some comments in defense of Searle’s position…

    The crucial thing in Searle’s critique is that constitutive rules – the kind of rules used in language – are more than observable patterns. Collectively, they form the necessary and sufficient conditions for performance (in language, in a game of chess, and so on). Any account which merely describes some set of rules without saying how the performers might use them is necessarily lacking a key part of a ‘theory’ (of language, chess, etc.). In 1972, he thought speech act theory provided the necessary leap from strange, unconsious, unlearned rule applications of syntax to meaningful linguistic performances; in 2002, in light of the lack of any such synthesis of approaches, the entire Chomskyan project appears futile…

    But it seems to me, both in 1972 and 2002, these two theorists are talking past each other. For Chomsky, ‘rule’ is just a step in a *private* procedure, carried out blindly and demonstrable – but not explicable – through grammatical analysis. For Searle, as mentioned above, ‘rules’ are essentially part of a *public* social practice, and can be more or less explicit and conscious according to the position of the speaker. On the one hand, for Chomsky to talk about rules – or invariant rules, principles – as public would be to fall back on behavioralist assumptions, in which rules are just another form of stimuli. On the other, for Searle the *institution* of language is prior:

    ‘The fact that a string of words is a sentence of English is not a brute fact like the fact that I have a pain; it is a special sort of fact, an institutional fact, in that it presupposes the existence of a human institution, the English language with its constitutive rules. (It is not an objection to this point to claim that the institutions are realized in individual human brains as internal or “I-languages.”)’

    There is perhaps scope for accepting both theses: the thesis of innate, internal rules/principles for syntax production, with an as-yet undiscovered neurological basis, does not prima facie exclude the thesis of social rules conditioning the use of my particular language in my everyday performance as a speaker. If there is a criticism I’d make (which may be an echo of N Pepperell’s in any case), it is that Searle seems to elide the use of ‘rule’ from pragmatic content to syntactic form. At the very least, there are different orders of rules operating in different orders of language, a fact which seems to have been neglected in both of Searle’s critiques.

    Finally let me reiterate N Pepperell’s disclaimer, that ‘even more likely… I’m missing the point…’.

  2. N Pepperell October 20, 2006 at 1:57 am

    Liam – Many thanks for this – I am having the sort of day that I may need to rely on someone else to tell me what I’m trying to say… ;-P The constitutive rules issue bothers me in ways I couldn’t clarify sufficiently to include in my original post (so, in good social science tradition, I simply omitted the issue from my discussion). I suspect that my difficulty expressing my problem derives from the fact that I have questions at a few different levels of abstraction. First, while I understand the concept of a constitutive rule – the basic notion is used in a variety of contexts where it wouldn’t make sense to draw a firm content/structure divide – I have just a basic factual question about whether Chomsky understands “his” rules in this sense? Chomsky uses a sort of systems-theoretic language in his contribution to this discussion:

    …rules are understood to be elements of the computational systems that determine the sound and meaning of the infinite array of expressions of a language; the information so derived is accessed by other systems in language use.

    I’m probably just tired, but this doesn’t sound like the more conventional social science concept that Searle seems to invoke in his definition.

    On another level, I’m actually sympathetic to Searle’s confusion about how you could use a Chomskyan approach to get “back” to meaning – this came out in our discussion the other day, and my sense is that you have a clearer understanding of how Chomsky might be able to do this? At the same time, though, I’m unsure that a critique along these lines “connects” with Chomsky’s argument – it sounds as though, as you say, it may be two people talking past one another, effectively engaging in a “why aren’t you trying to do something more like I’m doing” exchange…

    You know, of course, that I’m sympathetic to the notion that we should be more open to the possibility that structured practice might involve both innate and social aspects…

  3. Russ October 20, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    Just to add my own uninformed and confused two cents.

    I’m inclined to agree that Searle and Chomsky are talking past each other. Searle seems to see constitutive rules as the means by which you can define what is or isn’t the language:

    “Human languages are matters of constitutive rules, because to speak English for example, one must follow (at least a large subset of) the rules.”

    Whereas, Chomsky rejects this approach completely, focusing on the rules that govern the cognitive development of the language map/parameters in the brain:

    “The long-term goal has been, and remains, to show that contrary to appearances, human languages are basically cast to the same mold, that they are instantiations of the same fixed biological endowment, and that they “grow in the mind” much like other biological systems, triggered and shaped by experience, but only in restricted ways.”

    Hence, I think Chomsky and Bromberger are correct in their criticism of Searle – that he doesn’t understand their work – but I suspect slightly disingenuous. The rules for syntactic development and nothign on top of it, don’t seem to offer much to linguists – although it has interesting implications for related fields. In a sense, it is the difference between a compiler and the Church-Turing thesis; the latter [CT/Chomsky’s syntactic grammar] consisting of not much more than an interesting theory that limits the scope of possible approaches to the development of the former [compiler/language]. Searle is probably broadly correct in his overall argument that the revolution has stalled. The description of P&P seems to imply that even if Chomsky etc. had a more sophisticated understanding of what it would entail, they have tried (and so far failed) to get semantics from syntactic principles.

    On consciousness too, the difference seems to be one of crossed wires: Searle is talking about grammatical rules that can be perceived; Chomsky of cognitive development that cannot. Certainly, you are right in saying that a theory has value if it shows a consistent pattern. The danger is in trying to use that theory to make larger claims – which Chomsky seems to do on occassion – when the causal mechanism being posited is not existent or testable (see, for example, Ramachandran’s take on Chomsky’s explanation for where syntactic structures came from).

    But yes, I agree with Liam.

  4. N Pepperell October 20, 2006 at 8:15 pm

    Yes – I agree absolutely about Chomsky at times seeming to slide from conclusions for which he has stronger grounding, to claims that seem (to my extremely inexperienced view) much more speculative – in a sense, engaging in the kind of overextrapolation for which he has criticised Skinner… I also, as a general point, tend to think this kind of error is very tempting, and sometimes very difficult to catch – which is why it can be very important to separate out different kinds of claims (descriptive, causal, interpretive, etc.) and determine the research methods appropriate to ground each.

    It’s interesting that you mention Ramachandran – we had a somewhat similar association in the reading group’s very first discussion on Chomsky: feeling that the “logical” place to investigate some of these claims would lie more in some kind of neurological investigation, although the syntactic investigation could provide clues about what you’re trying to discover… (I’m in the process of reading a series of debates on whether Chomsky’s claims are sufficiently falsifiable – not far enough into the reading to know if the analysis is any good…)

    I’m still feeling confused, though, at a somewhat fundamental level about the issue of how someone would ever think you could get to semantics from syntactic principles – I’m sure I’m missing something perfectly obvious – once the term ends, and I can retrieve the parts of my brain that seem to become scattered from teaching, I’ll hopefully be more cogent. I can understand the claim that there might be syntactic limits or boundary conditions – and perhaps this is all that is being claimed? (I was mentioning to Liam earlier today that I’m certain this will be one of those topics where, in a few months time, I’m going to cringe about what I’ve written…)

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