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?