Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

Innate and Social Characteristics of Language Capacity
(Chomsky, Searle and Beyond)

Martin Potschka (Vienna)


A main concern and widespread source of mutual misunderstanding (that has not been resolved in the exchange between Searle, Bromberger, Pinker and Chomsky in the New York Review of Books in 2002 (Searle 2002a, 2002b; Bromberger 2002; Pinker 1999, 2002; Chomsky 2002a, 2002b)) are the innate vs. social characteristics of language capacity and its constitutive rules. Hence, whether we approach the foundations of mind in the manner of natural sciences (as Chomsky prefers; cf. 1980b: 15, 37), or whether they belong to the humanities, specifically - are matters for the social sciences (as Searle insists; cf. Searle 1969, 1995; Nolte 1978; Dahlbom 1993). This dichotomy follows the tradition of C.P. Snow's "two cultures" (1959). Hence, the topic expressed in the title line has two dimensions: firstly, the fields of study that one may consider appropriate to explore the subject; it is this matter that then often substitutes for a second more fundamental question concerning differences between social and genetic modes of determination. My arguments are guided by the ideas raised in this exchange and do not claim to exhaust the subject of language capacity. Specifically, particulars of Chomsky's transformational grammar and the unifying aspects of language are beyond my scope. Instead, I shall introduce some medical terminology that is new to the field of linguistics. A tripartite scheme, which illustrates that a binary dichotomy of innate vs. social falls short of reality, will be presented. Before doing so, however, let me review the agenda.

Chomsky equates the term "innate" with "genetically-determined element", and argues that such innate determinants do exist in language capacity, but that language capacity cannot be reduced to them. Searle then appropriated the term innate for the sake of the argument to characterize Chomsky's position in language debate, but Chomsky himself rejected the detailed position ascribed to him. Not everything that we consider innate is truly rooted in a genetic base, however. Furthermore, our notions of genetics emerged recently (during the past 50 years) - earlier authors could not have held such notions. Thus the term innate capacities probably means different things to different people, and this depends, in part, on the particular notions attached to the constitutive terms of debates on matter-and-mind or nature-and-culture (sic!), and on the limitations of such binary oppositions.

For the Marxist view of social determination ("humans are the totality of their social relations"), the word innate refers to the non-social realm that is amenable to mechanical interpretation and later on became identified with molecular biology (cf. Ponzio 1973). If, in this frame, social language acquisition refers to imitation and practice, then the non-social realm is epitomized by the sphere of instinct. There is a social character of 'mind' on one side and the res extensa of body and matter on the other. But what is matter: we often speak of matters that matter (sic!). This is not how Searle uses the term but it is quite an intelligent use.

Often but quite erroneously molecular biology is further reduced to genetics - not because of Marxism, but for being a widespread research paradigm. Hence it comes as no surprise that a number of contemporary authors in the field of language actually do reduce innate characteristics to genetic determinism - e.g. Aitchison (2000: 36); Pinker and Bloom (Bloom 1993; Pinker/Bloom 1987; Pinker 1994) with their particular genes-first evolution of the mind that is genuinely disliked by Chomsky (Turner 1998). Even Deacon (1997), for whom language is not an instinct and who is critical of the formers' genetic model, but cannot do without his own genetic assimilation hypothesis (namely that socially acquired innovations of the brain, i.e. cultural inventions, turn into genetically determined brain structures). While indeed there may have been some co-evolution, such as neurotransmitter pathways, it is only the molecules that are genetically encrypted and not the timing and performance of such regulatory processes. No grammar gene has been identified thus far, as Pinker conceded some years ago (1994: 46). The preferable alternative to genetic encryption obviously is that mental activity of the brain itself shapes and maintains the connective structure of the brain.

Conversely, Latin Christianity has never reduced nature to biology. Scholastic theology rather considered the civilizational realm of man-made social relations a fictio imitatur naturam, but obviously not an imitation of the biological and genetic. Evidence for this position is varied, one instance is the Council of Lyon of 1245 when Pope Innocent IV declared that societies - being social institutions created by man - cannot be excommunicated, and that the act of excommunication is limited to natural persons; legal persons in this document are referred to as fictions that imitate nature (Kantorowicz 1957). A binary opposition of social and genetic thus excludes essential aspects of a Christian concept of nature. Instead we are often left with an equally problematic opposition of nature vs. culture.

In this vein and indebted to Rousseau's idealization of nature, Oswald Spengler's very concept of Zivilisation is a networking which he calls the "humanities' self-inflicted social ills" (Spengler 1918/23). More realistic, in comparison, is Thomas Hobbes, who contends that the relations human beings create in order to escape the misery of their natural condition are subject to nothing but the laws that produced this misery in the first place; the Law of Nature and the Law of Nations share the same precepts (cf. Hobbes 1640, 1642/47/51). Indeed, the qualitative difference between "civilizational" and "natural", and hence of sociology proper and a psychology guided by theology remains to be explained.

Not surprisingly then, there is a third view besides social science approaches and a preference for natural science. According to the papal perspective mind is a subject of philosophical interpretation guided by theology, and not a subject of scientific inquiry - neither of material nor of social sciences (cf. John Paul II 1996). Only the future will tell if the wording of the quoted text was inspired enough to stand up to the times and its intellectual progress. Quite ironically indeed, the statement dates from a speech that intended to overcome the church's antagonism towards Darwin (cf. Potschka 1996). But there can be no doubt that language capacity cannot be reduced to social and genetic categories alone.

Aristotle provides a different perspective about the difference between science and the humanities. He distinguished poíesis (the instrumental production of facts by manual labor based on empirical analysis - téchnē) vs. prãxis (the result of actions, genitum non factum, and methodologically subject to historic-hermeneutic communication and introspection). Habermas criticizes Marx for having reduced both poíesis and prãxis to the category of labor, and hence the humanities (the historic-hermeneutic interests) to (natural) science (and its analytic-technical interests) (Habermas 1968a, 1968b). The Aristotelian difference thus includes an ethical critique of technocratic reason (namely the commodification of linguistic knowledge and of manipulating the human psyche). The logic of business-oriented research (the zeal for products that sell, e.g. language translators, human-computer interfaces, expert systems, artificial intelligence) reminds of the dangers that not only Heidegger (cf. 1953) perceived in modern technology. Searle may have had this in mind, but it remains unaddressed.

Searle, who presents three criteria (observer-dependence, the role of forces, and the status of laws) that supposedly distinguish science from the humanities, never spells out what really matters. Indeed, he goes through pains to talk about something he does not really want to mention, and which the exchange left between the lines in perfect dialectical opaqueness.

What Searle talks about are criteria which are supposed to define natural science and distinguish it from social sciences and the humanities. His criterion of distinction for one is rooted in observer-dependence: matter is what it is, everything else depends on the mind... This is poor terminology considering 20th century physics with its debate over the observer-dependent nature of quantum events. Besides terminology, some of his detailed arguments are epistemologically questionable as well. Indeed, speech acts don't exists by themselves but only qua interlocutor (as Searle points out), but he overlooks that this is also true of neurotransmitter substances and protein function in general. Their message depends on a co-evolutionary network of chemical species that provides a normative standard of interpretation (a criterion Searle reserves to the mind). Furthermore, the chemistry of a cell not only observes its environment but "computes" its response to multiple external stimuli according to its chemical circuitry, sometimes graduated but often yielding state-transitions. This chemical "language" is not only studied by contemporary biological sciences, but by doing so scientists largely ignore any underlying forces (supposedly a key paradigm of natural sciences).

In his attempted classification, Searle altogether ignores recent postmodern theory and its turn to textualization. Everything nowadays is being treated as text and methods formerly limited to philological disciplines hence become universally applied. An increasing number of phenomena in biology and physics no longer are reduced to forces but are treated like semiotic relations.

Searle's third criterion (besides observer-dependence and forces) is the quality of laws in science and humanities. Hempel, for one, distinguishes nomothetic laws from statistical laws (cf. 1942-64). However, all of modern molecular physics only provides statistical statements and as such is not different from social sciences or the humanities (only classical physics is nomothetic - or rather applies nomothetic methods - in the Hempelian sense). To distinguish nomothetic science from idiography, like human history, does not suffice either. The supramolecular organization of the brain is the idiosyncratic product of natural history and is not uniquely determined by the underlying forces of physics. Similarly, there is a vast combinatorial potential in the design of the immune system, but the actual kinds of molecules (an incredibly small fraction of all possible ones) are realized in response to life events. In other words: the impact of initial and boundary conditions by far exceeds the impact of the laws themselves.

The same is true of genetic information. The number of actually realized codes is negligible compared to all combinatorial possibilities. Genetic evolution is the idiographical history of how information emerges from an ever coincidental set of materialized codes.

Innate capacities, though universal in character, are highly individual in actual circumstances. We face idiographic facts, but so does the human genome project that sequences the DNA.

Moreover, in natural evolution genes are generated from other genes but never made (genitum non factum) - a case of Aristotelian prãxis that supposedly requires hermeneutic methods. This has not prevented human technical reason inventing molecular biology, a scientific methodology and technique (Aristotelian poíesis). Life, historically a subject of the humanities, today is an accepted topos of natural science. What prevents humans doing the same with language - except perhaps moral reasons that suggest it would be better to refrain? Why not expand a natural bottom-up approach of evolution to include top down activities of the mind. All done with methods drawn from both science and the humanities. There is no reason why both linguistics and genetics cannot be made a subject of scientific methodology. And to do so does not necessarily mean to reduce one to the other.

What if linguistic capacities are neither social nor genetic but something else, not even philosophy but, for example, software code? Chomsky distinguishes a minimum of two language generating modules that interact, a conceptual system with (what Chomsky calls) "aitiational structures" (typified by a "telegraphic style" found already in some animals and small children) and a linguistic system with computational rules (grammatical competence). Searle rejects this possibility, based on a very narrow concept of computability (Turing machine (Turing 1950)). He concedes that there may be several roots to language, possibly with different brain locations. His focus is on two: an older purely associative and empirical mode (connectionist computing; parallel distributed processing), and a rational axiomatic mode (algorithmic akin to serial computing). This is the core idea of Steven Pinker and is reviewed by Searle (cf. Pinker 1999, 2002; Searle 2002b). It has been claimed that Chomsky's transformational grammars (a system of unifying principles with parameters fixed by experiencing spoken language) are equivalent to automata theory (Lauth 2003), and this aspect seems to worry Searle. Chomsky himself considers the assertion to be completely false and claims on his part that Searle only follows his personal concept of "rule", unrelated to the study of language to which he is referring (cf. Chomsky 1980a, 1980b; Searle 1980, 1990; Churchland/Churchland 1990). It is legitimate to have second thoughts about strong AI (Artificial Intelligence). This, however, is not a matter of science vs. humanities, but one of addressing very particular research paradigms.

Searle concludes that human minds are different from computer programs. Even if the performance of a human being and a computer program were indistinguishable, there is something essentially human missing (causal powers, consciousness, intentions, and possibly more). He argues that software lacks semantic competence - and indeed most
software does not comprehend what it formally does, it would need to be programmed to do so. But this might one day be achieved, hence some computer programs may eventually qualify while most don't. The argument also involves the epistemological separability of form and content, taken for granted by Searle; a controversial subject that remains an issue on its own. Searle further argues that the mind does not operate algorithmically, such a determinism supposedly violates the principle of free will. This alone does not rule out that language be put into some mathematical terms, but other arguments already mentioned may. Is algebra indeed fundamentally incompatible with semantics? Then there is a fundamental critique of the computer metaphor itself: the hardware-software analogue simply may not hold up to the features of the mind. For one, minds are embodied and cannot be reduced to a software that exchangeably runs on any hardware. But again, rejecting the software analogue is not itself evidence in favor of genetics or sociology. There still may be a tertium of kinds?

Yet for Searle there are apparently only two sets of methodologies, one for matter, the other for everything else. Such criteria of classification are bound to fail times of increasing methodological pluralism and transdisciplinary paradigms. To start with, there is more than one manner in which natural science can be conducted. Just think of behaviorism (Skinner) and its inductive learning-by-conditioning that was the target of Chomsky's revolution in the 1960s. Chomsky's psycholinguistics marks the rationalist turn against Machian empiricism and shaped modern cognitive science and its hypothetico-deductive method of learning. The differences between Skinner and Chomsky could not be greater but both are versions of natural science. Sociology is just as complex. Talking of sociology, Searle obviously tries to assert a social dimension of language capacity. But in putting it in an opposition to science he considers sociology a part of the humanities, which it is not. With all its emphasis on statistical methods sociology turned into a science in the course of the 20th century. Mathematics, after all, is the benchmark for science. And if lately there is renewed talk of qualitative methods, this very paradigm shift also affected particle physics and the sciences in general. The transdisciplinary impact of postmodernism and its textual turn has already been mentioned. A transdisciplinary information science could well be a "third culture" that bridges the gap between science and the humanities (cf. Snow 1959; Brier 2004). But are there unique scientific methodologies at all or are methods rather global? When a new idea comes about it is simply tested in any conceivable application and retained if it brings benefit.

None of Searle's criteria adequately differentiate topics and methods as either belonging to science or the humanities. And neither are such criteria expected to exist. The disciplinary canon emerged historically from coincidental developments of research schools, and it is the historical evolution of research schools that is responsible for disciplinary jurisdictions and not unique and selective paradigms.

Reading the exchange in the New York Review of Books, however, gives the impression that ultimately none of what has been debated (which mostly concerns the first part of the title subject) is the real issue. There may be a purpose behind it in that the subject proper (the second part of the title subject) escapes precise language and may only be treated in dialectic allusions. This, though, reminds me of Wittgenstein (cf. 1921), who claimed that everything that can be said at all, can be said so in simple terms. Freud's foundational paradigm of Sprachkur points in the same direction. On the other hand I don't want to fall pray to John Salisbury's illusion concerning manualized wisdom, which he pursued with his Polycraticus-project - a text written to shortcut the education of Thomas Becket and replace more time-consuming conventional methods of training (cf. Salisbury 1159). Let me therefore limit my present scope to better focusing the controversy and provide common ground, if not resolving mere terminological misunderstanding.

To this end let me differentiate the possible roots of language capacity by means of a tripartite scheme based on organic, endogenous and social modes of inheritance. Incidentally, this resembles a fundamental taxonomic distinction of mental disorders included in the Center for Disease Control's manual of medical diagnosis (cf. Psychiatric Association 1994), which refers to organic (anatomical, hence chemical and sometimes specifically genetic in origin), endogenous (variably called non-organic or of unknown or unspecified aetiology, without obvious external cause), inductive (e.g. "folie a deux") and reactive (e.g. "shell shock") causation. It is, after all, the same brain that psychiatrists and linguists look at, and intend to decipher.

What are the notions attached to the term endogenous? We may presume that "endogenous" refers to a psychic substrate, to the subject of psychoanalysis proper. It refers to intrinsic processes and structures distinct from extrinsic environment and experience, yet not genetic or biological in kind. Such endowments are dispositions established before birth though developed in part later (hence they may be called innate), but they represent a kind of inheritance different from the genetic.

We may also speculate that these structures, or certain aspects of them, relate to a complex considered by Christian faith to be immediately created by God and not inherited from ones parents (cf. Pius XII 1950). This idea is prominently expressed in the dogma of original sin. It is an inheritance that propagates in a manner different from imitation (propagatione, non imitatione transfusum omnibus), and against which the act of baptism can intervene (cf. Concilium Tridentinum 1545-1563: 17-19, 23-36). In Asia this idea has been specified as dependent origination (pratīyasamutpāda) from a continuity of mind (cittasantana), which is shaped by karman, the actions taken during life (a Lamarckian inheritance; cf. Stcherbatsky 1922; Frauwallner 1956: 27ff.). This path and continuity of rebirth again is superadded to the inheritance from the biological parents and is independent from them. The same idea is what Sigmund Freud (1923: 38) has in mind when he talks about an ID from which an EGO resurrects earlier accumulated ego-formations.

The concept most often comes by the label anima - spiritual soul - and unfortunately means different things to different people besides being ideologically charged; unqualified usage of such mentalist terms has only added to the prevailing confusion. The most prominent critique of the concept of the soul comes, of course, from Buddhism. Its teachings consider the soul to be a mere reification of a deconstructable complex of features (cf. Frauwallner 1956: 76ff.; Vasubandhu 5th century). For Ryle, the soul is not something which exists materially, but is a conceptual construct from which certain properties may be deduced. Thus Ryle criticizes Cartesian dualism (cf. Ryle 1949; Katz 1966: 80) whereas Chomsky (1966: 16) defends Descartes' concept of soul, ingenium, supposed to be a uniquely human quality that sets itself apart from the "mechanical" instinct of the animal (this binary opposition again is rather debatable). The mechanical machine paradigm of La Mettrie (cf. 1748) has since been replaced by modern system theory that better accommodates the "organic" twist. Chomsky's critique of Ryle is one of many indications that he is not the "organic" reductionist that Searle wants to make of him. It is true, however, that Chomsky studies the Geist of language also with methods of natural science, and that he does not reduce it to "social" relations alone.

Last but not least, it is important to mention Rupert Sheldrake. Sheldrake (1997: 23) presents his theory of morphic resonance, besides other reasons, to explain language capacity as a phylogenic endowment that is not genetic in origin. This does not mean that his concept of morphic fields and the endogenous order as described here are one and the same, but both descriptions at least share a common interest and attempt to describe similar matters.

"Endogenous" disturbances of the mind leave traces among organic matter, like changing neurotransmitter levels, and pharmaceutical intervention may or may not facilitate actual treatment, but their causes are not chemical (i.e. organic) in the first place. Conversely, the endogenous realm is set apart not only from social action but also from social induction. To the extent that the endogenous realm is supra-individual, it depends on a definition of terms whether we still refer to its systemic dimension as something social (differently social); scholastic theology would rather call it natural. Instead of splitting hairs one may simply accept that binary distinctions fall short of real phenomenology and that the terms of debate are poorly defined.

Innate capacities then - to my mind - are endogenous endowments, and are neither genetically determined nor socially transmitted. They do, however, evolve in the environment of social processes and organs that are genetically co-engineered. Performing language is more than an interplay of genetically determined principles and a course of (social) experiences. It crucially depends on endogenous functions and non-genetic inheritance as well.

Innate capacities include what is called inner speech, a term used summarily to describe a plethora of processes, some related to a stream of semantic complexes, others more verbose and language specific ("telegraphic style"!), but elementary in grammar and vocabulary. They actively monitor external speech production, and in one of their functions even duplicate external speech (so well that it is usually difficult to discern it behind the external vocalization). There is great variation from person to person (in part different transformations of common root functions), and details often are poorly described in literature (cf. Sokolov 1972; Tomlinson 2000).

Innate capacities are a faculty available to the infant child yet not a mere product of ongoing socialization. Did this faculty evolve contingent to certain properties of neuronal architecture, idiographically, so-to-speak? Possibly. Is there an interplay with the "environment" in social acts? Yes, certainly. Does it store actual concepts? Likely some of those that have emerged during cultural phylogenesis.

Does it perform algebraically? Well, algebra is more than number crunching. And while algebraic manipulation of symbols is entirely formal, it may not be bare of semantic specifications. Indeed, mathematicians, too, are becoming increasingly concerned about the epistemological separability of form and content.

For the larger part science is an endeavor to find suitable and differentiated terms of debate. Hence, if my comments do not satisfy the varied concerns of both Chomsky and Searle, they at least introduce some language to further discussion.

© Martin Potschka (Vienna)


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Turing, Alan M. (1950). "Computing machinery and intelligence". Mind 59: 433-460

Turner, Mark (1998). "Poetry for the newborn brain". Bostonia 1(spring): 72-73

Vasubandhu, Acharya, Jr. (5th century). Abhidharmakośabhāşyam. Vol. 4. Transl. by Louis de La Vallée Poussin; Engl. transl. by Leo M. Pruden. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press 1988-1990, Chapter Nine: Refutation of the pudgala (i.e. atman); Fr. L'Abhidharmakosa de Vasubandhu: Septieme et huitieme chapitres, neuvieme chapitre ou refutation de la doctrine du pudgala. Trad. et annotee par Louis de La Vallee Poussin. Paris: Paul Geuthner 1925

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1921). Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Engl.: London: Routledge 2001; Germ.: Kritische Edition. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1989

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Moderation / Chair: Astrid Hönigsperger
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Martin Potschka (Vienna): Innate and Social Characteristics of Language Capacity. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 1.7.2004    INST