Blame Cassirer

While in the process of dissecting my PhD dissertation into discrete articles I have come across some sections which, while interesting to me, are too short or trivial to warrant full publication. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be turning some of these into blog posts beginning with a discussion that connects two of my favourite things; mathematical linguistics and German idealism. 

When Cartesian Linguistics came out in 1964 there was one point which all reviewers and critics agreed upon; Chomsky had seriously misunderstood Humboldt. This is perhaps surprising as Chomsky had heralded generative grammar as a ‘return rather to the Humboldtian conception of underlying competence as a system of generative processes’ (Chomsky, 1964: 4) 

‘It can, furthermore, be quite accurately described as an attempt to develop further the Humboldtian notion of ‘form of language’ and its implications for cognitive psychology, as will surely be evident to anyone familiar both with Humboldt and with recent work in generative grammar’ (Chomsky, 1964: 9) 

In fact, the term ‘generative grammar’ was coined with Humboldt in mind.

The term ‘generate’ is familiar in the sense here intended in logic, particularly in Post’s theory of combinatorial systems. Furthermore, ‘generate’ seems to be the most appropriate translation for Humboldt’s term erzeugen, which he frequently uses, it seems, in essentially he sense intended here’ (Chomsky, 1965: 9) 

Even Chomsky’s more sympathetic reviewers like Gilbert Harman regarded the connection to Humboldt as tenuous. 

`Chomsky mars his discussion of romanticism by trying to read the whole theory of generative grammar into the musings of Wilhelm von Humboldt’ (Harman, 1968: 233)

Others were less forgiving. Ernest Gellner accused Chomsky of ‘irresponsible ancestor-snatching’ while Eschbach & Trabant criticise ‘Chomsky’s totally aberrant interpretation and unhistorical misuse of Humboldt for ends of his own’. German scholars were particularly keen to adumbate Chomsky’s confusions.

‘Erzeugung hat bei ihm kein mathematisches, dafür ein starkes diachronisches Implikat – das bei Chomsky gerade fehlt’ (Baumann, 1971: 3) 

‘Humboldts `erzeugen’ entspricht nicht Chomskys `generate’ und damit zusammenhängend’ (Weydt, 1972, 259)

‘Leider ist dieser Irrtum nicht auf sich selbst begrenzt, sondern,  er hat erheblich dazu beigetragen dass ein bild von der geschichte der linguistik das nicht mit der wirklichkeit übereinstimmt.’  (Ibid)

‘Chomskys Humboldt-Bild ist jedoch nicht nur als sachlich falsch zurückzuwei­ sen. Vielmehr wird seine szientifische Reduktion wesentlich komplexerer tradi­ tioneller Theorieansätze zur Natur der Sprache darüber hinaus auch in ideologi­ scher Hinsicht als symptomatisch verstanden, insofern sie herrschende Sprach- und Sprachwissenschafts-Modelle wie das der GTG durch ihre unhermeneutischen Abbiendungen zusätzlich gegen Infragestellungen zu immunisieren geeignetscheint.’  (Scharf, 1983: 235)

Hans Aarsleff sums up his review of Cartesian Linguistics this way:

 ‘I must conclude with the firm belief that I do not see that anything at all useful can be salvaged from Chomsky’s version of the history of linguistics. That version is fundamentally false from beginning to end-because the scholarship is poor, because the texts have not been read, because the arguments have not been understood, because the secondary literature that might have been helpful has been left aside or unread, even when referred to.’  (Aarsleff, 1970: 583) 

Now I don’t think that such ‘false’ histories are necessarily useless. There can be considerable value in giving ‘rational reconstructions’ of a discipline, identifying ideas in their nascency and tracing their development over time. The stories we tell when we do this will be biased and likely anachronistic, but if we want to understand the past, one might have to boost the signal in the noise. Nevertheless, if the reviews are anything to go by, Chomsky’s account of the history of linguistics is so wrong as to be actively harmful. Whole books have been dedicated to how detailing the problems with Chomsky’s reading of Humboldt (e.g. Sharf’s Chomskys Humboldt-Interpretation). This raises the question, how did Chomsky get it so wrong? 

Rather than trying to do justice to this literature, we’ll confine our focus to a single issue, Humboldt’s notion of the form of language. 

While it can be difficult to pin down exactly what Humboldt means by this, he does make it clear that when discussing form, `we are talking, not of language as such, but of the various different peoples, so that it is also a matter of defining what is meant by one particular language, in contrast, on the one hand, to the linguistic family, and on the other to a dialect, and what we to understand by one language, where it undergoes essential changes during its career. Language, regarded in its real nature, is an enduring thing, and at every moment a transitory one…The concept of form does not as such exclude anything factual and individual; everything to be actually established on historical grounds only, together with the most individual features, is in fact comprehended and included in this concept’ (Humboldt, 49).

Whatever Humboldt means by form, it is something historical and concerns peoples: `it is the quite individual urge whereby a nation gives validity to thought and feeling in language’ (Ibid, 50). 

‘Through exhibiting the form we must perceive the specific course which the language, and with it the nation it belongs to, has hit upon for the expression of thought. We must be able to see how it relates to other languages, not only in the particular goals prescribed to it, but also in its reverse effect upon the mental activity of the nation’ (Ibid, 52).

How does Chomsky interpret this? 

‘In developing the notion of ‘form of language’ as a generative principle, fixed and unchanging, determining the scope and providing the means for the unbounded set of individual ‘creative’ acts that constitute normal language use, Humboldt makes an original and significant contribution to linguistic theory – a contribution that unfortunately remained unrecognized and unexploited until fairly recently’ (Chomsky, 1966: 71)

‘Humboldt’s effort to reveal the organic form of language – the generative system of rules and principles that determines each of its isolated elements – had little impact on modern linguistics…’(Chomsky, 1966: 74)

What’s going on here? Humboldt seems to be talking about a diachronic principle of linguistic organisation while Chomsky is talking about a generative system of rules. Humboldt’s form is something that exists at the level of the ‘nation’ while Chomsky is concerned with internal mental processes. How did this happen? 

While Chomsky’s reading of Humboldt differs from pretty much every serious scholar of the history of linguistics, there is one person whose ideas it does agree with, Ernst Cassirer. 

Cassirer was the founder of the Marburg school of neo-Kantianism and in The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms which Chomsky cites as a source for his understanding of the philosophy of language of German romanticism, he presents a highly Kantian version of Humboldt.

For Cassirer, Humboldt’s form of language has more in common with Kant’s forms of intuition than with any diachronic, empirical phenomenon. 

‘This distinction, the differentiation of matter and form, which dominates Humboldt’s general view, is also rooted in Kantian thought…The unity of form is the synthetic unity in which the unity of the object is grounded…In order to characterize this form of conjunction, grounded in the transcendental subject and its spontaneity, yet strictly “objective,” because necessary and universally valid, Kant himself had invoked the unity of judgment and so indirectly that of the sentence…. Humboldt’s concept of form extends what is here said of a single linguistic term to the whole of language’ (Cassirer, 1955: 161)

Cassirer’s Humboldt takes the form of language to be the subject-internal conditions of the possibility of linguistic experience; the internal relations which ground the objectivity of thought. For Cassirer’s Humboldt ’objectification in thought must come about through objectification in the sounds of language’ (Cassirer, 1923/2013: 117) and, just as the forms of intuition, space and time, make the objectification of physical objects possible for Kant, it is the form of language which makes this possible for Humboldt.  

All I have been trying to suggest here is that Chomsky’s understanding of Humboldt has its roots in Cassirer’s writing. I am not arguing (here at least) that Chomsky is a crypto-Kantian. Chomsky is rightly seen as the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution in psychology. However, this revolution was at least in part a return to the principles of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. In contrast to the structuralism and logical empiricism of the mid-twentieth-century, Chomsky’s great idea was that the source of the structure of linguistic phenomena was to be sought not in the data of the external world but in the mind itself. Understanding the relation of these ideas to their Kantian antecedents, in other words performing rational reconstructions can help us go some way to understanding not just how we ended up with the theoretical assumptions we have but why our theorising matters in the first place.  


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