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Linguistics and Philosophy

, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp 437–451 | Cite as

Making sense

by Geoffrey Sampson. Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 215
  • Barbara Abbott
  • Grover Hudson
Review
  • 37 Downloads

Conclusion

This would have been a better book if Sampson had argued his main point, the usefulness of the Simonian principle as an explanation of the evolution, structure, and acquisition of language, on its own merits, instead of making it subsidiary to his attack on ‘limited-minders’ (e.g., Noam Chomsky). The energy he has spent on the attack he might then have been willing and able to employ in developing his argument at reasonable length and detail. He might then have found that argument faulty, or even wrong. Underdeveloped as it is, however, his point about the Simonian principle does seem to have thepossibility of some significance in understanding the empirical issues of this book (and the dichotomy of ‘limited’ and ‘creative’ minds is certainly not one of these).

What Sampson has done inMaking Sense has the appearance of science, and theoretical linguistics, and therefore it is somewhat puzzling to find the conclusions that the human mind cannot be scientifically studied (p. 10), and that theoretical linguistics is a “mirage” (p. 210). His statement that It may still seem worthwhile to some to work out the exact implications for present-day linguistic structure of the fact that languages are evolved systems, but I cannot see that there is much glamour or, indeed, much substance in this task (p. 210) would surely be surprising to a geneticist or ethologist. We hope his apparent misunderstanding on this point will not lead him to give up his profession, in which he seems willing and able to make a significant contribution.

What in particular is required is a clear indication of how the Simonian principle imposes itself in the ontogenesis of language. Consider Chomsky's example of the rule for forming questions in English. For sentence (1) below, children able to deal with such examples would give (2) but not (3) as the corresponding question (Chomsky, 1975, p. 31).

  1. (1)

    The man who is tall is in the room.

     
  2. (2)

    Is the man who is tall in the room?

     
  3. (3)

    *Is the man who tall is in the room?

     

Now compare Sampson's evolutionary explanation for the structure-dependence of rules which is illustrated in (1)-(3): “once a behavior-pattern has become thoroughly established, it will tend to be treated as a fixed given when used as a constituent of a more complex, later-learned behavior-pattern” (p. 183). In order for this to account for Chomsky's example it would have to be the case that children learn relative clauses before they learn questions, which simply isn't true.

In conclusion, we wish not to seem unaware of the problems with the position Sampson is attacking, or unaware of the sometimes dogmatic way it too has been presented. Chomsky's hypothesis of innate linguistic ideas seems, fundamentally, to derive from the claimed rapidity and uniformity of language acquisition in the face of limited and degenerate data. Chomsky appears to have been unwilling to argue these points directly or to show their relation to others, for which he has argued, for example, the implausibility of some abstract constraint's having been learned (cf. 1971, pp. 22–44; 1975, pp. 30–33; 1980, pp. 35–52). And almost from his first invoking of rationalism in support of his linguistic method, Chomsky has himself resorted to an unnecessarily polemical attack on empiricism (cf. 1965, p. 58, n. 33). The innateness issue is just not clear or simple enough to justify so much animus, or even conviction.

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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Abbott
    • 1
  • Grover Hudson
    • 1
  1. 1.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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