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


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.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Baker, C. L.: 1979, ‘Syntactic Theory and the Projection Problem’,Linguistic Inquiry 10, 533–581.Google Scholar
  2. Bar-Hillel, Yehoshua: 1969, ‘Universal Semantics and Philosophy of Language: Quandaries and Prospects’, in J., Puhvel (ed.),Substance and Structure of Language (University of California Press, Berkeley), pp. 1–21.Google Scholar
  3. Bloomfield, Leonard: 1933,Language (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York).Google Scholar
  4. Boswell, John: 1980,Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).Google Scholar
  5. Chomsky, Noam: 1957,Syntactic Structures (Mouton, The Hague).Google Scholar
  6. Chomsky, Noam: 1965,Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA).Google Scholar
  7. Chomsky, Noam: 1968,Language and Mind (Harcourt, Brace and World, New York).Google Scholar
  8. Chomsky, Noam: 1971,Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (Pantheon Books, New York).Google Scholar
  9. Chomsky, Noam: 1975,Reflections on Language (Pantheon Books, New York).Google Scholar
  10. Chomsky, Noam: 1976a, ‘On the Biological Basis of Language Capacities’, in R. W., Reiber (ed.),The Neuropsychology of Language (Plenum Press, New York), pp. 1–24.Google Scholar
  11. Chomsky, Noam: 1976b, ‘On the Nature of Language’, in S., Harnad, H., Steklis and J., Lancaster (eds.),Origins and Evolution of Language and Speech (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 280), (New York Academy of Sciences, New York), pp. 46–57.Google Scholar
  12. Chomsky, Noam: 1979,Language and Responsibility (Pantheon Books, New York).Google Scholar
  13. Chomsky, Noam: 1980, ‘On Cognitive Structures and Their Development: A Reply to Piaget’, in M. Piattelli-Palmarini (ed.), pp. 35–52.Google Scholar
  14. Katz, Jerrold J.: 1972,Semantic Theory (Harper and Row, New York).Google Scholar
  15. Katz, Jerrold J. and Jerry A., Fodor: 1963, ‘The Structure of a Semantic Theory’,Language 39 (Part I), 170–210. Reprinted, 1964, in J. Fodor and J. Katz (eds.),The Structure of Language, (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), pp. 479–518.Google Scholar
  16. Koestler, Arthur: 1967,The Ghost in the Machine (Henry Regnery Company, Chicago).Google Scholar
  17. Koestler, Arthur: 1978,Janus (Random House, New York).Google Scholar
  18. McCawley, James P.: 1980, ‘Review of Geoffrey Sampson,Liberty and Language (1979)’,Language 56, 639–47.Google Scholar
  19. McGinn, Colin: 1981, ‘Review of Noam Chomsky,Rules and Representations (1980)’,Journal of Philosophy 78, 288–98.Google Scholar
  20. Partee, Barbara: 1977, ‘Possible Worlds Semantics and Linguistic Theory’,The Monist 60, 303–326.Google Scholar
  21. Partee, Barbara: 1979, ‘Montague Grammar and the Well-Formedness Constraint’, in F., Heny and H.S., Schnelle (eds.),Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 10:Selections From The Third Groningen Round Table (Academic Press, New York), pp. 275–314.Google Scholar
  22. Piatelli-Palmarini, Massimo (ed.): 1980,Language and Learning: The Debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA).Google Scholar
  23. Putnam, Hilary: 1967, ‘The “Innateness Hypothesis” and Explanatory Models in Linguistics’,Synthese 17, 12–22. Reprinted, 1971, in J. Searle (ed.)The Philosophy of Language (Oxford University Press, London), pp. 130–9.Google Scholar
  24. Sampson, Geoffrey: 1979, ‘A Non-Nativist Account of Language Universals’,Linguistics and Philosophy 3, 99–104.Google Scholar
  25. Sankoff, Gillian and Penelope, Brown: 1976, ‘The Origins of Syntax in Discourse: A Case Study of Tok Pisin Relatives’,Language 52, 631–66.Google Scholar
  26. Simon, Herbert A.: 1962, ‘The Architecture of Complexity’,Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106, 467–82. Reprinted, 1969, in H. A. Simon,The Sciences of the Artificial (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA).Google Scholar
  27. Watt, William C.: 1979, ‘Against Evolution (An Addendum to Sampson and Jenkins)’,Linguistics and Philosophy 3, 121–37.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Co 1981

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations