Chomsky and Pragmatics
Chomsky's research program of Generative Linguistics has had syntax in focus, but its conception of objectives, scientific methodology and philosophical foundations transcend syntax and lend themselves to interesting applications. Pragmatics is an area to which they have been applied.
1 Pragmatics in Chomsky's early writings
The first published appearance of pragmatics in Chomsky's writings is in his paper (Chomsky 1962). The knowledge of language a speaker has acquired constitutes "an implicit theory of the language that he has mastered, a theory that predicts the grammatical structure of each of an infinite class of potential physical events, and the conditions for the appropriate use of each of these items." (p. 528) Appropriateness conditions of sentences to contexts of utterance have been often claimed to form the subject matter of pragmatics, in the sense of a theory of language use (Kasher 1977, van Dijk 1977). According to Chomsky's 1973 introduction to (Chomsky 1955), "the overarching semiotic theory in which the theory of linguistic form is embedded must develop and explain how the notions constructed and applied in the investigation of linguistic form contribute to determining meaning and conditions of appropriate use." (p. 20) This is still a "thin" notion of pragmatic theory, one that has a certain theoretical objective and bears a certain relation to the theory of linguistic form.
2 Pragmatic competence
That notion of pragmatic theory is replaced by a "thicker" one towards the end of the seventies, when a distinction is introduced between "grammatical competence," which is related to form and meaning, and "pragmatic competence," which involves "knowledge of conditions and manner of appropriate use, in conformity with various purposes" (Chomsky 1978, p. 224). Appropriateness of use is couched in terms of the relations between intentions and purposes and between linguistic means, of certain forms and meanings, within linguistic institutional settings. (See also Chomsky 1980, pp. 59-60 and 93 and Kasher 1977.) ®IP5¯The introduction of a theoretical notion of pragmatic competence imports into pragmatics the form of theoretical objectives, the scientific methodology and the philosophical foundations of Chomsky's research program of Generative Linguistics. On a par with the major theoretical objective of the generative study of syntax being an understanding of an innate "Universal Grammar," the major theoretical objective of a similar study of pragmatics would be an understanding of the invariant or innate constraints of language use. Thus, one would replace mere descriptions and classifications of types of speech act, for example, by much deeper attempts to answer questions such as "What is a cognitively possible speech act type?" (See Kasher 1981.) The very notion of a pragmatic competence involves a variety of abstractions underlying the fruitful distinction between any competence and the related performance. (See Moravcsik 1990). A prevalent empiricist method of collecting data, classifying it and making attempts to formulate some generalizations about it is thus replaced by an ordinary scientific method of formulating abstract theories in pursuit of understanding interesting aspects of nature. There is no reason why theoretical studies of natural language, including its pragmatic aspects, should not be carried out the way studies of other aspects of nature are. At the basic level of the philosophical foundations of the resulting study of the pragmatic competence, the following are the most interesting claims: (a) Use of language is governed by systems of abstract rules that are universally, most probably innately constrained. (b) Use of language is governed by systems that are independent of other linguistic and cognitive systems. (See also: MODULAR PRAGMATICS). (c) Use of language should not be identified with operation of a communication system. The latter is just a common example of the former. (See Chomsky 1975, 1980 and Kasher 1991).
3 in Chomsky's later publications
In his more recent books (Chomsky 1986 and 1988) Chomsky mentioned three "basic questions" that arise in the study of language, viz. "(i) What constitutes knowledge of language? (ii) How is knowledge of language acquired? (iii) How is knowledge of language put to use?" (Chomsky 1986, p.3; see also Chomsky 1988, p. 3.) Question (iii) breaks down into a question about perception and a question about production, which is a question about the nature of the creative nature of language use. The latter question, dubbed "Descartes's problem," of the creative aspects of what we say and why we say it, has remained unsolved, probably because of the limited nature of human cognitive faculties and intellectual grasp. (Chomsky 1988. See also McGinn 1991). The unsolvability of Descartes's problem has been but should not be interpreted as an argument for the impossibility of pragmatics. Each component of language gives rise to such three basic questions. Question (iii), about putting some linguistic knowledge of that component to use, is not a question about pragmatics, but rather about creative aspects of that component, whether it is syntax, semantics or pragmatics. Pragmatics itself, being a theory of appropriate language use in context, is a body of knowledge, the subject matter of answers to question (i), is acquired in a certain way, the subject matter of answers to question (ii), and is put to use by what embodies the creative aspects of pragmatics, the subject matter of answers to question (iii). Clearly, use¯ is used in two different meanings in the delineation of pragmatics and in question (iii) and no argument for the impossibility of the former emerges from Chomsky's arguments about the latter.
Chomsky N 1955 The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Manuscript, Harvard University. Published, with an introduction by the author, Plenum Press, New York and London, 1973.
Chomsky N 1962 Explanatory Models in Linguistics. In: Nagel E, Suppes P, Tarski A (eds). Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science. Stanford University Press, Stanford, pp. 528-550.
Chomsky N 1975 Reflections on Language. Pantheon, New York.
Chomsky N 1978 Language and Unconscious Knowledge. In: Smith J H (ed). Psychoanalysis and Language, Psychiatry and the Humanities, vol. 3, Yale University Press, New Haven; republished in Chomsky N 1980, pp. 217-254 and 287-290.
Chomsky N 1980 Rules and Representations. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Chomsky N 1984 Modular Approaches to the Study of the Mind. San Diego State University Press, San Diego.
Chomsky N 1986 Knowledge of Language. Praeger, New York.
Chomsky N 1988 Language and the Problems of Knowledge. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA and London.
Kasher A 1977 What is a Theory of Use? Journal of Pragmatics 1: 105-120, republished in: Meaning and Use (A. Margalit, ed.) Reidel, Dordrecht 1979, 37-55.
Kasher A 1981 Minimal Speakers and Necessary Speech Acts. in: Festschrift for Native Speaker (F. Coulmas, ed.) Mouton, The Hague, 93-101.
Kasher A 1991 Pragmatics and Chomsky's Research Program. In: Kasher A (ed). The Chomskyan Turn. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 122-149.
McGinn C 1991 The Problem of Consciousness. Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Moravcsik J M 1990 Thought and Language. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
van Dijk T 1977 Text and Context. Longman, London and New York.