Cartesian linguistics

Cartesian linguistics

Noam Chomsky's "Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought", published in 1966, has the purpose of deepening "our understanding of the nature of language and the mental processes and structures that underlies its use and acquisition" (ix). Chomsky wishes to shed light on these underlying structures of the human language, and subsequently whether one can infer the nature of an organism from its language (x).

"Cartesian" linguistics refers to a form of linguistics developed during the time of René Descartes, a prominent 17th century philosopher whose ideas continue to influence modern philosophy. Chomsky's book, "Cartesian Linguistics", manages to trace the development of linguistic theory from Descartes himself to Wilhelm von Humboldt, or in other words, directly from the period of the Enlightenment up to the Romanticism (59). The central doctrine of Cartesian linguistics maintains that the general features of grammatical structure are common to all languages and reflect certain fundamental properties of the mind (59).

Themes covered in "Cartesian Linguistics"

Man vs. Brute

Certain mechanical factors of language function, such as response to stimuli, are evident in both humans and animals; however, Chomsky cites from several 17th century Cartesian experiments which show that the "creative" aspect of language is specific only to human beings. This is, in essence, the Cartesian theory of language production.

Chomsky writes, "one fundamental contribution of what we have been calling 'Cartesian linguistics' is the observation that human language, in its normal use, is free from the control of independently identifiable external stimuli or internal states and is not restricted to any practical communicative function, in contrast, for example, to the pseudo language of animals" (29). "In short, animal 'language' remains completely within the bounds of mechanical explanation as this was conceived by Descartes and Cordemoy" and the creative aspect of language is what separates humans and animals (11).

Freedom from instinct

Philosophical undertones permeate throughout Cartesian theory and just one example of this is the idea that freedom from instinct and from stimulus control is the basis for what we call "human reason" (14). Weakness of instinct is man's natural advantage, that which makes him a rational being (14). "From this conception of language, it is only a short step to the association of the creative aspect of language use with true "artistic" creativity" (17). In other words "the "poetical" quality of ordinary language derives from its independence of immediate stimulation and its freedom from practical ends", essentially subject matter which correlates with Cartesian philosophy (17).


Chomsky parallels theories of Enlightenment thinkers Humboldt, Goethe, and Herder to enumerate them as researchers seeking a universal order and to show the tendency of Cartesian thinking to diffuse into several areas of academia (24). Humboldt's effort to reveal the organic form of language (26) is juxtaposed into the context of modern linguistics, like many of the cited experiments, to show the differences between the Cartesian model of linguistics and the modern model, and in order to illustrate the contributions of the former to the latter.

Another aspect of this universality is generative grammar, a Chomskian approach, which is one finite, ubiquitous aspect of language which provides the "organic unity" of which Humboldt wrote. Also Humboldtian is the idea that the force which generates language and the force which generates thought are one and the same. (29)

Deep Structure vs. Surface Structure

"Pursuing the fundamental distinction between body and mind, Cartesian linguistics characteristically assumes that language has two aspects" (32). These are namely the sound/character of a linguistic sign and its significance. (32). Semantic interpretation or phonetic interpretation may not be identical in Cartesian linguistics (32). Deep structures are often only represented in the mind (a mirror of thought), as opposed to surface structures which are not.

Deep structures vary less between languages than surface structures. For instance, the transformational operations to derive surface forms of Latin and French may obscure common features of their deep structures (39). Chomsky proposes, "In many respects, it seems to me quite accurate, then, to regard the theory of transformational generative grammar, as it is developing in current work, as essentially a modern and more explicit version of the Port-Royal theory" (39).

ummary of Port Royal Grammar

The Port Royal Grammar is an often cited reference in "Cartesian Linguistics" and is considered by Chomsky to be a more than suitable example of Cartesian linguistic philosophy. "A sentence has an inner mental aspect (a deep structure that conveys its meaning) and an outer, physical aspect as a sound sequence"***** This theory of deep and surface structures, developed in Port Royal linguistics, meets the formal requirements of language theory. Chomsky describes it in modern terms as "a base system that generates deep structures and a transformational system that maps these into surface structures", essentially a form of transformational grammar akin to modern studies (42).

Past and present

Chomsky bridges the past with the present by stating that from the standpoint of modern linguistic theory, the characterization and discovery of deep structures is absurd, in accordance with the present study and quantification of such things as "linguistic fact" and "sound-meaning correspondences"(51). In any case, traditional attempts of dealing with deep and surface structure theory were unsuccessful (51).

Descartes idea of language as form of self-expression, not merely communication…Modern linguistics hasn't dealt with or rather hasn't fully acknowledged problems raised by Cartesian philosophy. They have been glossed over as unnecessary problems of a generally well-accepted theory.

Another aspect of Cartesian linguistics is the "necessity for supplementing descriptive statements with a rational explanation", in order to strive to progress as a true science (57). Chomsky claims that an excessive rationality and priorism were common to the Enlightenment period and a great, underlying hypothesis to the general nature of language is missing in the Cartesian analysis of deep structure (58).

"Common notions" {Herbert of Cherbury's "De Veritate" (1624)}

These refer to the "inborn capacitiies" or a certain "natural instinct" which "instructs us in the nature, manner, and scope of what is to be heard, hoped for, or desired" (Cherbury 132). These latent notions are only activated through an outside stimulus. Chomsky asserts that this focus on innate and psychological doctrine as a precursor to experience and knowledge is typical of "Cartesian" linguistics (62), along with the requisite of an external stimulus for activation of the doctrine's latent function.

Approach to language learning

With this said, "language acquisition is a matter of growth and maturation of relatively fixed capacities, under appropriate external conditions" (64). The 17th century's amenable approach to language learning was very non-conforming, as the overall perception was that knowledge arises on the basis of scattered, inadequate data. Properties conducive to what is learned are attributed to the mind. Theories of perception and learning were essentially the same, though it was an acknowledged difference which would consequently become indistinct during acquisition (67).

"Thus prior knowledge and set play a large role in determining what we see" (68)(Cudworth 423-424)A common idea/perception was that an object/idea could be stamped upon the soul upon the occasion of an idea excited from the comprehensive power of the intellect itself (69). Only Humboldt, who was a living connection between the rationalist Enlightenment and Romantic period, devised the underlying generative system of language perception (71).Again, Chomsky asserts that "contemporary research in perception has returned to the investigation of internally represented schemata..." (72). The current work of modern linguistics continues the tradition of "Cartesian" linguistics in transformational grammar.

Chomsky formulates fundamental conclusions of Cartesian linguistics in his studies.

Background notes

Chomsky accomplished his research for Cartesian Linguistics while he was a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies; thereafter a great deal of subject matter was presented at the Christian Gauss seminars at Princeton University in 1965. Since the publication of Cartesian Linguistics, Chomsky's history has been criticized as an artificial predecessor to his own ideas, mainly formulated in the context of 1950s psychological behaviorism.Fact|date=September 2007


Miel, Jan. "Pascal, Port-Royal, and Cartesian Linguistics," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 30, April 1969, pp. 261-271.

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