Chomsky and Wittgenstein on Linguistic Competence

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Thomas McNally
Sinéad McNally


In his Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Saul Kripke presents his influential reading of Wittgenstein’s later writings on language. One of the largely unexplored features of that reading is that Kripke makes a small number of suggestive remarks concerning the possible threat that Wittgenstein’s arguments pose for Chomsky’s linguistic project. In this paper, we attempt to characterise the relevance of Wittgenstein’s later work on meaning and rule-following for transformational linguistics, and in particular to identify the potentially negative impact it has on that project. Although we use Kripke’s remarks to articulate some of the pertinent issues, we return to Wittgenstein’s later writings to address them. We argue that Wittgenstein’s main target in the relevant sections of the Philosophical Investigations is the notion of ‘logical compulsion’, which involves assuming that there is more to applying a word or rule than how we are naturally or “psychologically” compelled to apply. We characterise two of the main lines of argument in the Investigations in terms of the rejection of logical compulsion. We thus propose to address the relevance of Wittgenstein’s writings for Chomsky by considering whether Chomsky’s linguistics presupposes the targeted notion of logical compulsion. We argue that Chomsky’s conception of linguistic competence in terms of successive states of the “language faculty” (containing the principles of universal grammar) does presuppose this problematic notion. Chomsky responded to Kripke by devoting a chapter of his Knowledge of Language to defending this conception of linguistic competence against the Wittgensteinian arguments. We evaluate his response and argue that he has misidentified the threat to his linguistic project as consisting in the attack on its ‘individual psychology’ standpoint, rather than its commitment to logical compulsion. We conclude by arguing that Chomsky’s attempts at defending his individualist or non-communitarian standpoint are undermined by his inability to give a decisive response to Wittgenstein’s attack on logical compulsion.

Author Biographies

Thomas McNally, Trinity College Dublin

Thomas McNally’s research is focussed primarily on Wittgenstein’s later philosophy and its connection with contemporary debates in the philosophy of language. He completed his PhD at Trinity College Dublin on the topic of Wittgenstein, Kripke, and scepticism about meaning.

Sinéad McNally, Trinity College Dublin

Sinéad McNally is a research psychologist specialising in psycholinguistics and child psychology. Her doctoral research investigated behavioural and developmental theories of language development. She is currently a Research Associate at the School of Psychology, Trinity College Dublin.


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