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Detail of contribution

Auteur: Sverker JOHANSSON

What, if anything, can Chomsky's Third Factor contribute to the understanding of language?

Abstract/Résumé: Noam Chomsky (2005) proposed that a “third factor”, consisting of general principles and natural laws, may explain core properties of language in a principled manner, minimizing the need for either genetic endowment or experience. This would also minimize the role for either bioloical or cultural evolution in the origin of language. There has been some work published in recent years claiming to explain aspects of language based on third-factor considerations. But a closer look at this body of work, as well as a careful analysis of the third-factor concept itself, reveals fundamental problems. Invoking the third factor to explain language is misguided for several reasons: • “The” third factor is a vague and disparate collection of unrelated factors, with totally different ontological status and causal powers. This renders the third factor useless as an analytical tool. • The vagueness of the third factor, together with the explicit desire within biolinguistics for principled explanations, conspire to give an air of legitimacy to sweeping, unwarranted claims that language comes “for free, from physics” (Piattelli-Palmarini 2012), as soon as something that might be the third factor is involved, tempting some biolinguists into drawing conclusions based more on their desire for principled explanations than on actual data and analysis. • The focus on a useless tool diverts attention away from a proper analysis of the language faculty as a biological feature, and away from any meaningful analysis of the process of language origins. The observation of a putative third-factor pattern in an aspect of language does not in itself warrant the conclusion that the third factor explains that aspect of language. A detailed case-by-case causal analysis is required. The point with biolinguistics is to acknowledge the language faculty as a biological feature. The best way forward towards an understanding of language origins is to take the biology connection seriously, together with the cultural context of language, instead of dabbling with physics and mathematical patterns. We are doing biolinguistics, not physicolinguistics. Chomsky, N. (2005) Three factors in language design. Ling. Inq. 36:1-22 Piattelli-Palmarini, M. 2012. Steps towards the physics of language. Paper presented at Kyoto Conference on Biolinguistics, Japan [March 12, 2012].