This article was last modified on April 18, 2011.

Chomsky v. Quine on Language Acquisition

Work in progress: A back and forth between Quine and Chomsky on language acquisition.

Quine contra Chomsky, 1960

Quine: “Different persons growing up in the same language are like different bushes trimmed to take the shape of identical elephants. The anatomical details of twigs and branches will fulfill the elephantine form differently from bush to bush, but the overall outward results are alike.” (Word and Object, p. 8).

This is a striking analogy, and one which Chomsky would certainly be dead set against, indeed our ordinary notions of language as a communicative device–which Quine certainly believes it to be–seems to dictate against it.

Chomsky contra Quine, 1965

Chomsky defines Quine’s position as “the empiricist notion (the prevailing modern view) that language is essentially an adventitious construct, taught by ‘conditioning'”. [Chomsky 1965: 51] He rejects this “prevailing” view. However, Chomsky does say in his notes that he is “not clear” if Quine is an empiricist “in any real sense” due to certain statements where Chomsky feels that Quine is suggesting “innate ideas”. [Chomsky 1965: 203]

Chomsky points out that Quine accepts Skinner’s behaviorist model of language acquisition in part because Skinner (in Quine’s words) “does not enumerate the rewards” that come with the stimulus-reward approach to learning, and thus is flexible enough to fit Quine’s interpretation. Chomsky sees this as one of Skinner’s flaws — this vaguely gives “Skinner’s scheme” a “near vacuity”. [Chomsky 1965: 204]

Chomsky, in contrast, accepts what he believes to be a view in line with Wilhelm von Humboldt. Chomsky says that Humboldt in 1836 “concludes that one cannot really teach language but can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way.” [Chomsky 1965: 51]

Chomsky contra Quine, 1968

Chomsky explains his interpretation of Quine:

“The first method is association of sentences with sentences; the second association of sentences with stimuli. These two methods would, it is true, lead to a fabric of associated sentences and stimuli. But there is a third method that is left rather obscure in Word and Object, namely, learning of sentences by what… [Quine] calls ‘analogic synthesis’. I quote in full his discussion of this notion: ‘It is evident how new sentences may be built from old materials and volunteered on appropriate occasions simply by virtue of analogies. Having been directly conditioned to the appropriate use of “Foot” (or “This is my foot”) as a sentence, and “Hand” likewise, and “My foot hurts” as a whole, the child might conceivably utter “My hand hurts” on an appropriate occasion, though unaided by previous experience with that actual sentence.'”

“Suppose that the sentence ‘My hand hurts’ is ‘learnt’ in this manner, and consider now the assumption that a language is a fabric of sentences associated by the mechanism of conditioned response. Then the sentence ‘My hand hurts’ in the given example is associated to the complex containing ‘foot’, ‘My foot hurts’, and ‘hand’ by the mechanism of conditioned response. To say this would be to deprive the notion of ‘conditioned response’ of its strict meaning, or anything resembling this meaning. The responses and stimuli entering into the relationship of ‘conditioning’ need not even appear together. Of course, until the notion of ‘analogic synthesis’ is given content, the theory is vacuous.” [Chomsky 1968: 523-524]

Chomsky contra Quine, 1969

Chomsky says that Quine in Word and Object “seems to imply that the process of analogical synthesis is theoretically dispensable, simply serving to speed matters up… Therefore, we can perhaps conform to his intentions by totally disregarding this process, and considering the knowledge [of language] attained by a long-lived adult using only the first two methods instead of the knowledge [of language] attained by a young child who has used all three… Noting further that a child of nine and a man of ninety share knowledge of language in fundamental respects… it would seem, further, that little is lost in omitting ‘analogical synthesis’ from consideration entirely, even for the young child. Assuming that this interpretation of Quine’s remarks is correct, we derive support for the conclusion that he regards a language as a finite network of associated sentences, some associated also to stimuli, since this is just the structure that would arise from the two postulated mechanisms of language learning with substantive content.” [Chomsky 1969: 56-57]

Quine contra Chomsky, 1969

“If Chomsky’s antiempiricism or antibehaviorism says merely that conditioning is insufficient to explain language-learning, then the doctrine is of a piece with my doctrine of the indeterminacy of translation.” [Quine 1969]

Quine contra Chomsky, 1970

Quine says “it has long been recognized that our innate endowments for language learning go yet further than the mere spacing of qualities. Otherwise we should expect other animals to learn language; and also, as Chomsky has lately stressed, we should expect our own learning to take longer than it does. Two generations ago, the supplementary innate endowment that got the main credit was an instinct for mimicry. One generation ago, a babbling instinct moved to first place; the infant babbles at random and the parent reinforces these utterances selectively. Currently, the babbling instinct is losing favor and the instinct for mimicry is back in the ascendancy. I expect that both of these innate aids are there, and also of course the innate spacing of qualities, and also some further innate apparatus which is not yet identified.” [Quine 1970: 5]

Quine contra Chomsky, 1972

Quine says Chomsky has a “nihilistic attitude toward dispositions”. [Quine 1972]

Chomsky contra Quine, 1975

“I suspect that Quine’s failure to deal with the numerous and fundamental problems that stand in the way of his proposals derives from his continuing belief that ‘the child learns most of language by hearing the adults and emulating them’ (Quine, 1974). If a child learns most of language by hearing and emulation, and — as Quine elsewhere insists — learning a language is a matter of learning sentences, then the child must learn most of his sentences by hearing and emulation. But this is so grossly false that one can only wonder what Quine may have in mind, particularly since elsewhere he observes correctly that a language is an infinite system characterized by a generative grammar, and further, that conditioning, induction, and ostension do not suffice for language learning.” [Chomsky 1975: 193] Chomsky offers that maybe all Quine was saying is the obvious point that children get the data for their language from adults and other speakers. But then, why say “most” rather than “all” language is learned this way?

Chomsky lays down his view that there have developed two Quines. Chomsky sees 1960 Quine as defining language as “a fabric of sentences” associated with each other “by the mechanism of conditioned response”. Yet, 1969 Quine says that conditioning “is notoriously incapable of carrying us far in language”, and that “conditioning is insufficient to explain language learning.” He now claims that “generative grammar is what mainly distinguishes language from subhuman communication systems”, putting his views further from behaviorism and more in line with Chomsky’s innate system.

“If conditioning is insufficient to explain language learning (1969) then a language is not a fabric of sentences and stimuli associated by conditioned response (1960), and sentences are not ‘learned’ by the three mechanisms of 1960. If generative grammar is the essential defining characteristic of human language, then, again, the earlier account can be dismissed, since a generative grammar can [not] be described… as a fabric of sentences and stimuli associated by conditioning… If innate mechanisms of arbitrary complexity are permissible, so long as conjectures are eventually made sense of in terms of external observations, then there is no reason to assign any special place to dimensional structures such as a ‘quality space,’ nor to structures determined by differential conditioning and extinction tests.” [Chomsky 1975: 199-200]

He continues by saying “it seems that in Quine’s… view, the mechanisms (namely, conditioning) that account for learning of observation terms are… qualitatively different from those involved in other aspects of language learning. However, I see no reason to support that there is any fundamental difference in this regard… consider what is perhaps the most ‘elementary’ notion we have, the notion ‘physical object’, which, I suppose, plays a role in the most elementary processes of learning through ostension, induction, or conditioning. But the notion ‘physical object’ seems to be quite complex. At the very least, some notion of spatiotemporal contiguity does not suffice as a general condition. One wing of an airplane is an object, but its left half, though equally continuous, is not. Clearly some Gestalt property or some other notion of function is playing a role. Furthermore, scattered entities can be taken to be single physical objects under some conditions: consider a picket fence with breaks, or a Calder mobile. The latter is a ‘thing’, whereas a collection of leaves on a tree is not. The reason, apparently, is that the mobile is created by an act of human will. If this is correct, then beliefs about human will and action and intention play a crucial role in determining even the most simple and elementary of concepts. Whether such factors are involved at early levels of maturation, I do not know, but it is clearly an empirical issue and dogmatic assumptions are out of place. It may be that a schematism of considerable complexity and abstractness is brought to bear in learning processes that might be regarded as very ‘elementary’, whatever sense can be made of this notion; very little sense, I am suggesting.” [Chomsky 1975: 202-203]

Chomsky contra Quine, 1976

In January 1976, Chomsky had some conversations with Mitsou Ronat that were published shortly thereafter.

Quine “asserts that theories are developed by induction, which he identifies with conditioning. At other times he says the opposite: theories are not determined solely by conditioning or induction, but involve abstract hypotheses ultimately originating from some innate capacity. In recent years he has oscillated between these two positions.” [Chomsky 1979: 85]

Quine “claimed that grammatical concepts must be defined on the basis of semantic notions.” [Chomsky 1979: 138]

Quine has “emphasized that our use of concepts is set within a system of beliefs about lawful behavior of objects”. [Chomsky 1979: 143]

Chomsky contra Quine, 1978

Chomsky delivered the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University in November 1978, and continued his assault on Quine. He did, however, recognize “Quine’s important and influential critique of empiricist semantics”, though that is as far as his praise went. [Chomsky 2005: 58]

“There are some who would virtually identify the study of language and the study of mind, Quine for example.” [Chomsky 2005: 4] Quine has identified “mind” with “behavioral disposition, and mostly verbal”.

“I will not review Quine’s various formulations of the indeterminacy thesis or his arguments for it. I have done so elsewhere, arguing that nothing follows beyond the observation that theories are underdetermined by evidence, and that Quine’s efforts to show otherwise have not only been futile but lead to internal inconsistency.” Quine believes “that I regard the indeterminacy thesis as false; on the contrary, I regard it as true and uninteresting.” [Chomsky 2005: 15] Quine has said the thesis is “unsuspected” in mentalistic semantics, but Chomsky believes for the mentalists, they “do not reject the thesis but regard it as obvious and unimportant.”

One extreme position is “Quine’s claim that it is senseless to say that if two grammars generate the same language (are ‘extensionally equivalent,’ in his terminology) then one might be right and the other wrong.” [Chomsky 2005: 86] Chomsky seems this term as unfortunate, because a grammar generates not only a language, but a set of structural descriptions. Languages are “weakly generated” while structural descriptions are “strongly generated”.

Quine has “been insistent” “that language is not only learned but taught by conditioning and training.” However, “the facts seem to show pretty clearly that the assumption is incorrect.” [Chomsky 2005: 100]

Chomsky contra Quine, 2011

On April 10, 2011, I asked Chomsky in what areas of language acquisition he agreed with Quine. He said, “I’m afraid I find his positions so incoherent that it’s hard to say. Take, say, his definition of language as a fabric of sentences linked to one another and to stimuli by the mechanism of conditioned response. That would seem to provide a point of convergence. I also think that a language (a generative process) yields sentences, an infinite number, each with a sound and meaning. But for Quine’s position even to be coherent he’d have to say how we know that certain objects (events, actions, whatever) are sentences, while reaching for a cup on the table is not a sentence, and that seems to presuppose some other notion of language. If this problem can somehow be overcome (I have no idea how), myriad others would at once arise, of the kind I discussed 40+ years ago.”

Furthermore, “Quine 1960 is simply incoherent, for the reason I mentioned and much else. Quine 1969 I think is basically fine. He gives up everything he had argued before (and continued to argue later) and adopted quite a sensible position. I have little objection to it, because it’s what I’d been arguing all along – with Quine, for almost 20 years by then.”


Chomsky, Noam. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press, 1965.

Chomsky, Noam. “Knowledge of Language”, The London Times Supplement, 1968.

Chomsky, Noam. Language and Responsibility: Based on Conversations With Mitson Ronat. Pantheon Books, 1979.

Chomsky, Noam. “Quine’s Empirical Assumptions”, in Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W.V. Quine. D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1969.

Chomsky, Noam. Reflections on Language. Pantheon Books, 1975.

Chomsky, Noam. Rules and Representations. Columbia University Press, 2005.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. “Philosophical Progress in Language Theory”, Metaphilosophy 1 (1970).

Quine, Willard Van Orman. “Reply to Chomsky” in Words and Objections: Essays on the Work of W. V. Quine. D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1969.

Quine, Willard Van Orman. “Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory” in Semantics of Natural Language. Humanities Press, 1972.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Chomsky v. Quine on Language Acquisition”

  1. Of Language and Men Says:

    […] segons W. V. Quine és senzillament una cosa que no és certa. Per cert, Quine i Chomsky també se les han tingudes sobre l’aquisició de llengües […]

  2. Colourless green ideas recommend… | Of language and men Says:

    […] be a senseless sentence but according to W. V. Quine is simply a lie. Quine and Chomsky had also a little quarrel about first language […]

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