The ‘Innateness Hypothesis’ and Explanatory Models in Linguistics

  • Hilary Putnam
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 3)


The ‘innateness hypothesis’ (henceforth, the ‘I.H.’) is a daring — or apparently daring; it may be meaningless, in which case it is not daring — hypothesis proposed by Noam Chomsky. I owe a debt of gratitude to Chomsky for having repeatedly exposed me to the I.H.; I have relied heavily in what follows on oral communications from him; and I beg his pardon in advance if I misstate the I.H. in any detail, or misrepresent any of the arguments for it. In addition to relying upon oral communications from Chomsky, I have also relied upon Chomsky’s paper ‘Explanatory Models in Linguistics’, in which the I.H. plays a considerable rôle.


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  1. 1.
    What ‘built in’ means is highly unclear in this context. The weighting function by itself determines only the relative ease with which various grammars can be learned by a human being. If a grammar G1 can be learned more easily than a grammar G2, then doubtless this is ‘innate’ in the sense of being a fact about human learning potential, as opposed to a fact about what has been learned. But this sort of fact is what learning theory tries to account for; not the explanation being sought. It should be noticed that Chomsky has never offered even a schematic account of the sort of device that is supposed to be present in the brain, and that is supposed to do the job of selecting the highest weighted grammar compatible with the data. But only a description, or at least a theory, of such a device could properly be called an innateness hypothesis at all.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    E. M. in L., p. 550.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    E. M. in L., pp. 530–531.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I doubt that the child really is told which sentences it hears or utters are ungrammatical. At most it is told which are deviant — but it may not be told which are deviant for syntactical and which for semantical reasons.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Many of these — e.g., the alleged ‘ambiguity’ in ‘the shooting of the elephants was heard’ — require coaching to detect. The claim that grammar “explains the ability to recognize ambiguities” thus lacks the impressiveness that Chomsky believes it to have. I am grateful to Paul Ziff and Stephen Leeds for calling this point to my attention.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    E. M. in L., p. 531, n. 5.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    A grammar ‘predicts’ an ambiguity, in Chomsky’s formalism, whenever it assigns two or more structural descriptions to the same sentence.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    E. M. in L., p. 530.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    E. M. in L., p. 530.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    E. M. in L., p. 533.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    E. M. in L., p. 529.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Macaulays first words, it is said, were: “Thank you, Madam, the agony has somewhat abated” (to a lady who had spilled hot tea on him).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Another example of a transformation is the ‘active-passive’ transformation (cf. Syntactic Structures). But (a) the presence of this, if it is a part of the grammar, is not surprising — why should not there be a systematic way of expressing the converse of a relation? — and (b) the argument for the existence of such a ‘transformation’ at all is extremely slim. It is contended that a grammar which ‘defines’ active and passive forms separately (this can be done by even a phrase-structure grammar) fails to represent something that every speaker knows, viz. that active and passive forms are related. But why must every relation be mirrored by syntax? Every ‘speaker’ of the canonical languages of mathematical logic is aware that each sentence (x) (Fx ⊃ Gx) is related to a sentence (x) (Gx ⊃ Fx); yet the definition of ‘well formed formula’ fails to mirror ‘what every speaker knows’ in this respect, and is not inadequate on that account.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    It is very difficult to account for such phenomena as the spontaneous babbling of infants without this much ‘innateness’. But this is not to say that a class ∑ and a function f are ‘built in’, as required by the I.H.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company / Dordrecht-Holland 1967

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hilary Putnam
    • 1
  1. 1.Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyUSA

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