ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Chomsky and Wittgenstein

A Short Refl ection

This criticism explores the relationship between the Chomskyan and Wittgensteinian views of language. It argues that Chomskyan linguistics seems reductionist, as it defi nes linguistics narrowly, refusing that name to many different kinds of language study.

As the subject of this article is outside my usual beat of water-related issues, let me begin on a personal note. In the late 1940s and early 1950s – before I accidentally stumbled into central civil service – I studied and later taught English language and literature at Elphinstone College, Mumbai. Among other things, I developed a deep interest in linguistics, phonology, philosophy of grammar, and so on. In 1949, I was introduced to Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein’s work by my friend (the late) K J Shah, a student and friend of Wittgenstein’s, who had just returned from Cambridge, and that philosophy became a lifelong interest. That was the route through which I came to Noam Chomsky.

I started reading Chomsky in the 1970s, with great admiration for the rare originality and distinction of mind that the writings revealed, but with nagging doubts regarding the theories put forward. Eventually – gradually, hesitantly – I became a dissenter from his ideas. My long article on Chomskyan linguistics in a recent issue of the Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research1 was the final version of an exploratory essay that I had started writing five years earlier, and represents the closing stages of my grappling with Chomsky. Continued thinking after writing that article has taken me a bit further on the path of dissent. In the present article, after a brief statement of my difficulty with Chomskyan linguistics, focused essentially on one central point, I proceed to explore the relationship, if any, between the Chomskyan and Wittgensteinian views of language.

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