Cartesian Linguistics and the Recursion-Only Hypothesis

This talk presents an early stage of my investigation into the connection between the program of Cartesian Linguistics (Chomsky 1966) and the recent Recursion-Only Hypothesis. (Chomsky, Hauser, Fitch 2002)

Cartesian Linguistics is a foundational document of Generative Grammar which outlines its philosophical position on the study of language. Today, this document is neither well-known nor commonly read. This talk will review the content of the book and outline some ways in which it can be brought to bear on certain key controversies in the decades of Generative Grammar that followed it. One such controversy which is the focus of this presentation is the recent proposal that the language faculty consists of nothing but a mechanism that provides the means for recursion. This proposal has been termed the Recursion-Only Hypothesis. (Pinker & Jackendoff 2004)

Ultimately, it will be shown that from the point of view of Cartesian Linguistics, the Recursion-Only Hypothesis is the minimal and ideal theory of human linguistic ability. It will be suggested that this might have played a role in the development of that hypothesis, and that this connection has to be accounted for in a complete history of Generative Grammar.


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