I came across this in trying to understand 'Ignorance of Language' by Michael Devitt, and the back and forth he has had around this topic with other philosophers. Any books (papers?) I can look at to understand a bit more about those who agree with the psychological reality of language and those who do not? The blurb from Devitt's book, for context:

"The Chomskian revolution in linguistics gave rise to a new orthodoxy about mind and language. Michael Devitt throws down a provocative challenge to that orthodoxy. What is linguistics about? What role should linguistic intuitions play in constructing grammars? What is innate about language? Is there a 'language faculty'?

These questions are crucial to our developing understanding of ourselves; Michael Devitt offers refreshingly original answers. He argues that linguistics is about linguistic reality and is not part of psychology; that linguistic rules are not represented in the mind; that speakers are largely ignorant of their language; that speakers' intuitions do not reflect information supplied by the language faculty and are not the main evidence for grammars; that the rules of 'Universal Grammar' are largely, if not entirely, innate structure rules of thought; indeed, that there is little or nothing to the language faculty.

Devitt's controversial theses will prove highly stimulating to anyone working on language and the mind."

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    I'd recommend reading plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-language especially the Language Evolution section. Personally I've always felt Chomsky's work is junk, underlined by his inability to grasp Wittgenstein's later work. But it doesn't sound like Devitt gets to the issues either. Chomsky was basically over-reacting to Behaviourism, & it seems Devitt wants to push back somewhat the other way. For me, whether it's biological/instinctive or cultural, intersubjectivity is key, not a material-psychological dichotomy. Self & world experiences arise together, interactively.
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 14, 2021 at 22:55
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    It seems Devitt extends Frege-Husserl's anti-psychologism from logic and mathematics to the "core grammar" of language, it is a kind of linguistic platonism. Considering current doubts that the "core grammar" exists at all, even as a biological universal, this is a hard sell, see Does majority of linguists accept universal grammar? See also Fodor's language of thought hypothesis, which is a kind of flip of Devitt's position.
    – Conifold
    Mar 15, 2021 at 10:14
  • @CriglCragl I am aware of the article you mentioned, but I have to look a bit into the point you mentiond about Wittgenstein's later work.
    – Simon GK
    Mar 16, 2021 at 13:29
  • @Conifold Thank you for your comment. I was not aware of the Stanford article you have linked this could give me some direction.
    – Simon GK
    Mar 16, 2021 at 13:32

1 Answer 1


Devitt summarizes and defends his claims here.

He makes the following distinctions:

  1. Distinguish the theory of a [linguistic] competence from the theory of its outputs/products or inputs.
  2. Distinguish the structure rules governing the outputs of a [linguistic] competence from the processing rules governing the exercise of the competence.
  3. Distinguish the respecting of structure rules by processing rules from the inclusion of structure rules among processing rules.

And then he describes what he means by the "linguistic conception" versus the "psychological conception":

I take the linguistic conception of grammars to be the view that a grammar is a theory of the nature of the system that constitutes a language, and the psychological conception to be the view that a grammar is a theory of the psychological reality of a language in its competent speakers

From this he concludes that the psychological conception is wrong, and the linguistic conception is right.

To summarize even more, he's saying that the rules developed in linguistics are structure rules (having to do with relations between strings of words), not processing rules (having to do with calculations done by the brain).

Or in other words, when he says that linguistic rules are not represented in the mind, what he means is that the rules developed in linguistics describe constraints on language, without directly corresponding to how the brain actually handles language.

He's not saying that the mind does not have a language capability; it does, according to him. He's just saying that the structure of language described in linguistics is not part of the computational process the brain uses for language.

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