***I'm struggling to erect the supports of this question because of lack of knowledge, I hope that it makes sense and is useful and appropriate for this site.

  1. I'm hoping there's a form of logical empiricism that tries to understand epistemology writ large, not just sentences or propositions, which seems to be its main focus. Maybe they'd count that leap as metaphysics which they abhor so I don't know if I can even get past point 1.

  2. I believe to fit the mold of logical empiricism, knowledge must either be "ideas" not based on experience or matters of fact based purely on experience (like Hume, before the focus on propositions and sentence)

  3. My impression is logical empiricism fell partly because the impossibility of conclusively determining truth through experience. Truths that modern science regularly employ (e.g. spacetime is continuous or discrete) don't come about from finite experiential procedures, and aren't just ideas either - there's a fact of the matter

  4. But then comes Chomsky who provides us tremendous innate ideas through inborn language capacity, not born out through experience.

Chomsky and others to support this ‘nativist’ view that what makes language acquisition possible is the fact that much of our linguistic knowledge is unlearned; it is innate or inborn, part of the initial state of the language faculty

acquiring mastery of a language is not a matter of being trained what to say. It's simply false, says Chomsky, that “a careful arrangement of contingencies of reinforcement by the verbal community is a necessary condition of language learning.” (1959:39) First, children learning language do not appear to be being ‘conditioned’ at all!

it is unclear that conditioning could even in principle give rise to a set of dispositions rich enough to generate the full range of a person's linguistic behavior https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/innateness-language/

  1. Call innate language "ideas" and suddenly only small bits of factual experience are required to explain language.

  2. Language to Chomsky is cognitive as opposed to behaviorist. He is also internalist about language, believing in I-language: "it denotes a mental or psychological entity", "your I-language is a state of your mind/brain. Meaning is internal—indeed, on Chomsky’s conception https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/linguistics/

  3. With 5 & 6, only small bits of factual/empirical experience explain a large portion of our minds/brains/knowledge.

One interpretation of the above is tiny bits empirical stimuli triggering a wealth of ideas/mental states/knowledge due to the nature of innate language capacity.

So maybe logical positivist epistemology does not require lengthy impossible procedures. The tradeoff is we are to be trapped by language or at least language makes up most of our knowledge being the much larger portion of the ideas/fact fork. But possibly that does not trap knowledge very much if at all. We "just" have to recast knowledge and mental states as largely linguistic affairs. Linguistic brain states would be the unlockable ideas by relatively minor empirical stimuli. Facts would be which empirical experiences happen and which ideas they unlock.

Answers/responses could be about is there anything blatantly wrong with this? Do any philosophers want to resurrect logical empiricism and would this be a way in? This isn't a thesis I'm trying to get responses on, it's long because its background and context (by a layman) for I think answerable philosophical questions.

  • "Truths that modern science regularly employ (e.g. spacetime is continuous or discrete) don't come about from finite experiential procedures, and aren't just ideas either - there's a fact of the matter". Shouldn't this be verified by observations? What do you mean by "finite experiential procedure"?
    – Frank
    Mar 2, 2023 at 18:28
  • You want to rescue logical empiricism by jettisoning empiricism? I'm not sure you understand that anyone, like Chomsky, who accepts innate knowledge is by definition a rationalist. Mar 2, 2023 at 18:35
  • @DavidGudeman Didn't most logical empiricists believe knowledge of ideas/logic/analytic definitions was not empirical and not vacuous? I think I'm following that train and just making empirical knowledge more diminutive, not jettisoned.
    – J Kusin
    Mar 2, 2023 at 18:52
  • @frank You could know every discrete spacetime point in a box the size of a toaster say by observation, but not one the size of the solar system or universe. We accept scientific truths while falling short of observing each point
    – J Kusin
    Mar 2, 2023 at 18:55
  • 1
    What you are describing sounds more like the strong form of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, so-called linguistic determinism. The hypothesis is now largely considered false by linguists, but even were it true it would have little relevance to epistemology. So what if we have genetic predispositions to think/structure knowledge in a certain way? This tells us little as to what is actually the case or how to model it properly. Nor does it suggest any non-empirical knowledge, we should be all the more suspicious of such imprinted "intuitions".
    – Conifold
    Mar 3, 2023 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


I think you are reading too much into Chomsky's view. An ability to string words into sentences seems to be innate, but the words themselves are not. If that were not the case you would have to explain why a baby born in England seems to have an innate English vocabulary while one born in France has an innate ability to speak French.

You are also on questionable grounds when you suppose language makes up most of our knowledge. Language seems to me to be helpful for exchanging knowledge, but it is not knowledge per se. Imagine if you had been born and raised on an island populated exclusively by mutes. Do you suppose the inhabitants of the island would have no knowledge of it? More importantly, perhaps, do you suppose that the inhabitants would not be able to envisage abstract truths- such as the fact that objects fall down not up- based on their knowledge of the island?

I sometimes answer questions on Physics SE from people who are confused by relativity. Very often the challenge in answering their questions is that I know the answer but cannot summon up the ideal form of words to express it in a way that is certain to be understood. Indeed, there are people who cannot grasp relativity no matter how it is explained to them. It seems clear to me, therefore, that certain ideas, at least, exist as states of the mind that are not linguistic in nature.

  • I think I am reading too much into it. I guess I am seeing the poverty of logical empiricism compared to how much knowledge we do have. I can't see how any epistemology short of some kind of innateness that could explain the wealth of knowledge we posses, so I looked to a nativist approach, but extracted more than I should. I'm just wanting a satisfactory epistemology and I don't see many out there. From our desks we have knowledge of general relativity/the reaches of space/the smallest quanta. Yes actual scientists went out in the world, but we public have this knowledge from a few readings.
    – J Kusin
    Mar 3, 2023 at 17:19

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