Mechanism and
Linguistic Creativity
Descartes’ model for science
Experience plays a crucial role.
Based on models and mechanisms.
Avoidance of any recourse to the occult or mysterious
(e.g.: the analogies used are clocks, fountains, …).
I should also like to be noted that in attempting to explain the
general nature of material things I have not employed any
principle which was not accepted by Aristotle and all other
philosopher of every age. So this philosophy is not new, but
the oldest and most common of all. I have considered the
shapes, motions and sizes of bodies, and examined the necessary
results of their mutual interaction in accordance with the laws
of mechanics, which are confirmed by reliable everyday
experience. (Principles of Philosophy 200; CSM1: 286)
He is the first cause, the initial trigger.
Theology vs. Physics:
Division of labour.
Genetic/Evolutionary Approach
To understand a phenomenon is to understand how it
occurred in accordance with the simple and universal
principles of Cartesian physics.
This contrasts with the theological doctrine that God
created a ready-made universe.
God’s creative power is nonetheless required to set up
the initial system and triggers all their initial motions to
the various parts of matter.
The man/animal distinction
Automatic machines
The chief way to understand the bodily movement is
the nervous system.
Neural activity is conceived along mechanical lines:
nerves are pipes trough which the fast-moving vapour
(the “animal spirit”) moves, inflate the muscle and
causes movement.
In the case of non-human animals the model of the
machine is all we need to investigate and understand
their observed movement and behaviour.
The difference between humans and animals rests on
the presence of consciousness/soul/mind.
Animals lack the res cogitans (the mind).
[B]y distributing the animal spirit to the muscle, make the
parts of this body move in as many different ways as the parts
of our bodies can move without being guided by the will, and in
a manner which is just as appropriate to the objects of the senses
and the internal passions. This will not seem as all strange to
those who know of many kinds of automatons, or moving
machines, the skill of man can construct with the use of very
few parts, in comparison with the great multitude of bones,
muscles, nerves, arteries, veins and all the other parts that are in
the body of any animal. For they will regard this body as a
machine which, having been made by the hands of God, is
incomparably better ordered than any machine that can be
devised by man, and contains in itself movements more
wonderful than those in any such machine. (Discourse on the
Method; CSM I: 139)
Indeed, one may compare the nerves of the machine I am
describing with the pipes in the works of these fountains, its
muscles and tendons with the various devices and springs which
serve to set them in motion, its animal spirit with the water
which drives them, the heart with the source of the water, and
the cavities of the brain with the storage tanks … when a
rational soul is present in the machine it will have its
principal seat in the brain, and reside there like the
fountain-keeper who must be stationed at the tanks to which
the fountain’s pipes return if he wants to produce, or prevent, or
change their movements in some way. (Treatise on Man; CSM I:
Animals and Feeling
Contrary to the received view, there is no evidence that
Descartes hold the thesis that animals do not suffer (i.e.
do not have feelings).
An animal could be a machine with feelings.
(See Cottingham 1978 “Descartes Treatment of
Seven Thesis to be distinguished
1. Animal are machines
2. Animals are automata
3. Animals do not think
4. Animals have no language
5. Animals have no self-consciousness
6. Animals have no consciousness
7. Animals are totally without feelings
The controversial (monstrous) thesis often attributed to
Descartes is the seventh (animals are totally without
There is no evidence in Descartes’ writing that he
defended it.
On the contrary, there is evidence that he denies it in so
far as he claims that animals have fear, hope, joy.
Linguistic creativity
Why not Homme-Machine?
Humans cannot be explained in purely mechanical
terms because of linguistic creativity.
The capacity to understand a language is speciesspecific.
And language can be sensation-free … : important
distinction between an utterance (language) and a cry.
In fact, none of our external actions can show anyone who
examines them that our body is not just a self-moving machine
but contains a soul with thoughts, with the exception of
spoken words, or other signs that have reference to
particular topics without expressing any passion. … Now it
seems to me that the use of words, so defined, is something
peculiar to human beings. Montaigne and Charron may have
said that there is a great difference between one human being
and another than between a human being and an animal; yet
there has never been known an animal so perfect as to use
sign to make other animals understand something which
bore no relation to its passion; and there is no human being so
imperfect as not to do so, since even deaf-mutes invent special
signs to express their reason why animals do not speak as we do
is not that they lack the organs but that they have no
thoughts. (Letter to the Marquis of New Castle, 23 Nov. 1946;
CSMK III: 303)
But though I regard it as established that we cannot prove there
is any thought in animals, I do not think it can be proved that
there is none, since the human mind does not reach into their
hearts. But then I investigate what is most probable in this
matter, I see no argument for animals having thoughts
except this one: since they have eyes, ears, tongues and
other sense-organs like ours, it seems likely that they have
sensation like us; and since thought is included in our
mode of sensation, similar thought seems to be attributable
to them. …
But in my opinion the main reason for holding that animals lack
thought is the following. Within a single species some of them
are more perfect than others, as humans are too. This can be
seen in horses and dogs, some of which learn what they are
taught much better than others; and all animals easily
communicate to us, by voice or bodily movement, their natural
impulses of anger, fear, hunger, and so on. Yet in spite of all
these facts, it has never been observed that any brute animal has
attained the perfection of using real speech, that is to say, of
indicating by word or sign something relating to thought
alone and not to natural impulse. Such speech is the only
certain sign of thought hidden on a body. All human beings use
it, however stupid and insane they may be, even though they may
have no tongue and organ of voice; but no animal do.
Consequently this can be taken as a real specific difference
between human and animals. (Letter to More, 5 Feb. 1649; CSMK
III: 365-6)
Linguistic competence is stimulus-free
This is one of the lessons of Cartesian linguistics.
Humans vs. Animals: Linguistic Creativity
Human beings (unlike animals) can think and express
their thought in language because humans are endowed
with a “rational soul”.
But the soul is immaterial; it is not something which
derives from the structure/function of our brain. It is
implanted in each human being by God.
[W]e can also know the difference between man and beast. For it
is quite remarkable that there are no men so dull-witted or
stupid—and this includes even madmen—that they are
incapable of arranging various words together and forming
an utterance from them in order to make their thoughts
understood; whereas there is no other animal, however perfect
and well-endowed it may be, that can do the like. This does not
happen because they lack the necessary organs, for we see that
magpies and parrots can utter words as we do, and yet they
cannot speak as we do: that is, they cannot show that they
are thinking what they are saying. On the other hand, men
born deaf and dumb, and thus deprived of speech-organs as
much as the beasts or even more so, normally invent their own
sign to make themselves understood by those who, being
regularly in their company, have the time to learn their language.
This shows not merely that the beasts have less reason than men,
but that they have no reason at all. For it patently requires very
little reason to be able to speak; and since as much
inequality can be observed among the animals of a given
species as among human beings, and some animals are
more easily trained than others, it would be incredible that
a superior specimen of the monkey or parrot species
should not be able to speak as well as the stupidest child—
or at least as well as a child with a defective brain—if their
soul were not completely different in nature from ours. And
we must not confuse speech with the natural movement which
express passions and which can be imitated by machines as well
as by animals. (Discourse of the Method; CSM 1: 140-1)
For Descartes, like the Stoics, syntactic arrangement
is the sine qua non of linguistic capacity as it is
manifested in humans. (cf. Chomsky’s UG)
Is loquitur qui suo loco quodque verbum sciens point et is tum
prolucutus, cum in animo quod habuit extulit loquendo
[the one who is capable of speaking places each word on its
place and expresses a proposition when in talking one expresses
what one has in one’s soul] (Varron [Roman philosopher], De
Lingua Latina VI 56)
Turing Test
It should help to distinguish a thinking mechanism from
a non thinking one.
Turing (1950) asked the question whether machines can
“The Turing Test” is often used to refer to some kinds
of behavioral tests for the presence of mind, or
thought, or intelligence in allegedly minded entities.
E.g. a box with a computer inside vs. a box with a
person inside having to reply to some questions posed
by an experimenter outside the box.
Descartes anticipated the Turing Test.
No machine can compose and understand sentences the
way we do.
Chinese room (Searle)
In two rooms a Chinese and a non-Chinese speaker
answering questions coming from outside the room. The
non-Chinese is capable, following instructions on where
to go and what to take when such sign comes in, to give
out the right papers/answers (she passes the Turing
Test). Yet, she doesn’t understand Chinese.
Linguistic competence doesn’t resume to mere syntactic
From Descartes’ method of doubt it follows that he
comes to know only himself and God.
It is true that, since my decision to doubt everything, it is so far
only myself and God whose existence I have been able to
know with certainty. (Fourth Meditation; CSM II: 39)
Thus how do we come to know that others are not
The Touring Test should help. And Descartes
anticipated it.
There are two ways to distinguish between real human
beings and merely automata:
I made special efforts to show that if any such machines had the
organs and outward shape of a monkey or of some other animal
that lacks reason, we should have no means of knowing that they
did not possess entirely the same nature as these animals;
whereas if any such machines bore a resemblance to our bodies
and imitated our actions as closely as possible for all practical
purposes, we should still have two very certain means of
recognizing that they were not real men.
First test.
The first is that they could never use words or put together
signs as we do in order to declare our thought to others. For
we can certainly conceive of a machine that it utters words
corresponding to bodily actions causing a change in its organs
(e.g. if you touch it in one spot it asks what you want of it, if you
touch in another it cries out that you are hurting it, and so on).
But it is not conceivable that such a machine should
produce different arrangements of words so as to give an
appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its
presence, as the dullest of men can do.
A machine doesn’t pass Turing Test.
Second test.
Secondly, even though such machines might do some things as
well as we do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably
fail in others, which would reveal that they were acting not
through understanding but only from the disposition of their
organs. For whereas reason is a universal instrument which
can be used in all kind of situations, these organs need
some particular disposition for each particular action; hence
it is for all practical purposes impossible for a machine to
have enough different organs to make it act in all the
contingencies of life in the way in which our reason makes
us act. (Discourse of the Method; CSM 1: 139-40)
A machine lacks linguistic creativity.
Cartesian Linguistics
Linguistic Creativity
Humans must be capable of linguistic creativity from a
very early age, independently of education, culture, etc.
(see poverty of the stimulus argument).
As such linguistic creativity must be innate.
Descartes, like Leibniz, recognized the existence of
innate ideas, while Chomsky postulates UG.
Port-Royal Grammar and Logic
[T]he ideas of being and thought in no way originate in the
senses. Instead, the soul has the faculty to form them from
itself, although often it is prompted to do so by something
striking the senses, just as a painter can be brought to produce a
canvas by the money promised him, without our thereby being
able to say that the money was the origin of the painting.
(Arnauld & Nicole 1662: 29)
It is thus false that all our ideas originate in the senses. On
the contrary, one can say that no idea in the mind originates
in the senses, although motions in the brain, which is all
the senses can bring about, may provide the occasion for
the soul to form various ideas that might not have been
formed without this occasion. (Arnauld & Nicole 1662: 30)
Central Point of Cartesian Linguistics
The general features of grammatical structure are
common to all languages (are universal) and reflect
certain fundamental properties of the mind.
The Port Royal grammar/logic, for instance, is not the
study of a particular language but the study of the
way our mind organizes our thought/ideas.
It is the study of our reasoning and the latter is
independent of a particular language: it is universal.
This art does not consist in finding the means to perform these
operations, since nature alone furnishes them in giving us reason,
but in reflecting on what nature makes us do. (Arnauld & Nicole
1662: 23)
[R]easoning is not a collection of names according to a
convention depending entirely on human fancy, but a solid
and practical judgement about the nature of things by
considering ideas in the mind that people chose to mark by
certain names. (Arnauld & Nicole 1662: 28)
Chomsky (1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax)
Chomsky develops a theory based on these (Cartesian)
A sentence like:
(1) The little cat is on the mat
is represented as:
Det N
little cat
is on the mat
S = Sentence; NP = Noun Phrase; VP = Verb Phrase;
Det = Determiner; AP = Adjectival Phrase; N =
Noun; V = Verb; P = Preposition.
It is often assumed that such structure is the mental
representation of the sentence.
What does it represent?
‘To represent’ is a two terms relation. It must represent
something to someone.
This seems to suggest that the one entertaining this
representation is consciously aware of it or that one
can attain it by some introspective exercise.
Ray Jackendoff (2002. Foundations of Language. OUP)
To avoid these problems (linked to the problem of
intentionality) Jackendoff proposes an intentional-free
Instead of representation, one can talk about cognitive
structure, instead of symbol of cognitive entity, and
so on.
The study of human language capacity divides into:
Theory of competence
the functional characterization of the “data structures”
stored and assembled in the functional-mind in the
course of language use.
Theory of performance
the functional characterization of the use of these data
structures in the course of language perception and
Theory of neural instantiation
how the data structures and the processes that store
and assemble them are realized in the brain.
[T]o speak of a language [e.g. English] in linguistic is a bit
like speaking of a species in biology: one acknowledges that
members of a species are not genetically identical; and cases
sometimes arise where what is apparently one species shade off
imperceptibly over geographical range into another. Does that
mean there are no species? Some biologists think so. But as long
as we regard the term as a convenient first-approximation, there
seem no arm in it. (Jackendoff 2002: 35-6)
The Mechanistic Conception and
Language Creativity
Mechanistic Explanation
For Descartes it falls short to explain linguistic
E.g.: It cannot explain how we build sentences.
It can explain animal (and human) bodily behaviours/
movements and functions, but it cannot explain
human’s mastery of language.
Language is what differentiates humans from animals.
Hence Cartesian dualism, for the capacity of using
language transcends the mechanic movements of the
Automata/robots could never arrange words in order
to transmit new thoughts: they lack language creativity.
They can never understand new sentences either.
Linguistic creativity is species specific: stimulus free
Dualism qua Mechanistic Necessity
The impossibility of a mechanistic explanation of
language creativity leads Descartes to postulate a (species
specific) entity, the mind (a thinking substance/res
cogitans) playing the role of the creativity principle, while
the mechanical principle account for body movements
and function.
With the abandon of contact mechanics (from
Newton on) the motivation for thinking of the mind and
mental operations as separate from the body and its
function also disappears.
The problem of other minds
Other Beings
It is only the capacity to innovate (linguistic creativity)
which constitutes evidence of the minds and the
evidence that others have minds.
To show that other beings are not automata (zombies)
suffices to show that they are capable of linguistic
Humboldt (1836) characterizes language as energy.
As such it is an activity rather than a product.
Language qua activity must make potentially infinite
uses of finite means (like the Cartesian the stress is on
linguistic productivity).
To do so language must rest on a generative principle
which is mostly fixed and which provides the scope of
linguistic production.
Substantial Question
It concerns the way we characterize this generative
principle, i.e. how do we construe this generative
grammar (Humboldt did not raise it).
Linguistics (within a rationalist framework) will address
this question.
Main Points of Cartesian Linguistics
In its normal use language is independent from external
stimuli and/or internal states and it is not restricted to
practical communicative functions.
Language is the mirror of mind
As such it helps the Cartesians (dualists) to explain the
existence of other minds, i.e. that others are not
complex robots, animals or zombies.

6 Mechanism and Linguistic Creativity