Psychology and Linguistics


Osiatynski: Do you mean that psychology could benefit from linguistics? Could you explain how?

Chomsky: One thing that you and I know is language. Another thing that you and I know is how objects behave in perceptual space. We have a whole mass of complex ways of understanding what is the nature of visual space. A proper part of psychology ought to be, and in recent years has been, an effort to try to discover the principles of how we organize visual space. I would say that the same is true of every domain of psychology, of human studies. To understand, for example, how people organize social systems, we have to discover the principles that we create to make some societies intelligible.

Osiatynski: I understand that we could have a kind of universal grammar of nonlinguistic forms of human behavior as well. But if, as you say, our behavior and language are heavily guided by universal principles, why, then, do they differ so much all around the world?

Chomsky: I don’t think they differ so much. I think that as human beings, we quite naturally take for granted what is similar among human beings and, then, pay attention to what differentiates us. That makes perfect sense for us as human beings. I suppose frogs pay no attention to being frogs. They take it for granted. What interests a frog are differences among frogs. From our point of view they are more or less the same, from their point of view they are all radically different.

Similarly with us. For us, we are all very different, our languages are very different, and our societies are very different. But if we could extract ourselves from our point of view and sort of look down at human life the way a biologist looks at other organisms, I think we could see it a different way. Imagine an extrahuman observer looking at us. Such an extrahuman observer would be struck precisely by the uniformity of human languages, by the very slight variation from one language to another, and by the remarkable respects in which all languages are the same. And then he would notice we do not pay any attention to that because for the purpose of human life it is quite natural and appropriate just to take for granted everything that is common. We don’t concern ourselves with that, all we worry about are differences.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

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