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The Idea of Universality in Linguistics and Human Rights

03/15/2005 5:30 6-120
Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor, MIT; Elizabeth S. Spelke, Professor of Psychology Co-Director, Mind, Brain, and Behavior Inter-faculty Initiative, Harvard University.

Description: If humans have a common, in-born capacity for language, and for such complex behaviors as morality, might the faculties be somehow linked? Noam Chomsky perceives a mere thread of a connection. At breakneck speed, Chomsky leads us through a history of language theory, concluding with the revolutionary model he championed: a universal grammar underpinning all languages that corresponds to an innate capacity of the human brain. While scientists may now have a "clearer grasp of the universals of language," says Chomsky, notions of universality grow murky as we move "into domains of will, choice and judgment." Chomsky cites the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one example of "broad cross-cultural consensus." But he brandishes examples of how "our moral and intellectual culture '.forcefully rejects universal moral judgments" -- such as continued U.S. refusal to approve anti-torture conventions.

In contrast, Elizabeth Spelke forcefully links "universals in human nature to some of the developments in bringing about a greater balance in human rights." Thirty years of cognitive and cross cultural research show that humans universally structure their world in terms of objects, have a universal capacity to represent numbers, and to represent other people as "intentional, goal-directed agents whose freely chosen actions are subject to moral evaluation." Variation among humans flows from another universal capacity: to "freely combine concepts from different core systems." Spelke speculates that "humans might be gripped by a tremendous illusion that different members of different groups really are fundamentally different" _ an illusion that might drive us to conflict and rights abuses. These aspects of human nature pose a major challenge, but, Spelke concludes, a more fundamental faculty "holds the potential key to remedy" our capacity to "articulate deeply entrenched notions, criticize and get beyond them."

Noam Chomsky has written and lectured widely on linguistics, philosophy, intellectual history, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy. A brief sampling of his prolific work includes: The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory; Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Language and Mind; American Power and the New Mandarins; Reflections on Language; Rules and Representations; Knowledge of Language; The Culture of Terrorism; Manufacturing Consent (with E.S. Herman); Understanding Power (New Press, 2002); and most recently, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (Henry Holt and Company, 2003).

Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. During the years 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. In the spring of 1969 he delivered the John Locke Lectures at Oxford; in January 1970 he delivered the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lecture at Cambridge University; in 1972, the Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, and in 1977, the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, among many others.

Chomsky has received honorary degrees from universities around the world, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Science.

Before arriving at Harvard University, Elizabeth Spelke was a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, and in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Among her numerous honors, Spelke was among Time Magazine's America's Best in Science and Medicine. She received the William James Award from the American Psychological Society. Spelke earned her B.A. from Radcliffe College and her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 1978.

Host(s): Office of the Provost, Program on Human Rights and Justice

Tape #: T19740

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MIT World — special events and lectures

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