Volume 11, Issue 1, 2011
Psychological and Computational Models of Language Comprehension
In Defense of the Psychological Reality of Syntax
In this paper, I argue for a modified version of what Devitt (2006) calls the Representational Thesis (RT). According to RT, syntactic rules or principles are psychologically real, in the sense that they are represented in the mind/brain of every linguistically competent speaker/hearer. I present a range of behavioral and neurophysiological evidence for the claim that the human sentence processing mechanism constructs mental representations of the syntactic properties of linguistic stimuli. I then survey a range of psychologically plausible computational models of comprehension and show that they are all committed to RT. I go on to sketch a framework for thinking about the nature of the representations involved in sentence processing. My claim is that these are best characterized not as propositional attitudes but, rather, as subpersonal states. Moreover, the representational properties of these states are determined by their functional
role, not solely by their causal or nomological relations to mind-independent objects and properties. Finally, I distinguish between explicit and implicit representations and argue, contra Devitt (2006), that the latter can be drawn on “as data” by the algorithms that constitute our sentence processing routines. I conclude that Devitt’s skepticism concerning the psychological reality of grammars cannot be sustained.