A major influence on Chomsky’s approach to the study of mind has come from rationalist philosophers such as Descartes. Like these thinkers, Chomsky’s work can be usefully seen in opposition to empiricist approaches to mind articulated by thinkers such as Locke. The aim of this chapter is to provide a conceptual backdrop against which one can locate some of Chomsky’s claims. I try to do this by outlining the different ways that the empiricist and rationalist traditions (actually, idealized versions of each) try to reconcile an apparent tension in epistemology (the theory of knowledge). The tension comes in trying to combine a theory of mind with a theory of truth to yield an account of how it is possible for humans to know anything, i.e. have true beliefs in some domain, especially true beliefs about the “outside world.” The two traditions endorse very different conceptions of the relation of minds to the world. However, it is possible to construct a shared conception of what the epistemological project amounts to that plausibly animates the details of the particular proposals that have been advanced. Doing this, I believe, allows for a better evaluation of the intuitions that drive these programs and thereby permits one to more fully appreciate some of Chomsky’s main philosophical proposals. In what follows, I will try to outline these general conceptions. I will then try to relate them to some of the concerns that Chomsky has raised in his linguistic and philosophical writing.
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