The term Cartesian linguistics was coined with the publication of Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966), a book on linguistics by Noam Chomsky. The word "Cartesian" is the adjective pertaining to René Descartes, a prominent 17th-century philosopher. However, rather than confine himself to the works of Descartes, Chomsky surveys other authors interested in rationalist thought.
In particular, Chomsky discusses the Port-Royal Grammar (1660), a book which foreshadows some of his own ideas concerning universal grammar.
Chomsky traces the development of linguistic theory from Descartes to Wilhelm von Humboldt, that is, from the period of the Enlightenment directly up to Romanticism. The central doctrine of Cartesian Linguistics maintains that the general features of grammatical structure are common to all languages and reflect certain fundamental properties of the mind. The book was written with the purpose of deepening "our understanding of the nature of language and the mental processes and structures that underlie its use and acquisition".
Chomsky wished to shed light on these underlying structures of the human language, and subsequently whether one can infer the nature of an organism from its language.
Chomsky's book received mostly unfavorable reviews. Critics argued that "Cartesian linguistics" fails both as a methodological conception and as a historical phenomenon.
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