In Aronofsky’s film Pi, Max is looking for the patterns that underlie the surface details. For Max, the stock market is like the game of Go is like the Torah is like the cream swirling in his coffee: all of them are built up from the same sort of deep structure; all of them iteratively change states through the movement of the same deep process. So too with Max’s understanding of his own mind: underlying any particular configuration of thoughts or any sequential train of thought there are the same deep structures and processes. And so, inevitably for Max, the mind is like the stock market is like Go etc. etc. — the same deep structures, the same deep processes. The world and the mind both embody the same abstract universals. Ultimately for Max, those abstract universals are the voice of God.
According to Chomsky, underlying the wide variety of human languages, with their idiosyncratic rules for word order and conjugation and possessives and so on, there is a universal grammar, a common set of deep structures and processes for forming meaningful utterances by which all languages operate. Per Chomsky, the reason that any human child can learn any human language is that human brains are hard-wired with a set of deep structures that map onto the universal grammar. Language and mind both embody the same abstract universals.
Tomasello disagrees with Chomsky. Tomasello acknowledges that is possible to arrive at an abstract understanding of language by which all specific languages can be compared with one another. However, this linguistic “universal grammar” is best understood as an abstract cultural artifact constructed by linguists. Children learn to understand and to speak from the bottom up, through repeated exposure to specific words, phrases, and sequences. Kids soon learn that language functions as a communication tool: linguistic symbols function as metaphors for specific situations in the world to which the speaker wants to draw the listener’s attention. Only gradually do children build up a more abstract understanding of their own language, enabling them to construct intentional, meaningful, complex, grammatically correct utterances on the fly.
To be sure, humans are uniquely capable of forming categories and abstractions, as well as of making the sorts of comparisons across categories by which symbols and metaphors operate. But the content of the categories and abstractions and metaphors that humans construct don’t necessarily precede or underlie the work that humans perform in constructing them. Chomsky’s universal grammar might do useful work in the sense that it describes many common features shared by all languages. But it works in a way not unlike (excuse the metaphorical thinking) a hammer or an algorithm for doing long division or a general schema for going to restaurants. Each is a multi-purpose cultural artifact useful for performing intentional actions in a variety of specific situations. Just because a hammer works for breaking nutshells and putting nails into boards and pounding veal for scallopini doesn’t mean that all humans have the structure of hammers prewired into their brains, or that nutshells and nails and veal all share the same underlying structure in the world. The hammer is a cultural artifact, invented and incrementally improved upon by generations of humans in order to perform various specific tasks that involve the same abstract general operation of pounding.
It’s conceivable that the movement from concrete to abstract, from specific to universal, reflects not a dawning awareness of a fundamental “universal grammar” that has always underlain all the surface diversity in human minds and cultures, but rather an incremental and progressive movement in human culture toward some future state of abstract universality waiting for us out there at the end of history. If I were more philosophically literate I might be able to draw an analogy to Kant and Hegel here. What seems more likely is that generalized abstractions are thought up, passed on to others, and improved upon to the extent that they enable humans to do specific kinds of work in specific situations. As the nature of the work changes, so do the workers’ tools. Universal grammar has proven itself a useful tool for working linguists. As linguistic work gets more complicated, linguists incrementally modify the universal grammar tool. If it’s useful to them, they invent altogether new linguistic tools and teach one another how to use them.