Overweening Generalist

Monday, June 27, 2011

Closing In On My Chomsky Problem, OR: The Chomsky From 20,000 Fathoms

Studying this issue highlights my basic epistemological stance of "model agnosticism": I consider all of my perceptions and thoughts about "reality" as necessarily contingent. This is mostly due to my understanding of the way the nervous system processes information, and how easily we fool ourselves into thinking we have the One True Model for some phenomena. Model agnosticism means I try to have at minimum three different models for thinking about any issue or phenomena, and I must always be taking in new information, changing my mind a little bit here, combining some ideas there, discarding or relegating other ideas at other times. As I understand it, modern model agnosticism was born of Niels Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was influenced by William James and American pragmatism.

So: I'm trying to figure out my version of the Chomsky Problem, which might be stated: Given all the work Noam Chomsky has done in linguistics and in a seemingly unrelated field, politics, how might they cohere? And what's most pressing for me: why does Chomsky seem to not want to deal with semantics in the way that Frank Luntz, George Lakoff, "public relations" and other advertising people, Alfred Korzybski, or George Orwell deal with it? 

I have explicated some of this in previous blogposts; I'm still working on it. Where I've become mired is in Chomsky's seeming fear - and I'm not sure I'm on "the" right track here - that if he admits that the realm of linguistics called "pragmatics" or "sociolinguistics" or especially a Neural Theory of Language as all far more powerful in the phenomenal-existential worlds we live in, then he has to admit he's living in a runaway world where masses of people can be swayed by the manipulation of words and symbols, that some sort of...what might be called...Skinnerian behaviorism is still at play? Despite Chomsky's famous "demolition" of Skinner back in the 1960s/early 70s? One of the intellectual moves that put him on the map as major player in the intellectual world? If Chomsky's semantics/"surface structure" is so trivial because of his overweening emphasis on syntax, he can't really account for this...Monstrous Thing that acts like a virus that eats human brains! 

I may be dramatically overstating it a bit here, but this scenario I call Chomsky's Nightmare, and it's here, it's been here, at least since the advent of "public relations" in the very early 20th century (Nietzsche's and Vico's work in philology suggests it goes back a loooong way), and Chomsky - for some reason I'm still trying to figure out - seems to evade this Hideous Truth, although he certainly hints that he knows it's going on. My working hypothesis/abduction is that admitting that language actually works socially in a way all-too-close to the way Skinner said it did, would amount to admitting his cherished notions of how a "human nature" could be defined had been tragically lost, and that his entire linguistics project was fundamentally flawed.

[For background on Chomsky's famous attack on B.F. Skinner see "Psychology and Ideology" from 1972, collected in The Chomsky Reader and For Reasons of State. I think Chomsky did a fantastic job of demonstrating that the human mind is far more complex than the operant conditioned chimp-like thing Skinner assumes, then proves. But: I see Chomsky's demolition as a tad too nifty: people need to decide not to be automatons; very many of them do not do that, and that's part of My Nightmare. Skinner still lurks; he's still relevant. Chomsky's Nightmare and mine seem closely related; I seem to have a more jaundiced take on "human nature." But I still hold hope...ironically for the very reason Chomsky does, which I hope to briefly elucidate at the end of this post - the OG]

Chomsky is taking questions from the audience from 1989 -1996, the text for "Community Activists," chapter six of Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky is unclear on where/when this exchange took place:

Another Man: People often ask you about the connections between your scientific work in linguistics and your politics, and you tend to say something about, "Yes, there are a few tenuous connections." Would you amplify on that? I myself have been thinking that maybe part of our political problem is that the human brain is very good at seeing things in competitive terms like "more" and "less" and it's not very good at conceptualizing "enough."

Chomsky: Well, that may be true - but these are topics where the scientific study of language has nothing to say. I mean, you know as much about it as the fanciest linguist around.

Man: Where are they, then - even the tenuous connections? 

Chomsky: Not there; the tenuous connections are somewhere else. First of all, we should remember that the kinds of things that any sort of science can shed light on are pretty narrow: when you start moving to complicated systems, scientific knowledge declines very fast. And when you get to the nature of human beings, the sciences have nothing to say. There are a few areas where you can get a lot of insight and understanding, and certain aspects of language happen to be one of those areas, for some reason - but that insight still doesn't bear on questions of real human concern, at least not at the level that has any consequences for human life...The connections are quite different - and they are tenuous. The only reason for stressing them is because they've been pointed out many times through the course of modern intellectual history, and in fact they lie right at the core of classical liberalism. I mean, contrary to the contemporary version of it, classical liberalism (which remember was pre-capitalist, and in fact, anti-capitalist) focused on the right of people to control their own work, and the need for free creative work under your own control - for human freedom and creativity. So to a classical liberal, wage labor under capitalism would have been considered totally immoral, because it frustrates the fundamental need of people to control their own work: you're a slave to someone else.
-pp. 215-216, op cit
Noam then goes on for four more paragraphs about Descartes, Rousseau, Humboldt, and his - Chomsky's - ideas about "human nature" that are in that line of Old Enlightenment, 18th century thought. It's a marvelous idea, it's romantic, I tend to agree with it, but it's an idea about "reason" that, it turns out, is wrong in about eight ways, I'm sorry to say. I will elaborate on this in a blog post soon. What galls me is Chomsky's radically - maybe even arrogant - deflationary view of modern research. At the end of the answer to this "Man" in the audience, Chomsky says this:

"You can read any book you want about sociobiology [theory that specific social behaviors and not just physical characteristics result from evolution], and it's mostly fairy tales - I mean, it's all fine when it's talking about ants; when it goes up to the level of mammals, it starts being guesswork; and when it gets to humans it's like, say anything that comes to your head. But I think you can see a possible connection of that sort - a potential connection. Whether that connection can actually be made substantive, who knows? It's all so far beyond scientific understanding at this point that you can't even dream about it. So that's the main reason why I don't talk about these things much. I just think they're interesting ideas, which are maybe worth thinking about in the back of your mind, or maybe writing poems about or something. But they're simply not topics for scientific inquiry at this point." 
I find this maddening. The "tenuous connections" are "somewhere else"? 
What more do I need to address? Does anyone reading this have something to add? A citation from a text that would illuminate me? Do I need to elaborate on something more, or have I elucidated My Chomsky Problem sufficiently above, taken with previous posts on the topic?
Oh yea: Chomsky's reason for optimism regarding political and social problems: It's based on Pascal's Wager.  Chomsky's adaptation: "On this issue of human freedom, if you assume that there's no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, that hope is possible, then hope may be justified, and a better world may be built. That's your choice."- adapted from Milan Rai's Chomsky's Politics, p. 58


Sue Howard said...

Fascinating stuff, and for my money this gets close to the main "problem" (or my particular view of it).

Some of this (eg on behaviorism) reminds me of Pinker's 'The Blank Slate'. I wonder to what extent Chomsky would go along with Pinker's view that "The Blank Slate had, and has, a dark side. The vacuum that it posited in human nature was eagerly filled by totalitarian regimes, and it did nothing to prevent their genocides." (p421)

Pinker's book is full of statements of that type. Chomsky, I recall, wrote a blurb for the book (but then he's written blurbs for Edward Herman's dubious claims about the massacre at Srebrenica, etc - it might be due to "loyalty" (?) more than actual agreement on the nitty-gritty).

Chomsky steers well clear of what I'd call "not very respectable" areas. I think "respectability" means more to him than it did to RAW, say. Probably for good reason - with rightwing pundits out to use anything they can to discredit him.

NC writes (quoted from above): "... which are maybe worth thinking about in the back of your mind, or maybe writing poems about or something. But they're simply not topics for scientific inquiry at this point."

Well, respectable scientific inquiry perhaps...

It seems to me almost as if he avoids the whole question - just as he avoids any kind of "conspiratorial" framing. His "explanations" here don't make much sense to me - they seem completely opaque.

Lakoff has to deal with the charge that he simply counters one kind of spin with another. I've seen this charge from the left and right - that his approach has no more merit than that of the public relations industry that he criticises.

Lakoff answers this charge, but it requires more than a 15-second soundbite to convincingly answer it. Chomsky avoids the whole area, and so never has to get his hands dirty with counter-"propaganda".

The "truth", the facts, respectable science, traditional scholarship - these alone for Chomsky. Not dirty business like PR, which "is" not only not respectable, but totalitarian (if we follow Pinker's logic).

That sums up my over-simplistic, somewhat cynical and probably inadequately informed take on the Chomsky "problem".

What a great read I've found this blog - hope it continues like this..

michael said...

I'm glad I don't sound nuts to you; maybe it's a viable sketch of a possible answer to The Chomsky Problem?

I completely agree Chomsky avoids any conspiratorial framing, maybe the most famous example being the JFK hit: it doesn't really matter all that much who shot JFK; the crimes of Camelot are what we should have our eyes on, state power, etc.

I spent about an hour in a library with The Blank Slate when it came out; I have some big probs with Pinker's version of Rationalism too, which is not the same as Chomsky's, in my view, and the two have drifted apart steadily since Pinker left MIT. (Pinker's wife Rebecca Goldstein is much more interesting to me. She wrote a novel in which the main character seems modeled on David Bohm: really interesting!) I hope to expand on the slow schism of Chomsky/Pinker if I get the time...

michael said...

A common riff I've seen on 20th century totalitarianism and philosophical theories of mind: The Soviets were more blank slate than anyone, and it caused untold misery; the Nazis were essentialists: bad genes for Jews, Leftists, gypsies, gays, weirdo artists: eugenics via addition through subtraction. Chomsky's right that a dumbed-down theory of mind in the hands of totalitarians will justify genocides, but: totalitarian regimes will use science to justify anything they do. Nazis: hardcore social Darwinism: massive slaughter; Stalinist Russia: Lamarckism: massive slaughter...Is this why Chomsky seems to denigrate anything that looks like it could lead to nuanced theory of "human nature"? It seems likely. But it seems also tied to his version of linguistics to me, too...

I have a big problem with Chomsky's assumptions about sciences that have been successful. (BTW: his syntax stuff doesn't blow me away; YMMV) But take quantum physics, which he sees as a big success, as I do too: yet it's never OVER. major questions remain. It's as if he sees three of four domains of real, true progress and they're basically unassailable, and everything else is at some variety of "fairy tale." But then: Why can't we figure out how to unify quantum gravity with relativity? He seems to want to bracket that stuff out: there's the stuff we could do, and there's all this stuff we know almost nothing about. I think it's a horribly skewed view, and dare I say it? ideological.

What you say about "respectable" probably holds here, but then it makes him look very pessimistic and fuddy-duddy indeed, in my view. In addition, I think his linguistics project is filled with abductions/hypotheses that didn't work and he discarded them: the research was done and they were, as Lakatos called such things, "degenerating research programmes." Why does Noam not see, sociobiology/evolutionary psychology as a hypothesis that has an enormous amount of data to back it up? Because it's a threatening "human nature" that might not bolster our "instinct for freedom"? But a lot of Ev-Psych seems to be "progressive" to me. I think Noam doesn't trust the "commissar class" to do justice to a nuanced sociobiological "human nature" that leaves room for something like the need to control your own creative work, cooperation in building a society, non-coercion, and an "instinct for freedom." And I admit: he seems to have a good case for this, especially with the way universities are run these days...

re: Noam trying not to give his enemies on the Right fodder: they do it anyway, of course. They deliberately misread him, make up things. See _The Anti-Chomsky Reader_...and that's one of the more "sober" examples. Look at what AIPAC has done to him. Look at the Faurisson thing. Chomsky's a tough old guy...There's no way I could take the shit he puts up with from morons.

How well do you think Lakoff has dealt with those charges: that he's just a Frank Luntz for the Left?

Sue: I really do not think your takes are overly simplistic, cynical, or inadequate at all. Thanks for such a well-informed, interesting, and passionate discussion. I had wanted to one day churn out my own version of the Chomsky Problem, but I knew it would take a lot of digging and effort, and that clashes with my congenital laziness. I'm not sure I've got a good solution, but you spurred me on, and I thank you for that!