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