Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Night of the Living Chomsky Problem

In our previous adventures, the Overweening Generalist and his crew (he has no crew) have marshaled what meager intellectual reserves they had, and set out on the open road (a small room filled with books, mostly) to seek out the answer to a question posed in the NY Times Book Review section in 1979 by Paul Robinson: how do Chomsky's linguistics intersect with his politics? Robinson thought Chomsky was arguably the most important intellectual alive, and his achievement in linguistics was monumental (or something like that), while his political books seemed maddeningly simple-minded. I'm about a 180 from Professor Robinson, but the Big Q remains: how do the politics and linguistic works intersect? Lots of people have asked Chomsky that over the years, and he's given enough variation of answers that it's an intriguing puzzle to dyed-in-the-wool-weirdos like myself. I'm hacking away, folks. But it's fun. On with the show...

I should get this out of the way: there is a linguist who's made a career out of hating Chomsky named Geoffrey Sampson. I actually own one of his books, Schools of Linguistics. He seems to deliberately misunderstand Chomsky, but maybe he just really doesn't get him. Or maybe he despises Chomsky for Noam's criticisms of Israel. Anyway, he has tackled the Chomsky Problem too, rather lamely, especially in his book Liberty and Language. Sampson wants to warn us all about Chomsky in this book, especially Chomsky's supposed "scientism," and here's a slice of Sampson's non-lapidary prose with regard to this issue:

"[Scientism is] the prejudice which holds that the scientific method applies to all possible subjects of human thought, or (what amounts to the same in practice) that matters which cannot be treated by the method of science are somehow unreal or unimportant." - p.1

Well, in an earlier post about Chomsky I quoted him saying that we may learn more about the human condition by reading novels. He has made similar statements many times. What's even more embarrassing about Sampson's status as a teacher of young people, is how far he gets the "scientism" thing wrong. Chomsky has written scads and scads of stuff on the limits of science; one of the things that strikes me most about his thought are his ideas about "limitology": for some reason our nervous systems were able to tease out the quantum theory, but we really don't know much about the social worlds, in scientific terms. In an interview with Wiktor Osiatinsky in 1983 Chomsky says, "There are huge areas where the human mind is apparently incapable of forming sciences or at least has not done so. There are other areas, so far in fact one area only, in which we have demonstrated the capacity for true scientific progress."

Osiatinsky: Physics?

Chomsky: Physics and those parts of other fields that grow out of physics: chemistry, the structure of the big molecules - in those domains there is a lot of progress. In many other domains there is very little progress in developing real scientific understanding.

But if one reads Chomsky, he admits the foundations for his vision of a libertarian socialist society are not solid; however, he likes to talk about this other possible society.

I guess Chomsky wasn't impressed by the moves Wilhelm Dilthey and his colleagues made in the late 19th century/early 20th: an understanding that social sciences (geisteswissenschaften) were indeed different than the physical sciences (naturwissenschaften), and that they deserved different hermeneutics. The natural sciences (what Chomsky seems to think are the only true, successful "science"), which worked wonderfully via nomothetic or law-like descriptions (F=Ma); while the social sciences, because of their inherent difficulty due to the involvement of complex human Being, should be described in ideographic or picture-like language. Lakoff would call this metaphor...

I was being coy: of COURSE Chomsky rejected Dilthey and co: they stressed the presence of a living, breathing interpreter of the world - they were Romantics! - while Chomsky seems to always have the ideal Cartesian as the model for making sense of the world. (Please see neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error.)

Here's Sampson again, regarding his version of the Chomsky Problem. Sampson is going to inform us "with the ideas of man who represents this scientistic pseudo-opposition to scientism more forcefully and influentially than anyone else in the contemporary world, and who bids fair to corner the forces opposed to scientism so completely as to render any genuine fight against scientism impossible of success."-p.3 of Liberty and Language. You can't make this shit up, folks! Sampson is David, you see. Chomsky is Goliath. Goliath is awesome! But David will carry the day. Sampson has a PhD, folks. And what an incredible edifice of a straw man Sampson has concocted! Goliath will burn!


Back to my Chomsky Problem:

In a May, 1968 interview originally done for The Listener (London), Chomsky gets this question:

Q: Do you think that when one thinks of these principles of order and transformation and preferred structures in language as restrictions, they set a restriction on scientific thought?

Chomsky: I suspect that the properties of the language faculty are probably closely associated to the faculties that lead us to what we call common sense - our common-sense knowledge of the world, that is.

[He then elaborates about maturity and language competence and a the vast knowledge of the physical world: it's intricate, complex, highly organized, and mysterious.]


Chomsky: This whole mass of knowledge falls into what we roughly call common sense and we know from the history of science that common sense knowledge has had its limitations, that it's necessary to try to make this incredibly difficult leap beyond common sense to some sort of abstract picture of the nature of experience, of the nature of the physical world. Making this leap is a uniquely human ability, and it involves properties of the mind that we do not yet even begin to understand. I would suppose that there are restrictions on these further faculties. And a very fascinating question would be to try to think of a way of discovering these restrictions. If we could discover some of them, we could begin to say something about the possible bounds of human knowledge.
How does this play in my Chomsky Problem? I think that it's wonderfully illustrative and pithy regarding his epistemological stance, to this day, 42 years later. It's a marvelous idea to think about. How far can we go before we look into the abyss, where possible knowledge ends and beyond there's nothing but hopeless darkness? I don't particularly subscribe to it, simply because neuroscience is relatively new. Chomsky, in all my readings of him, seems only trivially interested in axon potentials, neurochemistry and neuroanatomy, and anything limbic seems terra incognita to him. He has marveled at Hubel and Wiesel's work with vision (to me: one of the most stupendously great works in all the sciences), and he's mentioned Gestalists and their findings in perception, but found them too "peripheral." He's mentioned Karl Lashley and Yosef Grodzinsky, but he's never really been interested in going, as Jerome Feldman's book title has it, From Molecule To Metaphor, subtitled "A Neural Theory of Language." Feldman's approach just makes sense to me; it can account for why people fall for "The Death Tax," or "Collateral Damage" or "heartland values" or "American is the greatest country that God has ever seen fit to create in the history of the world," a version of something heard on right-wing TV and radio in Unistat every day.

I don't worry that much about the limits of knowledge. It's an interesting question to ponder though. In the social sciences, I think ideographic approaches are more appropriate, but there are some statistical methodologies that are being combined with descriptive language and yielding some mindblowing results in, say, economics. See the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for example!
"Intellectual passions are more bewitching than love affairs, which is why they last longer. A man can adore a woman until she changes or grows surly, but he can be madly infatuated with a Theory all his life." - from Robert Anton Wilsons' novel Nature's God.
Okay, I'm not sure I've sufficiently begun to nail down a concise answer to my own puzzle of a Chomsky Problem. I'll keep working on it. Any poking or prodding or provoking from The Reader might help. 


ARW23 said...

I wonder how would Chomsky with his Cartesian state of mind: "such a neat, orderly, clean world of rules and representations, transformations, logic, rigor" react to Robert Anton Wilson's style and mind? Would Chomsky feel irritated by Wilson?

michael said...

RAW was influenced by another logician/mathematician/philosopher named G. Spencer Brown, who wrote a book called The Laws of Form. In the glossary to Wilson's omnibus edition of the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, RAW defines FORM thus:

"In the sense of G. Spencer Brown, a mathematical or logical system necessary to systematic thought but having the inevitable consequences of imposing its own deep structures upon the experiences packaged and indexed by the form. See COPENHAGEN INTERPRETATION"

So, RAW seems to be saying via Brown and Bohr, that we can use mathematical formalisms to map some phenomena, but it is not the phenomena itself; in addition, the mapping is a product as much of our own instruments and nervous systems as the phenomena itself. Wilson seems to see this a basic to 20th century epistemology. In some ways Chomsky seems to intersect with Wilson, but in many ways: not.

michael said...

I should like to add: Wilson thinks that, when we systematize - develop a high level of abstraction about some phenomena - then the system we've invented using our symbols and powers of mind - will seem to impose its own demands upon us...and then: who's in charge?

And if we try to develop another system to keep the first one in check, this second system will make its demands. We must learn to embrace uncertainty.