Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Return of Son of My Chomsky Problem

Onward, upward, leeward, forward, zigzaggety, and possibly asymptotic...

Chomsky gave an interview to U. of Washington (Seattle) in October of 1977, later reprinted in Linguistic Analysis 4:4, December 1978. I found it in Language and Politics, p.203.

Q: I recently had a chance to look at Problems of Knowledge and Freedom. I don't mean to be facetious, but it seems to me that there is a considerable discussion there of certain problems of knowledge, and considerable discussion of certain problems of freedom, and very little of the relationship between those two.

Chomsky: I think that's an accurate perception...(Noam then expounds in what was transcribed as five decent-sized paragraphs.)

He says what we really know about how to get out of coercive systems, "break out of authoritarian patterns," and achieve a just society: we really have very little insight. "So in this respect, what achievements there may have been in the investigation of the growth of cognitive structures, for example, and of the nature of human nature, these advances don't tell us very much about the questions we would like to have answers to." (p.213)

In an interesting rhetorical move by Chomsky, later in his answer to the question he draws tacitly upon Euclid, or any other thinker who first establishes axioms that are "self-evident" and then goes on to build a system. He mentions another of his influences, Wilhelm von Humboldt, who Chomsky said "at the essential core of human nature there are certain fundamental needs, such as the need to inquire and create, to do creative, productive work under conditions of voluntary association in solidarity with others..." If this was an axiom used in order to build a society, that is one thing. But what about the idealistic, theoretically pre-capitalist ideas of Adam Smith? This has seemed to hold sway as axiomatic of "who we are," as "human nature." 

Chomsky says, "Similarly, if we take the view, say, characteristic of Adam Smith, that essential to human nature is the need to truck and barter, then we develop a different image of what a just and proper society would be."

Here seems another variation on the theme of human nature as underwriting discussions about how semantics might work in the nitty-gritty "real" world, although I'm pretty sure Chomsky would disagree with me here...which would be part of my Chomsky Problem.
It seems crucial to understand that, not only does Chomsky base his linguistics in his own deep reading of Descartes, but that Chomsky has, in my view, a rather jaundiced take on British empiricism, Continental rationalism's yang to its own yin? Dig:

Regarding freedom and knowledge again, here's Noam: "[...] some very tenuous and possibly suggestive connections without claiming in the least that they're deductive connections. In fact, they're not; they're at most vague and loose suggestions which are perhaps worth a little bit of thought. To take one case, there's historically a quite interesting connection between approaches to human nature which have stressed its alleged malleability, and certain social attitudes as to what would be a proper organization of society. [Now it gets meaty! - the OG] For example, if the mind is extremely plastic, if we take an extreme empiricist view, if we say there is nothing to human nature apart from the sum of historically given positions and that, at each point in time, human nature is simply the residue of whatever contingent cultural patterns exist, that the mind as it develops is just a reflection of the materials around it; then, if that is the case, there really are no barriers whatsoever as far as I can see, no moral barriers, to manipulation and domination and control. In fact, the moral basis is laid for a coercive and authoritarian society. My own view is - I've tried to argue this a number of times - that one of the reasons why these empty organism theories have such appeal in our intellectual tradition is that they do in a sense eliminate the moral barriers to coercion and control and domination."

This seems a variation on what I call Chomsky's Nightmare.
Okay, this is ultra-innaresting to me, because I think this view of human nature that allowed coercion, control and domination exists, but I doubt it has all that much to do with the intellectual tradition; I think it's at least as old as The Law of the Twelve Tables, and Rome's imperium and has never relented: class warfare is always being fought by the 5% that own everything, and their enemy is the..."Bewildered Herd," as Chomsky calls them, sarcastically using a phrase from, IIRC, Walter Lippmann. (Someone correct me on this.)

We're already THERE, Noam. And you know how it was done? You do! You co-wrote Manufacturing Consent. Public relations? You've done wonderful work exposing its history, their assumptions about human nature, who backs it, etc. And how do they do it? They appeal to the semantic unconscious of the population. 

Therefore, you need to get smart about words. I'm sorry, but there is a really nasty side to us that can be manipulated by seeming to appeal to what we think is healthy and decent. 

But where you're wrong, Chomsky, is that this definition of "human nature" can and is used only by those who appeal to our baser instincts. It's also used by those who want to appeal to the best in us.

 It's more complex than the - excuse my insolence - dumb-show about idealistic rational ideas about freedom versus idealistic (and jaundiced, dealing from the bottom of the deck, Noam) empiricist ideas of human nature and freedom. It's not that simple; it seems wildly more complex than your elegant but clipped and excluded middle views. Let me give you an example.

A British empiricist named David Hume wondered how we become better citizens, how we learn to understand other people's points of view and especially, how we seem to sensitize ourselves to other people's suffering and therefore take steps to ameliorate the situation. (Did you skip those sections?)

Hume thought: do we learn how to be better people by going to Sunday school and church or hear sermons or read books about why some benevolent deity or person thinks we should be nice to each other? No. Hume thought that kind of thing does NOT make us better people; it does not move us to understand other people's plight. What does make us better? What does sensitize us?

Reading novels. Reading poetry. In our day, it would be seeing great films that have to do with stories about the human condition. Even listening to music, I imagine. Who doesn't hear a lifetime of broken heartedness when they listen to Billie Holiday? Who isn't moved by the feeling of the possibility of humans transcending themselves in the last section of Beethoven's 9th? 

What all these things do is appeal to our emotions, and an older part of the brain than that which was most responsible for Descartes' works. The religious and political demagaogues, sociopaths lusting for power, lapdogs speaking on behalf of power and privilege: they appeal to the emotions too! I'm sorry, Noam, but it's a done deal: the question is how do you fight effectively for your cherished notions about what "human nature" can possibly be? I know: it's your Nightmare scenario. 

I think you have to deal frankly with language, and your linguistic systems won't allow you to deal with semantics this way. It must be somehow attached to the deep structure of syntax, and maybe ultimately, a Universal Grammar. <coughunicorn!>
Whew! Sorry, but I blew quite the little rant there.

Before I resume riffing some other day on Chomsky and other matters linguistic-semantic (I don't feel I've solved my Chomsky Problem yet), let me shift into an altered state and talk about talking about talking. Or writing about writing and language, using words. This meta-level sees everything as a mere model or map of human consciousness, and on this level I feel free; I can't take "all that" so seriously...in this case "all that" being my attempts to tease out a satisfying answer for my own Chomsky Problem. The Chomsky Problem, and many other problems - how to fix health care, what to do about climate change and crazy weather patterns, the rise of lumpenprole fascism, etc, are well worth working on, but there are other levels of existence, too, an escape, if only to preserve one's balance...

Thinking about thinking, analyzing language by using language, interpreting interpretations, thinking about criticizing another critic whose interpretation of someone else's interpretation using words we aren't sure about...how they are semantically taken...what did they mean? Well, we go on parole. We let it go for a bit...

Robert Anton Wilson had much more experience living in this meta-level of consciousness, so, since I've been quoting at length lately, a tad more can't hurt:

"[At this level things are] constant, because it is, as the Chinese say, void or no-form. It plays all the roles you play - oral dependent, emotional tyrant, cool rationalist, romantic seducer, neurosomatic healer, neurogenetic Evolutionary Visionary - but it is none of them. It is plastic. It is no-form because it is all forms. It is the 'creative Void' of the Taoists.

"If this begins to sound like nonsense, that is inevitable on this level. As Lewis Morgan notes, in books on linguistics there always comes a point at which the prose itself becomes wildly incomprehensible, disintegrating into nonsense.

"The same happens, Morgan notes, beyond a certain point in modern mathematics:

        Godel's Theorem was once explained to me by a patient, a gentle mathematician,
        and just as I was taking it all in, nodding appreciatively at the beauty of the whole
        idea...it all turned into nonsense inside my head.

"It happens in linguistics and mathematics, because it happens in consciousness itself; language and math are just models of consciousness." - p.224, Prometheus Rising, revised ed.

William James always wished he could become a believer in Christianity, because, as he observed, it allowed its adherents to fight the good fight all week, and then, on Sunday, take a "moral holiday," knowing it would all work out: they're saved. How comforting! But James couldn't find it within himself to believe. (Neither can I; rather, I escape into this meta-level of consciousness Wilson describes, among other mental gimmicks.)

And, it seems to me, Chomsky is like William James. He can't find a way to take a moral holiday. He worries about all of us. Is that the sanest approach?

1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

I don't know if reading poetry and listening to music makes us more ethical. It didn't work for Heydrich.

On a side note, my wife and watched a documentary on Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign. He liked to quote Aeschylus. I can't imagine a major candidate today quoting Aeschylus. Some voters found Obama elitist.

I've never finished Godel Escher Bach, but I do have Bach playing right now. Perhaps I should finish that book.