Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Unpacking "Common Sense" and My Chomsky Problem

It seems there are numerous variations on the "Chomsky Problem," but the classic one - possibly the first - is this one, by Paul Robinson:

>Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual. On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded. The 'Chomsky problem' is to explain how these two fit together. --Paul Robinson/New York Times, February 25, 1979 [167]<

Okay, in a nutshell, my Chomsky Problem is that his linguistics is based on Cartesian Enlightenment assumptions about how the mind works, and that in turn is based on disembodied reason, as if in our nervous systems we manipulate mathematical symbols based on formal logic and set theory - all influenced by an overly rationalistic Cartesian input-output idea that took over artificial intelligence in the 1950s, which argues: we can model a "deep structure" of language, with syntax guiding the way, diagrams of trees that look like some offshoot from the Kabbalah, phonology and the sound patterns of a given language were important too, and semantics would somehow be accounted for at some point, based on syntax. (Whew!)

A uber-abundance of data from the cognitive sciences has demonstrated that humans must have their emotional, embodied brain/nervous system working well if they are to make appropriate decisions. Chomsky, unfortunately, really did some harm to his own linguistics/theory of Mind when he embraced Descartes. There appears to be no trace of "disembodied reason" for anyone to tap into. Or if you have located "disembodied reason," please alert me in the comment section at the conclusion of this article. (And to boot: Chomsky, amazingly, savagely denigrated thinkers in the philosophical empirical tradition! Such are the vicissitudes of genius?)

There are no syntactical "trees" in the brain/nervous system. There are neurons and neural clusters that operate chemically and electrically. Chomsky has very little to say about the human brain! His basic love for Descartes very early in his career seems to have steered him a few shades of wrong. Since around 1990, findings in cognitive science have shown that the Cartesian model of Rationalism is seriously flawed. (To start looking into this, see Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error or Keith Devlin's Goodbye, Descartes. Or Jerome Feldman's From Molecule To Metaphor. Or have a good long look-see in George Lakoff's The Political Mind, subtitled in the 2008 hardback version with "Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century Politics With An 18th-Century Brain," which seems a not-so subtle dig at Chomsky, who Lakoff once studied linguistics under.)

Chomsky's linguistics? It just seems flat-out wrong to me, and yet, as a good scientist, he has modified his linguistic models many times when older models didn't account for data. He also delineated a formal discovery procedure, which, while yielding results that seem less than satisfactory to say the least, are nevertheless valuable. (In science, demonstrating that hypotheses and possible theories do not work is still valuable, for its eliminative aspect.)

On the other hand, 180 degrees from Robinson's take on Chomsky's work as a critic of the US State Department and the way consent is manufactured, the role of intellectuals, and many other things that seemingly don't have anything to do with his linguistics work, his work has been, to my eyes, tremendously great. The immanent critiques in these books seem to me anything but "maddeningly simple-minded," as Paul Robinson seems to think. (I think, folks, we get a clue about Paul Robinson there. Who knows if he's changed since 1979? Is he even alive?) 

Chomsky deserves his immortality as an intellectual with his byzantine-but-wrong linguistics, but especially his hundred-plus books on State power, the crimes of ruling class Americans, his anarchist stance, his critique of fellow intellectuals, and his French Enlightenment-heroic "speaking truth to power."

So: my Chomsky Problem is about 180 degrees from Paul Robinson's. 

There are very many interviews in which Chomsky is asked how his linguistics work relates to his work as a political activist, and it's there that my Chomsky Problem gets thicker (and admittedly seems the crux of any "Chomsky Problem"), but I will elaborate in some future blog-blather, and attempt to answer Robinson's call to explain "how these two fit together."
Chomsky seems to think any citizen can see through the butter-thick haze of State propaganda if (s)he applied "Cartesian common sense." And Noam has very articulate explanations for what this type of "common sense" is, but if it's "true" why does it seem like only a few people see through the US official bovine excreta?
Giambattista Vico was actuated by Rene Descartes' ever-increasing hold on the minds of Europe's intellectuals, and sought to present a countervailing force to "Renato," as he called him in his Autobiography.

Here's Vico:
"When people cannot know the truth, they strive to follow what is certain and defined. In this way, even if their intellect cannot be satisfied by abstract knowledge, scienza, at least they may repose in common knowledge, conscienza." - New Science, paragraph 137, italics in David Marsh's translation, and possibly the original. 

Just what this "conscienza" consists of, when unpacked, seems far more like that "common sense" I see in everyday life here in the US in 2011. And to end this, I would like to quote Robert Anton Wilson, on his own definition of "common sense.":

"The body of hominid (or primate) prejudice that is so widespread that only philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and other eccentrics ever contradict it." - from an interview with New Libertarian magazine, 27 November, 1977. 

This definition seems much closer to what Vico wanted to say, but probably could not, because the Inquisition was always listening in.


Sue Howard said...

"I think, folks, we get a clue about Paul Robinson there"

Not knowing anything else about Robinson, the main clue I have comes from his use of the word "often" in his criticism of Chomsky: "an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded."

For some acolytes of Chomsky that would tell them "all they need to know" about Robinson. But I'd need a bit more evidence before I put him on the demon list.

Anyway, I look forward to your future post on the fitting together of the linguistics and politics. Here's a provocative line from Lakoff & Johnson (Philosophy in the Flesh):

"The empirical findings of second-generation cognitive science are at odds with Chomsky's philosophical worldview on virtually every point" (p494)

michael said...

Great to see you here, Ms. Howard.

I'm not out to get Robinson on a demon list; I will check out more of his writing though. I assume (making an "ass" out of...oh nevermind...) he is another intellectual who has so internalized the status quo among official intellectuals that the US, while some mistakes are made, is really trying to spread democracy and to open up free markets eveywhere so the world will be a better place for all, etc.

But maybe there's something nuanced to his political views; I don't know.

Maybe I have drank too much of Chomsky, but I can't see any of his critical writing about political matters as "maddeningly simple minded." In fact, he's one of the few who seem NOT "maddeningly simple-minded." (MSM) Look at someone like Thomas Friedman for MSM, in my book, and there are SCADS more where he came from.

Sue Howard said...

I should probably explain my "position" as someone reading mostly UK media (Guardian, Independent) where there seems no shortage of "dissident" commentary (John Pilger, for instance, praised the antiwar stance of those newspapers over Iraq; a recent academic study found Channel 4 conforming largely to an "independent model" of reporting, etc).

In this context I do see a few critics of Chomsky who might have a valid point when they accuse Chomsky of simple-mindedness (or similar) on certain issues. But they probably come from a different direction than Robinson (whom you likely have a better handle on than myself - I know nothing about him).

"Simple-minded" does sound harsh, I agree, particularly when applied to someone of Chomsky's intellect. Perhaps it seems harsher in the US media context, with more at stake?

Maybe "simple-minded" in some relatively minor (but strangely crucial) respects when put up alongside, say, Lakoff's takes, or Foucault's, even, on these political matters. This probably goes back to the fitting together of the linguistics/philosophy with the politics. The true "nature" of capitalism in Chomsky's view, etc...

Sue Howard said...

A few "different" examples of critics of Chomsky. The first a UK "mainstream" journalist, the second "activists" somewhat sympathetic to Chomsky: