Overweening Generalist

Friday, June 17, 2011

Working On My Chomsky Problem

Sue Howard is a woman who always makes me think, and I just wish I could hug her. She's always brilliant and has for many years shared wonderful ideas in the Robert Anton Wilson newsgroup on Usenet, alt.fan.rawilson. She has spurred me on to articulating my own teasing out of what I take to be the "Chomsky Problem."

 I posted on something called "The Chomsky Problem" back here, and never quite got around - I'd like to say for reasons of space (I tend to go on and on, eh?) - to the question Paul Robinson seems to have been the first to pose: what is the connection between Chomsky's linguistics work and his political work?

I contacted Robinson via email (there are a lot of Paul Robinsons), and he seems to remember the NYT Book Review people coming up with the term...Only after the post from last week where I quoted Robinson did I realize I owned and had read his The Modernization of Sex and I own his The Freudian Left, but I can only remember reading the chapters on Reich and Marcuse. I oughtta go back and find out about Geza Roheim ASAP! Robinson has long since gone to Stanford, it seems, and has written widely on Queer Studies, opera, and other interesting things. (He wrote a book on Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio? Have any of you read that?)

Robinson asked why I was interested in the term "Chomsky Problem" and I said...well, here's the email sequence, in order from most-recent to my initial query:

[The top is Robinson's final words to me]:

The phrase "The Chomsky Problem" was invented by the
editors of the Book Review.  Of such is my recollection.

At 04:09 PM 6/15/2011, you wrote:

Dear Dr. Robinson,

I find the formulation of "The Chomsky Problem" very interesting and an engaging puzzle to work on.

I've been blogging and the idea came up. I admire Chomsky, mostly for his work as a critic of the State, and I find his linguistics project hopelessly mired in Enlightenment Cartesian assumptions. So my Chomsky Problem is different from yours, but I applaud you and credit your wit in naming the Problem. (Or did you get the term from someone else?)

I appreciate your taking the time to answer me.


- Michael 

On Jun 15, 2011, at 3:59 PM, Paul Robinson wrote:

> Yes, I am.  May I ask why you are interested?
> At 01:33 PM 6/15/2011, you wrote:
>> Dear Prof. Robinson,
>> Are you the same Paul Robinson who wrote in the NYT about "the Chomsky Problem"?
>> I hope you don't get asked this Q too often.
>> Thanks,
>> - Michael 
>> Berkeley,CA
First, two earlier Problems. Chomsky defines "Plato's Problem" as the problem of explaining how we know so much given that we have such limited evidence. For Chomsky, this was for most of his career (Is it still true? Who can keep up with the 82 year old?) the central epistemological problem, or at least Chomsky acolyte Prof. Carlos Otero says so. Furthermore, Otero says the Plato Problem is at the center of the cognitive sciences. I'm not sure if I agree, but okay.

A second problem is Orwell's Problem: Otero says Chomsky is fascinated by this one, and Otero defines it thus: "the problem of explaining how we can know so little about the structure and functioning of our society, given that we have so much evidence. He (Chomsky) calls it 'Orwell's Problem' because Orwell was as impressed as anyone who lived through the Stalinist period (in a narrow sense) with 'the ability of totalitarian systems to instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are without foundation and often plainly at variance with obvious facts about the world around us.'" - that's me quoting Otero, quoting Chomsky in Chomsky's preface to
Knowledge and Language (Amazon's costs for this one prohibitive; get it at the library, or get 'em all at the library), but my source is page 40 of Language and Politics, an 800 page collection of Chomsky interviews, which I highly recommend, even if Chomsky is not your cup of tea. The guy's thought is so robust, he's such a fascinating character, and if you find his texts unpalatably dry, he goes down much easier in the Q & A interview format. And, when things really break down in Unistat and we have to defend ourselves from the well-armed Know-Nothing Party (AKA the Teabaggers), this 800 page tome can stop a bullet. Think of the irony!

IF Paul Robinson coined the "Chomsky Problem" then it's sorta witty, 'cuz it follows on Chomsky's own Plato and Orwell problems. But Robinson said the editors at the NYT Book Review did it, so...anyone know if there was an earlier (true) coinage?

Let me get to Exhibit A, if it so pleases our Marx Bros. kangaroo court:

In New Left Review, September-October 1969:

NLR: We would like to ask you something about your work in linguistics. Do you think there is any connection between your specialized work there and your political views, which you have been talking about?

Chomsky: Scientific ideas and political ideas can converge and, if they converge independently because they have each developed in the same direction, that is fine. But they should not be made to converge at the cost of distortion and suppression, or anything like that. -p.112, Language and Politics

Wha???Why does he come off sounding like Kung fu-Tze (Confucius) here? What the hell does Chomsky (1969) mean here?

It gets much better.

Skipping ahead to 1984, on Dec 1st, David Barsamian interviewed Noam, and his first question was, "Could you discuss the relationship between politics and language?" And Chomsky's immediate answer is, "There is a tenuous relationship, in fact, several different kinds. I think myself that they're exaggerated in importance."

Oh, boy. Then he really goes off about Orwellian language, the Defense Department used to be called the War Department, 1947, etc. But then it gets kinda interesting, for our purposes, at least:

Chomsky: There's also a more subtle and more interesting but even more tenuous connection which has to do with the fact that any stance that one takes with regard to social issues, for example, advocacy of some kind of reform or advocacy of a revolutionary change, an institutional change, or advocacy of stability and maintaining structures as they are - any such position, assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature... p.471, op cit

He elaborates at length from there, but I think we see an opening.

Chomsky knows his conception of human nature - that we probably (or he'd prefer to believe) have an "instinct for freedom," a term he got from the great anarchist and contemporary and critic of Marx, Mikhail Bakunin - is not the prevailing assumption about "human nature." Or at least Noam
seems to think it is not the dominant, accepted definition. He therefore seems to not want to give that ground.

Here he is later in that same passage: "The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It's more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much..."

Chomsky's reading of Descartes and Rousseau, his Old Enlightenment rationalism about individuals breaking free of authorities and co-operating to build a more just framework for society, is not, he seems to think, held consciously as a workable goal. There are other tacit assumptions at work, and to come right out and link his Cartesian linguistics and philosophy with his libertarian-socialist views, seems like a move towards self-preservation in a debate that has everything at stake.

Or maybe I'm just stoned?

More on this fascinating topic soon...


Sue Howard said...

By a strange coincidence, I'd just been reading Tom Robbins' Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, in which Robbins imagines himself (or rather the main character) as a woman named Gwen Mati. Something in the book (I forget what) made me suddenly think of the first comment I left in your blog, and I worried it'd left a cold, critical impression (which wasn't my conscious intention). I then turned my computer on and started reading this fascinating post, which dispelled my anxieties. I have my own "Chomsky problem" - more to do with a sort of "vulgar" or fundamentalist "Chomskyian" political belief system which I find common in the virtual circles I sometimes frequent, and of which I've seen some (to my mind) 'destructive' consequences. I hope you'll write much more on the topic in general - I have a lot to learn!

michael said...

One of us oughtta mint a "Law" that applies to the relative surety that:

1.) The more total information put out by a great thinker, the more there will be pockets of earnest, enthusiastic followers who have given the Great Thinker various levels of overinterpretation, interpretation based on secondhand (or third-, fourth-, etc) info; There will be many hardcore-adherents of Great Thinker who have never read more than a few paragraphs of Great Thinker's books. And the more likely, over time, some of the people/groups will be using Great Thinker's name like a mantra while missing crucial points about the Great Thinker's raison de etre.

2.) The more all the items in #1 come into play, to some degree, the more likely Great Thinker will begin to resemble a Secular Religious leader to those outside of that perceptual framework. Marx said he was not a Marxist. IIRC Darwin said something similar.

What was the line from Robert Anton Wilson? "A disciple is an asshole looking for a human being to attach itself to." Something like that.

I've seen very similar responses virtually, Sue. I think "vulgar Chomskyites" or "fundamentalist Chomskyans" are terms we ought to use, if only to possibly make people think.

While I admire the vast body of Chomsky's thought, I have problems with some if it. I use what I can while "triangulating" with other, disparate thinkers in order to get a more nuanced view. It seems to be a primary method for any FFUI.