Noam Chomsky – Language and the Rest of the World – lecture transcript part five


What about Fregean systems? The ones we usually adopt. That is systems based on the relation on denote or refer holding between linguistic objects and extralinguistic entities. It seems to me that these are reasonable enough for Frege specific purposes. Most important for what really interested him, namely formal studies of mathematical objects, at least understood platonistically in his terms.

The ideas also seem appropriate as account of a normative ideal for the specific human enterprise of science. That is one hopes that such notions as say, black hole, or oxygen or electromagnetic field will pick out something in the world, in the mind independent world. And we hope that the same will be true of the internal entities and computational princibles that are postulated in the study of insect navigation or visual perception or human language. There is also some evidence that animal communication is based on a notion of representation that is similar to the invented technical concept of reference thats familiar in the study of formal systems. Here the concept of representation is understood as Isomorphism – that is a one to one relation between mind-brain processes and an aspect of the environment to which these processes adobt the animals behaviour. For example, when an ant picks out the corps of a conspecific by its odor. I am quoting here Randy Gallistel in the comprehensive introduction to a series of essays on animal representation.

If the picture I just briefly reviewed is any way near accurate it could turn out that the use of language – human language – to refer or in other ways is totaly different from animal communication systems. And this is in numerous other respects. Human language might not have any denotational semantics, just an intricate form of pragmatics, along with very rich internal syntax that includes what usually is called semantics but ought to be called syntax. Its the study of internal representation. Of this amalgam, the parts that we can currently hope to understand in most depths are the internal syntax, what is called semantics. A theory of human action that would bear in some revealing way on the act of refering is far more remote than comparable theories for much simpler organisms and actions, domains in which the problem is scarcely been entertained because its understood to be far too complicated.

Well, so far I have keept the language. But in princible everything I said should carry over to the study of other mental qualities. In practice the difficulties mount very quickly. Language appears to be relatively isolated from other cognitive capacities. Here refering to its structure not its use or particulare components which are integrated into the structure which could be individually shared with other cognitive faculties or even other species as I mentioned before. One of the reasons why language is a good topic for study for inquiry into the mind is its essential role in human affairs but another is that it is indeed or appears to be relatively isolated. When we turn to other aspects of mind, for example our moral nature. It is much harder to isolate components for seperate study. That means to abstract them from reflective thought and variety of other facturs.

Non the less those topics, study of our moral nature, have been subjected into investigation in various ways. There includes interesting thought experiments, actual experiments with children and comparative studies. Not uncommonly the real world offers illustrations of how these faculties function. Sometimes with very painful choices. Issues like that test our moral faculties. And may help us to discover something about their nature. Sometimes this perspective is counterposed to what is called a relativistic one which hold in an extreme form that appart from their basic physical structure humans have no nature. They have only history. Or that their thought can be modified without limit. Nothing like this can be even close to true if taken literaly. That seems to be what is sometimes said.

In a version due to Richard Rorty “history and anthropology” i am quoting him “show that humans have extraordinary malleability. We are comming to think of ourselves as the flexible protein self shaping animal rather then as having specific instincts. There can be no moral progress in human affairs. Just different ways of looking at things. We should put aside the vain effort of exploration of our moral nature or reason to argument about it.” We should keep to what he calls manipulating sentiments if we happen to be for or against torture or masaker f.e. Suspect I misinterpreting cause its hard to believe that the words are intended to mean what they seem to say. Well such proposal have evoked a good deal of criticism. Oxford Philosopher Galen Strawson quoting a related statments of Rorty on the irrelevance of the extralinguistic world to truth. He asks wether “the nonsense might be less bad if it didnd build in such an astonishing contempt for the reality of human suffering”. His conclusion is that it is just as bad.

A recent paper on the philosophical foundations of human rights by Mihailo Markovic discussing Rorty and others points out that “Nobody would have taken a Nazi seriously who had claimed in 1945 that the soul basis for the moral condemnation of the Holocoust by the rest of the world was just due to some kind of culturaly relative emotional manipulation based on scrudely deviced sentimental stories.”

If this is so we want to understand why? and if nobody really means no normal human beeing that leads us back to the hard questions of intrinsic human nature. This notion of unique human malleability is not at all novel. It is been a fairly conventional view at least back to the Beast-Machine controversies that where inspired by Descartes. F.e. The argument by James Harris (British Philosopher 1740) “Unlike animals and machines the leading princible of men is multiform, originally uninstructed, pliant and dozel.” The idea that human alleged weakness of instinct leads to vast variety and extreme mailability has had a long and in fact inglorious history ever since. With no metric and little understanding it is hard to know what to make of those judgments. But whatever merit they have, they cannot offer an alternative to the conception that I just outlined.

No one doubts that a persons understanding, judgments and values, goals reflect acquired cultures, norms, conventions and so on. But these are not mind external entities. They are not acquired by taking a pill. They are constructed by the mind on the basis of scattered and constructed experiments. And they are constantly applied in circumstances that are novel and complex. These facts, and their significants where discussed 250 years ago by David Hume, who observed “that the numbers of our duties is in a manner infinite therefor just as in other parts of th e study of nature we must seek a few general princibles upon which all our notions of morals are founded. Princibles of human nature that are origional instincts of the human mind. They are perhaps enhanced by reflection but stand fast and immutable as components of fixed human nature.”

Hume articulating the basic idea behind generative gramma in a different cognitive domain and centuries earlier. Like Adam Smith, Hume took sympathy to be what he called a very powerful princible in human nature – one of our origional instincts- and the grounding of much else. That idea was reconstructed in a darwinian framework by the Anarchist natural Historian Peter Kropotkin in what I think should be taken as the founding work in whats nowadays called evolutionary psychology. And there is recent work that suggests some possible evolutionary scenarious.

There is little reason to suppose that the variety of cultural outcomes reflect significant variety of genetic endownment. So we are back in the situation we face in the study of language or the physical system or any other basic properties of organisms. It is necessary to account for the richness and specificity of outcome on the basis of shared intrinsic nature tolerating variation but within a highly structured range as throughout the biological world.

To this picture we should add other conception that have been studied in recent years, also resurrecting the 17th century origins of modern science. One strand is the recognition that our innate capacity are only latent. That is they have to be triggered by experience to be manifested. Then they are manifested in ways determined by our intrinsic nature. Much as susceptibility to a disease is innate. Altho the disease requires a external trigger. Its actually the analogy that Descard suggested in discussing innate ideas. One of the reasons why Locks famouse critiques is besides the point. This is long recognized.

Another idea that was fruitfully examined in the 17th century is that the phenomena of the world around us do not in itself constitute experience. They become experience for us as they are constructed by our modes of cognition. They must therefor conform to these modes of cognition. (17th century picture came into modern thought with Kants version of it) This modes of cognition are distinctive property of our nature. They differ for different organisms. They are what Konrad Lorenz (evolutionary biologist) called a “biological a priori” in work that I in fact discussed here 45 years ago. This is also true of the rich mental construction that we call cultures, norms and conventions insofar as they are shared by groups that interact in complex ways. Still assuming that each child is intrinsically capable of acquiring any culture over a very broad range, the process of mental construction of experience and interpretation of it is based on the common genetic constitution which must be rich to the extend that the outcomes are highly structured and constrained in ways that do not simply reflect features of the environment. Basically Humes observation.

It seems unavoidable that the so called relativistic approaches must be profoundly inateist, at least if they are willing to address the issues of nature, aquisition, and use of attained systems. = Humes question. If so, than they fall together with the study of visual or linguistic systems or other properties of organisms. It is hard to see serious distinctions here. Or any interpretation under which relativistic approaches differ from the most highly innatist approaches.

One last word on the import on any conclusion, it has to be a very tentative conclusion about human nature. One way to assess the importance of such conclusion is to observe how deeply they enter into conceptions of right and justice and the struggels they engender. It is very easy to illustrate from personal relation to international affairs. More generally, every approach on how human relations should be aranged. Wether its is revolutionary, reformist or committed to stability. Every such approach is based on some conception of Human nature, at least implicity. If it has any claims to moral standing its advanced with the claim that its beneficial to humans, meaning because of their intrinsic nature at least as one of its crucial qualities.

We should face honestly the fact of our ignorance which is profound but yet recognized that we have no choice but to proceed on the best tentative assumptions we can reach. For many of the classical mysteries quiet extraoridnary bodies of doctrine have been developed in the past several hundred years. Some of the greatest achievements of the human intellect. They also have far reaching implications for human life. And there have been some remakable feeds of unification as well. Sometimes very suprising as they turn out as in the cases i discuss yesterdays.

How remote the remaining mountain peaks are. Even where they are one can scarcely guess. Within the range of feasable inquiry there is plenty of work to be done in understanding mental aspects of the world. We would do well however in my opinion to keep in some corner of our minds Humes conclusion about Nature ultimate secrets and the abscurity in which they ever did and ever will remain. And particulary the reasoning that lead him to that judgment and the confirmation of that reasoning in the subsequent history of the hard siences. These are matters that are to easily forgotten and that merit serious reflection. Perhaps some day even constructive scientific inquiry.

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