Noam Chomsky – The biolinguistic turn lecture notes – part seven


The goal was therefor to understand, to quantify to reduce the whole of nature to simple laws as Newton did; for say Astronomy. Arnold Thackray on his History of Newtonian Matter Theory and the Development of Chemistry said that “this was the compelling, this was the enticing, indeed the almost bewitching goal of much work. Pursuing the thornily Newtonian and reductionist task of uncovering the general mathematical laws which govern all chemical behavior.”

There was a distinct chemical tradition, followed the path that was outlined by Joseph Black who more or less founded modern chemistry and tried to keep neutral probably to avoid controversy. But his own work helped to found a separate chemical track. John Dalton abandond and entirely Newton corpuscular theory of matter. He adopted the radically different view that matter could exist in heterogeneous forms with very princibles. His approach Stackly writes “was chemically successful and therefor enjoyed the homage of history unlike the philosophically more coherent if less successful reductionist schemes of the Newtonians’.”

By the end of the 19th century, the fields of interest of chemists and physicists had become quiet distinct, quoting a standard history of chemistry “chemistry dealt with the world consisting of some 90 odd material elements with many and very principles and properties while physicists handled a more nebulous mathematical world of energy and electromagnetic waves that where perceived in light, radiant heat, electricity, magnitism later radiowaves and x-rays. The chemists’ matter was discrete and discontinuous, the physicists energy was continuous. And the gap appeared unbridgeable. Meanwhile chemists developed rich body of doctrine achieving chemistries triumphs in isolation from the newly emerging science of physics. As I mentioned the isolation ended only recently in a completley unanticipated way, not by reduction but by unifying a radically revised physics with the bodies of doctrin that chemistry had accumulated. Which had in fact provided important guidlines for the reconstruction of physics, basically Tubers point about perception.

And thats happen often in the history of science and we cannot know wether something similar might be required for unification of the study of brain and mind. Assuming this to be a task within our cognitive reach. And yet we dont know either.

Well, I have already suggested and will repeat that there are interesting and important parallels between the debates concerning the reality of chemistry up to unification which was just 56 years ago and current debates in the philosophy of mind about the reality of the constructions of psychological approaches. The former debate (chemistry and physics) – They are now understood to have been totaly pointless based on serious missunderstanding.

We simply have no grasp of reality other than what our best explanatory theory can provide. If they happen to be computational theories, ok, thats reality. My own view, I discussed it elswhere, that current debates very much alive right now are also largly pointless and for essentially the same reasons. This includes central topics of philosophy of mind and theoretical cognitive science. Which those of you in the discipline will recognize.

Considerations of the kind that i have been reviewing, these where in the background of the so called cognitive revolution of the 1950s, at least for some of the participants, althou it was unknown at the time. In many ways the shift of perspective brought about by the cognitive revolution actually recapitulated the first cognitive revolution of the 17th century. That includes the focus on vision and language, in the latter case adobting the biolinguistic approach. That is shifting focus of attention from phenomena like behaviour and its products, say texts to the inner mechanisms that enter into producing the pheonomena. Thus a shift, but its actually a shift that was taken in the 17th century. There was regression in a long time.

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