Saturday, January 8, 2011

2011.01.08 — Language & Responsibility by Chomsky — begun 2011.01.06

I have stumbled into citations from this book occasionally, making my finding a week ago a delight.

Noam Chomsky.
Language and Responsibility: Based on conversations with Mitsou Ronat. (Out of Print, but you might like the book behind this hyperlink.)

New York: Pantheon Books (KnopfDoubleday), 1979.
Translated by John Viertel.


Mitsou Ronat
Language and Responsibility is a delightful book because quick excursions reap huge rewards. The book is conversational Chomsky, without the formality of his lectures, but with chapters more or less exploring a single theme and variations as the intelligence of Chomsky and Ronat meander through the puzzles of language, that humans acquire them with ease, even in 'dire' circumstances, and social issues around ideology, and media distortions of 'the truth'.

What particularly caught my fancy right now is his examination of 'so-called' empiricism. He argues that to an alarming extent today's scholars, in particular in the U.S.A, have forsaken
 'proper' empirical scholarship for the siren's call of a capitalist ideology that has all but eliminated free debate and argument outside of a very narrow range of acceptability.

I find this argument to be an interesting one, in part because there is very little discussion about it in any kind of public way, but mostly because this mirrors my own experience when I returned to university in my thirties. When I attempted, for example, to argue the merits of some economic thinking, I was dismissed without debate or argument. When I took a communications course, I was stunned when the TA told me her academic career had been severely hurt by taking time between undergraduate and graduate school because her having experienced the world was seen as by sponsoring professors as a liability. When I wrote a paper in sociology that questioned the truism about the negative impact modern industrialization has had on the family, my paper was graded poorly despite it being, to quote my professor "Well researched, well written, with an original approach and supportable arguments." And I have examples from Education and and English, too, and from my corporate work.

So, from the chapter 'Empiricism and Rationalism," Chomsky and Ronat's extended discussion on the state of empiricism in the shackled halls of free inquiry:
M.R.: Empiricism (and, in particular, functionalism) has enjoyed an enormous success. In spite of all the demonstrations that have been made of its errors, today it still remains the dominant philosophy. To what do you attribute that success, that power to survive? To a conjunction of ideology and politics?

N.C.: On that point we must be careful, because here we enter into speculation. When certain ideas are dominant, it is very reasonable to ask why. The reason could be that they are plausibly regarded as true, they have been verified, etc. But in the case where they are without empirical foundations, and have little initial plausibility, the question arises more sharply: the answer may actually lie in the domain of ideology. Of course the argument here must be indirect, because we don't have any direct means of determining the ideological basis for the acceptance gained by a certain doctrine.  Perhaps the instrumentalist conception of language is related to the general belief that human action and its creations, along with the intellectual structure of human beings, are designed for the satisfaction of certain physical needs (food, well-being, security, etc.). Why try to reduce intellectual and artistic achievement to elementary needs?

Is the attraction of the several variants of empiricist doctrine based on experimental verification? Hardly. There is no such verification. Does it derive from their explanatory power? No, because they can explain very little. Is it due to some analogy to other systems about which we know more? No. Again, the systems known to biology are totally different. Animal intelligence seems to be quite different. So too the physical structures of the human organism. The rational hypotheses which we can propose to explain the dominance of empiricist doctrines do not apply.

It should be noted that empiricist doctrine has not merely been "accepted" for a long period, it was hardly even questioned, but rather simply assumed, tacitly, as the framework within which thinking and research must proceed.

Perhaps, then, some sociological factor might explain in a natural way why this point of view has been so widely adopted. We can ask ourselves, who accepts and disseminates these doctrines? Essentially, the intelligentsia, including scientists and non-scientists. What is the social role of the intelligentsia? As I have said, it has been quite characteristically manipulation and social control in all its varied forms. For example, in those systems called "socialist," the technical intelligentsia belong to the elite that designs and propagates the ideological system and organizes and controls the society, a fact that has long been noted by the non-Bolshevik left. Walter Kendall, for example, has pointed out that Lenin, in such pamphlets as What is to Be Done?, conceived of the proletariat as a tabula rasa upon which the "radical" intelligentsia must imprint a socialist consciousness. The metaphor is a good one. For the Bolsheviks, the radical intelligentsia must bring a socialist consciousness to the masses from the outside; as Party members, the intelligentsia must organize and control society in order to bring "socialist structures" into existence.

This set of beliefs corresponds very well to the demands of the technocratic intelligentsia: it offers them a very important social role. And in order to justify such practices, it is very useful to believe that human beings are empty organisms, malleable, controllable, easy to govern, and so on, with no essential need to struggle to find their own way and to determine their own fate. For that empiricism is quite suitable. So from this point of view, it is perhaps no surprise that denial of any "essential human nature" has been so prominent in much of left-wing doctrine.

Analogously, the modern intelligentsia in the capitalist societies—that of the United States, for example—have a certain access to prestige and power by serving the state. So, much the same is true for the liberal intelligentsia in the West. Service to the state includes social manipulation, preservation of capitalist ideology and capitalist institutions, within the framework of state capitalism. In this case as well, the concept of an empty organism is useful. It is plausible that statist ideologues and administrators are attracted by this doctrine because it is so convenient for them, in eliminating any moral barrier to manipulation and control.

These remarks apply only for the last century, more or less. Before that the situation is rather different. Without doubt, at an earlier period empiricism was associated with progressive social doctrine, in particular, with classical liberalism; although, as we were discussing, that was not always the case. One may recall the ideas of the young Marx, who was far from empiricist doctrine in spirit. Why this link between progressive social thought and empiricist doctrine? Perhaps because empiricism seemed to have—and in a certain way did have— progressive social implications in contrast to reactionary and determinist doctrines, according to which the existing social structures, slavery, autocracy, the feudal hierarchy, the role of women, were founded on unchanging human nature. Against that doctrine, the idea that human nature is a historical product had a progressive content, as it also did, one might argue, throughout the early period of capitalist industrialization.

The determinist doctrines in question maintained that certain people were born to be slaves, by their very nature. Or consider the oppression of woman, which was also founded on such concepts. Or wage labor: willingness to rent oneself through the market is considered one of the fundamental and immutable human properties, in a version of the "human essence" characteristic of the era of capitalism.

In the face of such doctrines as these, it is natural for advocates of social change to adopt the extreme position that "human nature" is a myth, nothing but a product of history. But that position is incorrect. Human nature exists, immutable except for biological changes in the species.

M.R.: But that is not the same definition of human nature, it is no longer a matter of denning a psychology of individual character.

N.C.: Certainly, we can distinguish between theories that assign a determinate social status to particular individuals or groups by virtue of their alleged intrinsic nature (e.g., some are born to be slaves), and theories that hold that there are certain biological constants characteristic of the species, which may, of course, assume very different forms as the social and material environment varies. There is much to be said about all of these matters. It seems to me that one might suggest, in a very speculative manner, that such factors as the ones I have mentioned entered into the success of empiricism among the intelligentsia. I have discussed this question a bit in Reflections on Language, stressing the crucial and sometimes overlooked point that speculation about these matters of ideology is quite independent of the validity of the specific doctrines in question; it is when doctrines of little merit gain wide and unquestioned credence that such speculations as these become particularly appropriate.

In Reflections, I also mentioned that even at the earliest stages it is not so obvious that empiricism was simply a "progressive" doctrine in terms of its social impact, as is very widely assumed. There has been some interesting work in the past few years, for example, on the philosophical origins of racism, particularly by Harry Bracken, which suggests a much more complex history. It seems that racist doctrine developed in part as a concomitant of the colonial system, for fairly obvious reasons. And it is a fact that some leading empiricist philosophers (Locke, for example) were connected to the colonial system in their professional lives, and that racist attitudes were commonly advanced during this period by major philosophers, among others. It is perhaps not unreasonable to speculate that the success of empiricist beliefs, in some circles at least, might be associated with the fact that they offer a certain possibility for formulating racist doctrine in a way that is difficult to reconcile with traditional dualist concepts concerning "the human essence."

Bracken has suggested, plausibly it seems to me, that racist doctrine raises conceptual difficulties within the framework of dualist beliefs, that is, if they are taken seriously. Cartesian dualism raises what he has called "a modest conceptual barrier" to racist doctrine. The reason for that is simple. Cartesian doctrine characterizes humans as thinking beings: they are metaphysically distinct from non-humans, possessing a thinking substance (res cogitans) which is unitary and invariant—it does not have color, for example. There are no "black minds" or "white minds." You're either a machine, or else you're a human being, just like any other human being in essential constitution. The differences are superficial, insignificant: they have no effect on the invariant human essence.

I think it is not an exaggeration to see in Cartesian doctrine a conceptual barrier—a modest one, as Bracken carefully explains—against racism. On the other hand, the empiricist framework does not offer an analogous characterization of the human essence. A person is a collection of accidental properties, and color is one of them. It is thus somewhat easier to formulate racist beliefs in this framework, although it is not inevitable.

I don't want to exaggerate the importance of these speculations. But it is worth investigating the question whether colonial ideology did in fact exploit the possibilities made available by empiricist doctrine to formulate more easily the kind of racist beliefs that were employed to justify conquest and oppression. It is unfortunate that the carefully qualified speculations that have been proposed for investigation have evoked a rather hysterical response, and some outright falsification, on the part of a number of philosophers—who are, as Bracken has observed, quite willing to consider, and even advance, very explicit proposals concerning a possible relation between rationalism and various oppressive doctrines, racism among them, thus indicating that it is not the nature of the inquiry but rather its object that they consider intolerable.

I must emphasize again that these speculations, or any others concerning the ideological or social factors that contribute to the success of any doctrine, must be recognized for what they are: speculations which are at best suggestive. Again, questions of this kind arise especially when a doctrine enjoys a great deal of attraction and success among the intelligentsia in spite of little factual support or explanatory value. This is the case with empiricism, in my opinion.

M.R.: Empiricism thus finds support both from the right and the left ... That explains why generative grammar is often attacked by the progressive, intelligentsia, precisely because of your reference to the hypothesis of "innate ideas," as it is called, that is, the genetic limitations imposed on language. This hypothesis is accused of idealism.

N.C.: That is true, as you say. But the characterization is quite irrational. A consistent materialist would consider it as self-evident that the mind has very important innate structures, physically realized in some manner. Why should it be otherwise? As I have already mentioned, if we assume that human beings belong to the biological world, then we must expect them to resemble the rest of the biological world. Their physical constitution, their organs, and the principles of maturation are genetically determined. There is no reason for supposing the mental world to be an exception. The hypothesis which naturally comes to mind is that these mental systems, unusual in the biological world because of their extraordinary complexity, exhibit the general characteristics of known biological systems.

I would emphasize once again that even qualitative considerations of the most evident kind suggest this conclusion: it is difficult to see any other explanation for the fact that extremely complicated and intricate structures are acquired, in a like manner among all individuals, on the basis of very limited and often imperfect data (88-94).

No comments:

Post a Comment