Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chomsky Problem?

I am an unabashed and irritatingly vocal admirer of Chomsky’s many intellectual contributions. I read everything he writes and has written in Linguistics and Philosophy (ok, almost everything: I came to linguistics from philosophy so I have refrained from dipping into the pleasures of SPE and a few of Chomsky’s other phonologically targeted products) and a very large chunk of his political work.  So it came to me as quite a surprise to find out about the “Chomsky Problem” in the August 29th 2012 issue of the TLS.  I have run into many “problems” over the years: The “Maria Problem” in the Sound of Music (singing novitiates can be bothersome), the “three body problem” (something you want to avoid if you value simple calculations), the “Mind-Body Problem,” the “Problem of Other Minds,” and the “Problem of Induction,” (these have occupied philosophers for a long time and will no doubt be hot topics for a while still), Das Adam Smith Probleme (Germans puzzle over how one guy could have written two books that appear to be quite complementary (who can guess what puzzles German intellectuals!), Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations) among others.  But never the “Chomsky Problem.” David Hawkes explains it as follows: Chomsky’s writings in theoretical linguistics and his political commentary “appear to contradict each other.” What’s the contradiction? Hawkes believes (and he suggests that he is not alone) that (1) and (2) cannot both be coherently entertained.  

(1)           UG is a feature of human brains and is hard wired into our genes
(2)           Conservative forms of social organization are neither immutable nor natural

The problem seems to be that (1) “can be easily characterized as reactionary” because it “diminishes the influence of the environment on human behavior,” which apparently implies that that those forms of social organization that do exist must exist as a matter of biology. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see that whatever the relation between (1) and (2) might be, “contradiction” is not one of them. The truth of (1) has no implications whatsoever regarding that of (2), a position that Chomsky adopts, as Hawkes observes.

Independent of (1)’s relation to (2), Hawkes’ claims concerning (1) are very confused.  He seems to identify genetic coding with immutability and immunity from environmental influence (viz. puberty is genetically programmed but environmental factors can accelerate or delay its onset) . However, very few genetically determined characteristics are so isolated from all environmental impact (think diet and height). Certainly, as far as language goes, even if UG is genetically coded, which particular language a speaker acquires is acutely sensitive to her linguistic environment. There is no plausible logical route from the fact that all languages have certain formal structural similarities to the conclusion that they are all identical in every particular, or, even more of a stretch, that because all languages have a common form, anything at all follows about social organization. Indeed, even if every particular about a given language was coded in the genes (a position that nobody entertains), it is hard to see what this would imply for the large social and political concerns Hawkes is worried about. After all, face recognition and pitch perception have genetic components but neither Hawkes nor anyone else has suggested that this has any political implications.

I conclude that Hawkes cannot literally mean what he says. Rather, Hawkes is tempting us with the following slippery slope inference: If any feature of human behavior has an “immutable” biological basis, every one does.  As Hawkes sees it there is an “affinity” which inclines those that adopt (1) to embrace conservative forms of political and social organization. Is there any truth to this? 

Not on the face of it. As he notes, Chomsky himself rejects any connection.  But let’s for a moment take the supposition seriously, for there is something decidedly odd about Hawkes’ views for they seem to assume that non-conservative forms of social organization require that we assume that human nature has no genetic roots.  And this is very problematic.  Why so?

First, it is unlikely to be true.  Daily, we find evidence that many of our cognitive and affective characteristics are elaborated on biologically given foundations.  It’s a bad idea to tie opposition to oppressive forms of social and political organization on the extreme view that biology has nothing to do with human nature.

Second, it is unnecessary to take such an extreme position. Imagine (as some have proposed) that humans come equipped with a kind of UG for ethics and morality (Rawls, Kant) or have a natural communal instinct (Aristotle, Bukharin) or a built in capacity for sympathy (Hutchinson). On this view, some forms of moral judgment are more “natural” than others, at least for humans. What follows from this? As regards what we ought to do, not much, if one distinguishes (as I do, at least for rough and ready purposes) what is the case from what should be the case, i.e. facts from values. At most what these kinds of considerations talk to is the feasibility of one or another form of social organization given the human propensities on which they can be founded. For example, social fraternity (we are all in this together) can live on the natural sociability of humans and the sympathy the feel for one another’s circumstances. Similarly the concern for justice can exploit our sense of sympathy (Hume) or our common faculty of reason (Kant). 

Third, nothing (absolutely nothing) that we know from biology, psychology or neuroscience precludes any of the forms of social organization that Hawkes or Chomsky or me cares about. This does not mean to say that there don’t exist good reasons for preferring some social arrangements to others. Rather, the relevant reasons for one preference or another have little to do with discoveries in biology, psychology or neuroscience. The fact is that one can learn more about human nature that is polictically or socially relevant from a good novel (or even a bad one) than from the “deep” insights science has provided (hint: one should always treat NYT headlines in the Tuesday science section with considerable skepticism). No doubt many bad arguments have been provided to buttress one or another execrable policy (think back to the IQ debates of yore or the speculations concerning the genetic inability of females to do math). But bad arguments of this kind are not bad because they are based in biology, they are bad because they are bad science, bad philosophy and bad public policy and should be opposed as such.

Fourth, the anything-can-be-human-nature view is also susceptible to abuse.  After all if human nature is so malleable that it can tolerate any form of social and political organization why prefer one to another? Skinner, a very pure environmentalist, argued in Beyond Freedom and Dignity that freedom and dignity were illusions that stood in the way of a utopia based on behavior modification implemented by wise psychologist kings. There is more than enough fodder here to argue that extreme environmentalism has nasty consequences for democracy. Or, put positively, the belief that humans as such share certain basic cognitive and affective features (i.e. share them just in virtue of being humans) can ground (and has grounded) ideals of equality, freedom and justice with important social and political implications for how societies ought to be organized. An old enlightenment theme that keeps cropping up in Chomsky’s political writings concerns each human’s creative potential (think Kant, Rousseau, von Humboldt), an everyday manifestation of which is the creative use of language. Thinking of people in this way suggests forms of social organization where this creative potential is not stifled and is allowed to flower.  This doesn’t follow logically, but as Hawkes might say, there is an affinity here.  An old prof of mine, Harry Bracken, once pointed out that rationalist conceptions of human nature provide “mild conceptual brakes” against invidiously distinguishing among humans (aka: racism) and provide a basis for treating all equitably and with common respect.  As Bracken noted, this is not an apodictic truth, but such conceptions of human nature might provide a slight nudge in a decent direction.

So, contra Hawkes, Chomsky is certainly right that nativist conceptions of language are logically independent of questions of social and political organization.  Indeed, science has yet to uncover a conception of human nature capable of having any interesting moral or political consequences, nor do I believe that such discoveries are on the horizon.  In sum, right now the general form of the “Chomsky Problem” (what does science tell us about how to organize society) is not worth answering for it rests on the faulty presupposition that science has something interesting and original to add to the conversation. Science cannot tell us that we ought to treat one another decently, and anyone who needs science to “confirm” this moral precept won’t believe the evidence anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Hawkes is notorious for his purposefully (and unnecessarily) inflammatory writing (at least, this is what my fellow students who study literature under him tell me). I'd love to have written a rebuttal (or even better, a piece on Hawkes's favorite author John Milton without having any idea what I'm talking about!), but you've done quite nicely! Great to see you invoke Harry too, he and Chomsky are among the only defenses we ASU students have against the constant assault of empiricism. Much respect!