Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Chomsky Making Sense

Of course, we have to back to his work on linguistics. In this short BBC interview, he articulates his their of the inherent ability of humans to acquire language. We are preprogrammed in a way that makes learning speech easy, in that almost everyone does it without much training. A small amount of rather degenerate experience allows us to make a leap into a rich cognitive system using an innate structure that is today still quite mysterious. In comparison, people need years of training to learn mathematics, or writing. It's really a fascinating insight into the human mind.

The old theory of behaviorism posited that people learn by overtraining, induction, and deduction. The state we would achieve merely by this method would be a reflection of our environment, which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished and show much more variability than what we observe.

The most imaginative people are the most credulous, as to them everything is possible. Though unlike most leftists of the 1960s, he believed in some innate nature of man, in other aspects he was a typical socialist, whose theory of economics is merely a critique of capitalism as opposed to anything positive or realistic. In his view of human nature people are eager to work for collectives that capture all the great gifts of mankind, but big government or corporations are always frustrating these efforts. Chomsky thinks anyone with power is evil, which conflates many shades of gray. That is, ignorant foragers in the jungle are noble savages, even though they have little enlightenment and high homocide rates, merely because they are not efficient enough to affect others. Further, because the US is powerful, it necessarily is more repressive than any other government. Tell that to all the immigrants who want to move here.

When asked to point to a 20th century government he likes he is silent, because he has been burned before celebrating the relative virtue of the Khmer Rouge or China. His painting the US and USSR as moral equals in the cold war is ridiculous, because beginning with the mass state-sanctioned rape of German women by the Red Army at the end of WW2, through the next 45 years, the Soviet Union was much much worse in terms of generating liberty and prosperity of those they ruled.

But, no man is a unity--Hitler was nice to dogs and children, after all. Chomsky has has had some really good ideas.


Jim Glass said...

Chomsky once reportedly said something not about linguistics that I so agreed with ... I was quite surprised! So much so that I suspected somebody made it up and attributed it to him for effect -- though there are several places that attribute it to him (such as).

It was his take on post-modernism...

~~ quote ~~

... There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently.

But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it.

Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures.

That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out....

There it is: proof that something is too much for everybody.

tom s. said...

I think you are unfair to Chomsky's political views. For example, he does acknowledge the scope and importance of free speech within the USA, but denies that this implies a pursuit of freedom internationally. (I have no quote to hand though).

Also, he would not point to the character of those in power as necessarily evil, but that it is more "adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market and political power" that is the root of the problem. (Manufacturing Consent preface, p xii).

Finally, on the Khmer Rouge, what I have read of his commentary was always focused on the media's relative interest and credulence for the atrocities there compared to (say) East Timor, rather than any support of the regime.

Unconventional Wisdom said...

The statements are way off and it appears you haven't actually read anything by Chomsky. Where does he, for instance, say that US is domestically more repressive than most regimes in the world? I think you are conflating his criticism of US foreign policy with domestic issues. And celebrating the virtues of china and khmer rouge is nonsense.

Rhys said...

Based on how you characterize Chomsky's views, I have to disagree with the details of most of what he has to say, but I think he is onto something in one respect. By being skeptical of anything that is too big and powerful, he is instead insisting on a "The Power of Small"- -type model. Decentralization and smallness are less prone to corruption and abuses, for instance. Or maybe I'm giving him too much credit.