Thursday, May 25, 2017
I trust everyone will agre that Noam Chomsky does not need me either to explain his views or to defend them. My suggestion is that anyone whose curiosity was provoked by my post should first watch the video and then discuss what Chomsky said, not what I said. The comments posted here make it clear that my effort to summarize what Chomsky said was unsuccessful, so I am going to bow out. It is not as though he has been shy about setting forth his views! :)
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Yesterday afternoon, I wrote a brief message linking to a video of a lengthy lecture given by Noam Chomsky in Paris four years ago. In this extended post, I am going to lay out what I understood to be the core of Noam’s remarks. Why on earth am I doing this? The answer is this: What I care most about in the world is deep, clear ideas, elegantly expounded so that one can see and appreciate their power, simplicity, and beauty. Chomsky’s life work in the field of Linguistics has all of these qualities. As I listened to him, I could see, through his words, the power, the elegant simplicity, of his theories, and so I want to try to share with you what I heard.
Now, let us be clear. I know next to nothing about Linguistics. I am a complete novice on the subject. I may very well get something wrong, and I will surely fail to capture the complexity of Noam’s thought. But it is beautiful, in much the same way that the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason is beautiful, in the way that great mathematics is beautiful.
Chris writes, “In 2003 Charlie Rose asked Chomsky "if this was your last day on earth, would you like what is mentioned about you to focus on your political works or linguistic contributions". Chomsky, shrugging and laughing said "to tell you the truth I honestly don't care". I can easily believe that Noam said that, and indeed meant it. This post is in no way an attempt to prioritize his Linguistic theories over his political commentary. It is simply an appreciation, an homage, to the beauty of his ideas.
Chomsky’s theories overturned several widely held assumptions about the origins of language, about language acquisition, and about the purpose of language. As I see it, his analyses rest on three very simple but powerful observations. First, grammatical sentences are potentially infinite, or at least unbounded, in length. There is no limit to how long a sentence can be. [At a minimum, one can, by simple concatenation, extend a sentence indefinitely by adding “and” followed by another phrase.] It follows from this that the ability to form infinitely long grammatical sentences could not have developed little by little, through extension of already existing well-formed sentences. Thus, it could not be that first human beings acquired the ability to form simple sentences. Then, through experience or genetic mutation, they acquired the ability to form somewhat longer sentences. And so forth until finally they had mastered the ability to form sentences of unlimited length. It follows from this, in contradiction to very widely held views, that human language ability is not a progressive enlargement of animal communication capacities.
Think about that for a moment. We are all familiar with the ability of animals to communicate: bees doing their tail-wagging “dance” to report on the location of pollen, whales and elephants “talking” over long distances at low frequencies, hunting packs of dogs or prides of lions communicating as they quite intelligently pursue prey [as I have seen them do on safari]. The paleontological record shows that early hominids had the ability to make simple stone tools as long as a million years ago, an ability obviously transmitted from generation to generation by some sort of communication. What more natural than to see human language as a slow evolution from these behavioral skills? But Chomsky’s point, made several times in the lecture, is that this must be wrong, because no extension or evolution of these animal behaviors could lead to the capacity for infinitely long strings of symbols. All the available archaeological evidence suggests that language was actually created, invented, or developed no more than 100,000 years ago, probably in pretty much its present form.
Chomsky’s second observation, famously deployed in his classic critique of the behavioral theory of language acquisition advanced by B. F. Skinner, is that it is impossible to explain a child’s language acquisition purely as a response to external stimuli. This is true for three reasons. First, if we take seriously Skinner’s notion of stimulus and response, there are simply not enough stimuli [in the form of uttered speech] in the life experience of a little baby to account for the acquisition of language at the age of one or two. Second, no amount of stimulus in the form of speech in the vicinity of the baby can explain the child’s eventual development of the ability to form new sentences that he or she has not heard before, and perhaps could not have heard before. Third, the actual sensory environment of the child is what Chomsky, quoting William James, calls in the lecture a “buzzing, blooming confusion,” and it is simply impossible on Skinnerian terms to explain how babies unerringly pick out of that auditory chaos the instances of language whose presence Skinner supposed serve as the stimuli in a stimulus/response behavioral event.
Chomsky’s third observation – with which I was not already familiar and which struck me as extraordinarily powerful – is that if we take from the theory of evolution the basic insight that the human capacity for language must be grounded in some genetic mutation, then it is obvious that this mutation occurred in the genome of a single individual, who was thereby equipped with the capacity for language acquisition and use. But in order for this mutation to survive, it must have conferred some competitive advantage to the individual. And since he or she would be the only human being in the world with the capacity for language, the fundamental adaptive advantage of the mutation must have derived from the new ability to think, NOT from an improved ability to communicate!! BECAUSE WITH WHOM WOULD HE OR SHE COMMUNICATE?
Chomsky now assumes [taking his guidance from Galileo, rather elegantly] that the mutation giving rise to the capacity for language must have been very simple. He suggests in the lecture that the most elementary, primitive innovation conferred by the mutation was the ability to take two elements and form from them a simple unordered set. He names this operation “merge,” and with considerable formal flair, he proceeds to show how the operation of merge can, recursively, give rise to sentences of any desired length and syntactic complexity.
Well, there is vastly more in the lecture, which in turn was only a cursory overview of a lifework. But perhaps this is enough to indicate something of its elegance and beauty.
Noam is a classy dude.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
I just spent several hours watching this lecture by Noam Chomsky on Linguistics at the science branch of the University of Paris, which is just next to the Institut de Monde Arabe near my Paris Apartment in the 5th Arrondissement. The session was two hours long, recorded four years ago, and Noam spoke for about an hour and twenty minutes. He was, as you might expect, quiet, reserved, precise, and intelligent. It is always a delight to spend time with a clear, powerful mind. I already was familiar with much that he was saying because I recently read a book he co-authored [which is now packed away, so I cannot pull it off my shelves and tell you the title.] I remember him almost sixty years ago when he came to Harvard as a Junior Fellow and I was a young Instructor. Like all of us, he has aged, but his mind has not changed. I know we all look to him for political commentary these days, but this is the work for which he will be remembered centuries from now. It was a welcome relief from the chaos and disaster of our public world.
Monday, May 22, 2017
African-Americans have an extremely sophisticated relationship to language, as I explained at length in my videotaped lectures on Ideological Critique, a sophistication manifested in many ways – in oral traditions, in literary works, even in music. One of the best known and most delightful examples of this linguistic skill and complexity is a verbal game in which one member of a group starts by directing an imaginative and playful insult at another member, who is his or her target. At this, everyone sits up and takes notice, aware that a performance has begun. The target of the insult responds with a variation on the insult that raises its level. The insults fly back and forth, each more elaborate, outrageous and extravagant than its predecessor, until one of the players gets off an insult so utterly over the top that the opponent cannot immediately come back with a topper. At that point, everyone collapses in laughter and the winner is acknowledged. This game is called Playin’ the Dozens, or simply The Dozens.
There is a political version of this game, played by left-wing intellectuals, that consists in making more and more devastating condemnations of contemporary society in an effort to gain the upper hand over one’s fellow radicals as the most unrelentingly negative member of whatever group has assembled. If one player says that Donald Trump is a liar, another replies that Trump is a sociopath. The first player responds that Trump is really different from all Republicans, to which the second responds that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats these days. This is topped by the argument that there has never been a difference between Democrats and Republicans. At this point, another player enters the game and annihilates both opponents with the statement that there could not be a difference, because all are merely mouthpieces for capitalism. Everyone collapses, if not in laughter, than in shared angst.
I was reminded of The Dozens this morning when I read an essay by Chris Hedges posted yesterday on Truthdig entitled “The Death of the Republic.” Taking as his text the Roman “year of the five emperors” [AD 193], a sure sign of a serious Political Dozens player, Hedges rehearses the manifold, structural, incurable evils of our current politics, and concludes “Our Republic is dead.” At which point, presumably, all the rest of us in this contest having been silenced by this pronouncement, we can applaud, relax, and go about our daily business, reassured that nothing any of us does can reanimate the rotting corpse. It is an oddly comforting game, comforting perhaps in the way that post-apocalyptic movies are comforting.
Although I agree with almost every single statement in Hedges’ indictment of modernity, or of America, or of humanity [the precise object of his attack is unclear], I am not at all as a consequence inclined to inaction. Get rid of Trump? Hedges responds, “The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.” Retake the House in 2018? “The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater.” Perhaps one of the risks those of us must face who choose action is that most devastating of accusations, that we are naïve. It is a risk I am willing to take.
I have now returned from my trip to San Francisco, where I saw my son, Patrick, and his family. I had the great pleasure on Saturday of watching my grandson, Samuel, get a hit and an RBI in his baseball game. Samuel’s team lost, but they are assured a slot in the semifinals for the league championship and will play again tomorrow. Since this was San Francisco, all the kids are rabid Giants fans, and I sat in the little stands with the cheering parents wearing a Giants cap provided by my son. The teams are all named after big league teams [Samuel plays for the Rockies], all except the L. A. Dodgers, the Giants’ mortal enemies. Samuel explained to me that the kids who had to play for the DODGERS would feel bad. When I was a boy, seventy years ago, I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and the New York Giants were the enemy, but grandparental loyalty takes precedence over childhood memories, so I soberly agreed that it would indeed be terrible for a kid to be saddled with the stigma of playing for the Dodgers.
I have a Southwest visa card on which I have amassed a ton of points, so my trip out and back was free, but you know Southwest. Coming home I flew from San Francisco to Milwaukee to Orlando [!!] to Raleigh Durham. For my foreign readers, just take a look at a map and you will see how insane that is. On the other hand, all the flights were on time or early, and no one was dragged off kicking and screaming. You can’t ask for more than that.
Thursday, May 18, 2017
One of the curious quirks of American culture is the popular fascination with zombies. I get vampires -- that is all about menstruation. But why zombies? The latest manifestation of this obsession with the undead is the surfacing of Joe Lieberman as the leading candidate for the position of Director of the FBI. Hasn't anyone ever driven a stake through his heart?