9 August 2006

Towards a science of human nature

By Tapani Lausti

James McGilvray (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. Cambridge University Press 2005.

Much nonsense has been written recently about Noam Chomsky's work. Especially prominent in these attacks have been a few British journalists whose hostile criticism has revealed poor knowledge of Chomsky's writings (see e.g. A noxious form of argument by Peter Beaumont, The Observer, 18 June 2006). In Finland, one media lecturer was given two tabloid-size pages in the journalists' union paper to parade his contempt for Chomsky's thoughts. The bizarre article only revealed the writer's ignorance on the subject matter. (If you read Finnish you can start here: Julkunen ja keskustelun taso.)

So if you are intrigued by what all the noise is about, this excellent collection of articles is your chance to read intelligent analyses of all aspects of Chomsky's work. The book is divided into three sections: "Chomsky on the human language", "Chomsky on the human mind" and "Chomsky on values and politics". If 300 pages is too much for you, you can always choose the chapters which most interest you.

In the introduction, the Canadian philosopher James McGilvray sums up Chomsky's work like this: "His science of language and incipient science of mind offer a genuine prospect of coming to a biologically based grasp of human nature and of the way it allows for human understanding and action. His political work, like both Hobbes's and Rousseau's, seeks a foundation in a science of human nature, although with better prospects for developing such a theory — and for exploring its implications for political ideals and goals — than Hobbes's misguided attempt to construct a causal theory of human action or Rousseau's fanciful assays into a "state of nature." And unlike both of them — and far too many political "theorists" — there is no sign in Chomsky's political work that his views and critical analyses are driven by a wish for power." (p. 1)

Chomsky has always been very reluctant to draw analogies between his linguistic work and libertarian political ideas. On this matter, McGilvray makes this interesting point: "It becomes quite plausible that culture and our various forms of social organization depend on language rather than the other way around. So we have one connection between the areas Chomsky works on: the science of language might well provide the key to what is distinctive to our minds and natures, to making sense of why we have the distinctive mental capacities we do and, in turn, making sense of how we can create our various forms of organization." (p. 9)

The idea of language as an innate capacity has been around for centuries but it became part of a truly scientific project only in the 1950s, initiated by Chomsky's innovative work. Although the project has now continued for over half a century, it is still unknown to most people. Parents seldom wonder how their child can pick up the language he or she hears so quickly and effortlessly. They have hardly ever heard of the idea that there is a capacity in the child's brain only waiting to be triggered.

The American linguist David Lightfoot explains the idea in this book as follows: "The functional properties of our language capacity develop along a regular maturational path that it seems more appropriate to see our linguistic knowledge as "growing" rather than being "learned." As with the visual system, much of the detailed structure we find is "wired in," though triggering experience is necessary to set the system in operation and to determine some of its specific properties. The deep similarity among the world's languages supports the notion that they are the product of a common human faculty." (p. 56)

McGilvray comments how remarkable it is "that everyone routinely uses language creatively, and gets satisfaction from doing so". (p. 222) This creativity is somehow lodged in our natures as biological creatures. Following our natures gives us satisfaction and one can speculate that a higher degree of human satisfaction could be reached in some form of ideal social organisation.

The idea that we live in societies which go against human nature is still generally considered fanciful. Yet, the idea has an honourable history. In this book the British journalist and political activist Milan Rai analyses Chomsky's thoughts on this question. Chomsky detects a "line of development" in traditional rationalism, running from Descartes, through the more libertarian Rousseau, through Kantians such as Humboldt, into the nineteenth century, which holds that "essential features of human nature involve a kind of creative urge, a need to control one's productive, creative labor, to be free from authoritarian intrusions, a kind of instinct for liberty and creativity, a real human need to be able to work productively under conditions of one's own choosing and determination in voluntary association with others". (p. 233)

In spite of his interests in a more ideal society, Chomsky has a very practical attitude to immediate progress. Rai sums it up like this: "The immediate problems are to help people who are oppressed and under attack, to try to prevent environmental disaster, and to build a mass movement of reform." Rai adds that Chomsky hopes that a movement of reform can nurture more revolutionary tendencies committed to challenging the wage system and other aspects of economic authoritarianism. (p. 235)

The Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont also draws attention to how Chomsky "is opposed to the attitude, rather widespread among intellectuals, that consists in offering (theoretical) solutions to complicated situations..." Furthermore, Bricmont points out that Chomsky "is very critical of various ideologies that masquerade as sciences and that claim to give all-encompassing solutions to human problems. For him, progress in the building of a humane society has to be based on experimentation and struggle and there is no point in treating Marxism, or the free market or even anarchism as a religious dogma." (p. 292)

There is a lot in the world to make one pessimistic. Yet, clear progress has taken place as many long-held prejudices have at least been weakened. People are more skeptical of "official truths". More people are aware that we are ruled by opportunistic and reckless politicians who are ready to drive the world from one awful crisis to the next. Bricmont ends his essay on this question: "Indeed, the struggle to expose the hypocrisy of rulers may very well be an important element in the next emancipatory stage of mankind, during which, amidst and against the present horrors of capitalism, a radical post-Marxist left will arise, one that will reclaim the values of the Enlightenment and hopefully make them realize their full potential." (p. 294)

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