Saturday, December 29, 2012

The two Noam Chomskys

Noam Chomsky must enjoy making himself unpopular. His extreme (and extremely polarizing) political views are well-known.

I once sat down with one of his political tracts with a genuinely open mind, prepared to give it a go. But all I saw after devoting several hours to the book was anger and rhetorical posturing. I just couldn't figure out where he was coming from.

As I learned later, his attitudes are at least in part explained by his family background. Chomsky grew up in left-Zionist circles. His father was a distinguished Hebrew scholar and both his parents (his mother was more radical than his father, actually) were followers of the views of the essayist Asher Ginsberg. Writing under the name Ahad Ha'am, Ginsberg rejected purely political Zionism and promoted the idea of Jewish cultural and spiritual rebirth. By his early teens, Chomsky had embraced anarchism. He later identified with anarcho-syndicalism, working as an activist for various radical causes, often in association with radical Christians, whose spiritual and moral motivations for political action were similar to his own.

But what of the pioneering linguist? This side of Chomsky interests me, largely because I was taught by one of his students, and adopted many of his linguistic ideas. It matters to me whether (or to what extent) these ideas reflect reality.

So I have begun doing a bit of reading to see what Chomsky is currently saying and how this relates to the current state of research. This interview/article by Yarden Katz is a good place to start, though Chomsky's broad-brush references to intellectual history (Galileo is a big favorite of his) are not totally convincing. Linguistics is not physics, and it's conceivable that there is nothing there to understand in the way early physicists came to understand the principles of classical mechanics.

People generally draw a clear distinction between the two Chomskys, the political activist and the linguist. The former is generally characterized as progressive and radical and the latter, once radical, is now seen as conservative or even reactionary.

In fact Chomsky's scathing attacks on the trend to base research projects in linguistics and the cognitive sciences on Bayesian probability do make him sound like a bit of an intellectual reactionary. But the real issue is whether there is truth in his criticisms.

Bayesian probability is a topic I don't know enough about to write about, but this piece by a graduate student working with Bayesian methods in conjunction with traditional syntactic theory, seems very balanced and makes Chomsky's strictures on Bayesian approaches look a bit simplistic.

The main point I want to make, however, is that the two Chomskys may have more in common than meets the eye. One can see similarities in patterns of argumentation and thought between the political thinker and the linguist. One may also be able to trace some of Chomsky's basic convictions regarding the nature of human thought and language (as well as his political convictions) back to childhood influences.

If you read reports of his talks to linguists*, it's clear that Chomsky is deeply involved in the academic politics of research funding and concerned with the survival of linguistics as a distinct academic discipline, as well as with defending his status and reputation. These academic-political preoccupations (like any political preoccupations) encourage polarized thinking. What counts in the end is one's own side winning, not objective truth. (After all, the winners write the history books, including the intellectual histories.)

Whatever his motivations, Chomsky certainly exhibits a tendency to see things in terms of dichotomies, and is something of a past master of the straw man approach to dealing with challenges.

What, though, of the ideas that are being fought over? This, after all, is where the real interest lies. Does Chomsky's general view of life impinge on (and perhaps distort) his ideas on language and the mind?

The drivers of our thinking are always deep and obscure. Chomsky's longstanding moral (and, indeed, spiritual) preoccupations would, in my view, be likely to have had a profound influence on the way he sees the human mind, as well as reinforcing his views on the status of reason and intellectual intuition.**

I am really only starting to explore Chomsky's cultural and spiritual background, and I may return to these themes in the future and try to make a stronger case. There is much that remains obscure (the extent and nature of his secularism, for example).

I also need to do a bit of homework on some of the topics discussed in the interview. Frankly, I have sometimes found Chomsky's writings on language and thought, and Chomskyan linguistics in general, to be somewhat unclear or opaque, almost arbitrary in fact. I think this probably reflects Chomsky's commitment to a form of rationalism which is quite at odds with my fairly mundane empirical assumptions.

The interview is usually an easy form of discourse to follow and understand, ideal for introducing difficult thinkers to a wider audience, but Katz's interview with Chomsky remains – to me at least – obscure in parts. And I don't think Katz is to blame.

At first, I was confused by Chomsky's comments on Mendel. On the face of it, the case of Mendel argues for the power of statistical approaches, especially at a time when the basic science is undeveloped. But Chomsky's point – essentially that Mendel was aspiring to a deep understanding, and sought significance in the patterns he observed – is a fair one.

However, his arguments in favor of unification but against reduction in the sciences are less clear to me.

Chomsky's allusion to the case of chemistry not reducing to an older physics because the older physics was wrong seems – in the context of what he is arguing – a bit puzzling. Would not this example argue for having more tolerance for statistical and practical approaches which at least are dealing with reality rather than relying on prematurely postulated grand explanatory theories?

Chomsky himself says that cognitive science is at a primitive stage. 'Pre-Galilean', he calls it, but, as I said, I doubt that the comparison with classical mechanics is all that useful.

A more appropriate comparison for what Chomsky has been trying to do these past decades might be Einstein's doomed attempt during the last decades of his life to create a grand unified theory of physics.

Chomsky's thoughts on the origins of human language are very speculative. In fact, his account of a hypothetical individual in a group of non-thinking individuals 'getting language' (through a genetic mutation), and so being able to think, sounds quite far-fetched. (Chomsky, reasoning in a strangely a priori manner, sees language as an internal thing rather than being essentially communicational.)

There is, however, a lot of truth in what he says about science and intellectual fashion, and, yes, about language also.

I am aware that there are deep and serious questions about word order and context-free grammars and so on at issue here about which I have said nothing. Chomsky has made significant contributions to the application of formal language theory to linguistics, and influenced research directions profoundly. Just because other approaches may currently be in vogue does not mean that the work he inspired was misguided.

I suspect that, as our understanding of natural languages (and natural language processing) improves, many of the principles and insights developed by linguists working in the tradition he pioneered will be vindicated (and incorporated, one way or another, into truly effective natural language processing algorithms). But many of the key questions, both philosophical and practical, appear at this stage to remain unresolved.

Finally, a few thoughts on science and history.

Chomsky was asked by Katz about the importance of the philosophy of science and said it may be an interesting area but it doesn't contribute to science. What he considers valuable is the history of science. And he tries, as we have seen, to apply lessons from the history of science to emerging disciplines such as the cognitive sciences.

Though I am skeptical of some of the lessons he purports to derive, it's clear that a knowledge of the history of one's discipline – and the history of ideas in general – can allow one to put current research and current ideas into some kind of perspective.

Such knowledge is a part of the general culture a scientist might have, rather than a core component of his or her expertise. It's an optional extra, scientifically speaking.

Some people are just more interested in fitting their knowledge into a narrative than others, even sometimes preferring to learn their mathematics, physics, psychology or whatever in part as history.

Others have no interest in history or historical approaches which they see as a waste of time. And so they would be for them.

People have different ways of seeing things, that's all: different strengths, different ways of learning, different aspirations for understanding.

But the odd thing is, for all his talk about history, Chomsky strikes me as a basically – and profoundly – ahistorical thinker.

His fundamental insights within linguistics focus almost exclusively on the synchronic rather than the diachronic aspects of language, and aspire, in effect, to an abstract rationalism.

And look at the nature of his political work, which is perceived as extreme not just by conservatives but also by mainstream progressive thinkers. A true historical sense would have at least mitigated the free-floating and self-generating logic of his polemics.

In fact, you could make a case that his main concern with history is to mine it for debating points in order to advance his causes, defend his theories, and, by extension, to cement his own position in the narrative of science.

But it can't be denied that Chomsky still retains a certain aura, a certain iconic status. This is due, I think, not just to his achievements, but to an unrelenting seriousness, to a rare combination of intellect and passion.

* This hostile account of Chomsky's performance at an invitation-only event in London last year (by the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum) is very revealing.

** It's worth mentioning in this context that, unlike most social scientists and, perhaps, curiously (given the rigorously abstract and scientistic tenor of his work in syntax and related areas), Chomsky takes literary art seriously and respects the value of the writer's insight into society's moral and psychological complexities. But, again, this becomes much less surprising in the light of his early exposure to (and continuing interest in and respect for) Hebrew literature.