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This completely new edition of The Cambridge Companion to Chomsky surveys Chomsky's contributions to the science of language, to socioeconomic-political analysis and criticism, and to the study of the human mind. The first section focuses on the aims of Chomsky's recent 'biological-minimalist' turn in the science of language, and shows how Chomsky's view of the nature of language and its introduction to the human species has recently developed. The second section focuses on Chomsky's view of the mind and its parts - and how to study them. Finally, the third section examines some of Chomsky's many contributions to socio-political history and critique. This new edition examines Chomsky's views on a wide range of issues, from his views of the lexicon, language's evolution, and the study of mind to the status of capitalism and the Palestine-Israel conflict. It will be essential reading for anyone with an interest in Chomsky's ideas.
JM: Switching topics slightly for a while in order to look at the issue from a different point of view . . . What's on the other side of language [the faculty]? If it has this capacity of integrating, coordinating, and innovating, what are we to think of what lies on the ‘other side’ of its [the faculty's] operations? You spoke of performance systems in some of your earlier works, and in the case of production and perception, it's pretty clear what those are. But what about the conceptual and intentional systems?
NC: . . . Those are internal systems; they're something that's going on in your head and my head.
JM: Those are internal systems. OK, but I'm trying to get clear about what role language has in contributing to agency, action. Let me put it this way: philosophers like to think of people as agents, as decision-makers who deliberate, who take into account various kinds of information and bring them to bear on making decisions in ways that satisfy desires, and the like. What about that notion of an agent? To a certain extent, it seems as though language is being given some of those roles (of gathering information, etc.).
NC: Language can be conceived of as a tool for agents, for agency – whatever that is. It's Descartes's point, basically, that you can use your linguistic abilities to say anything you want about any topic which is in your conceptual range, but when you do it, you're acting as a human agent with a human will, whatever that is.
Most scientists tend to accept the Cartesian dogma that only humans have this capacity, so that insects are automata. But we don't know that. If you ask the best theorists of ants why an ant decides at one point to turn left rather than right . . . well, the question can't even come up [for a scientific answer]. You can talk about the mechanisms, you can talk about the motivations, you can talk about the external and internal stimuli, but they don't predict what the ant's going to do. Maybe that's because we don't know enough and the ant's really an automaton. Or maybe we just haven't captured the notion of agency properly.
JM: I want to ask some questions about the ‘perfection’ of the language faculty. First, a background matter: if you speak of perfection and in particular perfection in design of the language faculty – or at least, the mapping to the SEM interface – you seem to be invited to answer the question, “design for what?”
NC: I think that's misleading. That's because of connotations of the word design. Design suggests a designer, and a function of the designed thing or operation. But in biology, ‘design’ just means the way it is.
JM: The structure, whatever it is . . .
NC: How is the galaxy designed? Because the laws of physics say that that's the way it's designed. It's not for anything, and nobody did it. It's just what happens under certain physical circumstances. I wish there were a better word to use, because it does carry these unfortunate connotations. In a sense – a negative sense – there's a function. If the structure were dysfunctional, it wouldn't survive. And OK, in that sense, it's designed for something. It doesn't mean it's well designed for survival. So take language and communication. Language is poorly designed for communication, but we get by with it, so it's not dysfunctional enough to disappear [or at least, disappear with regard to its use for communication, which isn't its only use, by any means]. Take, for example, trace erasure [or in the more recent terminology of copies, non-pronunciation of copies]. It's good for efficiency of structure, but it's very bad for communication. Anyone who tries to write a parsing program [encounters it] . . . most of the program is about how to find the gaps. Where are the gaps, and what's in them? If you just repeated – if you spelled out [or pronounced or otherwise exhibited] copies – the problem would be gone. But from a computational point of view, that would be poor design, because it's extra computation, so there's no point in it. So you cut it out. And there's case after case like that. So take garden path sentences and islands, for example. Islands prevent you from saying things you would like to say. You can't say, “who did you wonder why visited yesterday.” It's a thought; you know what it means.
JM: Let me pursue some of these points you have been making by asking you a different question. You, in your work in the 1950s, effectively made the study of language into a mathematical, formal science – not mathematical, of course, in the way Markov systems are mathematical, but clearly a formal science that has made very considerable progress. Some of the marks of that progress have been – for the last few years, for example – successive elimination of all sorts of artifacts of earlier theories, such as deep structure, surface structure, and the like. Further, recent theories have shown a remarkable ability to solve problems of both descriptive and explanatory adequacy. There is a considerable increase in degree of simplification. And there also seems to be some progress toward biology – not necessarily biology as typically understood by philosophers and by many others, as a selectional evolutionary story about the gradual introduction of a complex structure, but biology as understood by people like Stuart Kauffman (1993) and D'Arcy Thompson (1917/1942/1992). I wonder if you would comment on the extent to which that kind of mathematical approach has progressed.[C]
NC: Ever since this business began in the early fifties – two or three students, Eric Lenneberg, me, Morris Halle, apparently nobody else – the topic we were interested in was, how could you work this into biology? The idea was so exotic, no one else talked about it. Part of the reason was that ethology was just . . .
JM: Excuse me; was that [putting the theory of language into biology] a motivation from the beginning?
NC: Absolutely: we were starting to read ethology, Lorenz, Tinbergen, comparative psychology; that stuff was just becoming known in the United States. The US tradition was strictly descriptive behaviorism. German and Dutch comparative zoologists were just becoming available; actually, a lot was in German. We were interested, and it looked like this was where linguistics ought to go. The idea was so exotic that practically no one talked about it, except the few of us. But it was the beginning of Eric Lenneberg's work; that's really where all this started.
JM: You've suggested many times that human cognitive capacities have limitations; they must have, because they're biologically based. You've also suggested that one could investigate those limitations.
NC: in principle.
JM: . . . in principle. Unlike Kant, you're not going to simply exclude that kind of study. He seems to have thought that it's beyond the capacity of human beings to define the limits . . .
NC: . . . well, it might be beyond a human capacity; but that's just another empirical statement about limitations, like the statement that I can't see ultraviolet light, that it's beyond my capacity.
JM: OK; but is the investigation of our cognitive limitations in effect an investigation of the concepts that we have?
NC: Well, it may be contradictory, but I don't see any internal contradiction in the idea that we can investigate the nature of our science-forming capacities and discover something about their scope and limits. There's no internal contradiction in that program; whether we can carry it out or not is another question.
JM: And common sense has its limitations too.
NC: Unless we're angels. Either we're angels or we're organic creatures. If we're organic creatures, every capacity is going to have its scope and limits. That's the nature of the organic world. You ask “Can we ever find the truth in science?” – well, we've run into this question. Peirce, for example, thought that truth is just the limit that science reaches. That's not a good definition of truth. If our cognitive capacities are organic entities, which I take for granted they are, there is some limit they'll reach; but we have no confidence that that's the truth about the world. It may be a part of the truth; but maybe some Martian with different cognitive capacities is laughing at us and asking why we're going off in this false direction all the time. And the Martian might be right.
Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential thinkers of our time, yet his views are often misunderstood. In this previously unpublished series of interviews, Chomsky discusses his iconoclastic and important ideas concerning language, human nature and politics. In dialogue with James McGilvray, Professor of Philosophy at McGill University, Chomsky takes up a wide variety of topics – the nature of language, the philosophies of language and mind, morality and universality, science and common sense, and the evolution of language. McGilvray's extensive commentary helps make this incisive set of interviews accessible to a variety of readers. The volume is essential reading for those involved in the study of language and mind, as well as anyone with an interest in Chomsky's ideas.