The Other Side of Noam Chomsky's Brilliant Mind
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Hale’s conclusion was that languages are basically all the same. There are gaps. We have many gaps in our language that other languages don’t have, and conversely, they have gaps that we don’t have. It’s a little bit like what I said before about whether organisms vary infinitely or whether there’s a universal genome. If you take a look at organisms, they look wildly different, so it was quite natural to assume fifty years ago that they vary in every possible way. The more we have learned, the less plausible that seems. There’s a lot of conservation of genes. Yeasts have a genetic structure not all that different from ours in many ways, although yeasts look very different from us. But there are fundamental biological processes that just show up differently on the surface and seem differ- ent until you understand them. And something like that appears to be the case with language. Ken’s work on this topic is the most sophisticated. There’s a lot of popular discussion about “similar data” now, but most of it is extremely superficial and ignorant. In fact, there’s almost nothing that’s discussed now that he didn’t talk about in a much more serious way forty years ago.
People who just read your books don’t realize, I think, that you have a mischievous side. At the linguistics seminar I attended, I told you that I had to leave early, and you told me to shake my head back and forth, as I was leaving the classroom, and say, “I don’t know what that guy Chomsky is talking about. This is just a lot of nonsense.”
That’s what this all sounds like if you don’t have the right background. There’s this commonsense idea: when I talk, I don’t think about any of those things linguists are talking about. I don’t have any of these structures in my head. So how can they be real? This kind of deep anti- intellectualism, an insistence on ignorance, runs through a large part of the culture. With discussions of language, it’s almost ubiquitous.
You could say the same thing about vision. So, for example, one of the most interesting things known about the visual system is that it has core properties that interpret complex reality in terms of rigid objects in motion. In fact, you almost never see rigid objects in motion. It’s not part of experience. But that’s the way the visual system works.
Take, say, a baseball game. When you interpret an outfielder catching a fly ball, you don’t and he doesn’t introspect into the method by which he’s doing that, which is a pretty remarkable thing. Like how does an outfielder know instantaneously where to run as soon as the crack of a bat takes place? It turns out that’s a pretty sophisticated calculation and pretty well understood. But you can’t introspect into it. In fact, if you did, you would fall on your face and you wouldn’t catch the ball. It’s sort of like trying to introspect on how you digest your food. You can’t do it. People feel that they ought to be able to do it in cognitive domains because we’re partially conscious—at least, we have a consciousness of some of the superficial aspects of our actions. For example, you know you’re running to catch a ball. But consciousness of superficial aspects of our activity doesn’t give you any insight into the internal computations of the brain that allow these actions to take place.
Copyright © 2012 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian. Excerpted from Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire by Noam Chomsky, interviews with David Barsamian. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company (2013).