Archive for the 'Quotable' category

A Chomsky Reader

Oct 01 2010 Published by under Quotable

"Questions of fact cannot be resolved on the basis of ideological commitment." --Noam Chomsky

Not familiar? Not a problem. Here, in much abridged form, are some of the main ideas from "Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures," one of the most accessible of Chomsky's texts on language, and a clear, cogent and articulate elaboration of his views.

Why post this? I frequently receive comments on my posts accusing me of caricaturing Chomsky's position.  "Chomsky didn't say that!" the standard line goes (and sometimes, more vehemently: "Chomsky wouldn't say that").  There's really no good response to this except to say, "yes he did, it says so right here, on page..." which strikes me as annoyingly pedantic.  While I would encourage all my readers who have more than a passing interest in the debate to read the original texts, this compilation of quotes should serve as a helpful introduction (or refresher) on Chomsky's ideas.  Of course, The Managua Lectures are a concise elaboration of Chomsky's theoretical stance, rather than arguments for or against it -- but this is actually quite helpful, since it allows me to present short, well-formulated excerpts, without doing a hack-job on an extended piece of reasoning.

Of the excerpts that follow, there are some that I think are reasonable, some absurd, and some simply amusing. In the upcoming months, I hope to provide a similar treatment for some of Chomsky's other books and for Wittgenstein and Skinner.

On innate concepts:

"The speed and precision of vocabulary acquisition leaves no real alternative to the conclusion that the child somehow has the concepts available before experience with language and is basically learning labels for concepts that are already part of his or her conceptual apparatus. This is why dictionary definitions can be sufficient for their purpose, though they are so imprecise. The rough approximation suffices because the basic principles of the word meaning (whatever they are) are known to the dictionary user, as they are to the language learner, independent of any instruction or experience."

"Now that can only mean one thing. Namely, human nature gives us the concept "climb" for free. That is, the concept "climb" is just part of the way in which we are able to interpret experience available to us before we even have the experience. That is probably true for most concepts that have words for them in language. This is the way we learn language. We simply learn the label that goes with the preexisting concept. So in other words, it is as if the child, prior to any experience, has a long list of concepts like "climb," and then the child is looking at the world to figure out which sound goes with which concept."

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On the aim of every good writer

Sep 25 2010 Published by under Quotable

"I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.  But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own." --Wittgenstein

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Nietzsche on the Public Intellectual

Sep 22 2010 Published by under Quotable

"Almost always the books of scholars are somehow oppressive, oppressed: the "specialist" emerges somewhere—his zeal, his seriousness, his fury, his overestimation of the nook in which he sits and spins, his hunched back; every specialist has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked; every craft makes crooked.…Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth one pays dearly for every kind of mastery.…For having a specialty one pays by also being the victim of this specialty. But you would have it otherwise—cheaper and fairer and above all more comfortable—isn't that right, my dear contemporaries. Well then, but in that case you also immediately get something else: instead of the craftsman and master, the "man of letters," the dexterous, "polydexterous" man of letters who, to be sure, lacks the hunched back—not counting the posture he assumes before you, being the salesman of the spirit and the "carrier" of culture—the man of letters who really is nothing but "represents" almost everything, playing and "substituting" for the expert, and taking it upon himself in all modesty to get himself paid, honored, and celebrated in place of the expert.

No, my scholarly friends, I bless you even for your hunched back. And for despising, as I do, the "men of letters" and culture parasites. And for not knowing how to make a business of the spirit. And for having opinions that cannot be translated into financial values. And for not representing anything that you are not. And because your sole aim is to become masters of your craft, with reverence for every kind of mastery and competence, and with uncompromising opposition to everything that is semblance, half-genuine, dressed up, virtuosolike, demagogical, or histrionic in litteris et artibus—to everything that cannot prove to you its unconditional probity in discipline and prior training, [The Gay Science, sec. 366]"

[Stolen from Brian Leiter at the Philosophical Gourmet, who was writing on some of the limitations -- and virtues -- of analytic philosophy.  Haven't looked at The Gay Science since I was 19 or so, but am tempted now to reread it; Nietzsche is by far the best writer of any philosopher I've ever read, and the most wonderful sort of aesthetic thinker.]

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What Happened to Behaviorism?

Sep 01 2010 Published by under Quotable

“Didn't Noam Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior devastate behavioristic analysis and show that it was bankrupt as pertains to language? I have read the debate a couple of times and, although interesting, it always seemed to me that the protagonists were arguing at cross purposes, from fundamentally different paradigms. Chomsky was and is a rationalist; he had no uses for experimental analyses or data of any sort that pertained to language, and even experimental psycholinguistics was and is of little interest to him. My guess is that Chomsky's review deserves to be credited as a minor cause of the cognitive revolution. To most psychologists, empiricists at heart, it was the great new experiments that researchers were conducting on cognitive topics that created the cognitive revolution and not Chomsky's review of Skinner's book (rather effectively refuted in a commentary by Kenneth MacCorquodale, by the way).”

Roddy Roediger in his APS essay What Happened to Behaviorism?

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