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No doubt that Idries Shah extract is enough to make smoke pour out of the nostrils of reactionaries, particularly reactionary atheists. So let's press on with science which squeezes all self-respect out of any western materialist who hasn't been briefed on the gigantic holes in dogma their teachers and parents fed into them like so many 'religious fundamentalists'.
If one problem more than another has dominated much of twentieth century philosophy it's that of the relationship between language and the world.
Wittgenstein, to give no more than a single instance, was in thrall to this problem throughout his life. Well now along comes the linguist Chomsky and argues that the way we actually acquire the use of language, and therefore its relationship to experience, and therefore its relationship to the world are radically different from what the anglo-saxon tradition in philosophy has always maintained.
He first put his ideas forward in the late 1950s as part of a critique of behavioural psychology. It's not too unfair to say that the behavioural psychologists had tended to talk as if the human individual came into the world as an undifferentiated lump of malleable stuff which was then moulded and shaped by its environment through processes of stimulus and response, they said, penalty and reward, the reinforcement of rewarding responses and the association of ideas, the individual developed and learned, including the learning of language.
Now Chomsky argued that this could not possibly explain how virtually all human beings regardless of their intelligence do something as fantastically difficult as master the use of a language even when they're not deliberately taught it, as most people probably aren't, and they do this at such an extraordinarily young age and in such an extraordinarily short space of time.
He argued that for this to happen at all we must be genetically pre-programmed to do it. And therefore that all human languages must have in common a basic structure that corresponds to this pre-programming.
How did you come to start at that starting point?
CHOMSKY: Well the reason was that this picture of the nature of language and the way in which language is acquired was of such enormous prevalence over quite a wide spectrum of thought including not simply psychology but philosophy and linguistics as well, the view that was dominant say at the time when I was a student say 25, 30 years ago, the dominant picture of language was that it is essentially a system of habits or skills or dispositions to act and that it is acquired through extensive training, overtraining, through repetition, perhaps through procedures of induction or generalisation or association, and that the system of habits that one develops simply grows through accretion, incrementally, as experience is subjected to these processes of generalisation and analogy.
And in fact, this picture, which plainly is a factual assumption, was presented as if it were virtually an a priori truth, which it certainly is not. I mean, it's obviously not necessary that language is a system of that sort or that it's acquired in anything like that way.
INTERVIEWER: One thing that you pointed out, which is in fact very obvious once it's pointed out, is that most people probably aren't actually taught language at all. That is to say that most parents don't give any systematic instruction of any kind to their children, yet the children nevertheless learn.
CHOMSKY: Well, I would want to even go beyond that. I think it's certainly the case that language is, in only the most marginal sense, taught and the teaching is in no sense essential to the acquisition of language. But in a certain sense, I think we might even go on to say that language isn't even learned, at least if by learning we mean any process that has those characteristics that are generally associated with learning, for example, the characteristics that I mentioned. It seems to me that if want a reasonable metaphor, we should talk about growth.
Language seems to me to grow in the mind, rather in the way that familiar physical systems of the body grow. We begin our interchange with the world with our mind in a certain genetically determined state. And through an interaction with experience, with an environment, this state changes until it reaches a mature state which we call a state of knowledge of language.
This sequence of changes, from the genetically determined initial state to the final state in which we really have a quite complex system of mental computations, the series of changes seems to me very much analogous to growth of organs. And in fact, I think it's not inappropriate to regard the mind as a system of mental organs--the language faculty being one--each of a structure determined by our biological endowment, with interactions also generally determined by the nature of our biological endowment, growing through the triggering of active experience which shapes and articulates the organs as they develop in the individual through the relevant period of his life. So, as I say, it seems to me that not only is it wrong to think of language as being taught, but it's at least very misleading to think of it as being learned if we carry with the notion of learning the associations that generally go along with it.
INTERVIEWER: In other words, we are pre-programmed to learn a language in the same way as we're pre-programmed to grow arms and legs and reach puberty in our early teens, and all sorts of other sometimes delayed processes of growth.
CHOMSKY: Yes and reaching puberty is a good example since that's a case of biological development, of ontogenetic development that's plainly pre-programmed in its essence, but takes place after birth.
And in fact, we might say that something, that even death, for that matter, is genetically determined. That is, we are biologically constructed so that at a certain time our life processes stop.
And in fact, the fact that some development takes place after the organism has begun an independent existence in the world, tells us nothing about whether it's a genetically determined development or not.
INTERVIEWER: Now, one thing that follows from your view is that if we set out, as you have done in the course of your professional life, to investigate the language faculty of human beings, then what you are investigating is as much a bio-physical system--I mean, something that actually exists in matter, in stuff, in human tissue--as would be the case. if you were investigating human vision or human digestion or the circulation of the blood.
CHOMSKY: Well, I think that's certainly true, at least we believe it be true in principle.
We are not at a stage now in the study of the neural basis for higher cognitive processes where it's possible to identify the physical structures that are involved in these operations.
Correspondingly, the actual study of this organ remains at an abstract level. That is, we can try to investigate the principles by which it functions, but there's very little to say right now about the ways in which these principles are physically realised in the structures of the brain.
Quite correspondingly, one might study the visual system, let's say, as was done for a very long period, knowing, say, nothing about how the principles that we are led to attribute to this system, let's say, analysing mechanisms, that we are led to attribute to the system, knowing nothing about how these may be physically realised in our neural structures.
And I think it's quite appropriate to think of the contemporary study of language as being analogous to a study of a vision at a period when it's remained impossible--technically or through the limitations of understanding, technique, and so on--it was impossible to determine the actual physical elements that entered into these systems which could be studied only in an abstract fashion.
INTERVIEWER: There seems to be a special difficulty here. I mean, we accept the fact that I can't, by introspection, however hard I try, say, observe the workings of my own liver. I can't observe it in the act of secreting bile or whatever it does.
And similarly, presumably, I can't observe these language formation faculties of mine at work. But nevertheless, there is an important difference because if we want to investigate the workings of the liver, we can observe other people's. I mean, you can--bits of live people's or the whole of dead people's or animals's livers you can experiment with different inputs and see what difference they make to the output and so on and so forth.
But we can't do that with animals as far as their language-using faculty is concerned because they haven't got language-using faculties. Now doesn't that shut off from us what is in fact the chief mode of investigation with all the other biological faculties that we have?
CHOMSKY: It does, very definitely, stop a very natural mode of investigation. That is, for ethical reasons, we do not conduct intrusive experiments with human beings.
So, for example, there are very natural modes of investigation that suggest themselves at once. Suppose, for example, I propose that language has some general property and that every human language must have this property as matter of biological necessity. If we were dealing with a defenseless organism that we were allowed to study, say, the way we study monkeys or cats, what we would do is employ the method of common variation. That is, that we would design an artificial environment, let's say, in which this principle was violated and ask whether the system develops in a normal way under those conditions, for instance, to take one case.
Well, that we can't do. In the case of humans, we can't design artificial, contrived environments and see what happens to an infant in them, just as we don't conduct ablation experiments with humans.
And it's important to recognize that this limitation raises no philosophical issue. What it means is that we have to be cleverer in the kind of work we do because a number of modes of inquiry are simply excluded. There being, as far as we know, nothing analogous to the language faculty in the case of other organisms. But that doesn't mean that we can't study the problem. We have to study more indirectly. We often can't directly move to the experiments that would give us clear and precise answers to questions that we raise. But if you think about the model that I put forth. That is, the model of an organ beginning in a genetically determined initial state and growing to a mature state of knowledge, then it's obvious that that mature state of knowledge will be determined by really two factors: One, the initial genetic endowment and secondly, the impinging experience.
So as far as the final state of knowledge is concerned--what's called the grammar of the language, the system of rules and principles that determines what is a sentence and what it means and how it sounds, and so on. As far as that system is concerned, we really can get tremendous amounts of evidence. In fact, every utterance that's produced is an experiment, if you like. Every reaction of a person to an utterance is an experiment. So there's no shortage of information concerning the mature state of knowledge achieved. If we can then discern, in the mature state of knowledge, principles and properties which are in no way presented in the experience that is available, it's very plausible to propose those as properties attributable to the initial state.
INTERVIEWER: The main thing I want to do in this discussion, Professor Chomsky, is go into the implications of your work for philosophy. I don't want to pursue you into the nature of the work itself because that's highly technical, obviously. And it's not really feasible to discuss it in a television programme of this kind. Let us now, at it were, assume the truth of your theories and start looking at the wider implications of them because this, I'm sure, is what will interest our audience most. One consequence of your theories is that we are, as human beings, very very rigidly pre-programmed. There are certain things we can understand, certain things we can communicate, and anything that falls outside that we simply can't. Is that so?
CHOMSKY: That's certainly correct.
INTERVIEWER: I mean, in a way, this is a rather alarming doctrine. I mean, it certainly contravenes the way we want to feel about ourselves.
CHOMSKY: Well, that may be an immediate reaction, but I think it's not the correct reaction. In fact, while it's true that our genetic program rigidly constrains us, I think the more important point is that the existence of that rigid constraint is what provides the basis for our freedom and creativity.
And the reason--
INTERVIEWER: What you mean is it's only because we are pre-programmed that we can do all the things we can do?
CHOMSKY: Exactly. The point is that if we really were plastic organisms without an extensive pre-programming, then the state that our mind achieves would in fact, be a reflection of the environment, which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished.
Fortunately for us, we're rigidly pre-programmed with extremely rich systems that are part of our biological endowment. Correspondingly, a small amount of rather degenerate experience allows a kind of a great leap into a rich cognitive system, essentially uniform in a community, and in fact, roughly uniform for the species.
INTERVIEWER: Which would've developed over countless evolutionary ages through the biological evolutionary process.
CHOMSKY: The basic system itself developed over long periods of evolutionary development.
We don't know how, really, but for the individual, it's present. As a result, the individual is capable of--with a very small amount of evidence--of constructing an extremely rich system which allows him to act in the free and creative fashion which, in fact, is normal for humans. We can say anything that we want over an infinite range. Other people will understand us, though they've heard nothing like that before. We're able to do that precisely because of that rigid programming. Short of that, we would not be able to at all.
INTERVIEWER: What account are you able to give of creativity? If we are pre-programmed in the way you say, then how is creativity a possibility for us?
CHOMSKY: Well here I think one has to be fairly careful. I think we can say a good deal about the nature of the system that is acquired, the state of knowledge that is obtained. We can say a fair amount about the biological basis, the basis in the initial state of the mind for the acquisition of this system. But when we turn to a third question: namely, how is the system used? How are we able to act creatively? How can we decide to say things that are new, but not random, that are appropriate to occasions but not under the control of stimuli? When we ask these questions, we really enter into a realm of mystery where human science, at least so far, and maybe in principle, does not reach. We can say a fair amount about the principles that make it possible for us to behave in our normal creative fashion, but as soon as questions of will, or decision, or reason, or choice of action--when those questions arise, human science is at a loss. It has nothing to say about them as far as I can see. These questions remain in the obscurity in which they were in classical antiquity.
INTERVIEWER: Would you also accept this or not: that having arrived at our present situation across millions of years of evolution, we must've been going through a continual process of innovation and new adaption, and development of new abilities, dispositions, organs, etc--might we not still be, as it were, plastic at the edges? Might we not still be developing and changing, and genuinely evolving if only on the margin?
CHOMSKY: Well I think one has to be, again, very cautious here because while it's true, in a very vague sense, to say, it's correct to say, that the systems that we now have have developed through evolution through natural selection, it's important to recognize how little we are saying when we say that.
For example, it's certainly not necessarily the case that every particular trait that we have is the result of specific selection.
That is, that we were selected for having that trait. In fact, there are striking examples to the contrary or at least apparent examples to the contrary. Take for example, our capacity to deal with abstract properties of the number system. And that's a distinctive human capacity, as distinctive as the capacity for language. Any normal human, in fact down to pathological levels, can comprehend the properties of number system and can move very far in understanding their deep properties. But it's extremely difficult to believe that this capacity was the result of specific selection. That is, it's hard to believe that people who are a little better at proving theorems of number theory had more children, let's say. That didn't happen. In fact, through most of human evolution--in fact, essentially all of human evolution--it would've been impossible to know that this capacity even existed.
The contingencies that allowed it to be exercised never arose. Nevertheless, the trait is there, the capacity is there. The mental organ, if you like, has developed.
Presumably, it has developed as a concomitant of some other properties of the brain which may have been selected. For example, we can speculate, say, that increase in brain size was a factor in differential reproduction, hence in evolution. And it may be that for physical law--physical laws that we presently don't know--that an increase in brain size under the specific conditions of human evolution simply leads, necessarily, to a system which has the capacity to deal with properties of the number system. Well then, that's a matter of physics, ultimately. And then, the mind that evolves, the brain that evolves, will have this capacity, but not because it was achieved through selection. Now, I think it's at least likely that something of this sort is true of human language. I mean, surely, if it were dysfunctional, it wouldn't have been maintained. It's obviously functional. But it's a long leap to claim that the specific structures of language are themselves the result of specific selection, and it's a leap that I don't think is particularly plausible.
INTERVIEWER: What you say though about the limitations that this imposes on us prompts, in me, the following thought.
We're all very used, I think, to the idea that in social life, each one of us as individuals tends to construct a picture of the world around his own experience. And indeed, it's difficult to see how we could do anything else. We're bound to do that, we've got no alternative. But it does mean that each one of us forms a systematically distorted view of the world because it's all built up on what accidentally happens to be the particular, and really rather narrow, experience of the individual who does it.
Now, do you think that something of that kind applies to man as a whole because of the reasons implicit in your theory? That is to say, that the whole picture that mankind has formed of the cosmos, of the universe, of the world, must be systematically distorted, and what's more, drastically limited by the nature of the particular apparatus for understanding that he happens to have?
CHOMSKY: Well, I think that is undoubtedly the case. But again, I would question the use of the word 'limited' which carries unfortunate suggestions. That is, I assume that one of our faculties, one of our mental organs, if you like, is, let's call it a science-forming capacity, a capacity to create intelligible, explanatory theories in some domain. And if we look at the history of science, we discover that time after time, when particular questions were posed at a particular level of understanding, it was possible to make very innovative leaps of the imagination to rich explanatory theories that presented an intelligible picture of that sub-domain of the universe--often wrong theories, as we later discovered, but there's a course that's followed. And this could have been the case only because we do have and we, in fact, share across the species, a kind of a science-forming capacity that limits us, as you say, but by the same token, provides the possibility of creating explanatory theories that extend so vastly far beyond any evidence that's available.
It's very important to realize that--it should be obvious, say, but it's worth saying that when a new theory is created--and I don't necessarily mean Newton, I mean even a small theory--what the scientist is typically doing-- first of all, he has very limited evidence.
The theory goes far far beyond the evidence. Secondly, much of the evidence that's available is typically disregarded. That is, it's put to the side in the hopes that somebody else will take care of it some day and we can forget about it. So at every stage in the history of science there's--even in normal science, not Kuhnian revolutions--there's a high degree of idealisation that goes on. So there's selection of evidence, distortion of evidence, creation of new theory, confirmation, or refutation, or modification of that theory, further idealisation.
These are all very curious steps. And we're capable of--nevertheless, we can often make them and make them in a way which is intelligible to others. It doesn't look like some random act of the imagination. And where that's possible we can develop intelligible theories, we can gain some comprehension of the nature of this aspect of the world. Now, this is possible only because we are rigidly pre-programmed, again. Because we have, somehow, developed through evolution or however, the specific faculty of forming very particular theories.
Of course, it follows a once or at least it's reasonable to assume, that this very faculty which enables us to construct extremely rich and successful theories in some domain may lead has very far astray in some other domain. For example, there may be a martian scientist looking at us and observing our successes and errors from a higher intelligence, let's say, might be amused to discover that, whereas in some domains we seem to be able to make scientific progress, in other domains we always seem to be running up against a blank wall because our minds are so constructed that we just can't make the intellectual leap that's required; we can't formulate the concepts, we don't have the categories that are required to gain insight into that domain.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that if our study of our language-forming capacity and hence our cognitive capacities, as you call them--our abilities to know, and understand, and learn--if these studies that you're pioneering result in an enormous amount of increased knowledge of all these human faculties, do you think it's at all likely that that increased knowledge will enable us to change, and indeed expand, the faculties?
CHOMSKY: That, I think is extremely unlikely because I think the faculties are a biological given. We may study the structure of the heart, but we don't do so because we think it's possible to replace the heart by another kind of pump, let's say, which might be more efficient. Similarly here, I think, if we ever did gain a real comprehension of the mental organs, that might help us in cases of pathology, marginal cases in other words, but I wouldn't see how that could give any way, at least with out present science, or plausible science, of modifying these capacities. What we might do, however, is gain--I mean, at least it's in theory imaginable that we might discover something about the limits of our science-forming abilities.
We might discover, for example, that some kinds of questions simply fall beyond the area where we are capable of constructing explanatory theories. And I think we even maybe now have some glimmerings of insight into where this delineation might be between intelligible theories that fall within our comprehension and areas where no such theory is possible. Well, the case that we discussed before may be one. Take the question of...
Well if you go back to the early history of science, early origins of science, speculation, and people were raising questions about, say, the heavenly bodies and about the sources of human action. Well, we're asking exactly the same questions now about the sources of human action.
There's been no progress. We have no idea how to approach this question within the framework of science. We can write novels about it, but we can't construct even false scientific theories about it. We simply have nothing to say when we ask the question: How does a person make a decision in a certain manner and not some other manner, when it's a free decision.
We just have no way of dealing with that issue. On the other hand, the history of physics, let's say, has had substantial advances. And it's very likely, I think, that that massive difference in progress in one domain and an absolute blank wall in another, reflects the specific properties of our science-forming capacities. We might even be able to show that someday, if it's true.
INTERVIEWER: So far, we've been rather talking in this discussion as if all organised thinking is done in language. But, of course, that in fact isn't so, is it?
I mean, one can take all kinds of examples. Music is one that appeals to me very much. If you get a composer like Stravinsky, composing a fantastically complicated and original, and indeed revolutionary score, like that of the Rite of Spring for an enormous orchestra, then he's cerebrating at an original and complicated, and very sophisticated level.
And he's probably cerebrating in as elaborate a way as anybody else is who's doing anything. And what's more, he's creating a structure which is publicly articulated and so on. And yet words don't come into this process at any point, as far as one can gather. Does that fact and other facts like it, pose any threat to your theories?
CHOMSKY: Well, not really. In fact, quite the contrary. My assumption is that the mind is not a uniform system, that it's a highly differentiated system. In fact, like the body, it's essentially a system of faculties or organs, and language is simply one of them. We don't have to go to the level of Stravinsky to find examples of thinking without language. I'm sure that everyone who introspects, who thinks about what he himself is doing will know, at once, that much of his thinking doesn't involve language. Or, say, the thinking of a cat, let's say, plainly doesn't involve language. There are other modes of thought. There are other faculties, and I think that the musical faculty is one. One which is particularly interesting, I think, because it's extremely likely--in fact, here's an area, in a sense like physics, that is, where very rapid and rich development took place in a way which was over a long period of, say, Western history in a way which was very intelligible to others.
I mean, not immediately, but after a short period. And strikingly--well there is a striking feature of the 20th century in this respect. That is, that the musical creation of the 20th century, I think, is qualitatively different from that of, say, the 18th century in that it lacks that immediate access, or short-term access, that was true of the past. One would have to do an experiment to prove it, but I have no doubt that if we took two children of today, two groups, and taught one of them, say, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and taught the other one Schoenberg and post-Schoenbergian music, that there would be a very substantial difference in their capacity to comprehend it and deal with it. And that may reflect, in fact--if that's correct--it would reflect something about our innate musical capacities. Points of this nature have been discussed for some time. I remember Paul Hindemith, about 25 years ago, I think, in lectures argued that to violate the tonal principle in music would be something like an effort to violate the principle of gravitation. I take it, he meant by that that it was an innate--we might say, an innate property.
INTERVIEWER: I don't want to pursue the musical analogy too far because I was using that only as an illustration. What it illustrates is the fact that you think we are pre-programmed, in fact, to a whole lot of things, don't you? I mean, no doubt to use gesture or recognize faces or develop a commonsense view of the world, and so on.
CHOMSKY: Well, every area of human existence that's even worth studying is worth studying because rich and complex structures are developed in a uniform way. Otherwise it's not worth studying. And those are precisely the cases where we expect to discover pre-programming that makes possible these great achievements.
INTERVIEWER: So in other words, you think that everything that we do makes manifest our pre-programming: games, institutions, the way we dress, the way we eat, everything.
CHOMSKY: Well here, again, I think some caution is necessary. For example, take games. I'm speculating, obviously, but it seems to be reasonable to suppose that games are designed so as to be, in a sense, at the outer limits of our cognitive capacities. We don't make up games in which we are as skilled as we are at using words, let's say. That wouldn't be an interesting game. Everybody can do too much. What we do, we make up games like, say, chess, which is an extraordinarily simple game. That is, its rule system is utterly trivial. But nevertheless, we're just not, we're not very good at it. In the case of using language, we're all extraordinarily good and we're essentially undifferentiable, one from another. But when we get to something like chess which, I assume, is at the borders of our cognitive capacity, then individuals of very similar intellectual makeup will nevertheless diverge very significantly in their ability to deal with these exotic problems.
That's what makes it an interesting game. And in fact, I think there are also tasks that can be constructed that are really outside our cognitive capacities. And in fact, I think there's even a field that's devoted to the developing such tasks. It's called psychology. Much of modern psychology has been concerned to discover tasks which would yield species-uniform laws. That is, laws that essentially hold across a number of species; or to construct good experiments. That is, experiments that have slow learning curves with regular increments and so on and so forth. And there are such tasks, say maze-running, in which rats are about as good as humans and both are quite terrible. And these, I think, are in fact precisely tasks that do lie outside of our cognitive capacity. So we do proceed by trial and error, by induction and so on.
INTERVIEWER: But centrally, your whole approach represents a rejection of the empirical tradition in philosophy, doesn't it? Because the very fact that you think that the empiricists are wrong about how we learn, must mean that they're wrong about knowledge and the nature of knowledge. And the nature of knowledge has being the central problem in whole empirical tradition of philosophy.
CHOMSKY: Well, the classical empiricist tradition, which I think was the tradition that's represented, let's say, perhaps in its highest form by Hume, seems to me to be a tradition of extreme importance. In that a particular theory of the origins of knowledge, in fact, of the science of human nature, in Hume's phrase, was put forth. An empirical theory, and I think Hume, for example, would've regarded it as an empirical theory--he did regard it so. When we investigate it, I think we discover that it's just completely false. That is, that the mechanisms that he discussed are not the mechanisms by which the mind reaches states of knowledge. That the states of knowledge attained are radically different than the kinds that he discussed. For example, for Hume, the mind was, in his image, a kind of a theater in which ideas paraded across the stage.
And it therefore followed, necessarily, that we could introspect completely into the contents of our mind. If an idea is not on the stage, it's not in my mind. And the ideas may be connected and associated. And in fact, he went on to say there isn't even any theater, there's just the ideas. In that respect, the image of is misleading. Well, that's a theory.
And in fact, it's a theory that has had an enormous grip on the imagination throughout most of, to my knowledge, most of the history of Western thought. For example, that same image dominates the rationalist tradition as well, where it was assumed that one could exhaust the contents of the mind by careful attention. You know, you could really develop those clear and distinct ideas, and their consequences and so on. And in fact, even if you move to someone, let's say, like Freud, with his evocation of the unconscious, still I think that a careful reading suggests that he regarded the unconscious as in principle accessible. That is, we could really perceive that theater and stage, and the things on it carefully if only the barriers of repression and so on could be overcome. Well, if what I've been suggesting is correct that's just radically wrong, I mean, even wrong as a point of departure. There's no reason at all that I can see for believing that the principles of metal computation that enter so intimately into our action or our interaction or our speech--to believe that those principles are at all accessible to introspection anymore than the analysing mechanisms of our visual system or, for that matter, the nature of liver is accessible to introspection.
INTERVIEWER: It seems to me that over and over again you come back to the same point. That is to say that many of the particular problems discussed and theories put forward by philosophers, in the main, but also psychologists and you've just mentioned Freud--and in your writings you mention many others--are in fact theories about physical processes.
They are therefore open to checking by investigation. And when you check by investigation, you find out that the theories are wrong. And therefore you are, as it were, radically subversive of lot of a very well-established theories in our tradition. It seems to me that what you put forward in their place over and over again in fact does parallel the rationalist tradition. I said in my introduction to this program that what I'm always reminded of by your work is the theories of Kant. You seem to me to be almost re-doing, in terms of modern linguistics, what Kant was doing.
Do you accept any truth in that?
CHOMSKY: Well, I not only accept truth in it, but I've tried to bring it out in a certain way. However, I haven't myself specifically referred to Kant, but rather to the, primarily, to the 17th century tradition of the Continental Cartesians and the British neo-Platonists, who developed many of the ideas that are now much more familiar in the writings of Kant. For example, the idea of experience conforming to our mode of cognition or the--well particularly in the British Platonists, Cudworth, for example, there, I believe is a rich mine of insight into the organising principles of the mind by which experience is structured. In fact, I think that's some of the richest sources of psychological insights that I know. And it's this tradition that, I think, can be fleshed out and made more explicit by the kinds of empirical inquiry that are now possible. Of course, I think we also have to diverge from that tradition in a number of respects. I've mentioned one, namely the belief that the contents of the mind are open to introspection. Similarly, there's certainly no reason to accept the metaphysics of that tradition. To believe that there's a dualism of mind and body. I mean, you can see why the Cartesians were led to that. It was a rational move on their part. But it's not a move that we have follow. We have other ways of approaching that question.
INTERVIEWER: Another thing that I mentioned in my introduction was the fact that you made two international reputations. The other one, besides linguistics, being as a political activist. And it does seem to me that there's a connection between these two careers of yours. And I want to put this to you really in the form of a question.
Liberalism grew up, in the history of European thought, in very close relationship to empirical philosophy and scientific method. The battle cry, really, in all three was: don't accept anything on the say-so of established authority. Look at the facts and judge for yourself. And this was revolutionary in politics, science, and philosophy. And because of this, liberalism has always been regarded, in the Western tradition, as the main anti-authoritarian political creed.
But just as you've rejected empiricism, you've also rejected liberalism. And you now say in your writings that, whatever may have been true in the past, liberalism has now become the ally of authority. Would you accept that there is this underlying connection between your work in linguistics, and, well, to put it dramatically, your opposition to the Vietnam War?
CHOMSKY: Well this raises quite a welter of questions. Let me begin by saying something about liberalism, which is a very complicated concept, I think. It's correct, surely, that liberalism grew up in the intellectual environment of empiricism and the rejection of authority, and trust in the evidence of the senses, and so on. However, liberalism has undergone a very complex evolution as a social philosophy over the years. If we go back to the classics, or at least, what I regard as the classics, say, for example, Humboldt's limits of state action which inspired Mill and is a true libertarian, liberal classic, if you'd like. The world that Humboldt was considering--which was partially an imaginary world--but the world for which he was developing this political philosophy, was a post-feudal but pre-capitalist world.
That it was a world in which there was no great divergence among individuals in the kind of power that they had, and what they command, let's say. But there was a tremendous disparity between individuals, on one hand, and the state on the other. Consequently, it was the task of a liberalism that was concerned with human rights, and the quality of individuals, and so on. It was the task of that liberalism to dissolve the enormous power of state, which was such an authoritarian threat to individual liberties. And from that, you develop a classical liberal theory in, say, Humboldt's or Mill's sense. Well, of course, that is pre-capitalist. He couldn't conceive of an era in which a corporation would be regarded as an individual,
Or in which enormous disparities in control over resources and production would distinguish between individuals in a massive fashion. Now, in that kind of society, to take the Humboldtian view is a very superficial liberalism. Because while opposition to state power in an era of such divergence conforms to Humboldt's conclusions, it doesn't do so for his reasons. That is, his reasons lead to very different conclusions in that case.
Namely, I think, his reasons lead to the conclusion that we must dissolve the authoritarian control over production of resources, which leads to such divergence as among individuals. In fact, I think, one might draw a direct line between classical liberalism and a kind of libertarian socialism, which I think, can be regarded as a kind of adapting of the basic reasoning of classical liberalism to a very different social era. Now if we come to the modern period, here liberalism has taken on a very strange sense, if you think of its history. Now liberalism is essentially the theory of state capitalism. Of state intervention in a capitalist economy.
Well, that has very little relation to classical liberalism. In fact, classical liberalism is what's now called conservatism, I suppose. But this new view, I think, really is, in my view at least, a highly authoritarian position. That is, it's one which accepts a number of centers of authority and control--the state on one hand, agglomerations of private power on the other hand, all interacting with individuals as malleable cogs in this highly constrained machine, which may be called democratic, but given the actual distribution of powers, very far from being meaningfully democratic and cannot be so. So my own feeling has always been that to achieve the classical liberal ideals--for the reasons that led to them being put forth--in a society so different, we must be led in a very different direction. It's superficial and erroneous to accept the conclusions which were reached for different society and not to consider the reasoning that led to those conclusions. The reasoning, I think, is very substantial. I'm a classical liberal in this sense. But I think it leads me to be a kind of anarchist, an anarchist socialist.
INTERVIEWER: Well I'd love to pursue you down that road, Professor Chomsky, but that would be a new discussion, and a new program. So I think we must, alas, end there. Thank you very much.