My brain no more understands English than my feet take a walk—Chomsky
Perhaps hard-core Chomskeyeans would immediately take offence at the very outset with my claims to explore the metaphysical and aesthetic implications in Chomsky’s theorizing in consideration of Chomsky’s own disinclination towards such thinking. However, it is my belief that Chomsky’s linguistic theorizing which explores human mind and its possibilities for acquiring, using, and manipulating language, does proffer scope for extending his readings into how we know what we know and how we are also able to formulate an object in terms of its aesthetic qualities or functional equivalence, which made me attempt such an inter-reading. To believe Albert Camus, what one constantly disavows one certainly has a profound inclination toward. Hence this exercise in extending the core thought of someone so profoundly international and so extremely individualistic like Chomsky, into fields as far remote as metaphysics and the aesthetic. Of course Chomsky himself has been so diverse in his thinking and responses: his interventions in fields like politics, media, and international relations have been certainly intense as well as timely.
Noam Chomsky’s renown is certainly more far-reaching than mere recognition within his own chosen field of specialization—Linguistics. If his profound and timely responses and interventions as an outspoken, left-leaning liberal intellectual in political (especially that which involves his mother country—USA), social, ideological, and philosophical spheres are anything to go by to gauge his international fame, Chomsky, no doubt, is among the leading intellectuals of the present day world. He single-handedly wrought a revolution within behaviourist empiricism by leading it very craftily towards a structuralist cognitivism.
Chomsky’s postulations of Competence and Performance (cf. with Saussure’s langue and parole) have, as I would argue in my presentation, tremendous importance in our understanding of the world (as I and Thou)—which would account for their significance in our epistemology, and further as I would lead on to argue, have very deep metaphysical implications—ie., in how we make sense of what we sense. When one considers the discipline of creativity and artistic creation, from the point of view of Chomsky’s formulation of the cognitive capacity of human beings, linguistic freedom and creativity are not some faculty that is acquired, but something that always already exists as a governing a-prioi.
Any casual glance at the tremendously forceful and insightful articles and essays that Chomsky had authored over the last decade would reveal his full potential as a critique of American imperialism and anti-social ideologies. I provide in the appendix (ii) below a selection of titles that would themselves speak volumes. An intellectual extraordinaire like Noam Chomsky can never be silenced. And considering the fact that he writes and speaks from with in a system that he critiques strongly and vehemently, his position as a thinking individual is definitely an extraordinary one. His international fame is no doubt on account of this.
Chomsky’s most significant contribution to Linguistic study has been the formulation of Generative grammar. He showed how language itself is a specific faculty of the human brain that allows for internalization of certain set of rules for each language and that would account for the generative capacity of infinite variety of sentences. He also drew attention to the surface and deep structures of language that could be called upon to explain the different levels of meaning that each cluster of words that form a sentence could bring about.
The machine tore up the hillside.
Flying planes can be dangerous.
He fed her dog biscuits.
However, such a faculty for internalizing and maintenance of grammatical rules also could produce such wrong sentences as:
Be quiet! The Principle just passed away!
I rided my bike and brang it home.
Don’t you dare to talk in front of my back
Both of you three get out of class
Why are you so late, say yes or no?
Take a five centimeter wire of any length
I have two daughters, both of them are girls.
All of you stand in a straight circle.
[with due apologies to many Indian speakers of English]
Now, more than attempting to formulate a general framework for grammar and syntax, these insights of Chomsky lead him on to the profounder levels of language, meaning and the human mind. Further, even as he continued to write and speak against all kinds of political atrocities and ideological stances that his home country had committed or taken, Chomsky thought continuously about the relationship between language and the mind. It is to his fairly recent collection of essays bordering on these issues that I now return for a closer examination and interpretation. The volume under reference is New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000)
Chomsky’s vision of the history of ideas that have shaped the western mind, especially those that favoured the development of Science and technologies is at the basis of this collection of seven seminal essays that constitute this volume. He observes that this history of the advanced sciences has been a history of unification, a struggle to come forth with a unified field theory of all knowledge.
Take as a starting point the “mechanical philosophy” that reached its apogee in the seventeenth century: the idea that the world is a machine of the kind that could be constructed by a skilled craftsman. This conception of the world has its roots in common sense understanding, from which it drew the crucial assumption that objects can interact only through direct contact. … Rene Descartes argued that certain aspects of the world—crucially the normal use of language—lie beyond the bounds of mechanism. To account for them he postulated a new principle; in his framework, a second substance, whose essence is thought. The “unification problem” arose as a question about the interaction of body and mind. This metaphysical dualism was naturalistic in essence, using empirical evidence for factual thesis about the world… (p.108)
The natural sciences or sciences that logically and rationally study nature and the human beings claim that it is possible to understand all phenomena rationally because all things depend on physically tangible laws that could be logically explained. Descartes’ dualist claim on the other hand split the body and mind and laid open the ghost in the machine! Chomsky’s major concern throughout these essays remains thus attempts to postulate whether language and the human potential for linguistic thought could be treated as natural objects of study. His affinity for Cartesian dualism is also evidenced here. The human body can be treated as a natural object and subject but the infinite capacity for the generating of language would remain however elusive to such a pursuit.
These concerns, as he goes on state, at the origins of modern science, have something of the flavor of contemporary discussion of the “mind-body problem.”… Thomas Nagel [“The Mind Wins” Review of Searle (1992) New York Review, 4th March 1993 rpt. in Other Minds, OUP, 1995; 96-110] observes that “the various attempts to carry out this apparently impossible task [of reducing mind to matter] and the arguments to show that they have failed, make up the history of the philosophy of mind during the past fifty years.”(109). Chomsky’s own position is somewhere between the claims of hard sciences that the powers of thought and sensation can be reduced to a particular organization of matter, as much as sound could be seen as a necessary result of a particular concussion of the air (113) and that of an idealist position which attributes consciousness a separate state of existence. The linguistic world is a world that exists separately. This, Chomsky, makes out so very carefully:
More cautiously we may say that in appropriate circumstances people think, not their brains, which do not, though their brains provide the mechanisms of thought. I may do long division by a procedure I learnt in school, but my brain doesn’t do long division even if it carries out the procedure. … People in certain situations understand a language; my brain no more understands English than my feet take a walk (113).
He calls for a natural scientific inquiry.
Naturalistic inquiry is a particular human enterprise that seeks a special kind of understanding, attainable for humans in some few domains when problems can be simplified enough. Meanwhile we live our lives facing as best as we can problems of radically different kinds, far too rich in character for us to hope to be able to discern explanatory principles of any depth, if these even exist. (115)
[This insight perhaps afforded him the dualistic principle that he advocates: there are among the many things which we take for granted the coexistence and shadowy presence of this double think. we see during sunset in the evening the sun sinking below the sea or mountains and also simultaneously believe in the celebrated view of Copernicus that the earth goes round the sun. We see a wave move and speak of its movement and displacement and yet believe that only energy is transferred as per the explanations of physical sciences.]
Linguistic ability is a unique factor of the human being, as Chomsky believes. The acquisition and use of a language on closer inquiry are quite a complicated affair. A person or child may be exposed to a certain language and in the process acquire some talent in using the same. The implications of this fact are much more wide ranging than what at first would appear to be. Learning a language or being skilled in its use (even in learning and using a second language) calls for another abiding ability in the human being. Chomsky calls it the I-language.
Earlier Behaviourism and other related schools of thought had given rise to the study of linguistic science in terms of descriptive logic: language was analyzed within the circle of its potential for producing infinite meaningful sentences. Chomsky developed a different cognitive and analytical study. “Language acquisition,” he writes, “seems much like the growth of organs generally; it is something that happens to a child, not that the child does.” (7) A genuine theory of human language has to satisfy two conditions, the descriptive adequacy and the explanatory adequacy. (ibid).
The grammar of a particular language satisfies the condition of descriptive adequacy in so far as it gives a full and accurate account of the properties of the language, of what the speaker of the language knows. To satisfy the condition of explanatory adequacy, a theory of language must show how each particular language can be derived from a uniform initial state under the “boundary conditions” set by experience. In this way, it provides an explanation of the properties of language at a deeper level. (7)
For the purposes of properly understanding the acquisition and ability to wield a language we need thus to be clear about the internalized structures of language that are apriori present in the individual. For according to Chomsky language in any form involves three kinds of elements (10)
The properties of sound and meaning called features. [sabda artha]
The items that are assembled from these properties, called lexical items [Peter/tall etc]
The complex expressions constructed from these atomic units [sentences]
However adept or skilled a speaker becomes in any language this factor alone does not help in the acquisition or imbibing of another language. As Chomsky phrases it: the generative procedure that associates with utterances structural descriptions, including semantic properties, and has other capacities of mind that allow [one]to produce and interpret linguistic expressions making use of these structural descriptions. (70) He calls this generative procedure the I-language where I-suggests internalized (in the mind/brain) and intensional (in that the procedure is a function enumerating structural descriptions, considered in intension with a particular description). This I-language is an a priori, sort of arche writing. This is like the self-reflective cogito of the Cartesian kind. Such an inbuilt quality or characteristic ability is a prime human quality. [by extension cf. sahrdaya—a term in Sanskrit aesthetics which means an ideal spectator/reader, of-like-heart]
The pursuit of language and its relations with the human mind that Chomsky advocates thus is one based on internalist naturalist inquiry. (see 134 ff)
The seven essays that comprise the New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind
reveal the dazzling intellectual and theoretical daring that typifies Chomsky’s thinking. Language and its multiple dimensions in internal and external manifestations are studied with an extraordinary depth of sensitivity and scholarship by this expert scholar in human language and linguistics. Nevertheless what remains for us to pursue is to follow the logical developments of these insights in other areas of human action. And this is what I propose to do in what follows.
Chomsky’s contribution in terms of his linguistic analysis has been broadly three fold. 1. He moved the emphasis of linguistics from the strictly descriptive and inductive level (the level of endless cataloguing of utterances from which conclusions about grammar could then be drawn) to the ideal level of competence and deep structure, the level which opens up a creative aspect in language. This revealed that language was something more than mere material execution. 2. He brought about a reconsideration of language learning by arguing that language competence is not acquired inductively through a behaviourist stimulus-response conditioning, but is the consequence of an innate cognitive capacity possessed by humans. In other words, linguistic freedom and creativity is not acquired, but always already exists as a governing apriori. 3. The distinction between competence and performance has served as a metaphor for structural thinking in related disciplines as Philosophy and Sociology (cf Habermas’s notion of communicative competence[i]) [ see John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity. London and New York: Routledge, 1994;49]
The later development of Structuralist and post structuralist thinking has revealed the significance of non-linguistic textures like history, class, race, gender, and nature, on the acquisition, production, and wielding of language by an individual. But Chomsky’s thinking would lead us to recognize an individualist idealist position, by virtue of which the individual is able to cognize the world of the human and non-human and respond or interact. Through a slight extension of his notion of Competence one could consolidate the position of the creator and producer of language as an idealised speaker-hearer—a sort of implied reader in the text and the implied spectator (sahrdaya) in a work of art. The Chomskyean notion of I-language would also lead us on toward the recognition of a pre-written text in the human mind that fabricates the experience in the world. All experience is a record of interaction that is written as a palimpsest. Further Chomsky’s dualist naturalist position that resists a reductive thinking in terms of the physical sciences, but still continues to be realizable, would lead us towards a world that is also reflexive and self-conscious. Perhaps this is closest to the recognition of an idealized world of consciousness as a fundamental category of existence–ontological and epistemological at the same time.
Chomsky’s notion of the individual, and the adequacy in terms of competence and performance, could also help one to review aesthetic sensitivity to aesthetic creativity and art objects.
How to do things with Objects—function utility and art– see Salvador Dali Mae West Room; Rene Magritte This is not a Pipe, Surrealist Painter Rene Magritte and his brother Surrealist Plumber Rodrigo (Cartoon) [see appendix (i)]
What I am attempting to do in this section of my presentation is to close examine the possibilities of extending Chomsky’s idealism into the field of aesthetics. Aesthetic experience calls for a distancing of vision—objects of art serve a different function from their everyday use and utility of course. In our daily living we resort to the utility function of all available objects and live with them. But however when they appear as objects de art or are made to be so by artistic representation we need to acquire a different view in order to appreciate them. This calls for an aesthetic sensibility. I have resorted to two classic modernist examples in order to show this functional shift. Responding to everyday objects does not call for any special cognitive functions from the common man or common woman nor does it make any heavy special demand on the cognitive qualities. However when the shift into the world of art takes place, there is also a definitive qualitative perceptional shift as well. This is where Chomsky’s notion of the I language would come to our aid. Even the most unqualified insensitive aesthete (if at all there is anyone like that!) would not imagine that the pipe in the picture can be taken up for use! Nor will such a person not be able to experience the figure of Mae West that appears on first perception of the room designed by Dali. Further one could also argue that learning to see and sense in art is very much an acquired skill that can be honed at will if one takes pains for it, very much like learning a new second language. The tools and rules of the game are already innately embedded in the human mind. Only the ways in which the game is played are altered.
[i] A Communicative speech act according to Jurgen Habermas is oriented towards coming to an understanding with others. Such a speaker claims to do the following: 1. Say something intelligibly. 2. Give the hearer something to understand. 3. Make herself thereby understandable 4. and thereby come to an understanding with another person. This specific kind of communicative action that stands for comprehensibility, factual truth, sincerity ,and appropriateness, is distinguished from strategic action that is oriented to success which would entail deception and manipulation of the former communicative action. (See Paddy Scannell, Media and Communication. Los Angeles: Sage, 2007; 249 passim)