One of philosophy’s central and most perplexing questions is, “Who are we?” Indeed, virtually all essential questions about human civilization, power, authority and governance follow from the question of what kind of creatures we are.
But is there really something distinct about us as a species? Or, to put the question in a more traditional philosophical context, is there such a thing as human nature? Classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought so, and so did most philosophers that form part of the modern tradition, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and going all the way up to Nietzsche. Of course, scientists have also probed human nature, and continue to do so down to this day, with the question being of particular interest to linguists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists.
Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most influential linguists (the same prolific scholar known around the world for his trenchant critiques of US foreign policy and critical analyses on a wide range of social and political issues), has also been preoccupied for much of his life with the perennial question of what kind of creatures we are. His pathbreaking contributions to the field of linguistics have considerably advanced our understanding of the human mind, which has in turn influenced a diverse area of studies, ranging from cognitive science and computer science to philosophy and psychology.
Chomsky’s latest book, just released by Columbia University Press, is fittingly titled, What Kind of Creatures Are We? The book is a collection of lectures delivered by Chomsky at Columbia University in December 2013, delving into areas like cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy and political theory. I talked with Chomsky about the book, his scientific explorations of language and the mind, and his views on society and politics in this exclusive interview for Truthout.
C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, your latest book brings together your investigation into language and the mind and long-held views of yours on society and politics. Let me start by asking you as to whether you feel that the biolingustic approach to language that you have developed in the course of the past 50 years or so is still open to further exploration and, if so, what sort of questions remain unanswered about the acquisition of language.
Noam Chomsky: Not just me, by any means. Quite a few people. One of the real pioneers was the late Eric Lenneberg, a close friend from the early 1950s when these ideas were brewing. His book, Biological Foundations of Language, is an enduring classic.
The program is very much open to further exploration. There are unanswered questions right at the borders of inquiry, the kinds that are crucial for advancing what Tom Kuhn called “normal science.” And questions that lie beyond are traditional and tantalizing.
One topic that is beginning to be open to serious investigation is the realization of the capacity for language and its use in the brain. That’s very hard to study. Similar questions are extremely difficult even in the case of insects, and for humans, they are incomparably harder, not only because of the vastly greater complexity of the brain. We know a good deal about the human visual system, but that is because it is much the same as the visual systems of cats and monkeys, and (rightly or not) we permit invasive experimentation with these animals. That is impossible for humans because the human language capacity is so isolated biologically. There are no relevant analogues elsewhere in the biological world – a fascinating topic in itself.
Nevertheless, new noninvasive technologies are beginning to provide important evidence, which sometimes even is beginning to bear on open questions about the nature of language in interesting ways. These are among the topics at the borders of inquiry, along with a huge and challenging mass of problems about the properties of language and the principles that explain them. Lying far, far beyond – maybe even beyond human reach – are the kinds of questions that animated traditional thought (and wonder) about the nature of language, including such great figures as Galileo, Descartes, von Humboldt and others: primary among them, what has been called “the creative aspect of language use,” the ability of every human to construct in the mind and comprehend an unbounded number of new expressions expressing their thoughts, and to use them in ways appropriate to but not caused by circumstances, a crucial distinction.
We are “incited and inclined” but not “compelled,” in Cartesian terminology. These are not matters restricted to language, by any means. The issue is put graphically by two leading neuroscientists who study voluntary motion, Emilio Bizzi and Robert Ajemian. Reviewing the current state of the art, they observe that we are beginning to understand something about the puppet and the strings, but the puppeteer remains a total mystery. Because of its centrality to our lives, and its critical role in constructing, expressing and interpreting thought, the normal use of language illustrates these mysterious capacities in a particularly dramatic and compelling way. That is why normal language use, for Descartes, was a primary distinction between humans and any animal or machine, and a basis for his mind-body dualism – which, contrary to what is often believed, was a legitimate and sensible scientific hypothesis in his day, with an interesting fate.