An interview with Noam Chomsky on his book 'What Kind of Creatures Are We?' by Idan Landau
Noam Chomsky is an eminent theoretical linguist, founder of the biolinguistic perspective on language. He is also a cognitive scientist, a philosopher, and one of the most well-respected political commentators of our time. Presently, he is Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona.

Idan Landau is Professor of Linguistics at Ben-Gurion University, Israel.

On Mind and Matter

Idan Landau (IL): The leading lesson in this book is drawn from the collapse of the common-sense concept of matter due to Newton's notion of action at a distance (gravity). From that point on, you argue, science's concepts became ever more removed from common sense; and given that, we should follow Priestly and Russell in assuming that thought is another aspect of matter which is unintelligible to us. But are these two epistemological challenges on equal footing? ‘Contact physics’ can perhaps be superseded once we acknowledge that some physical aspects of the world are invisible to us (being too small, or outside our wavelength sensitivity), and hence appear to act at a distance. The mind–body schism, however, feels immensely deeper. We are stunned already at the first step: How can the memory of my childhood dog, or Fermat's last theorem, be realized in matter – be it invisible or even inaccessible to any of our senses? It's easier for me to imagine a parallel universe which humans will never gain access to, than a material representation of Fermat's theorem. You suggest it's a difference in degree, at most, but introspection (which you value elsewhere) points to a dichotomy. Even if the dichotomy is yet another aspect of our folk psychology, it's curious.

Noam Chomsky (NC): It's an interesting lesson, but I didn’t think of it as the leading lesson of the book (What Kind of Creatures Are We? [WKC]). I will come back to that.

It is somewhat misleading to describe the lesson just as a failure of common sense or even as simply a matter of action at a distance. It cuts deeper than that. And introducing cases that are too small or are outside our perceptual range doesn’t help to alleviate the mystery – which was recognized at the time to be profound, rightly I think, and with consequences. As discussed by prominent historians of science whom I quoted, the mystery gradually became tacitly accommodated within a new and less ambitious ‘scientific common sense’ – a significant transition in the history of human inquiry, I think.

What was at stake was the sharp break from the despised ‘occult qualities’ of neo-scholasticism to modern science, with its willingness to be puzzled about what seems just obvious – rocks fall to their natural place, faster than feathers; objects interact through sympathies and antipathies; etc. – and its demand for coherent explanation.

The proposed answer to what constitutes coherent explanation – from Galileo and his contemporaries through Descartes, Leibniz, Huyghens, Newton and other leading figures of modern science, and somewhat beyond – was the ‘mechanical philosophy’: the idea that the world is a machine, a more complex version of the intricate machines being constructed by skilled artisans that were astonishing people all over Europe. That provided the very criterion of ‘intelligibility’, hence real explanation, for Galileo and the other founders of modern science. What Newton, Leibniz and other major figures regarded as an ‘absurdity’ that no person of scientific competence could accept, what Locke and Hume regarded a mystery beyond human comprehension, was Newton’s conclusion that two ordinary objects attract each other without contact. This was a return to the ‘occult properties’ of the neo-scholastics, Leibniz and Huyghens objected, with Newton’s substantial agreement. It meant that the enterprise that inspired the break of modern science from mystical neo-scholasticism had failed (though Newton himself added some qualifications, as discussed in WKC).

Not a negligible matter.

Note that it was not Newton’s theory that was unintelligible; quite the contrary. Rather, [it was] the world it described. The effect was that science lowered its standards, contenting itself with intelligibility of theory. It also followed at once, as was immediately understood, that there is no longer any clear notion of matter (body, physical). These are whatever the best explanatory theory postulates. If it turns out that physicist John Wheeler’s theory of ‘it from bit’ is adopted, and ‘everything is information’ answers questions that are posed, then so be it. The same if the world consists almost entirely of mysterious dark energy/matter that cannot be found. Or if it is constituted of fields, or multiverses, or strings, or gravitons, or curved space–time, or whatever other radical departures from the mechanical philosophy the best theory instructs us to adopt.

Intuition about what seems ‘immensely deeper’ is uninformative. It is all too deep for our comprehension, which is why the enterprise of early modern science was abandoned in favour of a much limited search for intelligible theory.

Also abandoned, though much later, was the demand for reduction. While the ‘lesson’ we are now discussing does, I think, merit serious thought, the record of how chemistry developed on an independent path and how the ‘explanatory gap’ was filled a century ago (discussed in chapter 4 of WKC) seems to me of considerably greater import for the study of language and mind, the course it should pursue, and that quandary it is alleged to face.

Returning to the impact of Newton’s shocking discoveries, it was quickly recognized that the mind-body problem cannot even be posed, at least in the classical sense. It was entirely reasonable for Locke to suggest (putting his theological framework aside) that just as the constituents of the world have properties that are inconceivable to us, as Newton demonstrated, so it may also be that organized structures of these constituents have the property of thought – of your remembering your dog, or my thinking about your questions. And it was reasonable for this suggestion to be pursued through the following century, leading to Priestley’s work (and reiterated as late as Darwin’s notebooks). Though it was not reasonable for it to be forgotten and then recreated in recent years without acknowledgment as ‘an astonishing discovery’ (Francis Crick), the thesis of the new biology that ‘things mental, indeed minds, are emergent properties of the brain’ (Vernon Mountcastle, summarizing the conclusions of the ‘Decade of the Brain’, 1990–2000), and so on, as discussed in WKC.

The new biology essentially repeats Locke’s suggestion and the work that followed (often in virtually the same words), ignoring the precedents and the important background: Locke’s recognition that post-Newton, we remain in ‘incurable ignorance of what we desire to know’ about matter and its effects so we can only seek the best theories, letting the chips fall where they may, including the Lockean conception of ‘thinking matter’, now the new orthodoxy.

I think we can agree that we are no smarter than the figures I have been quoting, and it’s a fact that nothing relevant to Newton’s ‘absurdity’ has been learned since. Accordingly, none of this can be casually dismissed. These are critical moments in the history of inquiry into the world and of ‘what kind of creatures we are’, and of how we reached our current best understanding of the way to investigate the world.

IL: I don't underestimate the magnitude of the failure of the ‘enterprise that inspired the break of modern science from mystical neo-scholasticism’. In using the phrase ‘immensely deeper’ I was rather referring to pre-scientific, layman intuitions and not to the (still) more sophisticated mechanical philosophy. After all, occult qualities populate not only Aristotelian science, but countless mythologies and ancient tribal belief systems; which means that they too – and not just contact physics – comprise our ‘folk science’. Although I haven't spoken directly to any pre-modern people, I imagine that they would respond quite differently to the following propositions:

  1. An invisible, animate spirit moves the clouds around and showers rain on our fields.
  2. The memory of my childhood dog is nothing but some currents in my brain.

Less exotically, we may ask children which they find less reasonable. My hunch is that (ii) is a greater violation of our inborn intuitions than (i) is; perhaps the intuition that is violated in (ii) is universal, while the one violated in (i) (if it's ‘intuition’ at all) is culture-specific. Maybe you disagree with this assessment. But if not, then (to clarify my original question), this is a schism in our ‘folk science’ which is not ‘continuous’ with the schism you have so eloquently described with regard to the early scientific revolution.

NC: On (i) and (ii), my speculations are similar to yours, but for what seem to be different reasons. Maybe I can relate some personal experiences. With my children and grandchildren, I made up stories about mysterious little creatures that raise the sun in the morning, that cause the rain to fall and the grass to grow, etc. That’s easy to picture, not so different from what children make up themselves or understand at once in fairy stories, and not unlike myth in many cultures. They accepted it easily – how, literally depended on ages – and the memories stayed through their lives.

If I had brought up memories stored in the brain, I suspect they would have found it simple and boring. So OK, there are images storied in the brain somehow, who cares how? Maybe they are literal copies of what is perceived. And what are electrical currents? Something they never heard of.

In neo-scholastic philosophy, it was held that images, say of a triangle, flit through the air and are implanted in the brain. This was among the occult ideas that the mechanical philosophy sought to dispel. Descartes considered the case of a blind man with a stick who traces the outlines of an image and then using that sequence of stimuli his mind constructs a triangle – a precursor to what we now know about saccadic eye motions and the ways cognitive processes enter into determining the most primitive accessible stages of perception. That seemed to fall within the mechanical philosophy.

On Mysterianism and Free Will

IL: There's a curious asymmetry between your responses to two ‘mysteries’ that have accompanied us since the seventeenth century. One is the problem of influence between bodies at a distance, which defies the mechanical philosophy, and makes our scientific theories unintelligible (for common sense). Here, you adopt Locke's suggestion, essentially mysterianism: Reality need not conform to our cognitive limitations. In particular, what we find indisputably intuitive – that motion requires contact – may turn out to be an illusion. But now consider how you approach the mystery of free will. This too goes beyond the mechanical philosophy. We perceive free will as involving a type of causation that is neither deterministic nor random. This is an indisputable intuition. But how do we know that it is not just like the ‘contact-physics intuition’ – a feature of our cognitive limitations rather than a feature of reality? Perhaps actions are, after all, fully determined. No two situations are identical to the level of neural activity; minute differences at the molecular level may explain why I choose to move my arm in scenario A but not in scenario B, which look identical from our necessarily limited perspective. I feel you would object to this analogy, and I wonder why: What makes our free-will intuitions more reality-based than our (false) contact-physics intuitions?

NC: As just discussed, I don’t see the matter of action at a distance quite in the way you describe; much more was involved than violation of common sense.

The analogy that you formulate seems to me fair enough. I have never questioned it. I think we can extend it. It seems to me that we (at least I) have conflicting intuitions about free will. One is that each of us believes, as firmly as anything we can conceive, that we can choose right now to raise a finger or not to – even to put it into the flames, to take the Cartesian example. And in the case of language, keeping to Descartes and his contemporaries, we can speak in ways to which we are ‘incited and inclined’, but not ‘compelled’ (‘the creative aspect of language use’). I could right now choose to report the weather outside, but won’t.

We also have a conflicting intuition: that what happens in the world is determined (randomness aside).

Turning to science, it provides no answers. It does not go beyond determinacy and randomness, but does not refute the first intuition. For now, we cannot go beyond the conclusions of the leading scientists who study voluntary motion, Emilio Bizzi and Robert Ajemian, who write (‘fancifully’, as they say) that ‘we have some idea as to the intricate design of the puppet and the puppet strings, but we lack insight into the mind of the puppeteer’.

We are therefore faced with two options. We can reject what we most firmly believe, relying on a conflicting intuition and the failure of science to provide answers. Or, we can adopt some version of Descartes’s conclusion in the letter to the queen of Sweden that I quoted: Since ‘there is nothing we comprehend more evidently and more perfectly [than that] the free actions of men [are] undetermined . . . it would be absurd’ to doubt something that ‘we comprehend intimately, and experience within ourselves’ merely because it conflicts with something else that is ‘incomprehensible to us’ (Descartes goes beyond to allege that we know that it reduces to ‘divine preordination’).

In short, we have no answer. Rather, a decision – which might be determined, hence not a decision, or might be ours to make on the basis of rational analysis.

To return to your comment, at a fundamental level, there should be no asymmetry. We do not know whether the collapse of the mechanical philosophy poses a mystery-for-humans, as Locke and Hume concluded (with Newton’s indirect acknowledgment), or whether it is merely a problem (in the terminology I have been using). The rich history of the past half millennium suggests, to me at least, that Locke, Hume-Newton were right, but the question is not settled – though it is possible to imagine experimental studies that would bear on it, and in part there are, including classical work of Michotte and much more since.

The same is true with regard to free will, where we (at least I) face conflicting intuitions, I personally feel inclined to suppose that there is some gap in our scientific understanding, perhaps an irremediable one for human science, and to adopt something like the Cartesian position, though leaving open the possibility that some entirely unknown aspect of the world is compelling me to do so, and to write these words; and to be more precise, not really ‘leaving open the possibility’ because I am compelled even to do that – so our discussion is really no more than an interaction between two automata governed by determinacy and randomness, with no reason or purpose. Just ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.

Anarchism on the Ground

IL: Most liberals would scuff at what they perceive as the naiveté of Rudolf Rocker's ideas. Yet, anarchist ideas constantly feed social movements and are sometimes even put to practice. The most impressive anarchist experiment of the last decade, to my mind, is the autonomy of Rojava in north-eastern Syria, a multi-ethnic egalitarian, feminist and environmentally conscious confederate of communities, explicitly opposed to the nation-state model, and directly inspired by the anarchist ideas of Murray Bookchin. The Rojava autonomy, which includes some 4–5 million residents, has become a beacon to progressive activists worldwide, much like the Zapatistas in the Chiapas two decades earlier. But these very days Rojava is under fierce attacks by the Turkish military, following the withdrawal of US troops from the region. Whether this radical experiment will survive is very unclear at the moment, and one can't avoid thinking of the downfall of the Catalonia anarchist communities in the Spanish Civil War (also abandoned by the west to Fascist forces). Can you comment on the general issue – the prospects of a true anarchist society in today's world, where local communities are so vastly dwarfed by military and economic superpowers (e.g., oil companies); and also on the particular case of Rojava?

NC: They might scoff, but their classical liberal predecessors would not have – from Locke through Humboldt and on to Abraham Lincoln and John Stuart Mill – nor working people in the early industrial revolution (topics discussed a bit in chapter 3 of WKC, much more elsewhere). There is, I think, considerable merit in Rocker’s argument that the anarchist tradition that he espoused is the natural inheritor of the ideals of classical liberalism, after they foundered on the shoals of industrial capitalism.

I think you are quite right that like Marx’s old mole, the basic ideas that motivated classical liberalism and its left libertarian (anarchist) offshoots are burrowing just below the surface, constantly ready to emerge in some form (and not to be confused with US ‘libertarianism’, profoundly anti-libertarian in my view). And I also agree that what has been accomplished in Rojava is quite remarkable, particularly in the context of a murderous war in which domestic forces and foreign participants show no mercy.

Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds who fought the US-backed ground war against ISIS (suffering 11,000 deaths as compared to half-dozen Americans), handing them over to their vicious Turkish and Syrian enemies, is a despicable crime – and also a welcome gift to ISIS, offering them the kind of ‘get out of jail free’ card that they used to organize in the first place.

Regrettably, Trump’s savagery is nothing new. It has been virtually a requirement of office for American leaders to betray the Kurds shamefully in the ‘national interest’, ever since Kissinger and President Ford, dramatically including Reagan and Clinton. The disgrace is mostly suppressed in western discourse, but it is all too real.

Perhaps some elements of the ‘radical experiment’ in Rojava will survive, but the prospects seem dim as the Kurds are caught between the forces of their traditional Turkish oppressors with their jihadi clients and the sadistic Assad regime; and soon, very likely, reconstituted ISIS forces given a new lease on life by Trump. For the moment, their ‘protectors’ are primarily the Russians, hardly a safe harbour. I presume that the Kurdish leadership, having little alternative, will try to reach some temporary accommodation with Assad under the Russian aegis, as they have already been doing. Not an attractive prospect.

Elements of anarchist societies exist quite widely, some large-scale and successful over a long term. The Mondragon worker-owned conglomerate in the Basque country is the most notable example, flourishing for over 60 years. It is not an anarchist society, and could hardly be in a state capitalist world. But worker’s control of production is an essential element of the classical liberal-left socialist-anarchist ideal, one component of the demand that structures of authority and domination have to justify themselves, and if they cannot (like the labour contract), then they should be dismantled in favour of structures that are more free and just.

To go beyond will require dismantling of oppressive institutions on a much broader scale – at the very least, undermining the ability of the great powers to destroy upstart exercises of freedom and justice, a leading theme of history to the present. They do not always succeed, at least completely. That is why we can discern an element of truth in Martin Luther King’s famous phrase that ‘the moral arc of history does somewhat bend towards justice’. Not without serious regression, and not by itself. The moral arc only bends somewhat towards justice when it is pressed hard in that direction by dedicated, committed effort. That is no less true right now than it has always been. Neither you nor I have to look far to see bitter signs of that elementary truth. And we are hardly alone.

It is imperative to add a critical matter too often overlooked – though not by Israeli scientists. They conclude that the questions we are discussing, while perhaps of intellectual interest, hardly matter, because if Israel continues on its present course, along with selected others, the region will soon be mostly unlivable. But there’s good news for Israel itself. One Israeli climate scientist observes that Israel ‘is not expected to be submerged anytime soon’, only most of it; Ramallah should have a little more time than most of Israel. More good news is that ‘cities are liable to be abandoned in Iran, Iraq and in developing countries, but in our country it will be possible to live’. And although the temperature of the Mediterranean may approach 40ºC, ‘the maximum permitted temperature in a Jacuzzi’, nevertheless, ‘humans will not be boiled alive like sea urchins and red-mouthed rock shells, but there could be mortal danger during the height of the bathing season’.

The essential observation is made by Professor Alon Tal: 'We are aggravating the condition of the planet. The Jewish state has looked humanity’s ultimate challenge in the eyes and said: ‘Forget it’. What will we tell our children? That we wanted a higher quality of living? That we had to remove all the natural gas from the sea because it was so economically profitable? Those are pathetic explanations. We are talking about the most fateful issue there is, especially in the Mediterranean Basin, and the government of Israel isn’t capable of appointing a minister who cares that we are simply going to be cooked.'

Of course, all of this holds, much more significantly, for the arch-criminals in Washington on whom Israel has chosen to rely for survival in defiance of any moderately humane elements in the world. If we can be honest, we will recognize that Trump and the political party that he now virtually owns are the most dangerous organization in human history, dedicated with passion to destroying the prospects for organized human life on earth by maximizing the use of fossil fuels. All of this in full knowledge of what they are doing, seeking destruction of human society on a scale that Hitler never contemplated in order to cram more dollars into overstuffed pockets and to retain power as long as anything remains to control.

An exaggeration? Afraid not. And what is our answer to Professor Tal? ‘Forget it’?

On Language Design

IL: A recurrent theme in your writings, and also in this book, is that ‘fundamental properties of language design’ indicate that it is essentially an instrument of thought – not of communication. How then should we think of features of this design whose sole purpose seem to be communicative? First and foremost, topic-focus articulation, theme-rheme or presupposition-assertion – all variations on the same idea. These concepts presuppose a communicative situation, where shared assumptions should be distinguished from unshared ones by some grammatical means; they are universal, in the sense that any language has some grammatical means of marking the distinction (by displacement, prosody or morphology). Yet I can't think of a way of rationalizing them from a strictly private point of view. One also wonders about evidential markers in many languages, which indicate the level of certainty or source of information for one's utterance – again, a puzzling feature if language design ignores communication. Now, I know you distinguish between ‘design’ and ‘use’, but that distinction in itself isn't self-evident, and we need criteria to tell why the mechanisms underlying these grammatical phenomena (and others, like factivity, indexicality, etc.) fall under ‘use’ rather than ‘design’.

NC: These are interesting questions, which have never been carefully discussed. A simple answer comes to mind, but it may be worth looking into it more fully.

The simple answer derives from comparing Merge with the set S of examples of the kind you mention. Merge is the optimal combinatorial operation, and the basis for what I’ve been calling ‘language design’ – along with general (‘third factor’) principles of computational efficiency, which come free. Remove Merge from language and there’s nothing left. Remove S from language and nothing changes – some options are not used, which happens all the time. The qualitative difference is vast, justifying the conclusion that language is designed as a Merge-based system fundamentally – and it follows, as discussed in WKC, as a system of thought, with communication as one of its uses.

But let’s look at the issues more carefully. I think we can approach them along the following lines.

‘Language design’ is a loose descriptive term. None of us believe that languages are designed. Nonetheless, I think we can make a useful distinction between fundamental principles of language (language design) and properties that languages happen to have, some universally. A principled way to approach this question is to begin by considering the goals of linguistic theory in the first place.

The goals of any theory are to find genuine explanations for significant properties of the domain under investigation. For language, that means genuine explanations for significant universal properties of language. A genuine explanation, at least within the biolinguistics programme assumed in WKC and earlier work, has to satisfy the conditions of learnability and evolvability. The former has been a guiding concern since the beginning of the ‘generative enterprise’; hence the focus on poverty of stimulus, understood from the earliest days to be a serious problem, now known to be far more severe than had been supposed, thanks to Charles Yang’s statistical studies of sparsity of data and extensive research into what is known by very young children. The latter has been put on the shelf until recently, but is now, I think, within the range of discussion for reasons noted in WKC.

Genuine explanation within the theory of language is closely related to the Strong Minimalist Thesis (SMT), which proposes that the properties of language are determined by the optimal computational operation (Merge) and ‘third factor’ principles such as minimal computation – principles that hold independently of language and in the best case might be considered natural laws. To the extent that SMT can be approached, we have genuine explanations (with evolvable innateness, hence learnability).

We can take core language design to be what receives genuine explanation, satisfying SMT. The concept can be extended by degree to more limited kinds of explanation. There is no need to draw a sharp boundary for a useful descriptive term like general language design unless some theoretical reason arises to do so. Let’s keep here to core language design.

The central part of WKC, from my perspective, is chapter 1, which reviews recent results that qualify as genuine explanations. To me at least, these seem to be results of real significance, new in the study of language and cognitive systems generally; in fact, hardly even formulable until fairly recently. Optimal computation (including choice of Merge as the core combinatorial operation) provides a basic account for the general architecture of language, what is sometimes called the ‘Basic Property’ of language: narrow syntax generates representations at the conceptual-intentional (C-I) interface interpreted as thoughts, with externalization an ancillary phenomenon mapping syntactic structures to the sensorimotor interface, typically sound.

In addition to the basic property, the same elementary assumptions, as discussed in chapter 1, provide genuine explanations for other fundamental features of language; the ubiquitous property of displacement (Internal Merge [IM]), always previously regarded – by me in particular – as an anomalous ‘imperfection’ of language but now shown to be the simplest case, which would have to be barred by stipulation; reconstruction and its intricate semantic consequences; the strange property of structure dependence, implying that children reflexively ignore 100 per cent of what they hear (linear order) and attend only to what they never hear and that their minds construct (abstract structure).

There’s more that I didn’t go into, for example, an explanation for why the more complex operation external merge (EM) is used at all; the conditions under which IM may, must and does not apply; the locus of diversity and mutability of language in externalization; the status of parameters and feasible search spaces; and considerably more to a greater or lesser degree.

One consequence of these results is strong support for the traditional view that language design is a system of thought; and with externalization understood as an ancillary process, the use of language for communication, which depends on externalization, is still more peripheral to language design.

None of this should be very surprising. On the contrary, it should be expected. What is surprising is that such ideas took so long to resurface in the modern period, and that they now seem surprising (if not downright offensive or virtually incomprehensible, as reactions often indicate). Externalization, after all, involves an amalgam of two systems, unrelated in evolutionary history and with quite different properties: language proper and sensorimotor systems, usually speech. For that reason externalization is not strictly speaking part of language alone. Nor should it be surprising that the locus of variation, complexity and mutability of language turns out to be mostly, maybe entirely, in this amalgam.

Such expectations receive empirical support from the results concerning language design. And still further support from investigation of conflicts between communicative and computational efficiency (the latter a ‘third factor’ property, hence conforming to SMT). In all known cases communicative efficiency is sacrificed. There is also neurolinguistic and psycholinguistic support, discussed in chapter 1.

There is no doubt that language is used for communication, though statistically speaking, as noted in WKC, it is rare, for whatever that is worth. There is nothing in the above analysis that excludes the possibility that some elements of language will be useful primarily for communication, but we would not expect them to be part of core language design. For example, imperative expressions are used primarily in socially interactive contexts, but while language design allows for them, they play no role in genuine explanation. I think that is true of the kinds of examples you raise generally, the set S. Language design provides options for these (and in some cases, like theme-rheme, may even provide partial explanation). But they do not have genuine explanations, and do not participate in such explanations. And as noted, if they are dropped from language, nothing changes, just as nothing changes if languages were to drop colour words.

It seems to me that the items of S can also be used in ‘internal dialogue’, the bulk of language use, and in this respect for thought, though their natural place, as you say, is social interaction, communication in some broad sense.

I don’t see then that they pose a dilemma.

We might take note of the widely-held doctrine that the function of language is communication, and that language evolved from animal communication systems. The latter is an empirical hypothesis lacking support and facing strong counter-evidence. The former assertion has little substance, for reasons discussed in WKC. There would also be little, if any, substance to the counter-claim that the function of language is thought, unless interpreted as a way of saying that language design is a system of thought. That formulation is substantive and seems to me by now well-grounded, and of no slight significance.

These reflections bring up an intriguing issue that I avoided. True, externalization involves an amalgam of two distinct systems: language proper and sensorimotor systems. But isn’t that also true of narrow syntax, generating representations of thought, an external system? Or is it truly an external system? That question raises serious and rather obscure issues.

The traditional view was that language and thought are intimately related: for Wilhelm von Humboldt, they are literally identical; for William Dwight Whitney, language is ‘audible signs of thought’; for Otto Jespersen, arguably the last figure in the tradition that was swept aside in structuralist/behaviourist currents, unearthing ‘the great principles underlying the grammars of all languages’ [will yield] ‘a deeper insight into the innermost nature of human language and of human thought’ (quoted in WKC).

We have no clear concept of thought apart from linguistically constituted thought. That is why Alan Turing, in his famous paper on machine intelligence that initiated the field of artificial intelligence, wrote that the question of whether machines can think is ‘too meaningless to deserve discussion’. The C-I interface constitutes the external system to a certain extent (for Humboldt, completely). That is not true of the sensorimotor interface, which is entirely independent of language, another crucial asymmetry.

I am skipping over a lot of material (in particular, the parts of general syntax that are called ‘formal semantics’, a large topic). And there is, of course, a good bit more to say about these topics, but this should be enough to deal with the issues that arise here.

On Skepticism

IL: This book develops many ideas and themes that your readers will recognize from your earlier works. Still, I sense a new, or at least a more pronounced, thread of skepticism running through it – especially as regards the limits of human cognition. ‘Mysteriansim’ is a form of skepticism, so it is no wonder that one encounters Hume in these pages much more often that one did in your earlier writings. I wonder about the roots of this shift: Is it a natural perspective one gains with old age (Ecclesiastes-style wisdom)? Or is it a well-directed response to the over-optimism you see in certain branches of theoretical cognitive science? Jerry Fodor, perhaps, has gone through a similar process of ‘disenchantment’ with the prospects of the cognitive enterprise between his Modularity of Mind (1983) and The Mind Doesn't Work That Way (2000). Certain things you say may strike some as a defeatist position, which cannot inspire truly ground breaking work. After all, if we wouldn't constantly try to push against our limits, how would we know where they are?

NC: We should certainly push against our limits, just as the sciences have done, with remarkable results, since lowering their aspirations as the import of Newton’s discoveries set in. What, for me at least, is the most important part of WKC is the first chapter, for the reasons just discussed: the review of work that has tried ‘to push against our limits’. The results discussed were not considered within the realm of possibility only a few years ago. And going farther back, we may recall that a prevailing structuralist doctrine in the fifties was the ‘Boasian thesis’ mentioned in chapter 1, holding that with marginal exceptions, languages can differ arbitrarily and that each new one must be studied without preconceptions.

My own concern with ‘problems and mysteries’ (in the organism-relative sense that I am using) is not recent. In print, it goes back to an essay in a 1976 collection in memory of my close friend Yehoshua Bar-Hillel (‘Problems and Mysteries in the Study of Human Language’, A. Kasher, ed., Language in Focus, 1976) – topics that we had discussed privately well before.

Your comment about over-optimism is quite appropriate, but it goes much farther back. Bar-Hillel wrote about it in his retrospective essays, referring to the highly exaggerated expectations for machine translation as a branch of science (later completely abandoned, as he discussed). More generally, the groundless euphoria about the prospects for behavioural science in the post-war period was a good part of the reason why in the early fifties, three skeptical graduate students at Harvard (Morris Halle, Eric Lenneberg and me), later a few others, inaugurated the generative-biolinguistic project outlined in the first chapter. The euphoria continues today with very serious misinterpretations of the (real, but different) results of deep learning. Indeed it has been a persistent feature of these fields, notably in the US since mid-twentieth century, matters of some sociological–political interest I think, discussed briefly in my monograph Language and Mind (1968) 50 years ago.

I didn’t entirely share my old friend Jerry Fodor’s growing ‘disenchantment’ with the prospects for cognitive science – in part, because I had lesser expectations in the first place. But again, I certainly agree that we should push against our limits while also trying to discover them experimentally, with history and experience as a useful guide. And if humans are part of the organic world, we should not be surprised to discover that the same properties of mind that yield enormous scope should also impose limits on the questions we can formulate and our ability to answer those we can. If that is so, then there is a human-relative distinction between problems that we can address and mysteries that are beyond our grasp, verifying the conclusions of Locke and Hume in the wake of Newton’s discoveries and requiring that we lower our aspirations, as apparently happened in the sciences, post-Newton.

That may bear on the recurrent notion of ‘hard problem’. Today, it is common to hear that consciousness is ‘the hard problem’. In the seventeenth century, motion was ‘the hard problem’ (‘the hard rock in philosophy’, see chapter 4). Its fate may be suggestive.

IL: It seems to me that there is a suggestive similarity – I'm now risking a very speculative thought – between skepticism in the sciences and skepticism in the social/political arena. What you describe as the ‘groundless euphoria’ of behavioural science was and still is part of a general modern outlook that goes by many titles – ‘progressivism’, ‘positivism’ and so forth (see Steven Pinker's recent writings): The firm belief that mankind is constantly marching forward and upward – that overall, things get better for more and more people and that the world becomes more humane and progressive thanks to the steady beacon of western science. There are fewer ideas that I find more repulsive and dangerous than this; it directly leads to the American project of ‘spreading democracy and freedom’ across the globe, or social engineering in general (ironically, it comes from Marx). There's ‘groundless euphoria’ among political thinkers and policy makers, too; that ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are just within reach and all it takes is a little (or brutal) push in the right direction to get there; that people can be moulded into whatever political system one assigns to them.

Perhaps there are also ‘properties of the mind’ – humans being part of the organic world – that stand in the way of promoting these goals. Humans are communal creatures and find it easier to feel empathy to those like them than to those unlike; humans easily fall prey to tribalist propaganda because it taps into their concentric ‘circles of solidarity’. I think we should definitely push against these limits just as we do against our cognitive ones; but acting with no regard to them – treating humans as tabula rasa also in the social/moral sense – can only cause harm. It goes without saying that other innate properties – like the instinct for freedom or fairness – provide the potential for progress, which pushes against the above limits.

I wonder whether you find this parallelism useful. These concerns are not abstract, of course; the charged debates about immigration quotas – in the US, in Europe and also in Israel – revolve precisely around the limits of our solidarity.

NC: It won’t surprise you to hear that I share your feelings.

I’ll return to your comments, but the similarity I had in mind was a different one. I was thinking of the post-Newtonian fate of the ‘hard rock’ of the seventeenth century. The hard rock was finally left in place. The seventeenth-century mysteries were not solved, but rather shelved, as science adopted more modest objectives, as discussed earlier. The general collapse of foundationalism in the seventeenth century led to – quoting historian of science Richard Popkin – ‘the recognition that absolutely certain grounds could not be given for our knowledge, and yet that we possess standards for evaluating the reliability and applicability of what we have found out about the world’, thus ‘accepting and increasing the knowledge itself’ while recognizing that ‘the secrets of nature, of things-in-themselves, are forever hidden from us’. Hume’s permanent mysteries, Kant’s unknowable. A great deal has been learned about the properties and nature of motion, of course, but leaving in place the ‘absurdity’ that so troubled Newton and his contemporaries.

Perhaps today’s ‘hardest problem’ should be viewed in a similar way.

Turning to your comments, they raise many considerations – complex, poorly understood, and with such profound consequences for human life that I’m reluctant to try to engage them casually.

I think you are quite right about the concentric circles and the tribalism, and the need to push beyond them. Major and very timely issues. There is no need to elaborate. Enough is within arm’s length, for both of us. And fortunately, some are pushing against the tribalism, courageously. As you know, I’m now living not far from the southern border with Mexico and Trump’s despicable wall – built with the assistance of Israeli specialists who are well experienced in such matters. It all sometimes reminds me of the time I spent in Hazorea in more civilized days almost 70 years ago, when I’d sometimes join kibbutzniks on night-time guard duty who refused to take arms because the mistanenim were just poor farmers trying to harvest the fields from which they had recently been driven out.

There are good people. Here in Tucson, where I now live, there are groups who leave bottles of water or set up small aid camps for miserable refugees wandering in the brutal desert, fleeing from the Central American countries that we have devastated. When brought to Federal trial here, charged with felony for the crime of trying to provide some help at the risk of their lives, they have so far been freed by juries of local people, while many lawns in town have signs saying ‘humanitarian aid is not a crime’. There’s hope.

I also quite agree with you about the moral consequences of the absurd claim that humans have no nature, and are just products of history and experience – and can therefore be moulded and controlled by their betters – for their own benefit of course. That theme resonates through history, in various forms, and across the political spectrum. It is given a ‘scientific’ imprimatur by prominent modern figures. For example, by Edward Thorndike, one of the founders of modern scientific psychology, who explained that ‘[i]t is the great good fortune of mankind that there is a substantial correlation between intelligence and morality including good will toward one’s fellows. Consequently our superiors in ability are on the average our benefactors, and it is often safer to trust our interests to them than to ourselves’. Or in more technical garb by the most prominent figure of modern behaviourism, B.F. Skinner, whose influence was overwhelming in my earlier years in Cambridge Mass. As he explained, ‘Ethical control may survive in small groups, but the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists – to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies.’

More significantly, the same doctrines quite openly guide the huge public relations industry and are prominent theses of modern democratic theory, which – just keeping to the progressive end of the mainstream spectrum -- instructs us that we should dismiss ‘democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests’. They are not. We are. We, the ‘responsible men’, the ‘intelligent minority’. And to perform our responsibilities, we must be protected from ‘the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd’, who must be fed ‘necessary illusions’ and ‘emotionally potent oversimplifications’ to keep them in their place (Howard Lasswell, one of the founders of modern liberal political science; Walter Lippmann, the most prominent liberal public intellectual of the twentieth century; Reinhold Niebuhr, the revered theologian of the liberal establishment). In other versions, the Vanguard Party and Central Committee.

Yes, the concerns are anything but abstract.

You can download a PDF of the interview here.