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Noam Chomsky on the Blank Slate

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From his Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (1988):“The evidence seems compelling, indeed overwhelming, that fundamental aspects of our mental and social life, including language, are determined as part of our biological endowment, not acquired by learning, still less by training, in the course of our experience. Many find this conclusion offensive. They would prefer to believe that humans are shaped by their environment, not that they develop in a manner that is predetermined in essential respects. I mentioned earlier the remarkable dominance of the behaviorist conception that language and other aspects of our beliefs and knowledge, and of our culture in general, are determined by experience. The Marxist tradition too has characteristically held that humans are

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From his Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (1988):
The evidence seems compelling, indeed overwhelming, that fundamental aspects of our mental and social life, including language, are determined as part of our biological endowment, not acquired by learning, still less by training, in the course of our experience. Many find this conclusion offensive. They would prefer to believe that humans are shaped by their environment, not that they develop in a manner that is predetermined in essential respects. I mentioned earlier the remarkable dominance of the behaviorist conception that language and other aspects of our beliefs and knowledge, and of our culture in general, are determined by experience. The Marxist tradition too has characteristically held that humans are products of history and society, not determined by their biological nature; of course this is not true of physical properties, such as the possession of arms rather than wings or the property of undergoing puberty at roughly a certain age, but it is held to be true of intellectual, social, and general cultural life. This standard view makes nonsense of the essentials of Marx’s own thought, I believe, for reasons already briefly indicated, but let us put that aside; there is no doubt that it is proclaimed as a point of doctrine by many who call themselves Marxists. For several centuries now the dominant intellectual tradition in Anglo-American thought adopted similar conceptions. In this empiricist tradition it was held that the constructions of the mind result from a few simple operations of association on the basis of contiguity, phenomenal similarity, and so on, perhaps extended by a capacity for induction from a limited class of cases to a larger class of the same type. These resources must then suffice for all intellectual achievements, including language learning and much else. ….

When some doctrine has such a powerful grip on the intellectual imagination over such a broad range and when it has little in the way of empirical support but is rather in conflict with the evidence at every point, it is fair to ask why the beliefs are so firmly maintained. Why should intellectuals be so wedded to the belief that humans are shaped by the environment, not determined by their nature?

In earlier years environmentalism was held to be a ‘progressive’ doctrine. It undermined the belief that each person has a natural place fixed by nature: lord, servant, slave, and so on. It is true that if people have no endowments, then they are equal in endowments: equally miserable and unfortunate. Whatever appeal such a view may once have had, it is hard to take it seriously today. In fact, it was dubious even then; as noted, the traditional dualism to which it was opposed had deeper and far more persuasive reasons for assuming the essential unity of the human species and the lack of significant variation within it in any of these respects.” (Chomsky 1988: 250–252).

Noam Chomsky is basically the Grand Old Man of the radical Left at this point, but it is frequently forgotten that the whole basis of his academic and scholarly work was a vehement rejection of the blank slate and a defence of biological essentialism.

Chomsky has defended (1) the view that human beings are not blank slates as in radical (and mistaken) empiricism, and (2) the observation that human language and other cognitive traits are innately biological to a significant extent.

The latter view was brought out in Chomsky’s now famous 1959 review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, where Chomsky attacked Skinner’s behaviourism and effectively discredited that theory.

This is confirmed in Chomsky’s statement above when he says the following:

“The evidence seems compelling, indeed overwhelming, that fundamental aspects of our mental and social life, including language, are determined as part of our biological endowment, not acquired by learning, still less by training, in the course of our experience. Many find this conclusion offensive. …. The Marxist tradition too has characteristically held that humans are products of history and society, not determined by their biological nature; of course this is not true of physical properties, such as the possession of arms rather than wings or the property of undergoing puberty at roughly a certain age, but it is held to be true of intellectual, social, and general cultural life. This standard view makes nonsense of the essentials of Marx’s own thought, I believe, for reasons already briefly indicated, but let us put that aside;” … . (Chomsky 1988: 250–251).
As Chomsky points out, the blank slate is a popular but flawed assumption of much of the Left, certainly the Marxist left, and is not supported by the evidence.

Chomsky talks about human nature here:

But his claim that the genetic basis of human nature is difficult to study is collapsing now, owing to the genetic and genomic revolution. Chomsky is also wrong to be skeptical about modern evolutionary psychology.

Chomsky is entirely correct, however, that biological essentialism is true, and the fact is that there was a strand of the Left that did not deny biological nature: the early-20th-century progressive Left, including the progressive Liberals, who defended the truth of Darwinian evolution, the truth that evolution applies to human beings, the understanding that even many of our human cognitive traits like intelligence are highly heritable, and, most controversial of all, that evolution has produced human beings in different regions with different phenotypic traits under different selective pressures.

Of course, that kind of progressivism that defended biological essentialism has been shunned and ejected from any influence on the modern Left, which tends to embrace radical blank slateism and social constructivism.

But all the scientific evidence today shows that blank slateism and social constructivism are utterly discredited: yet the Left continues to fanatically defend these discredited pseudo-scientific religious dogmas. Obviously, to make any progress on reforming the errors and flawed assumptions of the Left, blank slateism and social constructivism have to be abandoned.

Of course, Chomsky himself can be criticised for not taking his commitment to the biological basis to human nature far enough, or making strange denials about the role of evolution.

Take Chomsky’s view of the human language faculty. In standard neo-Darwinian theory not everything biological and innate is a direct adaptation, but evolution can be caused by multiple processes:

(1) direct adaptation;

(2) exaptation (some prior adaptation then “re-designed” to solve a different adaptive problem);

(3) as a by-product (or spandrel);

(4) sexual selection, or

(5) genetic drift.

Chomsky has suggested that the human language faculty is (3), while most other biologists or evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker argue it is (1) (see Pinker and Bloom 1990). At other times, Chomsky has also suggested that the language faculty is caused by some unknown even more fundamental principles of physics (Dennett 1996: 395), but this seems absurd.

Chomsky himself has not shrunk from commenting on the most controversial issue of all: race and average IQ differences. Chomsky has said:

“Such arguments for environmentalism are often heard today in connection with debates over race and IQ and the like. Again, it is true that if humans have no biologically determined intellectual endowments, then there will be no correlation between IQ (a socially determined property) and anything else: race, sex, or whatever. Again, though the motivation can be appreciated, it is difficult to take the argument seriously. Let us pretend for the moment that race and IQ are well-defined properties, and let us suppose that some correlation is found between them. Perhaps a person of a particular race, on the average, is likely to have a slightly higher IQ than a person of another race. Notice first that such a conclusion would have essentially null scientific interest. It is of no interest to discover a correlation between two traits selected at random, and if someone happens to be interested in this odd and pointless question, it would make far more sense to study properties that are much more clearly defined, say, length of fingernails and eye color. So the interest of the discovery must lie in the social domain. But here, it is clear that the discovery is of interest only to people who believe that each individual must be treated not as what he or she is but rather as an example of a certain category (racial, sexual, or whatever). To anyone not afflicted with these disorders, it is of zero interest whether the average value of IQ for some category of persons is such-and-such. Suppose we were to discover the height has a slight correlation with ability to do higher mathematics. Would that imply that no one under a certain height should be encouraged to study higher mathematics, or would it mean that each person should be considered as an individual, encouraged to study higher mathematics if their talents and interests so indicate? Obviously the latter, even though it would then turn out that a slightly higher percentage of taller people would end up pursuing this path. Since we do not suffer from the social disease of ‘height-ism,’ the issue interests no one.

Surely people differ in their biologically determined qualities. The world would be too horrible to contemplate if they did not. But discovery of a correlation between some of these qualities is of no scientific interest and of no social significance, except to racists, sexists, and the like. Those who argue that there is a correlation between race and IQ and those who deny this claim are contributing to racism and other disorders, because what they are saying is based on the assumption that the answer to the question makes a difference; it does not, except to racists, sexist, and the like.” Chomsky (1988: 252).

Chomsky here is saying that blank-slate environmentalism is not needed to dismiss concerns about racial differences in average IQ, because Chomsky thinks that, if there were such differences, it is of “essentially null scientific interest” or “of no scientific interest.”

But here Chomsky himself is absurdly wrong. If there are significant differences in average IQs between the races and other cognitive traits, then this has profound social, economic, and political implications, implications which Chomsky refuses to discuss or honestly consider.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Chomsky, Noam. 1988. Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass and London.

Dennett, D. C. 1996. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. Penguin Books, London.

Pinker, Steven and Paul Bloom, 1990. “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13.4: 707–784.

Lord Keynes
Realist Left social democrat, left wing, blogger, Post Keynesian in economics, but against the regressive left, against Postmodernism, against Marxism

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