The “Chomsky problem”, or: Anti-naturalism is not the answer to naive nativism

A colleague has drawn my attention to a critique of Chomsky’s by English Lit professor David Hawkes in the Times Literary Supplement, where he claims a major incompatibility between Chomsky’s radical political positions and his scientific assumptions which could “easily be characterized as reactionary”. The critique is written from a strongly anti-empiricist perspective and salted with misunderstandings of Chomsky’s actual linguistic claims, and I would probably ignore it if it didn’t highlight some common misconceptions, and if there weren’t a few valid points hidden in the flood of broad front attacks against empirical science as a “capitalist discource”, but will instead use it as a starting point to present some of my own current positions on naive nativism, ideology in science, abuses of the concept of “human nature”, ontologic individualism, and how it is important for left-wingers to critique them from a scientific perspective, highlighting poorly motivated assumptions and logical leaps to show that the scientific status of the conclusions is dubitable.

If one resorts to rejecting the scientific method, and reality, in order to uphold one’s worldview, as Hawkes does, one implicitly acknowledges that reality isn’t on our side – a declaration of defeat. We don’t have to do that, reality’s on our side (and even if it weren’t, we’d still only be lying to ourselves by doin so).

The alleged contradition.

Chomsky has achieved eminence in two very different fields, theoretical linguistics and political commentary. The “Chomsky problem” is that his approaches to these fields appear to contradict each other. In politics Chomsky is a radical, but in linguistics he takes positions that can easily be characterized as reactionary.

I’m not sure I would call Chomsky the political commentator all that radical, but let’s talk about the other half of the claim: Chomsky the “reactionary” scientist. Is he talking about the implicit disdain for data and preference of deduction from first principles emenating from some of Chomsky’s work and reminescent of pre-19th century “natural philosophy” more than of modern natural science here? That could reasonably be called reactionary, but that doesn’t seem to be what Hawkes wants to talk about. Quite the opposite: He “accuses” Chomsky, rightly or wrongly, of applying the methods of natural science to the subject of language. Among literary critics, that seems to be a bad word. Let’s see why:

These methodological principles [of natural science] were established by the seventeenth-century scientific revolution of Newton and the Royal Society, which was in Chomsky’s view a progressive development and an immeasurable boon to humanity. He sees no reason why the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to the study of the human mind.

His critics caution that empirical science is closely linked, certainly historically and perhaps conceptually, to capitalist political economy. These discourses both emerge in late seventeenth-century England, and they conquer the world together. Surely this suggests an affinity that ought to trouble those who advocate one but castigate the other?

The development and refinement of metallurgy was closely linked with wars, and iron was used in swords centuries before it became affordable enough to be used in ploughs(1). Surely, this suggests an affinity that ought to trouble pacifists who want to continue using cuttlery?

Seriously, I don’t understand the logic here. The scientific method is a tool. Tools are inanimate, have no intentions, no inherent ethical value of any kind. They can be a force of good or bad conditional only on who uses them for what ends. If you want to prevent or reduce its abuse, join science and fight from within to regain control over it from those prone to abuse it. The fact that science can be abused doesn’t show that it’s irredeemably corrupted – it may only show that it is a powerful tool.

Below this, there are several paragraphs about how the alleged conceptual void between Chomsky’s science and Chomsky’s activism is harming both, in particular about how Chomsky the political commentator seems torn between blaming individual malice and recognising systemic causes for what he criticises. I even kind of agree that Chomsky’s lack of a clear political theory prevents him to form a systematic analysis of that which he criticises, and that some of his shortcomings may be explicable through his subconscious internalisations of bourgeois preconceptions. More specifically, I believe that Chomsky sometimes falls prey to what I’d like to call “ontological individualism” in both his scientific and political output, i.e. that he seriously underestimates the degree to which the whole determines the properties of its parts and tries to derive the properties of the whole from the (assumed to be relatively fixed) properties of its parts. Is that what Hawkes wants to challenge? Not exactly:

Realism and reductionism

The logical conclusion of his political commentary is that capital acts as an independent agent, insinuating itself into the human mind and systematically perverting it. But this is incompatible with his scientific assumption that the mind is merely an “emergent property” of the physical brain.

Erm, no? There is no inherent contradiction at all. The mind can very well be, at any one time, an “emergent property” of the physical brain while also being systematically “perverted” by capital. The only way to make this a contradiction is if you additionally assume that the physical brain is itself constant across time and indeed predetermined at conception – an assumption that Chomsky has not made, and that is not supported by what we know about the brain. This isn’t, therefore, an argument against considering the mind as ultimately physical, it’s an argument for taking seriously what developmental neurobiology has taught us over the last few decades – that the brain, even more so than other organs (and that’s something real!) flexibly adapts to environmental circumstances during development. And in a social animal whose environment is to a large degree constituted by conspecifics whose behaviours are in turn shaped by culture, this obviously means that the brain itself is shaped by culture.

Yes, naive nativism has often been associated with conservative politics, and arguably, Chomsky’s writings (especially his earlier output) shows some sign of naive nativism, and his conception of a modular mind has been amply abused by Evolutionary Psychology (capital letters, of the Cosmides/Pinker/Tooby variety) to lend some semblance of plausibility to scientific sounding claims about “innate” (whatever that even meansfree copy here) human nature that are quite often not much more than naturalisations of common preconceptions. No, assuming that the mind is physical isn’t the problem. It is, rather, the only alternative to metaphysics, not to say woo. The problem is understating the importance of environment in determining the structures of adults’ physical brains, and understating the effect of culture in shaping the environment in which humans grow up.

Re-appropriating science

In order to see where Hawkes is coming from, I went to his homepage and checked out his most recent publication listed there. It doesn’t get better:

But there seems no doubt that materialism, in its twenty-first-century manifestations, is the ideological form of capitalism. It may be possible to be both a materialist and a political progressive, if identity politics are regarded as progressive causes, as I think they should be. Materialism is not, however, compatible with anti-capitalism. On the contrary, materialism is capitalism in philosophical form.”

I claim almost the opposite: You can be a materialist without being a socialist, but you cannot be a socialist without being a materialist. Anti-“materialism” as apparently advocated by Hawkes isn’t progressive, it is reactionary – it only may seem progressive because it happens to also oppose conservativism(2). I feel obliged to quote Sokal, from the article where he explained his motivation for committing his famous hoax:

We’re witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful — not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many “progressive” or “leftist” academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.

I’m a leftist too […]. On nearly all practical political issues — including many concerning science and technology — I’m on the same side as the Social Texteditors. But I’m a leftist (and feminist) becauseof evidence and logic, not in spite of it. Why should the right wing be allowed to monopolize the intellectual high ground?

PPS: Edited out a few typos, changed the title, broken apart and clarified an overly long sentence towards the end of the first paragraph, added subheadings.


(1) Anyone more knowledgeable about archaeology than I am, feel free to correct me.

(2) I’m using those terms in a fairly literal manner: conservatives are those that seek to preserve the status quo, reactionaries are those that want to return to a mystified past, and progressives believe that something better than we’ve had is possible and seek to determine how to get there.


4 thoughts on “The “Chomsky problem”, or: Anti-naturalism is not the answer to naive nativism

  1. There’s a problem with the definition of conservatism. Sometimes you choose between two alternatives, say two views, one of which is currently more wide-spread, and more popular. If one is able to make (an attempt at) an objective judgment, and establishes that the currently dominant view is also better than the alternative, she is effectively preserving the status quo. This doesn’t make her a conservative. She’s only a conservative once she preserves the status quo for sake of preserving the status quo. Similar can be said of reactionary choices and of the progressive ones too.
    The origins of the entire division are socially rooted and relate to the tendency of the higher classes to remain where they are and of the lower classes to revert the current situation. This tendency generalized, after spreading from the domain of social relations to other domains, especially the art, with recent attempts to export it into science as well. Nowadays, we see a mutated version of this dynamics in some of the leftist thinkers: social relations are almost secondary to the urge to unconditionally choose the new and different over the old and well known. This might be an interesting experiment – what do you get if you free your thoughts from the chains of logic, consistency, or context-controlability, and consequently also from responsibility, ultimately probably also from a purpose and any system of values, as this is what a genuine and honest realization of that kind of views amounts to. But I don’t see it as more than fancy accessories for your next evening out with your friends leftist interpretivists, certainly not a way to reach any progressivist goals.

    • There’s a problem with the definition of conservatism. […]She’s only a conservative once she preserves the status quo for sake of preserving the status quo

      I don’t think these labels make a lot of sense as applied to indivivual positions, rather they describe overall worldviews “this is the best of all possible worlds”, “let’s go back to the good old days”, and “we can do better than anything we’ve seen yet”, sort of.

      Nowadays, we see a mutated version of this dynamics in some of the leftist thinkers: social relations are almost secondary to the urge to unconditionally choose the new and different over the old and well known.

      I’m not sure this is what we’re seeing here. Hawkes’ anti-materialism seems to me to be based at least as much on a reluctance to accept what he thinksare the inevitable consequences of accepting a materialist view of humanity. In this, he is a bit like global warming deniers or creationists – don’t like the conclusions? Reject the science. I find a lot of the claims coming out of Evolutionary Psychology, especially as rewashed in the popular media, quite objectionable too, but this isn’t a rational reaction. Fortunately, when you trace those claims back, the journal article typically either didn’t even say what the newspapers report, or when it did, there are serious methodological shortcomings, such as generalising from American undergrads to humans (warranted when you can presume that whatever you’re going to observe is going to be biological in nature, but highly circular at best when that’s what you need to show), or neglecting to discuss obvious alternative explanations. I’m absolutely for scrutinising specific claims about human nature with additional rigour due to their potential broad implications, and laying bare hidden assumptions, in particular given what I think is a rather poor track record in terms of lack of rigour in some of the fields involved. Denying the applicability of science to humans, on the other hand, is just letting the supernatural back in through the backdoor. Elevating humans above nature isn’t progressive in any sense I can think of, we’ve been there long enough and are still recovering from it.

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