David’s #30 – Language and Thought By Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky may be brilliant, really good at speaking in a confusing, scientific way, or a combination of both.  Or maybe I am just dumb.  That is definitely how I felt most of the time.  The book was often hard to follow but I did enjoy the little bits that I did pick up.  I previously was not familiar with Chomsky at all, but this seemed like a relatively safe introduction to this acclaimed brilliant man.  The book is less than 100 pages and consists of a lecture followed by a series of responses.  I will admit up front, that I did have to look up some commentary to aid my understanding.

From what I did understand, this work is about humans and language.  Chomsky looks at language from the perspective of philosophy, psychology, and science.  His major claim is that linguistic capacity is a natural occurring, internally existing, phenomenon.  He points out however that it also contains the lexicon, which is non-natural, external element, as well as observable behavior, also occurring outside the mind.  The major question seems to be, what is the relationship between these two elements, the internal concept and the observable behavior.

In studying language, thought, and other unknown concepts, he argues against the traditionally accepted, “reductionist method.  He points to past cases where reductionism resulted in scientific conclusions that were “clearly true” that later turned out be completely wrong and had to be revised.  He argues instead for “epistemic naturalism,” whereby one looks at questions using a variety of approaches and pursuits, not only major sciences, but also lesser sciences.  We often draw conclusions using the vast knowledge that we do have, despite the fact that we do not know the “right” things to draw accurate conclusions.

We may need to keep asking questions.  Some of the amusing, “wrong questions,” he asked were: “If you teach an computer to play chess, is the computer actually, ‘playing’?”  “Do artificial breathing machines actually, ‘breath’?”  “Does the brain ‘think’?” “Does an airplane actually, ‘fly’?” These are all pointless questions.

Technical, abstract and at times very difficult to read but I am glad that I did.  A great challenge to push your comfort level.  If you read it and can tell me more, please let me know.

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