Truth-out.org ~ September 2016. Human language is crucial to the scientific quest to understand what kind of creatures we are and, thus crucial to unlocking the mysteries of human nature.
In the interview that follows, Noam Chomsky, the scholar who single-handedly revolutionized the modern field of linguistics, discusses the evolution of language and lays out the biolinguist perspective — the idea that a human being’s language represents a state of some component of the mind. This is an idea that continues to baffle many non-experts, many of whom have sought to challenge Chomsky’s theory of language without really understanding it.
Journalist and ”radical chic” reactionary writer Tom Wolfe was the latest to do so in his laughable new book, The Kingdom of Speech, which seeks to take down Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky through sarcastic and ignorant remarks, making vitriolic attacks on their personalities and expressing a deep hatred for the Left. Indeed, this much-publicized book not only displays amazing ignorance about evolution in general and the field of linguistics in particular, but also aims to portray Noam Chomsky as evil — due to his constant and relentless exposure of the crimes of US foreign policy and other challenges to the status quo.
C. J. Polychroniou: Noam, in your recently published book with Robert C. Berwick (Why Only Us: Language and Evolution, MIT Press 2016), you address the question of the evolution of language from the perspective of language as part of the biological world. This was also the theme of your talk at an international physics conference held this month in Italy, as it seems that the scientific community appears to have a deeper appreciation and a more subtle understanding of your theory of language acquisition than most social scientists, who seem to maintain grave reservations about biology and the idea of human nature in general. Indeed, isn’t it the case that the specific ability of our species to acquire any language was a major theme of interest to the modern scientific community from the time of Galileo?
Noam Chomsky: This is quite true. At the outset of the modern scientific revolution, Galileo and the scientist-philosophers of the monastery of Port Royal issued a crucial challenge to those concerned with the nature of human language, a challenge that had only occasionally been recognized until it was taken up in the mid-20th century and became the primary concern of much of the study of language. For short, I’ll refer to it as the Galilean challenge. These great founders of modern science were awed by the fact that language permits us (in their words) to construct “from 25 or 30 sounds an infinite variety of expressions, which although not having any resemblance in themselves to that which passes through our minds, nevertheless do not fail to reveal all of the secrets of the mind, and to make intelligible to others who cannot penetrate into the mind all that we conceive and all of the diverse movements of our souls.”
We can now see that the Galilean challenge requires some qualifications, but it is very real and should, I think, be recognized as one of the deepest insights in the rich history of inquiry into language and mind in the past 2500 years.
The challenge had not been entirely ignored. For Descartes, at about the same time, the human capacity for unbounded and appropriate use of language was a primary basis for his postulation of mind as a new creative principle. In later years, there is occasional recognition that language is a creative activity that involves “infinite use of finite means,” in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s formulation and that it provides “audible signs for thought,” in the words of linguist William Dwight Whitney a century ago. There has also been awareness that these capacities are a species-property, shared by humans and unique to them — the most striking feature of this curious organism and a foundation for its remarkable achievements. But there was never much to say beyond a few phrases.
But why is it that the view of language as a species-specific capacity is not taken up until well into the 20th century?
There is a good reason why the insights languished until mid-20th century: intellectual tools were not available for even formulating the problem in a clear enough way to address it seriously. That changed thanks to the work of Alan Turing and other great mathematicians who established the general theory of computability on a firm basis, showing in particular how a finite object like the brain can generate an infinite variety of expressions. It then became possible, for the first time, to address at least part of the Galilean challenge directly — although, regrettably, the earlier history [for example, the history of Galileo’s and Descartes’ inquiries into the philosophy of language, as well as the Port-Royal Grammar by Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot] was entirely unknown at the time.
With these intellectual tools available, it becomes possible to formulate what we may call the Basic Property of human language: The language faculty provides the means to construct a digitally infinite array of structured expressions, each of which has a semantic interpretation expressing a thought, and each of which can be externalized by means of some sensory modality. The infinite set of semantically interpreted objects constitutes what has sometimes been called a “language of thought”: the system of thoughts that receive linguistic expression and that enter into reflection, inference, planning and other mental processes, and when externalized, can be used for communication and other social interactions. By far, the major use of language is internal — thinking in language. Read more
The project was an initiative of Nea Smyrni municipality, a municipality located about 4 km southwest of central Athens, Greece, named so after the city Smyrna (today’s İzmir in Turkey), from where a large number of refugees arrived and settled in the Nea Smyrni area following the 1922 population exchange between Greece and Turkey.
The municipality implemented the project with the support of the “Europe for Citizens” programme of the European Union.
The main goal of “SPUR” program was to highlight and assess both the value of solidarity and volunteering in the current context of economic and humanitarian crisis inside United Europe as well as to improve the conditions for civic and democratic participation of citizens providing them,as a New Spur, New forms of Societal and intercultural engagement for the enhancement of civic and democratic participation at national and European level.
These forms – away from extremist or populist movements and radicalized behaviors and beyond xenophobia, intolerance and any discrimination against the vulnerable or excluded people within EU societies and underprivileged and disadvantaged populations, which often include youngsters and people of non – EU origins :
a) Stabilize the social welfare, health, employment, education, environment, culture, etc. systems, which brutally affected in times of economic recession and poverty,
b) Protect further the fundamental rights, in particular of minorities,
c) Help restore law and civil parity for a decent living,
d) Promote and foster the economy and the development and finally,
e) Consolidate the faith, to the principles and values on which the European ideal is founded, in particular of the different types of Eurosceptics, and put forward the achievements of the United Europe and the cost of no Europe creating a new positive narrative for Europe and Europe integration.
Click on “Read More” for information about the four (4) non-formal education events. Also visit the website of the project “SPUR” http://dnsspur.gr/en for the analytical programmes, videos and photos.
advertorial /ˌadvəːˈtɔːrɪəl/ – noun: advertorial; plural noun: advertorials – a newspaper or magazine advertisement giving information about a product in the style of an editorial or objective journalistic article.
The skill and intensity with which plantenga chronicles these sorties into life lived at the edge should ensure his place in the next pantheon of great bohemian saints and sinners.
Kevin Riordan, Chicago Reader, Coal Hill Review
I’m really excited to announce this because PARIS SCRATCH is a magical book containing 365 [1 per day] not quite poems; not quite journal entries – “zen blink meta-factual snapshots of everyday Paris life” where the author lived for some 3 years, deejayed, worked everyday jobs and wrote for outlets such as Paris Passion, Paris Free Voice, The Frank, etc.
“A marvelous book – imagine Baudelaire taking a camera & throwing out his pen in a rebellious manner then taking snapshots of everything that comes his way…”
• Nina Zivancevic, author of Living on Air & Death of NYC
bart plantenga spent much time roaming the Paris streets, but instead of documenting with a camera he chose a pen instead, scribbling observations while walking in ragged notepads in a handwriting not quite illegible.
I really like the way he describes it: “Wandering the streets & writing simultaneously fuses two key creative acts – if worn shoe heels & barely legible scribbles can be considered manifestations of creativity. When you live in a city long enough, you wake up one day & what was fascinating & compelling yesterday suddenly becomes the background for routine. You may not even notice you’ve stopped looking, curiosity curbed, eyes down to the ground & fixed on getting from point A to point B. To reinvent my relation to my surroundings – first Paris & later NYC – I came up with the Unloaded Camera Snapshots series, a simple exercise to document the ‘snapshots’ of everyday life. They served as attempts to re-pollinate existence with the fecund, oft-neglected details of the everyday, la vie quotidienne.
plantenga was born in Amsterdam, grew up on the American East Coast, lived all over America, moved to Paris and eventually back to his native Amsterdam. He is the author of the much-excerpted novel Beer Mystic, which Luc Sante described as: “Top-fermented, with a good nose, an acrid middle, a dry finish – bubbly and acidulous in reserved measure – and with ambient yeast peculiar to the Lower East Side, the kind that turns concrete to dust. Plantenga is a poet and a prankster as well as a distinguished bathtub brewer. He deserves immediate investigation.”
His short story collection Wiggling Wishbone and novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man earned him positive reviews and favorable comparisons to JG Ballard, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson. Andrei Codrescu, National Public Radio described his writing as “frightfully intelligent.”
His books on yodeling YODEL-AY-EE-OOOO: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World [Routledge, 2004] Yodel in HiFi: From Kitsch Folk to Contemporary Electronica plus the CD compilation Rough Guide to Yodel received worldwide attention: NPR, BBC, Al-Jazeera, ABC television, WNYC, WFMU, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair,Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, UTNE Reader, The Wire, Village Voice, London Review. New York Times Magazine featured Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo in its “6th Annual Year of Ideas”. The books have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts.
His work has appeared in many academic journals, popular magazines, literary journals: [Ambit, Evergreen Review, Vokno, Exquisite Corpse, Downtown, Urban Grafitti, Fringecore, Sandbox, Carolina Quarterly, Mississippi Review] and mainstream media: The Guardian, Times of London, American Heritage, American Book Review, Actuel, New Hampshire, Michigan Today, Brooklyn Rail, KLM Holland Herald, American Lawyer…
He also writes about refugees for both Vox Populi & Truthdig.
He has lectured/read at the Library of Congress, Rotterdam Opera Days, Sound Escape Conference [Toronto], NYU Fales Library, The Brooklyn Bridge Reading, & countless venues around the world.
Anthologies: Nation-KGB Nonfiction Reader; Waiting for a Train: Jimmie Rodgers’s America; Up Is Up, But So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene; Reggae, Rasta, Revolution: Jamaican Music from Ska to Dub [Simon & Schuster]; Sonic Geography Imagined and Remembered; Semiotext(e) SF, Crimes of the Beat, Radiotext(e),Noirotica #3, Fiction International, Best American Erotica 1994 [Simon & Schuster].
He is one of the co-founders of the NYC-based Unbearables writing group, which has produced numerous anthologies and countless thematic lit events since their founding in the later 1980s.
He is also a DJ-radiomaker and has produced guest radio shows for the BBC and VPRO (NL), has appeared on a dozen NPR radio shows, as well as NBC and ABC TV plus public radio in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland. He has produced his radio show Wreck This Mess since 1986 in NYC (WFMU), Paris (Radio Libertaire) & Amsterdam (Radio 100/Radio Patapoe/Mixcloud) where he now lives.
“Paris Scratch” is a beautiful, picturesque read that I’ve been savoring slowly for a couple of weeks now. In the tradition of writers like Georges Perec, Roland Barthes, Patrick Modiano, Jean-Paul Clebert, with echoes of Queneau’s “Exercises in Style,” Plantenga captures a Paris that finds beauty and wonder in simple exchanges between prostitutes and shopkeepers, children, workers, and random passersby. … The synthesis of poetry and prose, the homage to the visual image, and the recognition of the sublime beauty of the unspectacular, make this a compelling and immensely satisfying read. Sip this book like cognac.
Alfred Vitale, author, academic, editor of RANT
The companion to Paris Scratch, NY SIN PHONEY IN FACE FLAT MINOR (Sensitive Skin) documents New York using the same tactics and will appear in November 2016.
Please let me know if you are interested. Thanks so much,
* For free pdf or paper reviewer’s copy: contact us & we will forward your request to the publisher.
truth-out.org. September 2016. How serious of an issue is climate change? Does global warming really threaten human civilization? Can it be reversed, or is it already late?
In this interview for Truthout, two scholars, Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, and Graciela Chichilnisky, a renowned economist and climate change authority who wrote and designed the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol, concur on a few key points. First of all, global warming and climate change constitute the greatest challenge facing humanity, and may pose an even greater threat to our species than that of nuclear weapons. Secondly, the operations of the capitalist world economy are at the core of the climate change threat because of over-reliance on fossil fuels and a perverse sense of economic values. Thirdly, the world needs to adopt alternative energy systems as quickly as possible. And finally, it is crucial to explore technologies to assist us in reversing climate change — as time is running out.
C. J. Polychroniou: A consensus seems to be emerging among scientists and even political and social analysts that global warming and climate change represent the greatest threat to the planet. Do you concur with this view, and why?
Noam Chomsky: I agree with the conclusion of the experts who set the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. They have moved the Clock two minutes closer to midnight — three minutes to midnight — because of the increasing threats of nuclear war and global warming. That seems to me a credible judgment. Review of the record shows that it’s a near miracle that we have survived the nuclear age. There have been repeated cases when nuclear war came ominously close, often a result of malfunctioning of early-warning systems and other accidents, sometimes [as a result of] highly adventurist acts of political leaders. It has been known for some time that a major nuclear war might lead to nuclear winter that would destroy the attacker as well as the target. And threats are now mounting, particularly at the Russian border, confirming the prediction of George Kennan and other prominent figures that NATO expansion, particularly the way it was undertaken, would prove to be a “tragic mistake,” a “policy error of historic proportions.”
As for climate change, it’s by now widely accepted by the scientific community that we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene, in which the Earth’s climate is being radically modified by human action, creating a very different planet, one that may not be able to sustain organized human life in anything like a form we would want to tolerate. There is good reason to believe that we have already entered the Sixth Extinction, a period of destruction of species on a massive scale, comparable to the Fifth Extinction 65 million years ago, when three-quarters of the species on earth were destroyed, apparently by a huge asteroid. Atmospheric CO2 is rising at a rate unprecedented in the geological record since 55 million years ago. There is concern — to quote a statement by 150 distinguished scientists — that “global warming, amplified by feedbacks from polar ice melt, methane release from permafrost, and extensive fires, may become irreversible,” with catastrophic consequences for life on Earth, humans included — and not in the distant future. Sea level rise and destruction of water resources as glaciers melt alone may have horrendous human consequences.
Graciela Chichilnisky: The consensus is that climate change ranks along with nuclear warfare as the top two risks facing human civilization. If nuclear warfare is believed to be somewhat controlled, then climate change is now the greatest threat.
As difficult as it is to eliminate the risk of nuclear warfare, it requires fewer changes to the global economy than does averting or reversing climate change. Climate change is due to the use of energy for industrial growth, which has been and is overwhelmingly based on fossil fuels. Changing an economic system that is bent on uncontrolled and poorly measured economic growth and depends on fossil energy for its main objectives, is much more difficult than changing how nuclear energy is used for military purposes. Some think it may be impossible.
In a short letter to the press, in which he referred to Mexico, Graham Greene substantially expressed his view of the world.
“I must thank Mr. Richard West for his understanding notice of The Quiet American. No critic before, that I can remember, has thus pinpointed my abhorrence of the American liberal conscience whose results I have seen at work in Mexico, Vietnam, Haiti and Chile.”
(Yours, etc., Letters to the Press. 1979)
Mexico is a peripheral country with a difficult history, and undeniably the very long border that it shares with the most powerful nation on earth has largely determined its fate.
After his trip to Mexico in 1938, Greene had very hard words to say about the latter country, but then he spoke with equal harshness about the “hell” he had left behind in his English birthplace, Berkhamsted. He “loathed” Mexico…” but there were times when it seemed as if there were worse places. Mexico “was idolatry and oppression, starvation and casual violence, but you lived under the shadow of religion – of God or the Devil.”
However, the United States was worse:
“It wasn’t evil, it wasn’t anything at all, it was just the drugstore and the Coca Cola, the hamburger, the sinless empty graceless chromium world.”
He also expressed abhorrence for what he saw on the German ship that took him back to Europe:
“Spanish violence, German Stupidity, Anglo-Saxon absurdity…the whole world is exhibited in a kind of crazy montage.”
As war approached, he wrote: “Violence came nearer – Mexico is a state of mind.” In “the grit of the London afternoon”, he said, “I wondered why I had disliked Mexico so much.” Indeed, upon asking himself why Mexico had seemed so bad and London so good, he responded: “I couldn’t remember”.
And we ourselves can repeat the same unanswered question. Why such virulent hatred of Mexico? We know that his money was devalued there, that he caught dysentery there, that the fallout from the libel suit that he had lost awaited him upon his return to England, and that he lost his reading glasses, among other things that could so exasperate a man that he would express his discontent in his writing, but I recall that it was one of Greene’s friends, dear Judith Adamson, who described one of his experiences in Mexico as unfair. Why?
The answer might lie in the fact that he never mentioned all the purposes of his trip.
In The Confidential Agent, one of the three books that Greene wrote after returning to England, working on it at the same time as The Power and the Glory, he makes no mention whatsoever of Mexico, but it is hard to believe that the said work had nothing to do with such an important experience as his trip there.
D, the main character in The Confidential Agent, goes to England in pursuit of an important coal contract that will enable the government he represents to fight the fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War, though Greene never explicitly states that the country in question is Spain. The said confidential agent knows that his bosses don’t trust him and have good reason not to do so, just as he has good reason to mistrust them.
We, who know Greene only to the extent that he wanted us to know him, are aware that writers recount their own lives as if they were those of other people, and describe the lives of others as if they were their own. Might he not, then, have transferred to a character called D, in a completely different setting, his own real experiences as a confidential agent in Mexico?
Besides wishing to witness the religious persecution in Mexico first-hand, his mission might also have been to report on developments in the aforesaid country and regarding its resources -above all its petroleum- in view of the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. Read more