Chomsky on science, philosophy, and art

Humans naturally seek insight and understanding. More generally, we aim to attain wisdom, in both practical and theoretical form. How, if at all, is it possible to acquire those goods? The following are three very broad answers to that question:

  1. On the basis of art. According to this type of answer, we might seek insight, understanding, or wisdom by, for example, appreciating, creating, and reflecting upon paintings, literature, or music.
  2. On the basis of philosophy. According to this type of answer, we might seek the same goods on the basis of reasoning and reflecting.
  3. On the basis of science. According to this type of answer, we might seek the goods on the basis of observation, experimental manipulation, reasoning, reflecting, and the construction of explicit–typically mathematicized—theories.

One question here is whether 1–3 each provides a way of attaining the desired goods. Can one really acquire insight or understanding on the basis of one’s engagement with fiction? Here’s Noam Chomsky’s answer to that question:

“Plainly, such an approach [the broadly naturalistic approach taken by the natural sciences, including mathematics] does not exclude other ways of trying to comprehend the world. Someone committed to it (as I am) can consistently believe (as I do) that we learn much more of human interest about how people think and feel and act by reading novels or studying history than from all of naturalistic psychology, and perhaps always will; similarly, the arts may offer appreciation of the heavens to which astrophysics cannot aspire.”

(Language and Thought, 1993, p.42.)

Chomsky’s thought here appears to have at least the following three components.

  1. Understanding and insight may take various forms.
  2. Engagement with artistic or literary representations of aspects of the world—both fictional and non-fictional—may provide forms of insight and understanding distinct from those provided by the natural sciences.
  3. Different aspects of the world may be more or less susceptible to the approaches taken in the various natural sciences. For instance, it may be that some aspects of the world are too ill behaved for us to attain the kind of understanding of them that we now have of idealised physical systems.

Perhaps human psychology—or some aspects thereof—fall into that last category. Even if that’s so, it doesn’t follow that the naturalistic approach will offer no returns. Being less effective than fundamental physics is consistent with being very effective indeed. How does one find out whether an aspect of the world—for instance, human psychology, or human psychological capacity—is susceptible to the naturalistic approach? Chomsky’s thought seems to be that the only way to find out is to do one’s best, over a period, to pursue the naturalistic approach and to see where so doing leads. In some cases, pursuing the approach has thus far paid handsome dividends: vision science and Chomsky’s own field, theoretical linguistics, are two prominent examples of success. Neither field has come close to the successes of physics or mathematics. But that, to stress, is no objection.

Might there be other ways of discovering that an aspect of the world is insusceptible to the naturalistic approach? Perhaps, for example, philosophy could reveal that aspects of human psychology are immune to the charms of the naturalistic approach. The question raises two sub-questions.

First, what precisely are the limits of a naturalistic approach to a subject matter? One thought is that they are set by the role of observation and experiment. On this view, insofar as philosophy eschews observation and experiment—broadly a posteriori methods—in favour of reason and reflection—broadly a priori methods—, it departs from the naturalistic approach. However, care is needed here, for pure mathematics is based largely upon a priori methods of investigation. And it would be absurd to preclude mathematics from naturalistic inquiry.

Second, and related, does philosophy, considered as an independent mode of investigation, have the reach required in order to establish that an aspect of the world is insusceptible to naturalistic inquiry? Wouldn’t its doing so require that it could attain sufficient understanding both of naturalistic inquiry and of target aspects of the world that it could establish lack of fit between them? And insofar as the target aspects of the world—and perhaps also the nature of naturalistic inquiry itself—are inaccessible on the basis merely of reflection, wouldn’t establishing that require something like observation and experiment?

Chomsky has himself expressed reservations about what he thinks of as non-naturalistic approaches to questions of this form. (Indeed, one of Chomsky’s great contributions to philosophy has been to emphasise concealed empirical dimensions to questions that might otherwise have seemed susceptible to more or less pure reason and reflection.) His reservations do not, in general, concern the potential benefits of other forms of inquiry. Rather, they concern their potential to figure in the attainment of the type of understanding we can sometimes gain through naturalistic inquiry.

“We are here speaking of theoretical understanding, a particular mode of comprehension. In this domain, any departure from a naturalistic approach carries a burden of justification. Perhaps one can be given, but I know of none. Departures from this naturalistic approach are not uncommon, including, in my opinion, much of the most reflective and considered work in the philosophy of language and mind, a fact that merits some thought, if true.” (Language and Thought, 1993, p.42.)

To emphasise: Chomsky’s objection isn’t to a priori methods per se. For naturalistic inquiry is replete with the employment of mathematics, logic, and other modes of experience-independent reasoning and reflection. Rather, I take it that his objection is to hubris: excessive self-confidence. The concerns here are two. First, that a priori methods should not be applied inappropriately to questions that demand to be answered on the basis of empirical inquiry. Second, that even where a priori methods are appropriate, they must be handled with care. Although there are no grounds for general scepticism about the reliability of such methods—on pain of accepting an absolutely global scepticism—there is equally no reason to suppose that even our best attempts to employ those methods will not, on occasion, lead us astray.

Our first question was whether each of 1–3 could, in principle, furnish us with insight, understanding, or wisdom. A second, prior question is whether it is accurate to think of them as independent approaches. In fact, as Chomsky stresses, 2 and 3 have been closely linked throughout their histories and it is far from obvious that their approaches can safely be disentangled. An analogous claim might reasonably be made with respect to 1 and 2. Finally, recent work of Charles Fernyhough nicely illustrates the potential of scientifically informed literature to provide illumination.

  1. Thomas Hodgson said:

    I haven’t read that particular Chomsky piece. Is it clear which work in philosophy he has in mind? The impression I got from reading comments he makes elsewhere, e.g. his exchange with Peter Ludlow, is that his criticism of Burge and Putnam isn’t that they’re doing something that is in principle a departure from naturalism. Rather, they are deploying concepts, like reference, that as a matter of fact don’t help in a naturalistic study of language.

    • I think that Chomsky has various targets in mind, and various objections that he wants to press. With respect to reference, there are two main issues, that pull in opposing directions. One is that philosophers try to make use of, and explicate, a common-sense notion, but there is no reason to suppose that that will help in naturalistic inquiry (this is one version of the objection you mention). Another is that, as deployed with respect to linguistic types, reference is a technical notion and yet philosophers behave as if they have intuitions about its application. Probably, the most general objection is of the first sort: philosophers tend to try to understand the ways of thinking they have, without seeking to determine that those ways of thinking are appropriate to subject matter. One case here would be early discussions of whether we really have knowledge of language, whether it’s know how or know that, and whether it’s a suitable object for naturalistic inquiry. See e.g. *Reflections on Language* and *Rules and Representations*.

  2. Arash Thomas Afsahi said:

    I think fiction usually has the advantage of demanding a substantial aspect of its focus in its interpretation. Futhermore, it is usually written with a target of overall agreeableness so that it is enjoyed.

    Physics and mathematics, especially mathematics, have less potential for variations in interpretative and hedonistic qualities. Physics has become fairytale sometimes, but even this feature often meets with the wonder in the human psyche.

    Philosophy often meets with a sense of wonder at how others can get something so wrong. It attains not to fiction but holds far beyond the assembled unity of maths and physics. The diversity positions in philosophy scream ‘can’t all be right!’ and the content is too often not sufficiently agreeable.

    Personally I love it for its high instruction but it is a shudderingly humbling subject about the human condition…

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