Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Minds in Uniform"

Geoffrey Sampson has written an article "Minds in Uniform" seeking to demonstrate that Noam Chomsky's and now Steven Pinker's view of language ultimately promotes what could be considered, in my terms, a form of 'intellectual fascism'. Controversial stuff. Nicely written. The abstract, below provides a summary of the article:
Linguistic theory is seen by many of its practitioners as an enterprise as ethically neutral as mathematics. But it provides apparent scientific justification for a model of cognition which is currently fashionable for non-scientific reasons, and which threatens the future flourishing of the human spirit. According to Steven Pinker and, before him, Noam Chomsky, language is a rich source of evidence for the idea that the structure and contents of human thought are constrained by genetics as rigidly as the shape and functioning of the human body. This idea harmonizes with legal and political developments of the last twenty years, under which distinctive cultural norms evolved by independent societies are increasingly being swept aside in favour of universal enforcement of aprioristic systems imposed from above. Whereas 18th- and 19th-century imperialists recognized that the cultures of different societies were indeed different (though they set out to eliminate some of the differences), 21st-century internationalism is made to seem uncontroversial by trivializing the extent of existing cultural differences. The Pinker/Chomsky model of human cognition implies that the differences are indeed trivial. But that model is baseless. It rests chiefly not on empirical observation but on surmises about language behaviour; now that corpus linguistics is allowing us to check the accuracy of such surmises, they turn out to be wildly wrong even for English. Meanwhile, anthropological linguists such as Daniel Everett are showing us that differences between the intellectual worlds encoded by the languages of separate societies can be far larger than even pre-generative linguists suspected. If our genes do not constrain our ideas, we have no reason to assume that the belief-system of the leaders of North American and European societies anno 2006 is the last word in human intellectual development. We must be free to move forward intellectually in the future, and we should reject models of human cognition which deny that freedom.
Here's the link to the full article: Minds in Uniform

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