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18 May 2007

1977 BBC Interview: "The Ideas of Chomsky"

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

I noticed one misconception or confusion in this talk. When discussing Hume and Freud, Chomsky maintains that introspection cannot bring about ideas on the "mental stage" (this was mostly aimed at Hume), so that model of the mind, or any subsequent one based on the same metaphor, is "radically wrong." Well, I agree up to a point. It is true that whatever isn't biologically thinkable isn't biologically thinkable -- circular but as true as saying that if you don't have wings you won't fly.

However, earlier on, when discussing the notion that not all cognition is language-based, Chomsky said that anyone who "introspects" will immediately notice that not all thought is language-based. I agree. But why is it that one kind of introspection -- which brings to consciousness what was simply taken for granted (i.e., unconscious) -- is allowed but another is not?

Even if Chomsky's correct that Freud in principle thought that the entire subconscious could be revealed (and I'd be very surprised if that is true; if so, Freud was wrong*), certainly in practice Freud understood that this excavation was a tentative and highly labor-intensive process with necessarily partial success. To me, the whole notion of analysis is simply "structured remembrance." Surely, Chomsky doesn't reject the phenomenon of forgetting; why reject that ideas (or feelings or any other mental state) can be available (or, conscious) at certain times but unavailable (or, un- or sub-conscious) at others? I don't always consciously repeat to myself all the things I know all the time -- "storage" must occur. And I know that through logic and introspection. An organism constantly bombarded with the ever-burgeoning welter of experienced knowledge and emotions would pretty soon self-destruct. Even at the non-mental level, there are feedback mechanisms that block out repeated sensations, which is at least potentially analogous: I forget the exact term, but it's true that certain stimuli have a large effect when first presented but progress toward zero effect if they continue.

Other than that, what Chomsky had to say was spot on.
*Here's why I can say that: How could one know that one had fully explored the contents of one's subconscious? How do you know when you're done with the trip? The boundaries are not obvious, even in principle.

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