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Entries by Stuart W. Mirsky (96)


More On Chomsky and Language: Its Nature and Acquisition 

I've been critical of Chomsky's theory of language here based on having viewed several of his talks and interviews on Youtube from over the course of the last 40 or 50 years. Seeing little change in his explanations, examples and claims over that period, I've concluded that he hasn't made all that much progress since his earliest theories about the innateness of language. But perhaps I haven't been totally fair to him because in at least some of the later talks he offers a more concrete thesis about what he means when he refers to the sudden occurrence of language in humans (which he places as occurring somewhere in the past 70,000 years or so). He argues that since language requires a computational capacity and there is no evidence for language-capable thinking in human artifacts prior to that time (but indirect evidence of it, in the presence of symbols, art and decorative imagery in the archaeological record, from at least around that period), this capability must have appeared in one human (because it involved a mutation) at some point back then. And it must have occurred full blown. . . .

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Chomsky on Language: Its Use, Acquisition and Value

Frege and Russell made language central to philosophy in the twentieth century and Ludwig Wittgenstein made ordinary language the core of our interest, how it shapes our thoughts and deeds, how it structures our picture of the world. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky came on the scene with a radical new take on language though, a new take that partook of old ideas. Picking up from the 17th and 18th century thinkers, particularly the rationalist tradition but also the early empiricists, Chomsky argued that language was so complex that it could not possibly be merely learned by us as children. Rather, he posited, there must be a deep, inherent set of rules encoded in our brains which enable language to grow in us the same way the human embryo grows arms and legs, the infant matures, the child passes through puberty, etc. Language, that is, on his view had to be inherent in creatures like us or it could not occur at all.

The old empiricist tradition which had challenged rationalists like Descartes and rationalist reformers like Kant and others writing in his wake, must have gotten it wrong, Chomsky argued. Kant and his supporters had it right: There must be a structure to experience which arises in the brain itself and which is built in, not learned by trial and error of the organism. The old empiricist idea of the tabula rasa had to be mistaken. . . .

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Truth and Trump

Updated on May 4, 2018 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

So why does truth matter? Why not lies when lying serves our interests better and we can get away with it? What's the big deal with telling the truth, respecting the facts? Doesn't everyone have his or own "truth," i.e., his or her own way of understanding their world? Can we deny the right of each to believe as he or she wishes? And if what we believe conflicts with what someone else claims is true, why should we trim the sails of our own beliefs to their wind? Who do they think they are anyway? Is their "truth" better than ours? . . .

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Faith, Metaphysics and Belief (Second Draft)

This is a second draft of an essay I am hoping to include as a supplement to Value and Representation (an early draft of which is offered below), possibly to publish the two together.

My earlier work, Choice and Action, left some matters insufficiently elaborated to my way of thinking, at least it appears to me to be so in retrospect, and it now seems important to plug those gaps. Value and Representation, when completed, will address the question of how valuing works as a necessary feature of our kind of cognitive capacities (which produce a life of using and relying on reasons), an explanation to which I alluded all too briefly in that earlier book.

This essay addresses the other gap I left: the question of how religion qua the spiritual project in human culture provides a basis for arriving at and defending our moral judgments. Most in the modern world think it important to divest moral or ethical questions of specifically religious concerns and this has led to much sturm und drang in philosophy since, bereft of some metaphysical justification, moral judgments seem to hang loosely in a kind of cognitive limbo. We cannot find consensus on whether they are rationally derivable from the rules of reason itself (Kant) or are merely the feelings we have or learn in our lives, converted by some linguistic legerdemain into fake propositions (emotive expressions masquerading as cognitively significant thoughts). Since arguing that moral claims are intuitively established fails (we obviously don't all share the same intuitions even if many of us share some) because of the need for them to be arguable if they are to work as advertised, and since religious claims are inherently contentious with no obvious linkage to moral matters other than the fact that many moral beliefs in human history appear to rest on religious belief, we are left with a lack of support for our moral judgments as moral judgments.

But if there is nothing underlying them, moral judgments must seem to be no more than a kind of fakery, and then anything pretty much goes. But clearly THAT is not how we live our lives. This essay, therefore, aims to revisit the possibility of lodging moral claims in the spiritual dimension of human experience.

Without arguing for any particular religious point of view, I want to make the case that there is a commonality in the many expressions within human cultures of the religious enterprise and that that commonality is precisely where the moral question comes to rest. I want to make the point, further, that religion is not just some has-been project of the human experience but that, whatever the successes or failures of its particular expressions in the history of our species, it remains a continuing and vital aspect of human life.

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Assorted Thoughts on the Implications of the Is/Ought Dichotomy for Moral Judgment

Last week I had a brief exchange with a philosopher in the Midwest, who is pursuing a project to explain why our value judgments should not be cognitively disqualified as merely emotional expressions of personal likes and dislikes. His view is that normativity, the reference we make to our valuational standards and our behavior in accordance with them, is as integrally involved in the presumably objective discourse of science as it is in our moral claims. Therefore, there is no strong reason to reject the notion that our moral claims have cognitive content just as our descriptive claims do. By showing that normativity plays an integral part in scientific (purely "descriptive") claims, he aims to show that being normative is not disqualifying for moral judgments as such.

I think he makes an interesting point although I think he errs in equating valuing (including the moral sort which is, after all, the controversial kind) with so-called normativity. So I thought I'd repeat here a few of my comments to him (though I will not include his own remarks unless and until I check with him about his willingness for me to do that).

One point I took him to be making was . . .

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Second Part: Value and Representation (1st shot at it)

We value things in many different registers. Some we call good or bad, others right or wrong and others, beautiful or ugly. Some, too, we judge true or false—for even truth and falsehood can be understood as a form of valuing.

The status of being true is ascribed to statements when these are thought to match what they are statements about and in so doing provide better guidance for speakers and their interlocutors in the course of choosing which statements to rely on when acting. We have the idea that truth is whatever we say insofar as it matches how things really are in the world. It is this kind of picture that we have in mind when we speak of truth.

But how do we know there is ever any actual matching between the words spoken and the world we speak those words about? After all, the world we know (that we can see, speak of, etc.) is contained in our thoughts about it, both expressed publicly or privately considered, and so is always embodied in language in some form. There is no distinct reality apart from what we know of it or can, at least in principle, know of it. If there is language and world, it is yet always the case that the world is already entirely contained in our language. It’s not that we don’t acknowledge a world beyond the linguistic, of course, but that the very notion of the world, in all its ramifications and variations, is only extant, as notion, in the expressive capacities language provides us with.

But this only means that the dichotomy between language and world that we recognize is somewhat artificial. We must assume a world about which language speaks, towards which it is directed, because language, itself, makes that dichotomy so. Language delineates a world but it’s not as if there is language and world, one apart from the other, for language implies the world and the very idea of having a world implies a language in which it is had.

Thus we assume the language-world dichotomy and, in doing so, live within it. Thus, too, the notion of truth as match between words and the world arises. But to the extent we are inside that world it is not the matching that characterizes the truth status of a belief but the effectiveness of it, i.e., that when we rely upon it, it works. . . .

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Value and Representation -- Third Draft

It's taken a while but here is the third draft of my earlier piece of the same name. It is now much longer so the only part reproduced here is the first third which roughly follows and expands upon the initial draft. When it's done I hope to have a substantial paper plugging in the gaps I left in Choice and Action, my small effort to address issues of moral philosophy (ethics) in book form. Unfortunately I concluded, after re-reading it that there was a significant element I had left seriously under elaborated. Perhaps it wasn't essential to the final conclusions of that book, but it forms a crucial underpinning for those conclusions.

This new version tries to take account of, and to answer, some of the criticisms offered by readers here of the first version. It is by no means complete yet, though. When finalized it will include the other two sections (I think), if they continue to seem to warrant inclusion, of course. The synopsis of the full paper follows:

That values and facts are logically distinct, neither implying the other in any actual judgment, is an old story since Hume, the resultant fact/value dichotomy challenging thinkers to account for the significance we typically apply to moral judgments ever since. Of course, no one thinks it unreasonable to look to one’s own needs or wants in most cases but, when following a moral course, we suppose we must find reasons to subordinate our own interests to those of others. But what fact makes this so? What is it about the world, or about some actions or objectives we may have within it, which provides us with reason to put our own interests aside? If valuing is nothing more than finding ways to satisfy our particular momentary needs (or expressing personal sentiments, as suggested by Hume), then the moral type of value must stand on quicksand—dependent on the next feeling we may have and the next. Moral valuing then can differ in no significant way from any other craving or desire we have, unrelated to any fact of the matter beyond the occurrence of the motivation itself and the fact in the world that motivates us. In what follows, I attempt to show that it is not facts that support our moral choices but a valuing mechanism which infuses our total experience and which joins with the representative power of language to make even discourse about facts, themselves, possible.

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