Are We Busted, Irrevocably?

Cross-posted in two other places. Why? Because I can.

By we I mean students of the human sciences.

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Sometime in the early 1970s I read an article in Linguistic Inquiry, the house organ of Chomskyian linguistics, lamenting the lost promise of the Chomsky revolution. As I recall, the lament went something like this: In the early days it seemed possible that a complete grammar of English, or French, or Russian, or Quechua, or any other language was right around the corner. Then the articles began to get narrower and narrower in scope until finally the cutting edge of research discussed mere fragments. And the prospect of a complete grammar for some language, any language? Forgotten.

Almost four decades have gone by, with perhaps as many major revisions in Chomsky’s views on language. I don’t know what the official line is on the state of the Chomsky revolution, but, as far as I can tell, the situation hasn’t changed. It’s not just that the Chomskyians have failed to deliver on early promises, but that linguistics itself remains many. Chomsky never carried the day completely and, while some of the holdouts just wanted to remain stuck with the old ways, just as many wanted to forge ahead, but not under the Chomsky banner. As far as I can tell linguistics is, say, a half-dozen or so competing and apparently mutually incompatible schools that, for the most part, simply ignore one another. Linguists hold no deep conception that is as significant to all of linguistics as evolution is to biology.

And that goes across the board to all the human sciences. The cognitive revolution went flat in the 1980s. The neuroscientists have frittered away two or three decades taking pretty picture of the brain that benefit no one so much as the workers and stockholders of companies in the brain imaging business. Economists have been fiddling while the world economy burns and literary critics have been congratulating themselves on how revolutionary and counter-hegemonic they’ve been.

Up until recently I’ve believed this was the case because the problems are deep and compelling answers are hard to find. And, yes, that is true.

And, yes, I certainly have strong opinions on what approaches make sense, and which are garbage — not for the whole range of the human sciences, of course, but for those areas where I’ve been most active: literary studies, cognition and knowledge representation, cultural evolution. It’s not that I think all extant ideas and approaches are equally worthy. I don’t.

But I have thought that, after all, there is no other way to advance than to let 10,000 flowers bloom.

Perhaps I’ve been wrong. 1000 flowers? Sure, why not? 10,000? Really? Do we really need to sample the space of intellectual possibility at 10,000 points? Rather, are we really sampling the space at 10,000 points? Or are we only sampling the space at 1000 points, but pretending to sample it at 10,000 points by dressing up our ideas in funny but colorful costumes?

Are we bull-shitting ourselves about our intellectual productivity?

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One of the standard ploys that curmudgeonly literary critics have deployed against newer ideas is that these new-fangled ideas with their technical terminology do not reflect any intellectual necessity. Rather, they are simply a response to institutional pressures for idea production. Institutions demand prestige, prestige requires publications, publications require new ideas, so let’s at least give them new terminology, which they’ll happily mistake for new ideas.

That’s the argument — it’s still alive and well. I’ve always resisted it despite the fact that, more often than not, it’s being deployed against ideas I don’t much care for myself. But, if those curmudgeons knew of my work, they’d deploy their argument against it as well, as I too employ abstract concepts and even a strange term or two.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether or not those curmudgeons have a point. Perhaps institutional pressures are bringing about needless over-production of useless ideas. It’s not that I’ve decided that our intellectual problems aren’t all that deep, after all. No, they’re deep. But these many ideas we’re tossing about aren’t plunging into the depths. They’re just padding out the CVs of the senior investigators.

What, then, can we do?

I wish I knew. As long as I can remember there has been calls for intellectual reconciliation and cooperation among disciplines. And those calls continue. E. O. Wilson has called for consilience. Herbert Gintis has called for the unification of the behavioral sciences around the idea of evolution. I’ve made a similar plea on behalf of cultural evolution.

But we are late-comers to this game. Calls for unification had become another genre of academic discourse long before we weighed in.

Can we do nothing? Nothing at all?

Come to think of it, doing nothing might give us a chance to chill out and do some real intellectual work.

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1 Comment

  1. There’s actually a reason for all of these failures. The efforts have all been in the form of seeking the design principle for what was never designed in the first place. Language, cognition, knowledge, human behavior – these are all the products of evolution rather than design.

    But never mind that. The human spirit is indomitable, so efforts to find a design principle will continue. One can always find willing recruits for a wild goose chase.


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