Disappointment in the Intelligentsia of this culture


#1

I just read Steven Pinker’s, ‘the Language Instinct’. I disliked it immensely.

In fact it put me right out of sorts.

From the smug dissmissing of the ‘radical ideas’ of Benjamin Lee Whorf (’'no one is really sure how Whorf came up with his outlandish claims") to the childish indictment of this or that thing as facile and wrong (such as the ‘absurdity’ that ‘we can be coerced into buying by subliminal messages’).

What amazes me so much about his writing stems from his use of the very things he claims have no impact - his rhetorical devices and categorization. This is right; that is wrong. “No one is really sure…”. Who ‘isn’t’ sure, Steven? Do you really mean no one, anywhere, at all? Who did you ask? Did you have a sincere curiosity about this, in any case? Steven, you disappoint me.

The second half of this means, of course, that he can’t examine the impact of others’ language use on him, his life, his well-being. To say that something doesn’t exist, renders it imperceptible for sure. Uh oh. Well, who knows.

I read this book because someone told me Steven Pinker had something to say about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, something damning and clear. I ran into nothing of the sort; just another person muddling through an entire book’s worth of trivia, some interesting (the plural of ‘Walkman?’ Nobody seems to know!) and some (as above) offensive and simplistic. He quotes someone he considers an expert, who says this as an aside to the general point at hand “The thing is: I hate relativism. I hate relativism more than I hate anything else…”.

I suspect that it struck an emotional hot-button in me because I’ve grown tired on the poverty of deep discourse about things I care for. In a reverse-proportional way, the more I discover people who care about what I care about, and think about what I think about, the more shocked and disgusted I feel when I run into mainstream currents and thinkers who dismiss the entire body of my intellectual world out of hand.

Their ‘obviously that thing there sucks’ runs smack into my ‘obviously this thing rocks’ and creates a little explosion of cultural assumption. Unfortunately for them, I feel I can make a strong claim for my position grounded on observation, experience, and critical reflection, whereas theirs seems mostly to run ‘that doesn’t really interest me so it must be [sic] wrong - besides, everybody else agrees with me’.

I think he and Richard Dawkins probably would get along quite well.

In better news, I dug up an article by a fellow also intellectually offended by Pinker’s book. In it he addresses (in the book) Pinker’s rather weird characterization of an experiment between Chinese and American college students on a multiple-choice test, and how he describes the Chinese language (a language which he has not personally studied) in general. The Americans outperform the Chinese by a shockingly wide margin; then, some critics of the test point out that the Chinese students correctly observed several ambiguities in the questions, thus making the available choices impossible to choose from. The Americans had no such problem. Pinker, careful to protect his point that languages don’t affect thought, ascribes the difference to “Chinese students have more college science than Americans”. Uhh…yeah.

Anyway, Alex Gross’s article on Chinese stuff:

http://language.home.sprynet.com/lingdex/bigbird.htm


#2

For tilting at Chomskyian windmills:

http://language.home.sprynet.com/chomdex/rea44.htm#totop

For those rewilders out there who find themselves defending stuff like e-prime against mainstream linguistic academics. And readers of Steven Pinker’s books.


#3

And from this article, about a different Pinker book, an excerpt:

http://language.home.sprynet.com/lingdex/emperor.htm

But the author remains steadfastly faithful to “Universal Grammar,” another Chomskian icon aptly abbreviated as “UG.” We are supposed to believe that “UG” truly explains how all the world’s languages are really saying the same thing in different ways. The problem with Universal Grammar is that it is not really a modern, scientific idea at all but a medievalist notion based on faith and superstition. As George Steiner points out in After Babel:

To the twelfth-century relativism of Pierre Hélie, with his belief that the disaster at Babel had generated as many kinds of irreconcilable grammars as there are languages, Roger Bacon opposed his famous axiom of unity: `Grammatica una et eadem est secundum substantiam in omnibus linguis, licet accidentaliter varietur.’ [Grammar is one and the same following substance in all languages, although it may vary in its specifics]. Without a grammatica universalis, there could be no hope of discourse among men, nor any rational science of language.

Thus, Chomskian notions may have fallen into the same logic trap as these medieval ones, which furthermore go back even further to Aristotle himself:

As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men. But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs, are the same for the whole of mankind…With these points, however, I have dealt in my treatise concerning the soul…“On Interpretation, I” (Peri Hermeneias, translated by Harold P. Cooke)

Thus, Aristotelian logic lays siege to things like E-prime and linguistic relativity for the very important purpose of self-defense. Don’t worry, go back to sleep, Aristotle and Chomsky addressed all these things in their treatises concerning the soul. Nuthin’ to see here. :slight_smile:


#4

I’ve seen something like this when talking to my intellectual friends. They seem to use ‘SCIENCE’ as some sort of club to promote their ideal of techno-utopianism, rather than promote dialogue and exploration of ideas.

I have some sort of inkling that it has something to do with the proliferation of information and the inability to distinguish between data, interpretation, and opinion. I’m not really sure at this time though. I’ll mull it over and hope it doesn’t get washed away in my day to day desperation.


#5

[quote=“Truly, post:4, topic:1298”]I’ve seen something like this when talking to my intellectual friends. They seem to use ‘SCIENCE’ as some sort of club to promote their ideal of techno-utopianism, rather than promote dialogue and exploration of ideas.

I have some sort of inkling that it has something to do with the proliferation of information and the inability to distinguish between data, interpretation, and opinion. I’m not really sure at this time though. I’ll mull it over and hope it doesn’t get washed away in my day to day desperation.[/quote]

Some people like to call this attitude Scientism, that is, treating a particular world-view based at least in part on scientific research (or the perception of it) as an orthodox religion not to be challenged. At best it makes someone a complete ass, at worst it makes someone as dangerous as any extremist. Dangerous stuff indeed.

http://www.neopagan.net/Scientism.html


#6

[quote=“incendiary_dan, post:5, topic:1298”]Some people like to call this attitude Scientism, that is, treating a particular world-view based at least in part on scientific research (or the perception of it) as an orthodox religion not to be challenged. At best it makes someone a complete ass, at worst it makes someone as dangerous as any extremist. Dangerous stuff indeed.

http://www.neopagan.net/Scientism.html[/quote]
Thank the land! At least SOMEONE besides me recognises this!


#7

I’ve begun referring to the scientific establishment as the “Priesthood of Scientists,” in part to remind myself that Scientism functions as this culture’s religion as well as to turn heads at parties ;). Even fundamentalist creationists attempt to legitimate themselves in terms of science!

I play wordgames with it. For example…
“Scientists have discovered…” becomes “Scientists have divined that…”
“Scientists now predict that…” becomes “The Priesthood has prophesied that…”
“Laboratory tests have shown…” becomes “In their dark inner-chambers, the Priesthood received visions of…”

It tends to make science a lot less boring than it actually is. Whenever I get into heated arguments about Scientism with my scientist friends, my basic argument tends to come down to this: Science takes all the fun out of the world by telling a really fucking boring story.


#8

Scientism - I like it!


#9

http://community.livejournal.com/anti_scientism/profile
;D

I started this community awhile ago, but never ended up posting or even finishing setting it up. Maybe I’ll do that soon (especially now that I see someone actually joined).

But enough of this thread-jacking.


#10

I’m fed up with techno-utopianism. It’s naive and stupid. People have been expecting technology to make our lives better for at least two centuries, probably longer. Has life gotten better? I’ve only been on this planet for two decades, but it seems pretty clear that the answer is “no”. People cheer advances in medicine that may make us live longer. Why are they focused on lengthening the span of life rather than improving its quality? How about making life worth living longer first?

Yesterday I read Murray Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism. If you’re not familiar with the work it’s thesis is that traditional anarchism and all of the developments in anarchism post-1960’s (including anarcho-primativism) are incompatible with one another. In the work Bookchin makes some rather ludicrous but not uncommon claims. Overall he seems like an intelligent individual, but his blindly pro-technology bias despite its overwhelming use to further the aims of governments and industries is intellectually untenable. Further, he propounds science and rationality as the exclusively useful methods directing theory and praxis. Because that’s never proved to be destructive…

Just today I saw a headline quoting some Obama cabinet member to the effect ‘The only thing that can save us from the climate crisis is improving technology’. Really? Considering that the development of technology got us into this mess in the first place? Considering that sustainable technologies already exist and have existed for tens of thousands of years? What is wrong with these people?

Back to the topic of disappointment with intelligentsia… recall in Endgame Jensen’s treatment of Gandhi; that he was one of those figures that even seems to revere but he just couldn’t? That’s how I feel about Chomsky. First of all, he’s boring. Not just his meandering speech, but what he has to say as well. He is critical of a lot of the oppressive structures of contemporary US and world in general, but doesn’t bother delving deeper. He claims to be an anarchist, but as Zerzan has deftly pointed out he’s little more than a liberal.


#11

I’ve heard the word “refinement.” A friend of mine isn’t interested in rewilding because, he says, he wants more “refinement” in his life, particularly in the material sense of the word. He believes that civilization is making progress towards the existence that he wants for himself… the clearest stereo sound, the sharpest kitchen knives. He doesn’t realize how much in the minority he is, coming from this perspective… to believe that he is entitled to have the best of everything. He has justified this standpoint by claiming that civilization will not ONLY bring HIM to a more refined, “enlightened” state, but it will do so for EVERYONE–if everyone would only “get it” and stop buying “crap” at Walmart. (He cannot conceive that some people really don’t have the liquid cash available to buy a $200 appliance that will last a lifetime rather than the (admittedly crappy!) $20 appliance that will last 3 years.)

The thing is: weirdly enough, he means well, and although I strongly disagree with him in this case, I still count him as a friend, and I know that he often has things of value to say.

As I usually do when verbally debating with somebody, I found myself at a dead end after he made his case for “refinement”, and I had no response for him. (I mean, who am I to tell people what they should and should not want, right?) Only later did I realize that I could have told him about obsidian blades. You truly cannot improve upon an obsidian blade, as the sharp edge is one molecule thick!!!


#12

As someone who was once a big science-and-math-geek(-turned-art-geek), I feel compelled to respond…

For a lot of people, yes, science is not much fun, and I can understand/appreciate that perspective. But for others, the scientific process is, indeed, fun! (i.e. not boring).

Speaking from my own experience, I used to treat science/math as a puzzle or a game, a riddle written in its own language. This was INTENSELY fascinating to me and it actually served as my escape from the civilized behavioral crap that I tended to avoid at all costs. In fact, math often put me into a trance state! These days I sometimes find myself wishing I still had that protective mystical shield, but alas, math as a language has fallen by the wayside for me. I could pick it up again, but I’d rather find my peace in pursuits that don’t feel quite so lonely.

Turning back to the history of my relationship with math and science: the more I “advanced”, the more complex and challenging the “game” became–something like Tetris. It was fun while it lasted. But!–At a certain point (and at first this was purely on an unconscious level) I couldn’t commit my life (in terms of a career) to something I personally felt was only for entertainment value. Other academics who stuck with math & science were committed to applying it, in order to advance technology and economic growth. Something in me refused to make that leap. I couldn’t fathom it. I didn’t want my fun game of Tetris to be part of a political/economic/job-centered machine. Something REALLY scared me about words like “practical application”, “engineer”, and “research and development.” I tried not to let it show, but nonetheless I was seriously turned off by those things. Math was fun, but I couldn’t make it the meaning of my existence. Something else was more meaningful. Other experiences had been more meaningful: fishing, hunting for wild strawberries, listening to birds after a thunderstorm that rattled the windows (I was 4 years old and that one made a lasting impression).

When my mathematical mind quit on me… when I stopped feeling motivated to do math, when I saw that clock ticking closer towards the alarm that would scream, “Career! Career!”, and when something in me wouldn’t let me go any further and all of a sudden I couldn’t do math anymore – I was devastated and I blamed myself. I think that on a lot of levels I hated myself for a long time after that. I felt pretty worthless. I used to be exceptionally skilled at math and logic and their attendant languages, and that made my tumble all the mightier. I had gone from being at the top to feeling totally helpless. I had loved to do math more than anything, and I felt utterly betrayed. I found myself thinking, almost aloud, “Why did my mind abandon me? Does my brain hate me and want to ruin my life?”

But now I have finally passed through all of that and I have come out the other side a little bit more… (searching for a word)… three-dimensional (pardon the pun). :wink:

NOW I see that this whole time, my inner self did NOT betray me! It was protecting me from giving my life away (salaried, no less!) to the gaping maw of a culture with a bottomless stomach, that can never, ever, be sated and would remove all of my self-agency…if it only could!

I hope to be able to apply the thinking skills I learned as a fledgling scientist to rewilding. I’m not sure how, but they are certainly a strength of mine and I feel they must be of value.


#13

Rereading this thread once again, and I like it even more. Thanks!


#14

I was so grumpy in 2009. It’s amazing to see the community grow in the past decade.