Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky had some strong disagreements a while back, about religion in its relation to extremism and terrorism. It was a dialogue that didn’t really go anywhere. Their ideological worldviews were too different. But it occurred to me what exactly is odd about the conflict.
Harris believes there is something inherent to certain religions and to the religious mindset in general. Chomsky takes the opposite tack by emphasizing conditions and context. Islamic terrorists are the result of a half century of geopolitical machinations that involved Western governments eliminating secularism and promoting theocracy.
It’s a difference of whether one emphasizes civilizational war or common humanity. The divergence of these worldviews extends back to the Enlightenment and even further back to the Axial Age.
That isn’t exactly what I want to discuss, though. It came to my mind that these two thinkers switch positions when it comes to the human mind. Harris denies that there is an inherent self, whereas Chomsky has long argued that there are inherent modules within the mind.
Both seem inconsistent, but as mirror images of each other. Some have noted that Chomsky’s linguistic theory doesn’t fit his political ideology. There is a drastic mismatch. Chomsky dismisses this as two separate areas, as though the human mind and human society had nothing to do with each other. That is odd. Harris, as far as I know, has never even attempted to explain away his inner conflict.
Most on the political right would argue that nearly everything is inherent: human nature, language, culture, religion, genetics, biology, gender, etc. It is assumed that there is a fundamental, unchanging essence to things that determines their expression. I disagree with this viewpoint, but at least it is consistent. There are other areas of inconsistency on the political right, some real whoppers such as with economics. Yet for this set of issues, the greater inconsistency appears to be on the political left.
2 thoughts on “An Inconsistency on the Political Left”
Chomsky’s views are not inconsistent, Benjamin. His position on language acquisition has always posited a bifurcated model, whereby every human being is born with a general language learning capacity that is subsequently used to learn the specific language of the community in which he/she is brought up in. In other words, there is, yes, a general species-wide “inherent module” in the human mind but it is used to acquire a specific language on the basis of the specific context in which the child lives. An analogous kind of contextual specificity and learning could be applied to the formation of Islamic terrorists. Hence there is no contradiction between Chomsky’s linguistic views and his political views.
I understand your position. I and many others take a different perspective. But I and many others could be wrong. I’ll keep your view in mind. Maybe I’ll come back to it later on with fresh perspective. Until then, I don’t feel like arguing about it. I’m just not in the mood at the moment.
I’ll respectfully agree to disagree for the time being, whether or not you do the same. It’s not that the topic isn’t worth debating. I’m just preoccupied at the moment with writing other things. And my time is limited. That said, feel free to elaborate on your position, if you so desire. I’m open to being persuaded. I don’t mind changing my mind. This post was just a thought I had and I’m not overly attached to my opinion expressed therein. I’m not feeling defensive about it.
As for Chomsky’s modular theory, I’m convinced that it has been weakened and contradicted by the evidence I’ve so far seen. I’ve written about it before. So I’m not interested in repeating myself here. But I might write more about it in the future. It certainly is an interesting topic. And if I learn something new, I could change my mind about this as well. I have nothing against Chomsky.