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  1. Christopher Wise
  2. The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge
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  4. Chomsky and Deconstruction: The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge by Christopher Wise

Christopher Wise

This is why those who Copyright material from www. In the case of the term dialectics, this concept is linked to Platonic and Kantian thought, especially in reference to the oral-aural exchange necessary to the discovery of truth. The Socratic philosopher required the bodily presence of the man whom he loved in order to inspire him to find the truth. However, Kantian thought is dialectical in a different sense from what is usually meant in reference to the philosophy of the ancient Greeks.

What I will suggest here is that if Chomsky had adequately treated Kant at the time that he wrote Cartesian Linguistics, he would not only have gained a better understanding of the uncontroversial term dialectics, he would also have been obliged to abandon his scientific theory of universal grammar.

For Chomsky, it is as if the study of language in Germany came to a complete halt after Humboldt died in the early nineteenth century. Perhaps the most influential thinker to come out of the phenomenological hermeneutic tradition in Germany is Martin Heidegger.

In many of his early writings, Heidegger performed careful studies of pre-Socratic thinkers like Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Anaximander in an effort to understand how the thinkers of classical antiquity construed notions of truth before the rise of Platonic Idealism. After Plato, truth is linked to the matter of Logos, which is described as a fire that burns in the mind of the man who is able to correctly ascertain the hidden and true essence of all things. Unlike Aristotle, who located consciousness in the human Copyright material from www.

In Cartesian Linguistics, Chomsky evokes A. All those lacking in this generative seed are akin to eunuchs Cartesian Linguistics In Platonic terms, it is a pharamkon, or a kind of occult fluid. Not only does Plato locate the faculty of reasoning in the human brain, he also suggests that the Logos is beyond the reach of the five senses. This Ideal Word is not accessible in the realm of becoming.

In Platonic terms, the Psyche and Logos dwell in the transcendent realm of Being, not the actual world of becoming. She was unconcealed Truth itself, the disclosure of essence as incalculable event 5. As Heidegger often points out, the opposite of this pre-Socratic concept of truth is not falsity from the Latin falsum , but rather oblivion or forgetting 44— The word aletheia is related to the Greek word Lethe, the river of forgetting. This ancient Greek notion of truth undergoes a transformation in the thinking of Plato. It is Plato, Heidegger observes, who transforms the notion of truth, so that it comes to mean competence, correct perception, or ratio in its Cartesian formulation.


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Heidegger observes then that truth and falsity must be thought of in relation to one another. Another way to say this is that the empirical trace is always already a trace of the real. The Greek notions of truth as aletheia or unconcealment and the false as pseudos or a concealment that unconceals were later displaced by the Latin notions of truth as veritas or the correct and falsum or the incorrect.

After the Romans, the false is forever equated with the wrong use of reason. For the pre-Socratics aletheia is better construed as an event that beings in the world apprehend: it is not a matter of competent, adequate, or correct perception of objective form. This means that there is a gap, veil, or blank space between surface and deep structure, or—in Derridean terms, Copyright material from www.

Unlike Heidegger, who seeks to overturn the Western metaphysical tradition, and who attempts to break from modern notions of dialectics, Chomsky offers no alternative to dialectics, a term he claims he does not comprehend. However, Chomsky asserts that universal grammar is a real albeit abstract structure that dwells in the human mind, and he claims that spoken and written articulations of language offer competent representations of these real but empty mental phenomena.

Yet, when he is pressed to clarify his dependence upon this well-worn metaphor, Chomsky will insist that it should not be taken literally but is merely a figurative means of understanding the relation between inner and outer linguistic form. Here, as elsewhere, Chomsky oscillates between the literal and figurative meanings of his favorite tropes, sometimes asserting their scientific value and sometimes falling back upon their merely poetic value as figures. For Plato, the armillary sphere is a working model of the human mind. At the center of this ancient device burns a ball of fire of the Logos, also described as the transcendental seed that the divine creator planted in the brain.

The Logos is our rational faculty, but it also is the post-Platonic Greek Copyright material from www. Thoughts rotate around this burning ball of fire, much like the heavenly planets orbit around the sun. On the widest metal band of the armillary sphere may be found the signs of the zodiac, or constellated images of the stars that dwell, not only in the starry cosmos, but deep within the human interior.

The beautiful form in Greek metaphysics literally glows: it radiantly shines forth, allowing the philosopher to behold its true essence. Plato asserts in The Phaedrus that, while most of us can only see through a glass darkly, the philosopher understands that an essential and radiant beauty dwells within all objects.

The philosopher is the rare man who sees correctly: his vision can ascertain the true essence hidden within all things. If he can penetrate into the truth of things, it is only because the radiant and constellated forms that he beholds already reside within him. While it may be anachronistic to speak of competent perception in Plato in terms of dialectics, there is certainly a sense in which true vision in this model implies the correct subjective perception of objective form.

Although zodiac constellations are not the same as computer hardware, in both cases the human brain is imagined as a kind of machine that is equipped with mental forms and that is designed for calculating the truth. This means that questions about how this calculating machine achieved its current state of complexity may be dismissed as an unscientific conundrum.

Such terms imply the existence of a designer, but Chomsky ignores the theological implications of his language. The hardware of the mind is a scientific fact, of which Chomsky is certain. The fact is a fact, but also a tautology. In the case of the latter, Chomsky insists that certain individuals are genetically endowed with superior mental constitutions enabling them to excel in ways that are essentially mysterious Chomsky on Democracy and Education Like the innate structures that he calls universal grammar, these innate aesthetic principles are embedded in our human nature.

As is true of his scientific theories of language and aesthetics, Chomsky illustrates his scientific theory of universal ethics with recourse to a metaphor in which the human brain is once again compared to a calculating machine that is designed to make competent moral decisions. While there is nothing but the promise of success at present, Chomsky remains optimistic that his theory will eventually prove tenable.

He also does not recognize the overtly theological dimensions of this metaphor, which implies the existence of a designer of the ethical machine that he believes we are. The perceiving subject beholds an objective form that is an adequate representation of a mental structure that already exists in the human interior. Chomsky claims that he does not posit any Kantian a priori categories of thought in his linguistic writings. Perhaps as a response to his critics, Chomsky has increasingly sought to distance himself from representational linguistics, but without abandoning his theory of universal grammar.

The external word mirrors the internal word. Kant observes that absolutely everything that is empirically significant is significant only insofar as it has been activated within a specific empirical setting.

Chomsky echoes Kant in denying that these mental categories are supernatural, or that they exist in any Platonic heaven. Chomsky therefore describes language acquisition as an event that happens in both time and space. Kant too insisted that his a priori categories of thought required given concrete situations to be activated, and he also insisted that their existence apart from the occasion of their activation was insignificant.

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The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge

For Kant, empirical reality necessarily involves spatial and temporal relations. This means that, for a phenomenon to be a phenomenon, it must exist in both space and in time. Thus a system of concepts is activated in the listener. But, once the internal language system is activated, the importance of an external stimulus is almost insignificant. Chomsky notes that, Copyright material from www. The analytic mechanism of the language But it does not follow from this fact that one has succeeded in articulating a deductive theory of language, rather than yet another inductive one.

However, this is precisely what Chomsky claims. It is that merely labeling him so levels a theoretical distinction that he believes to be important. And yet Chomsky repeatedly asserts that innate mental structures are real but abstract forms that are lodged in the human brain. A surgeon can open up my body and hold my liver in his hand, even if he cannot perceive its metaphysical essence.

But that same surgeon is going to have a far more difficult time opening up my head and holding in his hand the abstract mental structure that Chomsky claims is as real as my liver. In fact, he would find himself in the exact same dilemma as the young Descartes, who spent a number of years dissecting human and animal brains in search of the immortal soul, which he claimed was located in the pineal gland.

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New Horizons — In The Architecture of Language , he similarly states that,. It is an irrefutable proposition that abstract mental representations such as those posited by Kant and Chomsky will always escape investigation, since the empirical existence of a priori categories is necessarily predicated upon their activation in occasional contexts.

For this reason, one Copyright material from www. However, if this is true, then it cannot also be true that his abstract mental objects are as real as the liver since they are, by definition, idealized abstractions, as Chomsky himself acknowledges. In other words, an abstract mental representation can never be objectively real in the way that Chomsky implies because it is a form without content.

If this form were to acquire actual, specific, or historical content, it would no longer be a form without content, but a trace of the real, like the performed epiphenomenon that Chomsky posits as theoretically distinct from what he calls universal grammar. Chomsky oscillates in his descriptions of universal grammar, which is sometimes described as an abstract and permanently inaccessible mental phenomenon and sometimes described as an organic entity that is as real as the liver.

In other words, Chomsky seeks to keep his language about human language in place. On the one hand, he may mean that these real structures of the brain are sitting in the head, waiting for their imminent discovery by future brain scientists; on the other hand, he may mean that these abstract representations are a Copyright material from www. My argument here echoes and reinforces the views of I. Later, Robinson wrote the first sustained, book length rejoinder to Chomskyan linguistics from the perspective of the literary scholar.

Robinson observes that Chomsky confuses the literal and figurative meanings of the term universal grammar, asking how it is that Chomsky can repeatedly make the same rhetorical blunder. Robinson does not suggest that Chomsky in any way deliberately seeks to deceive his readers, but that Chomsky seems to be unaware of what he is doing. No confusion should result from this standard usage if the distinction is kept in mind [my emphasis].

But Chomsky sets aside all questions about deep structure at the beginning of his study of the sound patterns of the English language, focusing exclusively on the surface structure for the obvious reason that only the surface structure is actually available for empirical analysis 7. This is so, he admits, for [t]here is nothing in our account of linguistic theory to indicate that the result would be the description of a system that violates certain principles governing human language.

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To the extent that this is true, we have failed to formulate the principles of linguistic theory, or universal grammar, in a satisfactory manner. In particular, we have not made any formal use of the fact that the features have intrinsic content [my emphasis]. It is nonetheless revealing that he is compelled to acknowledge that his lengthy and intricate study of surface structure has revealed absolutely nothing about the existence of any deep structural essences that are hidden in the human brain. In fact, the only thing his study has revealed is that his innate hypothesis is not verifiable, largely because it is only a hypothesis.

It is rather a hypothesis that is offered by the scientist. That the realm of being is other than the realm of seeming is what inaugurated the thinking of figures like Parmenides, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. In effect, the external grammatical phenomenon is a liquid projectile.

Chomsky and Deconstruction: The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge by Christopher Wise

In effect, they are not accidental at all, but intentional. There is therefore a nexus between figurative and literal Copyright material from www. But how do we know that a connecting link exists, if the notion is merely a notion, rather than an observable object? In Heideggerian terms, what Chomsky calls competence is akin to Rede reason or logos and performance to Sprache or mere chatter , whereas Jameson will speak of the linguistic registers of the semantic and the syntactic The Political Unconscious — This pre-Saussurean variety of linguistic thought is called Adamic, after the biblical figure Adam, whose Copyright material from www.

This is possible because the uttered word is imagined to be a correct replica or representation of the thing named, just as it accurately replicates the inscribed word on the human interior.