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Deconstruction and Chomsky

In the rec.arts.books newsgroup Garuav Shah raised a question to which I replied. Here is his question and here is my reply.

Gaurav Shah
I’m not convinced the question makes sense either; I can’t say I have a great understanding of either topic. But Chomsky does talk about our intrinsic grasp of language and the fact that infants learn languages in much the same way all over the world. If true, this means, to me, that the categories that we use language to divide the world into are not quite as flexible as the decons would claim. I believe it is Chomsky’s contention that if one points to dad and says ‘dad’, one’s little dumpling innately knows that one is talking of the person and not, say, the checkerboard pattern on his shirt. It seems to me that Chomsky’s theory of language learning in infants is very different from what it would be if babies’ minds were blank slates to be written on by language.

Ah, I see. You’ve got things a bit muddled. Let us speak of grammar, grounding, and reading, to say nothing of whether walruses have wings.

What you are talking about is grounding. To make it simple consider a dictionary. Every word in the dictionary is described in terms of other words. If you try to use the dictionary to find out what a word means it only points to other words and you chase your tail indefinitely. Which is to say that the description of words as it is given in the dictionary is ungrounded, i.e., there is nothing in it that everything else rests on.

Now it is pretty obvious (except to some philosophers and literary theorists) that language is grounded in experience; we don’t define “hot” we experience heat and attach a word to the sensation of heat. Except, of course, it is not so obvious after all. Sensations, actions. objects, and people are fairly clearly rooted in direct experience and it is simple enough (comparatively speaking) to assign words to them. These are signs (signifiers in the jargon of semiotics) that point to non-verbal experiences. Non-human animals can do this; vervet monkeys have an elaborate set of warning calls for different kinds of danger, leopards, snakes, et cetera.

However there are a lot of different kinds of words that don’t have this simple structure. Examples of these kinds of words are aggregation or category words, e.g. human vs dad, belief and mode words, e.g. think, pretend, and believe, and words used for grammatical structure, e.g., “the” and “and”.

What is more, we don’t speak and write single words; we construct phrases and sentences. Language has grammar. Where does grammar come from? That is what Chomsky was addressing. It turns out that if you look at it carefully grammar is rather complicated. It is difficult for a scientist to deduce the structure of grammar. How is it, then, that small children the world over learn and use complex grammatical structures? Chomsky’s answer is that the human mind has an innate hard-wired module that has a complex universal grammar embedded in it. That is, when we learn to speak we don’t deduce grammar. Instead we discover it by matching up what we hear against the pre-existing structures in our brain.

There are some difficulties with this notion above and beyond philosophic diddling that have to do with how such a module could exist and how it could evolve and whether the brain structure can support such modules. Leave us not worry about such matters here; suffice it to say that this is a rough exposition of Chomsky’s thesis.

There is a rather general sense in which Chomsky’s thesis is correct; it is pretty clear that there are hard wired capabilities in the brain that facilitate the learning of language and the acquisition of culture. Babies do not engage in a philosophic analysis to determine the difference between mommy, daddy, and being hungry. In turn language and culture are structured around those innate facilities.

So much for Chomsky and innate categories and universal grammar. We are not children. At least some of us aren’t. A child takes its metaphysics from its physiology and from the culture that it grows up in. But even a child can think about metaphysics. Metaphysics by the way is, according to my dictionary, “the branch of philosophy that treats of first principles or the ultimate nature of existence, reality, and experience.” Sounds grim.

Think about it though. Language lets us go a long way beyond the vervet monkey making different warning calls. We can use language to talk about itself. We can create abstractions. And when we do this we incorporate assumptions into our use of language. These assumptions imply unarticulated metaphysical principles. In turn language lets us analyze the implicit unarticulated metaphysics present in particular texts.

Deconstruction is a particular practice for doing this. I say a particular practice because there definite techniques, principles, and gestures associated with deconstruction. (The denial that “definite” applies is one of the gestures or, perhaps, one of the principles. Then again the denial may be a technique.) The essence of the thing is to give a text a close reading and to focus on the implicit hierarchical structures. When one says something one is making little statements along the way of the form “this is worth saying, that is not”, “this is a boundary, that is not”, et cetera. One can look at what is being said by virtue of not being articulated. It is that kind of thing that deconstruction is concerned with.

There is more but I think that is enough to give you a sense of what deconstruction is about. What then about your question about “that the categories that we use language to divide the world into are not quite as flexible as the decons would claim”?

Well, first of all let’s scrap “decons” even as short for deconstructionists. It suggests that there is a body of people with a unified set of beliefs and practices. The use of the term implies that deconstructionists are a category of people on a par with anabaptists or libertarians. (Tea leaf readers, on the other hand, I will accept.) There are people who are principals in introducing deconstruction. There is a body of people, principally French who are principals in laying out the ideas associated with higher critical literary theory (I think that is the right order of collected adjectives – it doesn’t matter except to people who get exercised about it.) Deconstruction is part of the lit-crit scene. Then there is post-modernism which is an amorphous glob that includes lit-crit. These people definitely aren’t a unified camp. Still there are some commonalities.

Neglecting the usual waivers about uniformity of opinion “these people” aren’t saying that categories can be capriciously constructed. They are perfectly willing to accede to the constraints of objective reality as long as you don’t use the words “objective reality”. [To a post-modernist “objective reality” mean approximately “priveleging of right-wing reactionary phallocentric eurocentric dead white male science worshipping”. It’s a religious thing and has something to do with wax dolls and pins – not to worry about it.] The point they are after is that a lot of categories and thinking about categories is only loosely connected with objective reality and has a lot to do with social structure and other dubious sources.

There is a lot to this, particularly if we look at the ordinary elements of our culture, e.g., philosophy, literature, politics, economics, and religion. We live as a matter of course in a world of strange reifications. Things like “inalienable rights” and “race” are social inventions that carry a lot of odd baggage. One can go overboard on this sort of thing and some people do but the principle is sound enough and not particularly exceptional.

See – I didn’t say anything about whether walruses had wings.

This essay is a bit long winded – a common problem of mine. The essential point, which is not made clear in the essay, is that Chomsky and the deconstructionists are concerned with different issues. Chomsky is concerned with an empirical question, Derrida with a philosophic one.

As a further note, some of the more obscure paradoxes of deconstruction are echos of Zeno that were constructed to illuminate problems in Husserl’s phenomenology.

This page was last updated October 18, 1997.