Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Future of an Instinct

So I've just finished reading a couple more books, namely, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (Jack's comments on tLI) and Sigmund Freud's The Future of an Illusion (which, admittedly, is more of a pamphlet-length essay). However, since I read them more or less simultaneously, I thought I'd go ahead and muse about them at the same time as well.

I did enjoy the Pinker book quite a lot - I'd read another of his books, The Blank Slate sometime back in '05, and liked that book, but it went rather off the deep end towards the end as Pinker misapplied his own notion to ultimate and proximal evolutionary causes of things like art and feminism, which seemed misguided at best, and much much worse at worst. His style however, his decidedly lucid, which is quite helpful for a book that acts as a general overview of where our knowledge of language stood back in 1994. And he doesn't say anything stupid at any point, which is additionally quite helpful.

I had tried at some point, back in college, to read some of Chomsky's writings on Universal Grammar, but have never really gotten very far into any of them, it was very helpful to have Pinker's general overview of Chomskyian linguistics open the book, and ground the work, in general throughout.

There's just something about writers like Pinker and his colleagues (by colleagues, I suppose I am referencing, in general, a list of thinkers that looks something like the list provided by Daniel Dennett in the Preface to his Darwin's Dangerous Idea).

So how then, do I in the same ego-breath, read and find useful a text by Sigmund Freud, founder of one of the most useless metapsychologies of all time? Well, mostly because a lot of his ideas actually are quite useful, no matter how much the evolutionary thinkers dislike him. Personally, I think a lot of Freud is pretty alright, but its just all his damn acolytes that fucked it all up (Jung & Lacan come to mind as the two biggest fuck-ups in the history of psychoanalysis). Future of an Illusion is fun 'cause its mostly just an atheist tract, wherein Freud simply states that human culture has been developing since its primordial days, and that religion was simply a manifestation of the neuroses of mankind's collective childhood.

Most of the details seem pretty outdated at this point, mostly because that sort of time-line view of the development of history is rather out of vogue (despite the best efforts of several neo-Hegelians (see, again, today, Slavoj Žižek)), and Freud, while acutely aware of the implications of evolution, subscribed to a rather backwards (albeit typical for the time) notion of what evolution was, leading to this sense of inevitable progress upward as one moves forward in evolutionary time. Conveniently, Pinker spends some thoughtful time in The Language Instinct, debunking the so-called Great Chain of Being.

I think the main point is that neither book really helps explain all that much, in the end, since a lot of human functionality occurs at a higher level of symbolic process than pure grammar or language generation, so some sort of top-down view of the abstract processes of the mind is necessary, so something like Freudian thought will need to happen eventually to really understand how the mind works (which keeps Pinker's other book, How the Mind Works, towards the bottom of my ever-expanding queue of books to read).


Blogger Jack said...

What I liked about "Language Instinct" was that it was really clear about the main thrust of linguistics today. (By which I mean the linguistics covered in that course I audited, which I'm assuming is fairly mainline thought in the field.) And it brought out the part of X-bar that I think really makes sense: that is, that different phrasal entities are variants of a single conceptual framework.

I feel skeptical about other swaths of linguistics in general, though I don't know enough about the field to either express this completely coherently. I might try to hash something out there later, but I'm running out of lunch hour right now.

It's worth noting at least two things quickly: (1) Chomsky is notoriously dense and over-difficult to read; (2) Chomskian linguistics was built up in a highly theoretical arena and has only been informed with "harder" brain science in the last couple of decades. I ended up with this gut feeling that linguistics as a field wasn't merging itself into that quite the right way.

I think I'm a happier man for never having read anything psychoanalytical.

3/22/2007 2:11 PM  

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