One of the great things about coming back to school was the chance to meet so many really smart people. Some of them are even nice. One of my professors (vague identification to avoid slander) took a seminar during his doctoral studies from John R. Searle, who was visiting professor. The professor in question, besides being brilliant, is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I’ve really never heard him say a negative thing about anyone— except John Searle.

He has said repeatedly that Searle was rude, arrogant, full of himself and generally not a good person. However astute his work in linguistics might be, he just isn’t a fun person to be around. I’ve started noticing this as I read more things that Searle has written.

I started poking around after Wood s lot pointed at a great article in the New York Review of Books regarding Stephen Pinker’s recent book on language, Words and Rules. I’ve cited Searle’s work a few times around here, and I was really interested in one of the primary points in that review:

The different logical character of the particular and the general suggests that different cognitive abilities and indeed different parts of the brain are involved in the two sorts of abilities. Studies of brain-damaged patients suggest that this is so. One can have damage to the capacity for memorizing words, without hurting the capacity to apply rules. Pinker’s account here is the most intellectually important part of his book. Recent technological advances in brain imaging, especially functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), can give us information about which structures in the brain are processing which information. The good news, Pinker tells us, is that some recent studies show that different parts of the brain are activated for words and rules, in his special sense of these notions. The bad news is that the different research teams do not agree on which parts of the brain are activated by each process. Much of the importance of this work derives from the fact that if he is right then Noam Chomsky is wrong to think of language competence as a distinct faculty in the brain.

The question is not essentially one of anatomy. It is not whether there is a single location in the brain for the language faculty or two different locations. The question is rather a functional question. Is there one set of functions performed by the brain, or are there two distinct sets of functions? According to Pinker’s theory there are two quite different faculties, and they differ both anatomically and in the principles of their operation. This issue is still very much in doubt.

I’m still puzzling over this bit. On the heels of what I have recently been musing about regarding memory and the amygdala, this sort of bifurcated structure where “words” are processed differently and separately than “rules” seems amazingly close to the distinction between temporal and imagistic emotional memory. This is really exciting stuff (for me anyway). According to the same smart guy mentioned at the onset of this entry, the separation was actually implied by Jakobson long before Pinker got onto it, so it’s not all that new (though it was new to me). Chomsky was certainly aware of the debate over structures of language processing long before Pinker’s book.

Why does Searle assert that this means that Chomsky is wrong? As far as I know, Chomsky wasn’t arguing about anatomy, but rather, language function. Chomsky’s argument is that we are hardwired for language. What difference does it make if the wiring is more complicated than was first thought? Why be so abrasive about it? “A “distinct faculty” does not imply a single location in the brain. I suspect that this agonism is just hardwired into Searle.

I was looking at another article in Reason magazine where Searle takes on the postmodernists:

Reason: One version of “postmodernism” which you discuss is “relativism.” There are many varieties of relativism, and it’s pretty clear from your book that you take the arguments for these views to be pretty bad.

Searle: I think they’re terrible.

Reason: How did you characterize these arguments, and what do you think is wrong with them?

Searle: There are a number of arguments. The one that most affects people today is what I call “perspectivalism.” That’s the idea that we never have unmediated access to reality, that it’s always mediated by our perspectives. We have a certain perspective on the world, we have a certain position in society that we occupy, we have a certain set of interests that we articulate, and it’s only in relation to these perspectives that we can have knowledge of reality. So the argument goes, because all knowledge is perspectival there is no such thing as objective knowledge-you can’t really know things about the real world or about things as they are in themselves.

Now that’s just a bad argument. I grant you the tautology: All knowledge is our knowledge. All knowledge is possessed by human beings who operate in a certain context and from a certain perspective. Those seem to me to be trivial truths. But the conclusion that therefore you can never have objectively valid knowledge of how things really are just doesn’t follow. It’s a bad argument. And that’s typical of a whole lot of these arguments.

Compare that definition of a bad argument with Searle’s own argument for objective knowledge:

The problem that all these guys have is that once you give me that first premise-that there is a reality that exists totally independently of us-then the other steps follow naturally. Step 1, external realism: You’ve got a real world that exists independently of human beings. And step 2: Words in the language can be used to refer to objects and states of affairs in that external reality. And then step 3: if If 1 and 2 are right, then some organization of those words can state objective truth about that reality. Step 4 is we can have knowledge, objective knowledge, of that truth. At some point they have to resist that derivation, because then you’ve got this objectivity of knowledge and truth on which the Enlightenment vision rests, and that’s what they want to reject.

How does the having words (which continually shift in meaning) imply that we can state objective truths about reality? Now that’s just a bad argument. Structurally, the logic in both arguments is the same. Sometimes, logic doesn’t really work to settle disputes. Even Kant couldn’t prove his case without the introduction of faith.

I do love Searle’s take on Derrida though:

Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so, ” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article
about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That’s very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.

Okay, I’m done being Searley. I just wanted to save these bits for my own reference, I’ll try to write something more interesting later.