Chomsky on Psychology

Noam Chomsky interviewed in 1977 by David Cohen on the topic of psychology

Submitted by Choccy on July 28, 2011

QUESTION: Do your views about Man hint at some kind of sympathy with a man like [R. D.] Laing who sees many mystical elements in Man, that are maybe too random to be encompassed by a finite science?

CHOMSKY: I would look at it differently, I think. I would just take it for granted that a human being is a biological organism like any other. It's a biological organism with a very unique intellectual capacity that we are only barely beginning to understand. I think our intellectual capacities are very highly structured. They are our biological specialization. These biological structures enable us to construct extremely rich, very penetrating systems, scientific theories if you like. Some of them are common sense. Some of them are articulated, which allows us to understand things rather deeply, far beyond any evidence that's available to us. However, these same principles which give such enormous range to our system of understanding also limit its scope. These two facts are very closely linked together. Any sort of principles that enable you to construct a rich theory on the basis of limited data, also is likely to limit the class of possible theories that you can attain. Now it may very well be among the theories that we are able to attain by our biological endowment there is included the theory of mind, or it may be among the theories that we are not able to attain is included the theory of mind. In that case, it will appear that human beings have mystical, unintelligible properties because we as biological organisms will not have within our range (which is obviously a finite range) the theory which would, in fact, explain it. There's nothing inconsistent about that. We are biological organisms. We are capable of constructing certain systems and understanding certain scientific theories. It's an open question whether those scientific theories happen to include the true theory of some domain that happens to interest us. It may or it may not. If it does not, that domain will appear to be mystical. It will only be a higher organism or a differently endowed organism that will understand it. But I think that's about all that can be said.

QUESTION: So, you think it is finite? Professor [Michel] Jouvet told me that he thought psychology is so finite it's about reached the end of the road. Presumably you see a time when it will have reached the end of the road.

CHOMSKY: I think human intelligence will reach the end of the road except for details. We'll always be able to learn more details, more specific facts. I think it's quite possible, at some point, we will have exhausted our intellectual capacities in some domain. And, I suppose, at every stage of history that seemed to have happened, it turned out to be false. I think one could build a kind of case, a mildly persuasive case, that we have reached a stage not in psychology but in many other domains. A very striking fact about twentieth-century modernism is the move in one area after another, in art, in poetry, in music, in certain parts of science, into a kind of unintelligibility. I think there's no period in the brief history of Western civilization in which the creative achievements of artists were so remote from the common consciousness and understanding of non-artists. I think it's conceivable that this does indicate a reaching the limit or approaching the limit in certain domains of intellectual and creative achievement.

QUESTION: Is that true of psychology?

CHOMSKY: Frankly, I don't think it's true in any sense of psychology. Psychology has barely come into existence. It's just beginning to ask some of the questions that might lead to a future science. But someday it will happen -- precisely because we are biological organisms with fixed capacities that provide both the range and, ultimately, the limit of our understanding. ...

QUESTION: Ever since your work became so influential, there's been a tendency to try and construct a grammar of non-linguistic kinds of human interaction. Is it likely that the model of language will turn out not to be a unique model?

CHOMSKY: Well, it depends. I think myself -- and this is speculating -- we don't have the results or the knowledge at this point. But I think it's very likely that the grammar of the system of language does reflect a special faculty of the mind. I think it would be surprising if there were very striking or strong analogies between our innate capacities to acquire linguistic systems and our innate capacities to acquire an understanding of social reality or the physical world. There's no particular reason why they should be modeled on the same set of principles. But, at a certain high enough level of abstraction, the systems will of course observe similar principles and be in some way interrelated. However, I think I wouldn't suggest if someone is interested in social interaction that they should try to apply the model of transformational grammar. But what I'd do is approach the problem in the same manner which is borrowed from the physical sciences -- namely, to ask, what is the system, what is the system of belief that governs the behavior we are observing? Let us discover the competence that underlies the behavior of a person in a social situation if that is that the topic. And having developed an understanding of that competence, that internal system of beliefs and knowledge, then we have first to ask the question, what is it that's learned? Let us discover as scientifically as we can what we can about the system that's been acquired and call it the grammar, if you like it. Then, having, to the extent that we can, answered that question, we can sensibly raise the question of learning for the first time. The question of learning is the question of how that postulated system arises. On the basis of interaction with the environment, the question about learning can't be asked except to the extent that we already have some picture, some postulate, some concept as to the acquiring of the system. So, in this respect, I would think that any approach to psychology ought to follow the model of linguistics or, I hasten to say, it's not the model of linguistics but the model of any rational endeavor. And the fact that psychologists regard that as strange and curious is just a comment on how remote that kind of psychology is from rational endeavor and from the sciences in particular.

QUESTION: Do you think that stems from the American preference for studying actions rather than thought?

CHOMSKY: Well, now you've raised the question of why behaviorist psychology has such an enormous vogue, particularly in the United States. And I'm not sure what the answer to that is. I think, in part, it had to do with the very erroneous idea that by keeping close to observation of data, to manipulation, it was somehow being scientific. That belief is a grotesque caricature and distortion of science but there's no doubt that many people did have that belief. I suppose, if you want to go deeper into the question, one would have to give a sociological analysis of the use of American psychology for manipulation, for advertising, for control. A large part of the vogue for behaviorist psychology has to do with its ideological role. Behaviorist psychology is pretty empty as an intellectual pursuit, in my opinion. But it does have an important ideological role. For example, it's considered not nice to treat human beings by the techniques of the police state. It's not nice to coerce people or to control them or to train machine guns on them. But, on the other hand, if you have a mass of people you want to control and you can claim you're not doing anything ugly like that but just applying the methods of science which, as everyone knows, are neutral and good and benevolent and achieve the same result, that's much more palatable. Much more acceptable. So one finds, let's say, in total institutions, in institutions in which masses of people are placed subject to external controls, like prisons, schools and mental hospitals, not quite even that behaviorist psychology is in vogue but that it provides support. It may even sharpen and refine the methods which are known intuitively to anyone who has to control masses of people. It provides a kind of palatable ideology for the application of these techniques of coercion.

QUESTION: [Behaviorist B. F.] Skinner, in fact, says that one of the reasons why he feels badly misunderstood is that people think he advocates greater controls. What he's been trying to do is to show people the way they were and could be controlled so they could guard against it. Is that fair do you think? Or does it go against the whole trend of his thought as you see it?

CHOMSKY: I think one has to distinguish what Skinner himself may be trying to do from something quite different -- namely, the question of why it has such appeal. These may be very different things. As to what he may be trying to do, I can't say. I don't have any idea of what he may be trying to do. I've looked at his work pretty carefully and I have never been able to discover or tried to impute to him any motives in particular. I don't know what they might be. It seems to me that when he gets away from the investigation of partial reinforcement -- when he does things like one finds in Beyond Freedom and Dignity -- it's basically trivial and wouldn't be taken seriously by anyone if it weren't for the fact that it fills a certain role for those who are accepting the system. Now, the role it fills for them may be very different from anything he intended. So, my point is when one gives anything like a close analysis to the system Skinner proposes -- and I'm not talking now of his detailed studies of conditioning and reinforcement, they are what they are, but I am talking about what he calls his extrapolations in which he's showing people how they are controlled, what the system of controls is, and trying to build up a social philosophy -- well, that second Skinner, as far as I can see, is almost entirely empty. You cannot find a substantive thesis that's even worth discussing, let alone refuting. And therefore no serious person would pay the slightest attention to it on the basis of its actual intellectual content. Yet people do pay enormous attention to it and it's enormously influential. The reasons may have nothing to do with content or with what Skinner's intentions may be, which I know nothing about. All I'm saying is that the appeal and the acceptance has to do with other matters: namely, that the system, though quite vacuous, does provide a kind of aura of acceptability for techniques of control and coercion that are very naturally sought in situations where people have to be controlled, coerced and guided. Now I'm not imputing to Skinner that intent. That's my point....

QUESTION: Professor [David] McClelland believes that many of the people who went into psychology did so in reaction to a very strict religious upbringing. Was that so in your case?

CHOMSKY: No, quite the contrary in fact. I was very much involved in radical politics. Involved is a funny word. I was never part of an organized movement. I was very much a loner in that respect. That was my main interest in life by the time I was thirteen or so. I had convinced myself that all of the organized movements, namely, the Communist Party, the Trotskyites, were quite reactionary basically. And, at a kind of fourteen-year-old level, I had worked myself into a left-wing Marxist or Marxist-anarchist position which was critical of any authoritarian tendency and regarded them as, basically, reactionaries of some sort who had taken on a kind of socialist terminology. And I had no particular place to go with this belief till I met [linguist Zellig] Harris. And I met him... he was a very acute social critic. He's never written about it but a lot of people have been influenced by him politically. Surprising people, who passed through his influence at some formative stage in their lives. And I was one. I met him at a time when I was going to drop out of college, which seemed a stupid waste of time. I had no interest in anything I was doing in college. I was planning at that point -- it was 1947 -- to go off to the Middle East and to work on an Arab-Jewish working-class movement of a sort that I dreamed at that time, whether it existed or not, and I'd live in a kibbutz which, incidentally, I later did. Though I had entered college with a great deal of enthusiasm, by the time I'd had two years, I'd had all the enthusiasm knocked out of me. Every course I took convinced me it was completely boring, and not for me. It wasn't till I met Harris that I found anything intellectually stimulating, though my contact with him was originally through radical politics. So that's the actual background...

(Source: Excerpted from Psychologists on Psychology: Modern Innovators Talk About Their Work, Taplinger, 1977 via