A reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish tradition in the philosophy of Common Sense - James Kelman

A reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish tradition in the philosophy of Common Sense - James Kelman

James Kelman's wide-ranging exploration of the links between the philosophy of Noam Chomsky, and of the Scottish 'common sense' philosophers. Kelman, a Scottish libertarian socialist and author of wide acclaim, sees both intellectual strands as contributing significantly to our understanding of the rights of the working classes.


I wrote the essay A reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense in 1988 and discuss how it came about in my introductory talk written for the Self Determination and Power event, Govan, 1990. It took place in Glasgow at the Pearce Institute and the key speakers were Noam Chomsky and the Scottish philosopher George E. Davie. It was organised by members of the Free University Network, with assistance from indivividuals associated with the Scottish Child magazine. The organisers received criticism for their staging of the event and so too did the event itself. But there were many who enjoyed it, including Noam Chomsky.

Some people find anathema the phrase “distinctive Scottish Tradition in Philosophy”. Just the phrase alone. It seems to drive them nuts. I’m talking about some Scottish people. And as for “Democratic Intellect”, well, they just cannot handle that one at all. People who use these phrases in any positive sense whatsoever are derided for arguing that once upon a time Scotland was an egalitarian society, a free country where people lived freely. Very few argue any such thing. Nevertheless, all get so accused. Quite often, underlying the hostility is a fairly typical colonial mentality. In Scotland many people are less troubled spending their salaries in the belief that the hegemony of the English traditions in language and most other matters of the intellect is justified on the grounds that without it not only would we have nothing at all, we would return into prehistoric darkness. Let there be light, said the Imperialist; and lo, Light was the name of his army.

A reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish tradition in the philosophy of Common Sense

In 1982 polls indicated that 70% of the U.S. population believed the Vietnam War to have been "fundamentally wrong and immoral" whereas "virtually none of the really educated class or articulate intelligentsia ever took that position." Thus in the face of more than two decades of relentless media propaganda on behalf of the ruling group the great majority of ordinary people had the wit and the will to judge it for themselves. It is absolutely central to Chomsky's thesis that "there is no body of theory or significant body of relevant information, beyond the comprehension of the layman, which makes policy immune from criticism."1 Everybody can know and everybody can judge. Unless we are mentally ill or in some other way disadvantaged all of us have the analytic skills and intelligence to attempt an understanding of the world. It just is not good enough 'to be bad at mathematics'.

The skills demanded of an elderly person playing several cards of bingo simultaneously or for studying thoroughly the form for a big sprint handicap in the heavy going at Ayr Racetrack in an effort to pick the winner; the skills demanded of parents on welfare trying to cope with a family of young children, just seeing they stay healthy from one week to the next: all such skills are there to be developed and could be applied to any subject whatsoever, including subjects like a country's foreign policy or, nearer home, the correlation between cuts in welfare and infant mortality; between cuts in welfare and suicide; cuts in welfare and death from hypothermia; cuts in welfare and local crime and violence; cuts in welfare and drug abuse, alcohol abuse, gambling abuse, prostitution, madness.

No matter the subject under scrutiny certain factors remain the same, we apply our reasoning devices and these devices are interdisciplinary. We apply them in physics, in astronomy, in domestic economy, in horse racing, in joinery, in the creation of art. Logic is a reasoning device; so too is mathematics. They are also activities. We engage in them to find solutions to problems all the time. They are also skills, they can be refined and improved.

By approaching different kinds of problems we apply our reasoning skills in different kinds of ways. We start reflecting on how we use them and see how other folk are faring; we make comparisons and connections, construct theories. This is why poets can discuss methodology with people involved in sculpting marble or rigging up electrical circuits. If we are restricted to one subject only then our ability to reason may stagnate; it will become difficult to reflect on what other folk are doing when they are engaged on subjects not directly related to our own; we will forego the opportunity of keeping an eye on 'the experts'.

Although his name had been known to me I first became aware of Chomsky's work while at university as a mature student but my reading was confined to what he was doing in linguistics and I did not persist; the technicalities of the subject did not interest me especially, nor do I find them especially interesting at the present time.

One of his earliest works was published in Holland when he was 29 years of age; this was entitled Syntactic Structures and it "revolutionised the scientific study of language":2

the revolutionary step that (he) took...was to draw upon (finite automata theory and recursive function theory) and to apply it to natural languages, like English, rather than to the artificial languages constructed by logicians and computer scientists... He (further) made an independent and original contribution to the study of formal systems from a purely mathematical point of view.3

Both finite automata theory and recursive function theory are crucial not only in abstract disciplines like mathematics and logic but in disciplines such as physics, economics, botany, art theory, anthropology; they are also central to the analytic method known as 'structuralism'.

But an understanding of these theories is not at all necessary to appreciate Chomsky's demonstration that an argument used by the U.S. Congress in 1984 with regard to "the right to bomb Nicaragua" could be adopted by the U.S.S.R. with regard to "the right to bomb Denmark".

There again but it is good to know things, not to let ourselves be put off by technical phrases like “finite automata theory”. We don’t have to go away and look up a dictionary, we just keep such stuff in quotation marks.

I want to know about physics. By knowing about physics people have split 'the atom'. Most people do not know what an 'atom' actually is yet by splitting 'it' the world can be destroyed. The worlds of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have already been destroyed, an event described by the 33rd President of the United States of America3 as the "greatest thing in history". I want to know why the most powerful figure on Earth can say that, and if there is any connection between it and the fact that by the end of World War Two the nation of which he is supposedly the boss owned 50% of the planet's wealth. Yet this same nation has only 6% of the planet's population.

And of that 6% (some 220 million folk) about 90% would have owned next to nothing at all. So, in other words, if we take the 6% and divide it by 100 and multiply that by 90, and so on, we see that less than 0.6 percent of the world's population owned half of the world’s entire wealth and material resources. This was back in 1945. I wonder what the figures are now. Maybe also, if I had been given examples like that in primary school, instead of things like apples in baskets and quantities of water in leaky tubs, maybe I might have become ‘good at mathematics’. Who knows.


Chomsky's boyhood in New York had been spent hanging around his uncle's news-stand at 72nd Street and Broadway,

which was sort of a radical centre...in part Jewish working class... Communists...very much involved in the politics of the Depression...all night discussions and arguments...Freud, Marx, the Budapest String Quartet, literature... (From adolescence he was) deeply interested...in radical politics with an anarchist or left-wing (anti-Leninist) Marxist flavor, and even more deeply interested in Zionist affairs and activities - or what was then called "Zionist", though the same ideas and concerns are now called "anti-Zionist". (He) was interested in socialist binationalist options for Palestine, and in the kibbutzim and the whole cooperative labor system that had been developed in the Jewish settlement there...but had never been able to come close to the Zionist youth groups that shared these interests because they were either Stalinist or Trotskyite and (he) had always been strongly anti-Bolshevik.

His father had been a linguist and from the age of 12 he was put to an experimental, progressive school. His years at college and university were also noncomformist. He came under the influence of the philosopher and mathematician Nelson Goodman. And also Zelig Harris, one of the foremost names in linguistics, although Chomsky has said that "it was really his sympathy with Harris's political views that led him to work as an undergraduate" in the subject. Apparently Harris used to conduct his lectures in a cafe and continue them during the evening back in his flat.

These details can be decisive; so-called background or personal information is often the difference between taking us into the work of somebody or not. Just knowing that Zelig Harris had ‘political views’, that his lectures and personality could keep students stimulated for hours, it’s interesting stuff. What kind of a man was he? What was it about linguistics that drew him to the field? The way most present-day educational systems operate we are to study the work and leave the somebody out of it. Never you mind if that literary critic does happen to be a fascist. You are hereby sentenced to spend the following year studying his theoretical work on the art of poetry. And for the rest of your life you are duty-bound to take it into account whenever the topic of literature arises.


During a recent series of lectures5 Chomsky was asked about his method of investigation, given that he appears "to reject Marxism and materialism (and) investigation involves" both. While denying that he does reject them Chomsky demonstrates the often irrelevant and stultifying effect of fixing labels to ideas. Ideas are not static; they do not belong to anybody, they are simply the outcome of the "common intellectual background of reasonable people trying to understand the world". 'Marxism' consists of an indefinite number of ideas and in terms of the history of ideas 'it' has already been incorporated. And as for 'dialectical materialism', he "personally, has never understood it (but) if other people find it useful then fine, use it."

Chomsky went on to say that he has no particular method of investigation at all, what he does is "look hard at a serious problem and try to get some ideas as to what might be the explanation for it, meanwhile keeping an open mind about all sorts of other possibilities".

Such a statement might sound surprising, almost like an exercise in mystification, as though he is trying to make what he has achieved accessible but the route by which he travelled inaccessible. This is common amongst professionals and 'experts' generally, including many so-called teachers. We try to follow the process by which they arrived at a solution, then discover the destination becomes as mysterious as the route.

It is a serious problem. Whole areas of experience and knowledge are hived off from ordinary men and women and children. Society is controlled by those who are 'paid to know', the specialists. In recent years the most famous international expert on global affairs has probably been Henry Kissinger, someone whose downright "ignorance and foolishness" Chomsky describes as a "phenomenon".

Nevertheless, when sponsored by the might of the U.S. military, the power exercised by such a person is life or death - as in Angola for example, where he "tried to foment and sustain a civil war simply to convince the Russians that the American tiger could still bite." Human suffering is of no account and the economic cost is next to irrelevant since in political affairs of state such costs "are always public" anyway; only the "profits are private". All talk of morality as a value is naive. If morality does exist it is to be regarded as a separate field of endeavour, like experimental physics or mechanical engineering or opera. Even genocide is consigned to the realm of tactics and becomes 'wrong' only when its "effects are debatable and are likely to provoke hostile reactions in world capitals".

But at its official level international reaction is fairly predictable. It depends on who is doing what and to whom, and the profit involved. In 1974 the country of East Timor, with a population less than that of Glasgow, was attempting to determine its own existence; like Angola this was after the horrors of Portuguese fascist colonisation. Four years later a quarter of its people had been massacred after an invasion by Indonesia, 90% of whose military supplies came directly from the U.S.A.:

but while (they were) the major foreign participant in the slaughter, the others tried to profit as they could and kept their silence. In Canada, the major Western investor in Indonesia, the government and the press were silent (while in France) Le Monde reported in 1978 that the French government would sell arms to Indonesia while abstaining from any U.N. discussion of the invasion and in general doing nothing to place ‘Indonesia in an embarrassing position.’

This is only one instance from an enormous number cited by Chomsky. But after a time statistics dull the senses, including those concerned with wholesale slaughter, as he reminds us:

You see what they mean when you look more closely at the refugees' reports: for example, a report by a few people who succeeded in escaping from a village in Quiche province (Guatemala) where the government troops came in, rounded up the population and put them in the town building. They took all the men out and decapitated them. Then they raped and killed the woman. Then they took the children and killed them by bashing their heads with rocks.

Reports of atrocities by refugees are difficult to cope with. We are not used to such testimony, not unless, perhaps, the refugees are in flight from the same ideological enemy as ourselves.

If Chomsky has a specialist subject then it might be argued that it is not linguistics, nor the philosophy of language, rather it is U.S. global policy, with particular reference to the dissemination of all related knowledge. When he says he has no 'method of investigation' we would be as well asking to what the term could refer. Is having a 'method of investigation' the same thing as having a system of rules and procedures worked out in advance so that we know how to proceed in problem solving? Should we be thinking of 'induction' or 'deduction', or 'dialectics' or 'structuralism'? What do these things mean? Before going off to investigate something are we supposed to go away and learn a method of investigation?

Maybe by 'method' some people just mean they prefer working with a fresh pot of tea at the ready, a packet of cigarettes within reach and soft music in the background. They might even be referring to a preference for observation and experimentation as opposed to sitting about chatting and thinking aloud, in the style of some old Greek philosophers (and some contemporary ones as well, not just from Greece). What seems clear is that restricting yourself to one particular method will just make life more difficult. Everything and anything should be available, including intuition. Einstein was a staunch believer in intuition. Without such a reasoning device a great many scientific advances would not occur. It is the ability people have to soar above the boundaries of one field and land not in another field but in a street.

In his introduction to Chomsky's work in linguistics John Lyons suggests that it is necessary to meet him "on his own ground". This can imply the need to embark on a concentrated study of linguistics or the philosophy of language. But an insight into the technical, the formal problems confronted by Chomsky, may be possible without that. It also may be possible to see where these formal problems impinge on matters of more general, political concern.

Rousseau is an important thinker for Chomsky. It was what Rousseau perceived as the strength of the will to self determination that led him to propose "the struggle for freedom (as) an essential human attribute." Rousseau also concluded that

the uprising that ends by strangling a sultan is as lawful an act as those by which he disposed, the day before, of the lives and goods of his subjects.

The sultan has no inherent rights. Beyond civil society there is an authority to which he is as subject as the retinue of men who helped him dress for breakfast that morning. This authority does not derive from outwith the realms of humankind. It is not God. It is not superhuman in any form. This is the authority of natural law which inheres in every woman and child and man.

Rousseau sent the essay in which that appeared to Voltaire whom he much admired, aside from his atheism which he detested. But Voltaire did not appreciate the argument at all; he said it made him feel like "walking on all fours".5 He thought the essay was affirming some sort of 'golden age' where primitive folk would be free to be primitive once the shackles of civilisation were burst asunder.

But Rousseau's argument is more powerful than that. When he saw "multitudes of entirely naked savages scorn European voluptuousness and endure hunger, fire, the sword, and death to preserve only their independence" he was seeing a basic premise that had to be true beyond any shadow of doubt: it is
from human nature that the principles of natural right and the foundations of social existence must be deduced... the essence of human nature is human freedom and the consciousness of this freedom.
Human freedom is so inalienable a right that it can scarcely be described as a 'right' at all, it is the very essence of what it is to be a person.


When Chomsky started in linguistics he accepted the orthodox view which was that semantics had nothing to do with the subject. Semantics involves 'meanings', the way that people actually use language, whereas linguistics was to concern language as it already exists. In other words, the subject was restricted to the study of syntax and phonology. To start bringing in 'meaning' was very risky since it implied 'mentalism', having to get involved with events and activities that take place in the mind; and this was awkward, things that happen in the mind are not readily available to observation - we cannot see into minds.

Earlier linguists like Zelig Harris and Leonard Bloomfield had sought to provide a collection of procedures which would "yield the correct grammatical analysis of (any) language" once applied to the raw data. But a formal difficulty in this presents itself over the idea of 'the correct analysis': how can we ever know for certain that the analysis we have is the correct one? Maybe it will just turn out to be one of many.

There is a proposition by Ludwig Wittgenstein, that "when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched."7 At a glance this could suggest a separation between science and life of a kind that will lead to mysticism; but at the core of the proposition and of Wittgenstein's 'picture-theory' in general lies the theory of structure. Two central features of any ‘structure’ are 1) that they are not theoretical constructs (they are not 'man-made' but 'natural'); and 2) that they are sealed off from description.

In this sense no science can ever hope to describe life; it is not possible. "Man is uniquely beyond the bounds of physical explanation"8 and will aye remain so. There is even a mathematical proof we can offer as a demonstration of this courtesy of a theorem formulated by an Austrian mathematician, Kurt Gödel. His theorem makes use of both finite automata theory and recursive function theory.

Chomsky was well aware of Gödel’s Theorem. Even back when he accepted the orthodox view of linguistics - that semantics should be excluded from the study - he had his own distinctive approach:

a linguistic theory should not be identified with a manual of useful procedures, nor should it be expected to provide mechanical procedures for the discovery of grammars... We cannot hope to say whether a particular description of the data is correct, in any absolute sense, but only that it is more correct than some alternative description of the same data... The most that can be expected is that linguistic theory should provide criteria (an evaluative procedure) for choosing between alternative grammars.

In comparison to the Bloomfield/Harris objective, as John Lyons points out, Chomsky's objective here seems quite unassuming, but ultimately it is more ambitious. Einstein's physical system is greater than Newton's because it is more powerful, it copes more adequately with the raw data of the universe. His system can do what Newton's can do, but it can do a great deal more. Yet nowadays we know enough about systems in general to appreciate also that the Einstein version is not the last word, not in any absolute sense. Eventually another system will come to supersede it. Once this point is realized Chomsky's ambitions become clearer, he is seeking a form of ultimate criteria, universal principles by which different grammars may be evaluated.


At least one trap was lying in wait for those social scientists who saw nothing peculiar in isolating language from people; it becomes exposed through the following statement by Bloomfield:

although we could, in principle, foretell whether a certain stimulus would cause someone to speak and, if so, exactly what he would say, in practice we could make the prediction ‘only if we knew the exact structure of his body at the moment’.9

Those who assume freedom as the natural right of all people should reject the statement intuitively. The extended line of thought is instanced again and again by Chomsky, straight from the annals of imperialism, where as late as the mid 1960's a 'think-tank' of eminent, mainstream intellectuals - U.S. scientists - had to go to their work in order to arrive at the startling conclusion that "you cannot isolate (counterinsurgency) problems from people."

Bloomfield's position does recognise that every human being is unique; he knows that no one can ever hope to fully comprehend anyone else. But his particular brand of behaviourism can make no allowance for any genuine freedom in the way a person handles language; there is no room for linguistic creativity. What remains is a kind of pathology, where syntactical components and phonemes are assembled so that eventually a body of language gets constructed, but any resemblance between it and a living force is very slight indeed; the introduction of semantics is akin to the breath of life.

In one of his more illustrious book-reviews Chomsky attacked the extreme branch of behaviourism as it appears in the shape of B. F. Skinner and that approach to psychology which seeks to affirm that "what a person does is fully determined by his genetic endowment and history of reinforcement". Chomsky can barely conceal his contempt: "It would be hard to conceive of a more striking failure to comprehend even the rudiments of scientific thinking."

But it is integral to his approach that you should not halt at the point where something is revealed as false: from there you will make further discoveries by asking "what social or ideological needs" are being served by such a theory.

In the case of Skinner-style behaviourism this is quite straightforwards; in fact Skinner himself has suggested that "the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists - to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies."


Yet a tacit acceptance of this sort of behavioural approach is a feature of those who exercise the controlling interest in western society. It lies at the core of the dogma of imperialism and the unswerving belief that a colonized people has neither the wit nor the will to determine its own existence. Every insurrection becomes the effect of foreign infiltration. There is no such thing as a self-motivating populist movement. Ordinary working people never go on strike except when hypnotised into it by crazed external agitators who have penetrated the shopfloor. Within the terms of this argument folk like Arthur Scargill1 , like Castro, Allende, Mandela, are always puppets of a foreign regime. It is inconceivable that they might create strategies of their own, close to a logical contradiction in fact.

Chomsky offers a great example of this in the person of Ho Chi Minh. For years a variety of western intelligence agencies tried to establish his connection with Moscow but it could never be done. Such a connection could never be discovered: but to suggest the connection might not exist would have required a mammoth leap of the imagination. Instead came the following:

No evidence has yet turned up that Ho Chi Minh is receiving current directives either from Moscow, China, or the Soviet legation in Bangkok... It may be assumed that Moscow feels that Ho and his lieutenants have had sufficient training and experience and are sufficiently loyal to be trusted to determine their day-to-day policy without supervision.

It is only by an extension of the same logic that the 40th President of the United States10 begins wondering, apparently in all sincerity, if Auld Nick, the very Devil himself, could be responsible for the current wrongdoing in the world. It is consistent. The global policy of his government has presupposed the existence of an international conspiracy forever engaged in novel methods of advancing its own "Communist interests while preserving the fiction of 'autonomous' national liberation movements". Thus if the authorities are never brought any evidence of 'spying' they are entitled to suppose their intelligence agents are falling down on the job. If eventually they are forced to concede that their agents are doing their work properly, then they will have to look elsewhere for an answer. At this stage, instead of re-examining the actual premise of the argument - the existence of an international Communist conspiracy - the authorities go veering off into the outer reaches of the theory: enter the alien infiltrator, the superhuman force of evil, he of the cloven hoof. It may be the stuff of comic books but the logic is consistent.

Generally, both logic and mathematics operate as systems of deductive reasoning; they begin from assuming the truth of one fundamental premise or set of premises, and from there any number of statements or propositions can be produced. And all of these statements or propositions will be true for as long as that original premise, or set of premises, itself remains true. But once they start showing too many signs of collapse there is no point trying to shore them all up, the entire edifice probably needs to be reconstructed, and that means a new foundation, one that will hold everything together.

Philosophers have been preoccupied for centuries by the search for that one thing they could see to be true beyond any shadow of doubt. It was this search that led Rene Descartes to his cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am), the one statement about the world he felt able to rely upon absolutely. It made no difference what he was thinking about, just that he was thinking, this was the fact. From that one foundation he went on to demonstrate the existence of God.

The years previous had been difficult in Europe; among other people Galileo, Kepler and Copernicus were discovering things about the physical world that did not seem compatible with the prevailing wisdom, especially that which held the earth to be the centre of the universe. The implications for the Church by this modern line of reasoning were all too apparent to the ecclesiastical authorities of the day - the history of persecution is probably the history of the defence of false premises.

Just about the first move any dictatorship makes on procuring power is to have its right to that power placed beyond challenge. It is achieved by diverse methods; one such is by having the right established not simply in law or by force of arms, but as an actual 'fact of nature', i.e. a law set beyond the reach of mere mortals. Thus comes about the divine right of kings and the infallibility of religious leaders.

The less blatant method is to frame the right in a constitution and have as its first principle that all challenges to The Constitution shall be deemed 'unconstitutional'. In South Africa the African National Congress is the representative voice of the overwhelming majority of women and men who live there; but that voice is always excluded the 'right' to be heard when any 'official' talks begin. Yet if the racist group who hold power there were to include the A.N.C. in these talks they would, in effect, be conceding their own illegitimacy: their 'right' to power is premised solely on their appropriation of the right not to recognise the overwhelming majority of people who live in the place.

And civilized western societies like Great Britain and the U.S.A. are content to concede them that right, they are quite willing to allow the argument from tyranny to reign supreme; so yet another murderous dictatorship is entitled to do whatever it likes, it can change or not change but in the last analysis it is entirely up to itself.


During his revolutionary work in Syntactic Structures Chomsky abandoned a purely behaviourist approach and accepted the primacy of semantics in the study of language.2 Some of the universal principles he sees as part of 'human nature' are grammatical, e.g. rules of transformation, and these he had worked out before his movement away from orthodoxy. But once the way in which language is actually used by people is introduced into linguistics the full complexity of the study becomes apparent, for the matter is thrown right back to what Chomsky calls "Plato's Problem". This is where

Socrates demonstrates that an untutored slave boy knows the principles of geometry by leading him, through a series of questions, to the discovery of theorems of geometry. This experiment raises a problem that is still with us: How was the slave boy able to find truths of geometry without instruction or information?

In his own attempt at solving the problem of how folk seem to know things they have never before experienced, Plato landed in other worlds and previous existences, along with other thinkers both before and since. An extension of the problem concerns creativity in language - not the creativity of people involved in literary art-forms, but the daily creativity of men and women and children as they go about their daily business:

in normal speech one does not merely repeat what one has heard but produces new linguistic forms - often new in one's experience or even in the history of the language - and there are no limits to such innovation.

The importance of this fact for any theory of knowledge is underlined by Chomsky. Language is so rich and sophisticated, capable of such an infinite variety of possibilities, that no strictly empirical approach can hope to account for its existence. Once we are engaged in its study at this level we are in at the heart of the study of mind; "linguistics, psychology and philosophy are no longer to be regarded as separate and autonomous disciplines."

The step Chomsky takes around this point is very bold, very courageous; it leads him away from the vanguard of contemporary linguistics. In philosophical terms he becomes, like Plato himself, a 'rationalist': somebody who believes there are a priori forms of knowledge, i.e. forms of knowledge available to people outwith any experience they may have gained from being in the world. This allows of a solution to "Plato's-Problem" and also to the 'creativity' extension of it referred to above, which derives from another rationalist, Rene Descartes.

The problem is knowledge, how to give a satisfactory account for its acquisition and for the unique application each one of us makes of it. There are some things we know from our experience of being in the world but there are other things we seem to know just by the workings of our own individual minds - mathematical truths for example, the kind of 'truths' that the 'untutored slave-boy' knew.

But there are other sorts of similar truths, such as the 'properties' of God, i.e. 'goodness', 'perfection', 'immortality'; then too there is our knowledge of the connecting links and relations between things and events, for example, our certain knowledge that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, etc. For Chomsky these a priori forms of knowledge will include certain principles of universal grammar; these principles enable human beings to use the language or languages of whatever culture they chance to be born within.


Through the middle ages society had been segmented. In matters of the intellect individual disciplines were inclined to keep themselves to themselves, the physical world consisting largely of a confused jumble of raw data and it was up to each to make what sense of it they could. Alongside the breakthroughs being made in the sciences from the latter part of the fifteenth century onwards there developed a critical interest in mathematical reasoning. Also communication was becoming more public; discussions were taking place between people. Then a hundred years or so later Descartes had his tremendous insight into the possibility of one theoretical foundation being provided for all the sciences. Even bolder, a system as powerful as the one he envisaged might provide a way of working out the connecting links and relations between God and men and things.

Yet he could find no foundation of truth in the world about him, the physical world; there was nothing he could perceive there as being true absolutely. Every last thing was open to doubt. The one and only certainty he had (I think therefore I am) was true by the light of his own reason: Descartes knew that he existed only because he was thinking. There was no evidence for it outside of himself, his own mind. It was a natural judgment, one arrived at purely through his own reason, his own common sense.

Nowadays much of the antagonism toward rationalism results from dogma, straight prejudice against (and confused by) the very idea of 'mind' being 'a place', where principles of reason are 'stored'. In his later writings Chomsky refers always to "mind/brain"; this is a way of distinguishing his own conception. It can deflect the confusion that may arise from conventional thinking, where brain is ‘body’ but mind is ‘mental’, somehow ‘not body’ at all. This sort of 'dualism' is associated with Descartes and others; it makes a clear separation between body and mind, where body is 'physical' and mind is 'metaphysical':

When we speak of the mind, we are speaking at some level of abstraction of yet-unknown physical mechanisms of the brain, much as those who spoke of the valence of oxygen or the benzene ring were speaking at some level of abstraction about physical mechanisms, then unknown.11

Arguments against rationalism and the entire idea of innate forms of knowledge usually revolve round the existence or otherwise of metaphysical entities like 'mind' and 'soul'. But in the above Chomsky is carrying the defence a stage beyond, by suggesting that there is no longer any adequate explanation of 'body'. At the present time of inquiry what we are left with "are a variety of forces, particles that have no mass, and other entities that would have been offensive to the 'scientific common sense' of the Cartesians." He seems to be proposing that if the most elementary 'thing' in the physical world is an infinitesimal bundle of energy - instead of an infinitesimal particle of matter - then there may well be 'places' where innate forms of knowledge can be located after all.

But that aspect of the problem may well turn out to have no solution at all, which last point provides another sharp distinction between Chomsky's beliefs and those of the great metaphysicians like Descartes for whom it was central that the system he hoped to construct would be powerful enough to supply the answers to everything. Chomsky dismisses that as an illusion; no theoretical construct can ever be capable of such a thing.

A way of avoiding the problem is thought possible by some via the work of other folk involved in theory of structure. Jean Piaget12 once suggested that Chomsky seemed aware of only two alternatives in the acquisition and application of knowledge a) innate principles of reason and b) knowledge that we derive directly from the world about us. Whether Chomsky was aware or not - and Piaget's comment came in the late 1960's - Piaget does refer to a third process, that of 'internal equilibration', a process "governed by general laws of organisation" which is 'self regulating'.3 Here Piaget cites the findings of a group of French mathematicians ('Nicholas Bourbaki' is the group's pseudonym); in particular their "discovery of three 'parent structures', that is, three not further reducible 'sources' of all other structures". The three structures referred to are 1) Algebraic 2) Order 3) Topological. This trio encompasses the kind of activities associated with judgment. An entry into this line of thought comes through a look at the Common Sense tradition as it developed in Scotland.


Chomsky sees "libertarian conceptions (being derived) by Rousseau from Cartesian principles of body and mind", then being "developed further in French and German Romanticism" and on through the "libertarian social theory of Wilhelm von Humboldt". But this view may underestimate the ramifications of the intellectual struggle going on in Britain around that time.

Rousseau was influenced by Andrew Fletcher (1655-1716) who favoured the Greek ideal of the little nation whose "seat of government (would) remain in a city small enough to contain a face-to-face community where people could be under one another's eyes most of the time."13Fletcher wanted federalism and was strongly opposed to being governed by remote control, whether from London or anywhere else. George Davie points to the influence here of "the reformation ideal of a constitution finely balanced as between church and state".

It is too easy to disregard this from a late twentieth century western perspective but the 'ideal' can provide a system of checks and balances "through the cooperation of a pair of mutually complementary assemblies, the one concerned with politics and law, the other with the sphere of ethics and faith." If this sounds anachronistic it should be compared to the present system of western democracy where voting is usually just a method of "ratifying decisions that have already been made" by one or two people in an office.

In Scotland during the last years of the seventeenth century between a third and a fifth of the people were reported as "having died or fled" due to the effects of famine.14 The Darien Scheme had just collapsed and the economy was more or less bankrupt. On a wider intellectual level this was a decade or so after the German thinker Leibnitz and the English thinker Newton - unbeknown to each other - had been locked in the simultaneous creation of differential calculus. Meanwhile in Edinburgh certain premises were still not open to challenge and a 19 year old student by the name of Aikenhead was executed for having dared to demand "evidence for the dogma that the moral blindness of natural man can sometimes be overcome by a grace-inspired reading of the bible."15

What developed from all of this was a fierce debate on the problem of how to reconcile economic expansion with the moral and intellectual consciousness of the population as a whole. For those unfamiliar with George Davie's work on the Scottish Enlightenment this can appear a rather surprising 'problem'. It may be thought obvious that the greater the technological and economic progress in a country the greater the benefits must accrue to the country as a whole. But in reality such conclusions are only guaranteed in party political broadcasts.

One clearly defined route to economic expansion lies in the production of highly skilled and trained individuals who are to take on specialised employment. This can lead to the demand for an educational system geared precisely to the production of experts and specialists. Under the influence of John Locke and others this was happening in England and many folk north of the border were pushing for the same thing. Andrew Fletcher was not one of them.

Fletcher argued that an educational system devoted to the production of specialists would result in a situation where none of the educated community would be fit to govern the nation, given that being fit to govern the nation entails the capacity for decision-making in general contexts. This capacity involves the power of judgment and critical evaluation, which is developed more potently by the ability to see beyond the limits of your own discipline. If the educational system is to thrust groups of people into separate compartments then none will be equipped to take the wide view necessary. No longer does it become possible for the poet to discuss methodology with sculptors and electricians. Reasoning devices like mathematics, logic and intuition will stagnate, this being abetted by the decline in subjects thought to be impractical, e.g. philosophy, the classics, the study of languages and other cultures, these very subjects which encourage a general approach to the world.

In this scenario actual knowledge itself becomes at a premium, cut off from those who are not 'specialising'. And gradually the majority of men and women and children become divorced from those areas where 'experts' reign supreme. What remains is not only repugnant but disastrous:

a society spiritually split between over-specialised boffins on the one hand and unthinking proles on the other is not merely repellent from a moral point of view, because of its tolerating or even encouraging the intellectual backwardness of the masses, but at the same time is also inherently an unstable basis for the material progress it seeks to sustain (and) the stultification of the majority (will) affect the mental balance of society as a whole...16

If there is any irony at work at all in this nightmarish world being envisaged by Davie it could lie in its resemblance to the medieval order of ignorance which Descartes had sought to eradicate by constructing his unified system of knowledge. At the root of the matter is the segmentation of knowledge, the push for individual disciplines to keep themselves to themselves; and in line with that the creation of 'experts' and 'keepers-of-the-faith' (“priests, owners, teachers, therapists and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies”), whether they be monks in a monastery or members of a government planning department.

As far as Fletcher could see, once Scotland became incapable of creating its own governing elite it would cease to be free, it would become an intellectual desert, having to import an elite from the English upper classes. He advocated a return to the "solider sorts of learning"17 as in Oxford and Cambridge, for it is to be noted that both these seats of higher education continued as before, prior to the new approach and altered curriculum, designed to hasten economic progress. It could be argued, perhaps, that the classical approach being so rigorously defended by the Oxbridge traditionalists was devoted to that most subtle of all specialisations, the production of a leadership class. This class dominated most of the English-speaking world then, and for folk who live in countries connected to the former Empire very little has changed, certainly not in Scotland.

The continued erosion of the generalist approach to education ensures that the entire system comes to exist as a straight reinforcement of the prevailing right-wing authority. Beyond Oxbridge about the best we can hope for is the paternalistic liberalism of a William Cobbett, whose

ideas of democratic or mass education seem to have been drawn from his experiences in the army. The model of mass education is for him the N.C.O. explaining the 'naming of the parts' to the recruits.18

It is in this context, no matter how well intentioned are its orthodox left-liberal principles, that the educational system comes to be nothing more than

a reification of the notion that culture is synonomous with property. And the essentially acquisitive attitude to culture, "education" and "a good accent" is simply an aspect of the competitive, status-conscious class structure of...society as a whole.19

Thus, across the mainstream political spectrum, from 'hard-line' left to 'extremist' right, different games are being played with the same set of rules. The end product is hierarchy, whether it be a form of meritocracy or a mix of that with the usual hereditary privileges for rank and/or riches.

This is a world where the scepticism of Locke, Berkeley, Hume and the rest has led to the ideological behaviourism of those responsible for the global and domestic policies of western civilisation4 during the past couple of hundred years. It is a world where there are no universal principles, whether of freedom or anything else. People are 'blank slates' upon which anything is to be scraped by those who have assumed the right to power. Knowledge gets doled out in the form of rewards and punishment exercises. Those who have been produced to govern on behalf of the rulers decide the curriculum: history will concern the lives and loves of famous personalities; politics is a field of endeavour best left to those who specialise in it, i.e. Members of Parliament and Members of the Media; poverty and deprivation become the concepts of social science, death and disease the experience of the medical profession.


Both the Cartesian Common Sense tradition as developed by Chomsky and the Common Sense tradition developed in Scotland are premised on forms of natural reason. In the former this becomes grounds for rationalism whereas in the Scottish philosophical tradition such a necessity does not arise, there is no need to become involved in innateness hypotheses. Each shares a belief in fundamental principles that are inherent in all people. These include the faculty of judgment which lies at the heart not only of reason, but of the will to freedom. This faculty is neither learned nor is it taught. But neither is it a 'thing', whether material or immaterial.
The skills involved in judgment are mathematical, logical, intuitive; they can be refined and improved; or else they can remain fallow. It does not follow that highly educated folk will prove more capable of good judgment than those who 'fail' within the mainstream educational system.

Chomsky destroys any presuppositions about the relationship between higher education and the ability to think clearly and critically. The educated classes have more access to information than the vast majority of ordinary men and women but it is rarely in their own economic interest to seek it out and see what it amounts to. This does not have to imply a deliberate policy, let alone the existence of a conspiracy:

the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector (of society), for good reasons. It's their role as secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense they put forth. Other people can repeat it, but it's not that crucial that they believe it because, after all, they are the guardians of the faith. Except for the very rare person who's just an outright liar, it's hard to be a convincing exponent of the faith unless you've internalized it and come to believe it.

An interesting example of this is the novelist Saul Bellow, "a propagandist's delight", according to Chomsky in his review of Bellow's To Jerusalem and Back,20 which he describes as "a catalogue of What Every Good American Should Believe, as compiled by the Israeli Information Ministry." He concludes the review by referring to the "critical acclaim (the book) has received (as) revealing, with regard to the state of American intellectual life."

But that applies equally to Great Britain where Saul Bellow is always being pushed by the mainstream literary establishment, including the “radical” younger writers who defer to him as the one infallible source of American integrity and clarity of vision. When a fine introduction to Chomsky's political writings was published recently the London Independent newspaper gave it for review to Auberon Waugh. At first sight it appears the kind of jolly, xenophobic prank which members of the British media like to play on major thinkers from other countries (I seem to recollect Clive James being employed by one of the 'qualities' to write the obituary of Sartre) but it is as well bearing in mind that Waugh, while content to be allied to the far right, has in the past been revealed as an "occasional mouthpiece for some highly sensitive 'gossip' or intelligence smears" which those in control of British society have wished to see public.21

Finding new ways of denying reality is a key function of the mainstream intelligentsia. Language provides unlimited opportunity for it. Before it is possible to enter any debate about the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated on people every day of the week in all parts of the world a slow trudge through semantics has to begin. What do we mean by pain? What do we mean by suffering?

Around this point the terms get surrounded, captured by inverted commas - e.g. what do we mean by 'torture' - thus throwing into doubt the very existence of the experience. A distinction is created between the actual experience and the 'concept of the experience'. In creating this distinction a closed system is put into operation: only those who specialise in discussing concepts will be admitted. The actual experience of atrocity becomes redundant. It becomes the predicate instead of the subject; we no longer refer to atrocity we refer to the 'concept of atrocity' where concept is subject and atrocity predicate. Refugees' reports are excluded. So too are folk who are likely to be affected by such reports:

The ardently opinionated, the ardent in all forms, the raisers of voices, the thumpers on the table, the 'swearers', the passionate, those who burst into tears - these are all absent... For the 'professional' exists through a language that acquits him of personal involvement... 22

Such specialists are paid for their experience of experiences they never encounter, their experience is conceptual. They get paid for their experience of every concept under the sun; from the concept of happiness to the concept of torture, from the concept of malnutrition to the concept of dampness in council housing and its relation to the concept of death from lung disease. They exclude the actual experience from the terms of the argument, they "categorise in the absence of that which is being categorised",23 they get rid of the premise.

One year after the European Convention on Human Rights had "found the British Government guilty of 'torture, inhuman and degrading treatment'" a famous judgment was delivered, it was soon known as the "Torturers' Charter";

after a torture case had been brought against the Greek Colonels...the Commission defined ‘inhuman treatment’ as "at least such treatment as deliberately causes severe suffering, mental or physical." ‘Torture’ was "inhuman treatment which has a purpose, such as the obtaining of information or confession, or the infliction of punishment, and it is generally an aggravated form of inhuman treatment." ‘Degrading treatment’ was "treatment or punishment of an individual which grossly humiliates him before others or drives him to act against his will..." 24

which gives us a fair idea of what the Callaghan-led Labour Government had been found guilty of in 1976.
But this judgment occurred one year afterwards, when four men and one woman found themselves in front of the Belfast City Commission. One of the four men was a boy of sixteen who complained of Assault During Interview by the R.U.C. The experiences he complained of included being "struck thirty times mostly to the stomach and having his hair pulled" during the first interview; receiving "dozens of blows" during the second interview; while in the third

he said he had been punched in the stomach, the kidneys and the back more than fifty times and slapped around the face with an open hand. He said that his mouth had been burnt with a lighted cigarette, that he had been made to strip and was struck in the testicles and around the kidneys.

A report by a refugee... But a report of what? Torture? Rough treatment? Hard luck? Interrogation? Being interviewed?

Defining experiences are notoriously difficult, especially these endured by other people. State authority thinks it a job best left to the experts. In this particular instance the expert was Lord Justice McGonigal, "former Second World War commando and a founder of the S.A.S." He was quick to indicate that "a certain roughness of treatment" was allowed by the European Commission according to the above definition; and this could

take the form of slaps or blows of the hand on the head or face and also underlines the fact that the point up to which prisoners and the public may accept physical violence as being neither cruel nor excessive varies between different societies and even between different sections of them.

Such equivocation allowed Lord Justice McGonigal to draw that wee bit closer to the elimination of the experience altogether when he did his own exercise in semantics:

Inhuman treatment is...treatment causing severe suffering. Torture is an aggravated form of inhuman treatment and degrading conduct is conduct which grossly humiliates.

At which point experts who specialise in encountering concepts can instigate a further debate on the meaning of grossness or severity, or the meaning of the concept 'aggravation'.

This kind of dualist thinking has a long tradition, it is reminiscent of an ancient line of thought which believed every single thing in the world had its own tiny god.5 It also lands us back with Descartes and the rationalists in one corner, the British empiricists in the other. While in between is the problem of knowledge and how to connect reason with experience, thought with extension (mind with body), essence with existence.

The argument given on behalf of the British Labour Government above is in sharp opposition to common sense and natural reason. It amounts to the following: people who have been tortured do not have valid grounds for knowing what torture is.

When refugees' reports are heeded it is usually as an aid to apportioning blame, to discover which individual is responsible. During this the position of the victims will be brought into question: are they innocent or guilty, are they innocent victims or guilty victims. It so happens that in the case mentioned above the 16 year old boy was released. It was conceded that he might have been treated roughly but if so then any statements made by him were "not admissible in evidence", which not only refers to any so-called confession, it also refers to the complaints he made concerning the R.U.C. and their Assault During Interview.

The relativist position of the European Commission should be kept also in mind. By extension there is one legal system for the powerful and another legal system for the powerless. But nobody expects anything else anyway, not even the powerless themselves, and that seems the only justification. 'Terror and torture' governments should just exercise caution occasionally, lest they "provoke hostile reactions in world capitals".


The crucial feature of scepticism is that it subjects premises and principles to scrutiny; it takes nothing for granted; 'truths' are no longer allowed to be assumed, they must be put to the test and verified empirically. This has obvious dangers for metaphysical theories to do with 'mind' as also for truths connected with religious belief and faith. But in the early eighteenth century people in Scotland wanted to fight clear of the dogmatic prejudice that resulted in the state killing of the student who dared to demand ‘evidence’.

The critical method of John Locke and others seemed to offer this possibility through its rejection of innate forms of knowledge. Nothing would be admitted as true unless it was seen to be true. Unlike Descartes they did not want to construct one unifying system to yield ultimate knowledge of all the mysteries of the universe. They were content to clear away the muddle of conventional thought, thereby allowing the scientists to get on with the real work, applying the proper methods of observation and experimentation. Unfortunately formal problems over the 'two' kinds of knowledge still arose.

Empiricist approaches become bogged down in the theory of knowledge, tending as they do toward 'atomism', the belief that suggests it is possible to discover the nature of the whole by a strict examination of the parts. The ancient form of this philosophy centred on the notion that "the whole visible universe has arisen by the cohesion of small invisible particles, the atoms." This further applied to the mind which was composed of "very smooth, delicate and round (atoms); or, as Lucretius put it...the smallest, roundest and most mobile that there are."25

But if we do come to know things only piecemeal, via our sensory experience, then ‘Plato's Problem’ must crop up sooner or later. How can we know the properties of a triangle if triangles do not exist in the world? How do we know about the connecting links and relations between things if none of those links or relations can be discovered as things in the world about us? And if we learn about the whole by assembly of the parts how are we able to recognise the whole when it is complete? Davie points to the influence of Irish philosophy as decisive on the Scottish tradition here, in particular the work of George Berkeley (although Frances Hutcheson is also of importance).

There is a vague echo of Chomsky when instead of worrying over the existence of 'mind' Berkeley proceeds to dispense with 'body', he rejects the existence of matter altogether. A body exists only when it is being perceived. We never know any objects in the physical world at all, only our own perceptions of them. But this does not mean that bodies come in and out of existence, or that the world disappears when we close our eyes - common charges against him, still being levelled against him into the 20th century, such that “we have not so much reason to admire the strength of Berkeley’s genius, as his boldness in publishing to the world an opinion which the unlearned would be apt to interpret as the sign of a crazy intellect.”26a

His influence in Scotland was primary, none left a greater mark on the Scottish Enlightenment. He personally wrote to congratulate a group of youths from the Edinburgh Students’ Society on their understanding of his “system” and his

paradoxical and provocative argument that there was perhaps less difference between Locke and his illiberal opponents whether Scottish or otherwise, than was generally supposed, and that, properly sifted and consistently developed, the experimental pragmatic principle which was Locke’s greatest contribution was likely to lead men back to a God-centred philosophy not unlike that of Halyburton. 26aa

But one of the most powerful voices raised in opposition to the Irish philosopher was not of the “unlearned” section of society, rather it was the “learned” Dr Johnson. Johnson held the Gaelic language in contempt; while visiting Scotland he scoffed at the very idea that it might also have had a written form. Rather than telling him to fuck off, Scots in the vicinity offered arguments, which the “learned doctor” refused to accept. Of course it was not the “unlearned” of whom Berkeley was so scathing but his colleagues and peers, the “learned,” in the areas of philosophy and science; those unable to trust “their own senses...and [who] after all their labouring...are forced to own that...self evident or demonstrative knowledge of the existence of sensible things” is just not possible.26b Their work led to “forlorn Skepticism”, foundering on the belief that we know our ideas of reality but never reality itself. If what these “learned” believed were true then it is impossible for us ever to know the world at all, we are doomed to remain in a state of ignorance for all eternity. The “illiterate bulk of mankind...walk the high-road of plain, common sense...governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed.”26c This because their belief in God is absolute, as with Berkeley himself.

Berkeley was answering John Locke who had distinguished between “primary ideas” as representative of “primary qualities” existent in the world e.g. size, shape, extension, and “secondary” ideas representative of “secondary qualities” that cannot exist in themselves, e.g. smells or sounds. The existence of these “secondary qualities” is dependent upon the agency of an active being e.g. a thing smells only if it is being smelled, the wind sounds only when it is being heard.

But Berkeley demonstrated that “primary qualities” - qualities as they are in themselves - can never be represented truly by our ideas of them. He further argued that “primary qualities” are every bit as dependent on the perception of an active being as are “secondary qualities”. Nothing at all exists, said Berkeley, not unless perceived by an active being or itself a being capable of perceiving. He was a Bishop of the Anglican Church in Ireland, based firstly at Derry City then later at Cloyne, and his solution to the problem lies in the existence of God: matter is always and eternally being perceived by the Almighty.

The existence of God is the premise of his philosophy; the world is always in His presence. It is a line of thought in the tradition of the concept of Divine Illumination - there is never a time when we are not in the presence of God, through Him the world is revealed, and so on - and can be traced back to Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists, Christian and not Christian. Berkeley argued that we experience the world “immediately”, as brute data; there is nothing between us and it. And further, that these brute data are elements of a divine language, the language of God Himself. Science may describe the world but not explain it.

He formulated a theory of vision and an alternative approach to geometry, stressing “touch” as distinct from “sight”, leading

the way in shewing how we learn to perceive the distance of an object from the eye... He made the distinction between that extension and figure which we perceive by sight only, and that which we perceive by tough; calling the first, visible, the last, tangible extension and figure.27

As far as he is concerned "the externality we attribute to the objects of our senses consists simply in the fact that our 'sensations occur in groups, held together by a permanent law.'"27aIn terms of straight empiricism this offers good progress in the theory of knowledge but his position still lapses into atomism; the gap between our sensory experience of the world and our actual knowledge of the world remains as wide as ever.

An escape from the difficulty appears through the work of the Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid whose insight is of significance in the development of theory of structure:

Every operation of the senses, in its very nature, implies judgment or belief, as well as simple apprehension... When I perceive a tree before me, my faculty of seeing gives me not only a notion or simple apprehension of the tree, but a belief of its existence, and of its figure, distance and magnitude; and this judgment or belief is not got by comparing ideas, it is included in the very nature of perception. (These) original and natural judgments...make up what is called the common sense of mankind. 28

Our knowledge of the world does not derive from singular sensations of brute physical data. It comes about through an elementary synthesis. Knowledge begins from judgment. When we sense something we are perceiving it at one and the same time. There is no gap between coming into sensory contact with something and the knowledge of what contact with the something amounts to. And this 'knowledge of what contact with the something amounts to' includes an understanding of connecting links and relations such as must be essential for "a belief of (something's) existence, and of its figure, distance and magnitude".

This strand of thought distinguishes Reid not only from Berkeley but from his great rival, David Hume. Hume was opposed to the idea that experience could ever bring knowledge of connecting links or causal relations. We cannot experience these 'necessary connections'; what happens is that we 'feel' such things to be true.
But in common to both Scottish philosophers is an acceptance of a form of natural reason. In the case of Hume this seems to end at 'instinct'; Reid goes further, common sense is a faculty of judgment held in common by all members of humankind. The Common Sense tradition, whether of Chomsky, Descartes, Reid or Rousseau, is not a question of instinct, not unless by instinct we mean something that can comprise logic, mathematics and intuition.

The key feature of Reid's position is irreducibility; it is in opposition to any form of atomism. If it is at all possible to discuss a reductive process then it can only be something along the lines of the 'Bourbaki' "parent-structures", the algebraic, order and topological. These are the processes of understanding, of thought. And in terms of further exploratory work here, it is of interest to note that if we stick to mathematics in the slipstream of Thomas Reid then we enter the field of spherical geometry in which he was engaged some 50 years ahead of his time.29 The concepts of time and space have loomed into view; not only in the world of science but in the world of ideas generally.

And for the politics of late eighteenth century Scotland a philosophical context is also set for the libertarian consciousness that was developing through thinkers like John Millar and Dugald Stewart, both of whom believed in the general dissemination of knowledge.

George Davie describes this period as the "pinnacle" of Scottish philosophy, when came the creation of its many great textbooks. There are obvious parallels here with what was happening in France, with the rise of discussion groups among tradesmen and craftsmen, inextricably bound in with the basic notion that if people can think for themselves they can also determine their own existence. In Paris around the turn of last century it was not uncommon for the great mathematicians of the time to lecture to as many as 1200 folk at a sitting.

Needless to say radical lines of thought were not confined to any single field of endeavour. How could they be when the very essence of the argument concerned the universalisability of knowledge, that no boundaries were to exist. Ideas of freedom and self determination, the attempted unshackling of bolts and chains, were being discussed in different parts of Great Britain. The work of the poets was of significance, not only that of Robert Burns,6 but also poets like Robert Tannahill, Sandy Rodgers and Alexander Wilson - the last two of whom were gaoled at different times for sedition. Both Tannahill and Wilson were weavers to trade; eventually the latter was under so much pressure from the authorities that he emigrated from Paisley to the U.S.A., where he went on, in the best generalist tradition, to become the co-founder of American ornithology.30

Another weaver by the name of Wilson was in communication with Thomas Muir, the radical lawyer, and involved in organising discussion groups with other workers. Thirty years later, while in his mid sixties, he was hanged in front of 20,000 people in Glasgow. This was James 'Purly' Wilson, so-called through his invention of the purl stitch. Official history for the next 150 years described him as an illiterate half-wit, that he had been led astray by infiltrators.31 He had been in direct contact with John Baird, the Condorrat weaver hanged at Stirling alongside Andrew Hardie. The three men were executed for their part in the Scottish Insurrection; there were 88 counts of high treason in Scotland during that one year alone (1820).

The name of 'The Ettrick Shepherd' might sound unlikely in the above context. Yet in a sense the work of James Hogg is every bit as crucial in this generalist, common sense tradition as is the life of Alexander Wilson. As well as being a noted poet he published a great deal of prose. His novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner appeared in 1824 and is his masterpiece. But within mainstream Departments of English literature this novel is regarded as a fluke - that is, when it is being regarded at all. If evaluated solely within this restricted field the novel seems destined to remain a fluke forever.32 Nowhere else is there to be found even a suggestion of that strange and deadliest of ironies which Hogg perpetrates, bending reality, in the latter pages of the story.

This is the point where real-life members of the contemporary literati of Edinburgh are suddenly introduced into the tale thereby offering an illusion of 'natural reality' while lending their own personal weight to the ‘authenticity’ of the narrative. The literati being portrayed by Hogg were in the main contemptuous of his inferior social standing. As well as being a famous poet he had spent much of his life as a shepherd (until the late teens he was close to illiterate) and he spoke in the language of his own cultural background. There was a tendency amongst his peers to patronise the poetry while failing to appreciate the prose. Hogg's novel is written in the ordinary standard English literary form of the period. When he brings the literati into the story he has them speak in that same standard form.

But then he introduces himself into the story and this 'self' is the man who is employed at wheeling and dealing in ewes, lambs and rams at country markets; not the 'self' as writer. He has this shepherd 'self' speak in the phoneticized language of someone who, by English literary standards, is a certain social inferior. The irony works on different levels but the most hair-raising one of the lot is that which is structured on the premise that somebody who speaks in a 'culturally debased' linguistic form could not conceivably create this prose masterpiece in the imperial language of English.

But such preposterous elitism is still rampant in contemporary literary circles where in a recent interview with the poet Craig Raine it was yet another example of "the intellectual elite (as) the most indoctrinated sector" of society. In a discussion of the medium in which he works in relation to his 'working class' background Raine was quite willing to concede that the actual artform itself, poetry, belonged to the upper reaches of society. But the folk from his own 'working class' background do have their own artforms, he was at pains to point out, his father for instance had been a 'fine raconteur'.33 This kind of myopic nonsense is extraordinary. All it takes to disprove the point is a walk into the local library - although from there you might have a search, of course; the poetry written by people who 'fail' our educational system is likely to be discovered in the 'local history' section.34


The year after the publication of Hogg's novel the French mathematician and astronomer, Pierre Laplace, had summarized "the development of deterministic mechanics"35 as follows:

We must envisage the present state of the universe as the effect of its previous state, and as the cause of that which will follow. An intelligence that could know, at a given instant, all the forces governing the natural world, and the respective position of the entities which compose it, if in addition it was great enough to analyse all this information, would be able to embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atoms: nothing would be uncertain for it, and the future, like the past, would be entirely present to its observation.

With slight adjustments here and there this could be turned into a textbook approach to semantics-free linguistics or, perhaps, for any purely behavioural approach to the study of mind. And with other slight adjustments it becomes an argument on behalf of the existence of God. But the God so conceived would stand in brooding opposition to human creativity and the principle of natural reason, utterly opposed to any puny demonstrations of self determined activity and the will to freedom. It is a conception of God abhorrent not only to such as George Berkeley but also to William Blake and Soren Kierkegaard.

The Anglo-American tradition approves of David Hume the great empiricist and skeptic but is less certain of the Hume "who spoke of those parts of our knowledge that are derived 'from the original hand of nature' and that are 'a species of instinct'"36Chomsky does pick up on that side of him but without being aware of him in the context of Scottish Common Sense philosophy. The thing that excited Immanuel Kant about Hume's thought concerns the theory of knowledge and the Scotsman's denial of "the existence of necessary connections in nature" and his severing of any "logical relations from those of the real world..." But this also influenced thinkers of a diametrically opposed view, e.g. the Christian mystic Johan Hamann whose regard for Hume is somewhat reminiscent of Rousseau's regard for Voltaire.

Hamann's own influence on Kierkegaard and existentialism can be readily appreciated from the following:

Nature is no ordered whole: so-called sensible men are blinkered beings who walk with a fine treat because they are blind to the true and profoundly disturbing character of reality, sheltered by it from their man-made contraptions; if they glimpsed it as it is - a wild dance - they would go out their minds. How dare these pathetic pedants impose on the vast world of continuous, fertile, unpredictable, divine creation their own narrow, desiccated categories? 37

The important factor being derived here is the ultimate unknowability of the brute physical data of reality. For people like Hamann a return is now sanctioned to that conception of God that is premised on absolute, and logical, incomprehensibility.

In the same year Laplace died, 1827, another blow was being struck against deterministic mechanics and its 'anti-existential' implications. A Scottish botanist from Montrose by the name of Robert Brown observed

the behaviour of pollen grains - particles from various plants which...measured something like 1/5000 of an inch - when immersed in water. What he discovered was that these particles perform a constant, agitated, and apparently erratic motion which has nothing to do with any currents moving in the water... "These motions were such as to satisfy me, after frequently repeated observation, that they arose neither from currents in the fluid, nor from its gradual evaporation, but belonged to the particle itself."38

As with Reid's elemental judgment there is an 'irreducibility' being posited here, a structure that simply cannot be broken down into any 'constituent parts'. The particle is a network of impulses or motions of a self determining/self regulatory kind, i.e. it seems to be governed by itself and for itself (but a confusion here could lead to the difficulty Descartes had and the split between 'I' and 'I think').

This phenomenon has become known in the world of science generally as 'Brownian Motion' and was the subject of a decisive paper by Einstein which finally "convinced the sceptics of the existence of atoms." These atoms differ from those of the ancient materialists; they are structures as opposed to elemental, indivisible 'bits': when these atoms have been 'split' worlds have blown up.

People confined by the parameters of their own specialisation probably assume Einstein discovered his physical system by a close reading of the collected works of Isaac Newton, but ideas develop and shift in innumerable ways. The concepts of 'irreducibility' and 'elementary synthesis' are implicit in some remarks of the Spanish cubist painter, Juan Gris:

the architectural abstraction of the elements in a picture must be explored by the painter as if he were his own spectator... Until the work is completed he must remain ignorant of its appearance as a whole. To copy a preconceived appearance is like copying the appearance of a model... From this it is clear that the subject does not materialise in the appearance of the picture, but that the subject, in materialising, gives the picture its appearance.39

At this level the technical problems to be resolved by the artist concern space and time. These have been the preoccupations of, among others, artists like Cezanne, Claude Monet, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Carlos Williams, and also W.S. Graham and Samuel Beckett. Tom Leonard writes of the last two named and

that area of present-time consciousness (they) give to their personae; and their personae in turn pass it on to the reader. It's a very political thing to do, since it seems to assume that the only - and equal - value that can be placed on any human being is in the fact that the human being actually exists.40

The most crucial aspect of James Hogg's achievement is linked to this "present-time consciousness" and the way in which he succeeded in embellishing himself in the text. Any attempt to isolate him from the 'reality' of his 'fiction' leaves the reader stranded in strange loops and warps; a technical term for this is 'recursiveness'.

In the summary of deterministic mechanics given by Pierre Laplace a formal problem arises. Is the "intelligence" he refers to capable of "embracing itself" while "embracing the universe"? If the "intelligence" is itself a part of the universe then that should go without saying. This means it must "embrace itself" while "embracing the universe", as it "embraces itself" "embracing the universe" "embracing itself" "embracing the universe..." and so on ad infinitum throughout the spiral of all eternity. If the "intelligence" is not of 'this' universe then the concept 'universe' requires redefining. Perhaps one solution will be to create a second universe, one more powerful than the first, so that the "intelligence" can belong to it and be capable of embracing the smaller one.

When that happens a separation takes place between "intelligence" and "universe". But probably the first implication concerns the power of the "intelligence"; it simply cannot be as powerful as we thought since it is bound to run up against the "embracing itself" problem and can never become capable of embracing this second, more powerful universe. Maybe a third universe is the answer.

This sort of problem turns up in various disciplines and involves finite automata theory and recursive function theory. It was central to the theorem formulated by Gödel and published in 193141 as a response to Principia Mathematica, a three volume work on mathematical logic by A. E. Whitehead and Bertrand Russell.
One thing demonstrated by Gödel is that if there is any "system comprehensive enough to (embrace) the whole of arithmetic"42then there cannot be any method of proving it - not unless the proof can employ rules and procedures different to the actual system itself. But if a different set of rules and procedures is allowed then how are we to find out if the set is valid or not? This seems the gist of Chomsky's critique of the Harris/Bloomfield approach, and of any approach that seeks to discover 'the correct analysis'. And if there is no logical possibility of proving a correct analysis to be the correct analysis then we would be as well dispensing with the search for one altogether.7

Sir William Hamilton edited the works of Thomas Reid. In his day he was a famous and controversial Common Sense philosopher, whose "notorious hostility to algebra"43 was no doubt influenced by Reid's rejection of atomism and experimental work in the 'space and time' of spherical geometry. Two of Hamilton's pupils have to be mentioned here. The first is James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time; he has been likened to Michael Faraday as "Newton was to Galileo and Kepler".44 There is an interesting personal detail provided by Faraday, where the old physicist compliments Maxwell - who was forty years his junior - on his ability to break down even the most esoteric formulae in such a way that somebody who is not a specialist is able to comprehend the issues involved. The second pupil was James Ferrier (poet and philosopher), and it is Ferrier who

sorts out with a sure hand, the incredible complexities of the empirically based self-knowledge which lies at the root of common sense...combining with this Wittgenstinian apercu the complementary insights, due to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty ...(on) the relation of sight and touch...

- that aspect of David Hume's thought which is known to have influenced the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.46 The development of the Common Sense tradition in Scotland allows for an escape from rationalism while managing to keep that fundamental will to freedom, the very heart of natural reason. And this should be borne in mind when, in reference to his overall view of the study of mind,47 Chomsky speaks of
studies by British Neoplatonists of the seventeenth century that explored the categories and principles of perception and cognition along lines that were later extended by Kant and that were discovered, independently in twentieth-century gestalt psychology. 48


When Chomsky dispenses with the search for "the correct analysis" he brings in the search for an "evaluative procedure" that will enable us to "choose between alternative grammars". The question may then be asked, How will we know that the "evaluative procedure" is valid? It will be valid if it is capable of doing the job; and it will prove its power if it can achieve what the last one achieved, and then achieve a little bit more: the proof of the pie will lie in the eating.

Arguments from human nature and fixed principles are usually regarded as reactionary by the orthodox left. They take it to lead to hierarchy, people being born to rule or to serve; people being born lazy or talented, being born good at mathematics, or at dancing or painting pictures, or being born selfish etc. Such arguments are thought to suggest that we are not born free at all but are chained to our essential selves and thus have our lives, and the lives of our children, determined for us in ways that are forever beyond our own control. There may be elements of this that can be framed validly. Chomsky looks on "human nature...as a system of a sort familiar in the biological world, a system of 'mental organs'". Against the "left-liberal spectrum" his defence takes the following course:

Human talents vary considerably, within a fixed framework that is characteristic of the species and that permits ample scope for creative work, including the creative work of appreciating the achievements of others. this should be a matter for delight rather than a condition to be abhorred. Those who assume otherwise must be adopting the tacit premise that people's rights or social reward are somehow contingent on their abilities.

But for most mainstream intellectuals a true democracy is a form of meritocracy, a system whereby highly educated specialists will be rewarded in accordance with the quantity of knowledge they have consumed in their specialist subject; in this kind of society a 23 year old university graduate will begin his or her working life at a salary some two to three times that of a woman or man who has spent the past 30 years working on a factory production line. As Chomsky has said, meritocracies "insofar as they exist at all, are simply a social malady to be overcome much as slavery had to be eliminated at an earlier stage of human history."

This essay developed from a book review.48 I cannot conceive of someone reading Chomsky’s work honestly and failing to be moved by it. The basic principle of humankind is freedom, the right to not be tortured, the right to not be raped, the right to not be violated, the right to not be colonized in any way whatsoever. It is an inalienable right; whether it is deduced or whether it has to be discovered in any other manner is not of great significance - such questions can only be of ultimate interest to those whose ideological position is served by obscuring the issue. Either we do battle on behalf of the basic principle or we do not. This seems to me to be Chomsky's position. It is not a new one but it remains as dangerous as ever. His writings are banned in some countries and anathema to the ruling minorities of most of the rest.

NB: All the quotations not referred to by footnote number are taken from The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck. There is a fine essay by P.G. Lucas, Some Speculative and Critical Philosophers (1600-1750), which helped greatly to clear my head. I thank Alasdair Gray whose invitation in 1998 to write a commentary on George Berkeley for his The Book of Prefaces led me to extending the appropriate section herein. It is crucial to mention the conversations I've had with Tom Leonard over the past 15 years or so, and here with particular reference to the 'existential voice' in literature and related problems of time and space. I thank Noam Chomsky for his response and comments.


1 Chomsky, John Lyons.
2 ibid.
3 Harry S. Truman.
4 The Managua lectures which comprise both Chomsky's Language and Problems of Knowledge and On Power and Ideology.
5 see Bertrand Russell's biased account of Rousseau in his History of Western Philosophy.
6 Chomsky.
7 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.52).
8 The Freedom of the Will, J. R. Lucas.
9 Chomsky.
10 Ronald Reagan.
11 Language and Problems of Knowledge.
12 Structuralism, Jean Piaget.
13 The Scottish Enlightenment, George Davie (a pamphlet).
14 A History of the Scottish People, T. C. Smout.
15 The Scottish Enlightenment.
16 The Social Significance of the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense, George Davie (the Dow Lecture of 1972).
17 The Scottish Enlightenment.
18 The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect, George Davie.
19 The Proof of the Mince Pie, essay contained in Intimate Voices, Tom Leonard.
20 Towards a New Cold War, Noam Chomsky.
21 see Lobster Magazine, issue 16.
22 On Reclaiming the Local and The Theory of the Magic Thing, Tom Leonard, published in Edinburgh Review Magazine (77).
23 The Proof of the Mince Pie.
24 for the other quotations on this issue see "The Rafferty File" in Peter Taylor's Beating the Terrorists.
25 Introduction of Philosophy, Oswald Kulpe.
26a Thomas Reid in his essay Of the sentiments of Bishop Berkeley, contained in the Inquiry and Essays, edited by Ronald E. Beanblossom and Keith Lehrer, published by Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., Indianapolis, U.S.A. p. 166.
26aa quote from George Davie in the Church and State section of his essay The
Scottish Enlightenment.
26b see Berkeley’s Introduction to The Principles of Human Knowledge.
26c ibid.
26 Berkeley, Hume and the Central Problem of Scottish Philosophy, George Davie (uncollected essay).
27 Thomas Reid; Of the sentiments of Bishop Berkeley, see 26a.
27a J. S. Mill, cited in John Passmore's A Hundred Years of Philosophy.
28 Fr. Copleston's A History of Philosophy, Vol 5 Part 11.
29 as George Davie points out.
30 along with James Audobon.
31 this disinformation is found, unfortunately, in Peter MacKenzie's work.
32 Goethe's work is of interest in this connection, for both his prologue and the later added epilogue to The Sufferings of Young Werther. Hogg translated writings by Goethe who seems also to have been influenced by Hamann. An early unpublished essay by Tom Leonard on Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner has been essential to my own understanding and appreciation of the novel in this context.
33 22nd March, 1988 on BBC television, approx. 2015 hours.
34 Radical Renfrew, the introduction by Tom Leonard.
35 Einstein, Jeremy Bernstein.
36 cited by Chomsky in Language and Problems of Knowledge.
37 this attestation by Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current
38 Einstein..
39 cited by William Weaver in his study William Carlos Williams.
40 On Reclaiming the Local and The theory of the Magic Thing.
41 On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems.
42 selected extracts from Gödel’s Proof, Nagel and Newman.
43 A Hundred Years of Philosophy.
44 Einstein.
45 The Social Significance of the Scottish Philosophy of Common Sense.
46 Husserl and Reinach on Hume’s "Treatise", George Davie (uncollected essay).
47 Language and Problems of Knowledge.
48 of The Chomsky Reader (Serpent's Tail edition).

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May 28 2019 14:58


  • The basic principle of humankind is freedom, the right to not be tortured, the right to not be raped, the right to not be violated, the right to not be colonized in any way whatsoever.

    James Kelman

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