Sunday, September 11, 2016

A review of Wolfe worth the time to read

David Pesetsky posted a comment linking to this review of Wolfe's book by Joshua Leach. I bring it to your attention here for it is readable, incisive and informed.

There are two large questions that the Wolfe book invites. First, what could motivate someone like Wolfe to write the drivel that he wrote? The second: why does this junk gets positive reviews in our high brow press (HBP)?

The answer to the first question is not that interesting, I believe. Grab your favorite psychological theory of personality and have at it. Wolfe is not the first person who wants to be the smartest person in the room, nor will he be the last.

The second question is more interesting, for it tells us something about our current institutions and the "intellectuals" who aspire to lead them. Oddly, the recent coverage in the HBP does quite a bit to confirm Chomsky's poignant discussion in "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." The HBP feels threatened and something about Chomsky threatens it/them. That's the story. How can such junk get so much non-critical coverage? As Leach points out, Trumpism has moved up stream and has ensconced its intellectual values in the smart New Yorker, NYT reading set. That's the big story. Read the piece. It's very good.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great review. Just a little point, though, which I briefly commented on as part of David P’s FB thread. Here I don’t mean to tarnish an otherwise excellent piece of writing, but to clarify a philosophical significant issue.

    In his discussion of Chomsky’s ‘a priori argument’ towards the end, Joshua appears to run together Quine’s indeterminacy argument with the much weaker underdetermination by finite data claim. The former has it that all possible data in a relevant domain will underdetermine a theory, and so no epistemic warrant decides theory choice, i.e., there will be at least two equally good theories inconsistent with each that are compatible with the data (Quine thought this was the scenario in syntactic and semantic theory). The latter is the claim that given some finite data set, one can find two or more inconsistent theories that are compatible with it. This latter claim, in effect, is just Hume’s point that induction is non-demonstrative, which was given an added twist by Goodman (Fact, Fiction, and Forecast). The first claim is highly tendentious; the latter not (Larry Laudan is a classic in the area:

    The relevance for language acquisition, of course, is that if the child is learning a language from finite data, and no such data will determine a correct theory (grammar), then the child had better not be a Humean, but rather have the means of making many prior decisions as to the nature of the theory to be acquired (happily, UG is there to help the kids out). The radical underdetermination or indeterminacy claims of Quine are not germane hereabouts. This issue is discussed at some length in the Chomsky and Piaget volume from back in the day (Language & Learning) and is briefly discussed by Chomsky at the beginning of Problems of Knowledge & Freedom (71).