Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Chomksy: Lit Crit at the Top & Engineering Has Changed

There's an interesting interview with Noam Chomsky in The Atlantic. Among other things, he puts literary criticism at the top of a 'pyramind' of knowledge:
If a molecule is too big, you give it to the chemists. The chemists, for them, if the molecule is too big or the system gets too big, you give it to the biologists. And if it gets too big for them, they give it to the psychologists, and finally it ends up in the hands of the literary critic, and so on.
I would not, of course, take that as a considered judgment about the place of literary criticism in academic intellectual life. But it's a reasonable statement about how difficult the task is.

Later in the interview he makes an interesting observation about engineering:
And it's kind of interesting to see what happened to engineering. So like when I got to MIT, it was 1950s, this was an engineering school. There was a very good math department, physics department, but they were service departments. They were teaching the engineers tricks they could use. The electrical engineering department, you learned how to build a circuit. Well if you went to MIT in the 1960s, or now, it's completely different. No matter what engineering field you're in, you learn the same basic science and mathematics. And then maybe you learn a little bit about how to apply it. But that's a very different approach.
That's very important, this distinction between engineering and science. And it's why I think of myself as doing speculative engineering rather than attempting a species of science. Chomsky continues:
And it resulted maybe from the fact that really for the first time in history, the basic sciences, like physics, had something really to tell engineers. And besides, technologies began to change very fast, so not very much point in learning the technologies of today if it's going to be different 10 years from now. So you have to learn the fundamental science that's going to be applicable to whatever comes along next. And the same thing pretty much happened in medicine. So in the past century, again for the first time, biology had something serious to tell to the practice of medicine, so you had to understand biology if you want to be a doctor, and technologies again will change. Well, I think that's the kind of transition from something like an art, that you learn how to practice -- an analog would be trying to match some data that you don't understand, in some fashion, maybe building something that will work -- to science, what happened in the modern period, roughly Galilean science.
A bit later he almost gets to music:
Well, it turns out that there actually are neural circuits which are reacting to particular kinds of rhythm, which happen to show up in language, like syllable length and so on. And there's some evidence that that's one of the first things that the infant brain is seeking -- rhythmic structures.
It's a fascinating interview and well worth your time and attention. I mean, I happen to think he got language deeply wrong even as he changed the way we reason about it, but he's also a major thinker and one of the architects of cognitive science. It's a good idea to keep tabs on such thinkers.

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