December 20, 2006

Chomsky and the Pope: separated at birth?

As Heidi Harley observes, Gilles de Robien, the French ministry of culture is saying things about grammar that strike many people as rather odd ("French report: it's lucky Copernicus had grammar", 12/18/2006). "Teaching grammar could stop mob violence". Yeah, sure. Dennis Baron imagines Tony Blair chiming in with a tribute to the power of grammar as a weapon, oops, excuse me, as a method in the Global Upholding of Shared Values as a Means to Discourage Unpleasant People: "'Give the enemy a good dose of grammar,' he told a BBC interviewer, 'and they’ll go right to sleep.'"

But in fact, the idea that there are consequential connections between grammar and ethics has been coming up quite a bit recently, even outside of France.

According to Pope Benedict XVI's message for the 2007 World Day of Peace:

Peace is an aspect of God's activity, made manifest both in the creation of an orderly and harmonious universe and also in the redemption of humanity that needs to be rescued from the disorder of sin. Creation and redemption thus provide a key that helps us begin to understand the meaning of our life on earth. My venerable predecessor, Pope John Paul II, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations on 5 October 1995, stated that “we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world... there is a moral logic which is built into human life and which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples.” The transcendent “grammar”, that is to say the body of rules for individual action and the reciprocal relationships of persons in accordance with justice and solidarity, is inscribed on human consciences, in which the wise plan of God is reflected. As I recently had occasion to reaffirm: “we believe that at the beginning of everything is the eternal word, reason and not unreason(4).” Peace is thus also a task demanding of everyone a personal response consistent with God's plan. The criterion inspiring this response can only be respect for the “grammar” written on human hearts by the divine creator. [emphasis added]

Except for the part about God, this way of talking is strikingly similar to recent work by Marc Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. As Marc explains in an American Scientist interview:

I argue that we are endowed with a moral faculty that delivers judgments of right and wrong based on unconsciously operative and inaccessible principles of action. The theory posits a universal moral grammar, built into the brains of all humans. The grammar is a set of principles that operate on the basis of the causes and consequences of action. Thus, in the same way that we are endowed with a language faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible languages, we are also endowed with a moral faculty that consists of a universal toolkit for building possible moral systems.

By grammar I simply mean a set of principles or computations for generating judgments of right and wrong. These principles are unconscious and inaccessible. What I mean by unconscious is different from the Freudian unconscious. It is not only that we make moral judgments intuitively, and without consciously reflecting upon the principles, but that even if we tried to uncover those principles we wouldn't be able to, as they are tucked away in the mind's library of knowledge. Access comes from deep, scholarly investigation.

Hauser's work is framed as a Chomskian interpretation of (some aspects of) John Rawls' 1971 A Theory of Justice. When Marc says "we are endowed", he's thinking as an evolutionary psychologist, and he means the unspoken agent to be our evolved genome -- but he's echoing Jefferson's Deist language in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

As for the work by Rawls that inspired Hauser, Mark Johnson described it this way ( "Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics", p. 27):

Contemporary philosophy's obsession with language has led, as one might expect, to strong analogies between morality and the speaking of a language. One consequence of this linguistic emphasis has been the emergence of a metaphor of moral grammar as a way of articulating our traditional notion of practical reason as moral force. In A Theory of Justice John Rawls suggests that constructing a theory of justice (or, more generally, a theory of morality) is akin to constructing a grammar of a natural language.

Rawls argues that in constructing a grammar we seek principles that would account for our intuitive sense of grammaticality, keeping in mind that the principles so formulated might later require criticisms of some of our intuitions about what is grammatical. In moral theory, by analogy, we would search for principes that would generate our considered moral intuitions (i.e., our reflectively considered judgments about what acts are right or wrong in specific kinds of situations), keeping in mind that our confidence in these principles might later lead us to question some of our moral intuitions.

The metaphor of "morality as grammar" has ontological as well as methodological implications, and it's not only in the 20th century that philosophy was obsessed with language. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry for Thomas of Erfurt,

The notion that a word, once it has been imposed to signify, carries with it all of its syntactical modes, or possible combinations with other words, had been around since the twelfth century. What the Modistae did was to posit the origins of the modi significandi [modes of signification] in terms of parallel theories of modi intelligendi (modes of understanding) and modi essendi (modes of being). The result was a curious amalgam of philosophy, grammar, and linguistics. Thomas of Erfurt's De modis significandi became the standard Modist textbook in the fourteenth century, though it has since enjoyed even greater fame later thanks to its misidentification as a work of Duns Scotus. The text appeared in early printed editions of Scotus's Opera Omnia, where it was read and commented upon by later figures such as Charles S. Peirce and Martin Heidegger, whose 1916 doctoral thesis, Die Kategorien- und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus, should have been entitled, Die Kategorienlehre des Duns Scotus und die Bedeutungslehre des Thomas von Erfurt.

The intellectual influence of the modists (otherwise known as "speculative grammarians") was deep and persistent, with recurrences to the present day. This paragraph from the wikipedia entry on the modistae evokes some echoes that are wider and more consequential than odd statements by French culture ministers:

Opposing nominalism, they assumed that the analysis of the grammar of ordinary language was the key to metaphysics. For the modistae, Grammatical forms, the modi significandi of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, indicate deep ontological structure. Roger Bacon inspired the movement with his observation that all languages are built upon a common grammar, a shared foundation of ontically anchored linguistic structures: Grammar is substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo in them accidental variations.

However, the history of speculative grammar was not without its bumpy stretches, as charted by the glosses for dunce in the OED:

1. The personal name Duns used attrib. Duns man, a disciple or follower of Duns Scotus, a Scotist, a schoolman; hence, a subtle, sophistical reasoner. ... Obs.
2. A copy of the works of Duns Scotus; a textbook of scholastic theology or logic embodying his teaching; a comment or gloss by or after the manner of Scotus. Obs.
3. A disciple or adherent of Duns Scotus, a Duns man, a Scotist; a hair-splitting reasoner; a cavilling sophist. Obs. exc. Hist.
4. One whose study of books has left him dull and stupid, or imparted no liberal education; a dull pedant. Obs.
5. One who shows no capacity for learning; a dull-witted, stupid person; a dullard, blockhead.

This reputational transformation had taken place by the late 16th century:

1577-87 HOLINSHED Chron. Scot. 461/1 But now in our age it is growne to be a common prouerbe in derision, to call such a person as is senselesse or without learning a Duns, which is as much as a foole.

A long way down for the man that Gerard Manley Hopkins called "of reality the rarest-veinèd unraveller". But whether they were subtle reasoners or dunces, the speculative grammarians of the 14th century live on in the influential ideas of that unlikely pair of contemporary thinkers, Noam Chomsky and Pope Benedict XVI.

[As noted here before ("Chomsky testifies in Kansas", 5/6/2005), Chomsky is in fact not a fan of evolutionary psychology, at least as a theory of the genesis of what he has famously called the "language organ". He's a rationalist, not a nativist, who has speculated that the emergence of language might be "explained in terms of properties of physical mechanisms, now unknown", that would "reflect the operation of physical laws applying to a brain of a certain degree of complexity".]

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2006 10:33 AM