Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sources for the Intellectual Standard of Honesty

Inspiration for reflections on the intellectual standard(s) of honesty came principally from Michel Arrivé and Noam Chomsky.

Michel Arrivé
Arrivé is a linguist who specializes in French linguistics and the writings of Alfred Jarry. He has also published work based on his significant side interest in psychoanalysis. What inspired me from his work Linguistique et psychanalyse (also available in English) was his opening qualification about his knowledge of psychoanalytic literature. (I do not own the book and no longer have it checked out from the library so what follows is an exercise in memory.) He is forthright in pointing out that, while he is a trained linguist and quite familiar with Saussure and Hjelmslev, among other linguists, he is not at all trained in psychoanalysis. Nonetheless, he considers himself a careful reader of Freud and others and believes he has something to offer in trying to bring together the meanings of symbole in linguistics and psychoanalysis. This is honest evaluation of one's own limitations and also legitimate willingness to engage in an academic discipline that is not one's area of specialization. Arrivé is honest.

This in turn reminds me of something Chomsky has pointed out. Because he has for the last few decades been much more vocal in the areas of politics and foreign policy than in linguistics, his critics have at times [ALERT: unproven assertion] made ad hominem attacks that consist solely of pointing out that he is not an expert in those areas. To which Chomsky responds, "[The intelligentsia] pretend to be engaged in an esoteric enterprise, inaccessible to simple people. But that's nonsense. The social sciences generally, and above all the analysis of contemporary affairs, are quite accessible to anyone who wants to take an interest in these matters."

Noam Chomsky
Chomsky thus takes the admirable position that anyone who tries can understand most subjects. It is therefore entirely unfair to rule out someone's views simply because the person is not trained in the area of debate, be that politics or linguistics or psychoanalysis. Together, Arrivé and Chomsky are inspiration particularly for my points 3 and 4 regarding the intellectual standard of honesty.

The Chomsky quote comes from Language and Responsibility, a 1979 (partial) translation of the 1977 publication of conversations between Chomsky and Mitsou Ronat. Here is the context immediately preceding what is quoted above:
With a little industry and application, anyone who is willing to extricate himself from the system of shared ideology and propaganda will readily see through the modes of distortion developed by substantial segments of the intelligentsia. Everybody is capable of doing that. If such analysis is often carried out poorly, that is because, quite commonly, social and political analysis is produced to defend special interests rather than to account for the actual events. Precisely because of this tendency one must be careful not to give the impression, which in any event is false, that only intellectuals equipped with special training are capable of such analytic work. (4)

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