Here is the audio, video, and transcript. Here is the episode summary:
Noam Chomsky joins Tyler to discuss why Noam and Wilhelm von Humboldt have similar views on language and liberty, good and bad evolutionary approaches to language, what he thinks Stephen Wolfram gets wrong about LLMs, whether he’s optimistic about the future, what he thinks of Thomas Schelling, the legacy of the 1960s-era left libertarians, the development trajectories of Nicaragua and Cuba, why he still answers every email, what he’s been most wrong about, and more.
I would stress there is no representative sample from this discussion, so any excerpt will not give you a decent sense of the dialogue as a whole. Read the whole thing, if you dare! Here is one squib, in fact it is the opener, after which we ranged far and wide:
COWEN: If I think of your thought, and I compare it to the thought of Wilhelm von Humboldt, what’s the common ontological element in both of your thoughts that leads you to more or less agree on both language and liberty?
CHOMSKY: Von Humboldt was, first of all, a great linguist who recognized some fundamental principles of language which were rare at the time and are only beginning to be understood. But in the social and political domain, he was not only the founder of the modern research university, but also one of the founders of classical liberalism.
His fundamental principle — as he said, it’s actually an epigram for John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty — is that the fundamental right of every person is to be free from external illegitimate constraints, free to inquire, to create, to pursue their own interests and concerns without arbitrary authority of any sort restricting or limiting them.
COWEN: Now, you’ve argued that Humboldt was a Platonist of some kind, that he viewed learning as some notion of reminiscence. Are you, in the same regard, also a Platonist?
CHOMSKY: Leibniz pointed out that Plato’s theory of reminiscence was basically correct, but it had to be purged of the error of reminiscence — in other words, not an earlier life, but rather something intrinsic to our nature. Leibniz couldn’t have proceeded as we can today, but now we would say something that has evolved and has become intrinsic to our nature. For people like Humboldt, what was crucial to our nature was what is sometimes called the instinct for freedom. Basic, fundamental human property should lie at the basis of our social and economic reasoning.
It’s also the critical property of human language and thought, as was recognized in the early Scientific Revolution — Galileo, Leibniz — a little later, people like Humboldt in the Romantic era. The fundamental property of human language is this unique capacity to create, unboundedly, many new thoughts in our minds, and even to be able to convey to others who have no access to our minds their innermost workings. Galileo himself thought the alphabet was the most spectacular of human inventions because it provided a means to carry out this miracle.
Humboldt’s formulation was that language enables language and thought, which were always pretty much identified. Language enables what he called infinite use of finite means. We have a finite system. We make unbounded use of it. Those conceptions weren’t very well understood until the mid-20th century with the development of the theory of computation by Kurt Gödel, Alan Turing, and other great mathematicians, 1930s and ’40s. But now the concept of finite means that provide infinite scope is quite well understood. In fact, everyone has it in their laptop by now.
COWEN: Was it the distinction between natural and artificial language that led Rousseau astray on politics?
I will say that I am very glad I undertook this endeavor.
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