Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

We Hold These Truths to Be Historical…

The always wonderful Language Log has a post up today that might be of interest to readers who have been tracking the reading group foray into the debate between Chomsky, Hauser & Fitch and Pinker & Jackendoff. Marc Hauser has written a recent work on the relationship between morality and the linguistic faculty, titled Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Language Log quotes Hauser from a recent 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.

The full Language Log post places Hauser’s work in a broader intellectual and historical context – well worth a read.

On a personal level, I’m always interested in how tempting it clearly is for people to try to ground specific political and ethical ideals this way. In this week’s reading group discussion, for those who were there, this is the kind of thing I was referring to when I mentioned “making the jump to nature” as a common strategy for trying to ground a standpoint of critique – arguing that your ideals derive from some ahistorical source like language, human physiology, experience of the natural environment, etc. This is a surprisingly common strategy – surprising in the sense that the object of analysis – the specific political/ethical ideals theorists claim to derive from this approach – are often demonstrably historically specific.

Critical theorists like Habermas (who also tries to ground democratic values in language – although via the speech act tradition, rather than the Chomskyan one) at least recognise that this poses a theoretical problem, and therefore explicitly try to address how ideals that derive from something historically invariant, should nevertheless come to be expressed explicitly only very recently in historical time. Many theorists, however, don’t seem to recognise that this kind of jump to nature implies the need for any kind of supplemental historical theory, and therefore leave hanging the question of why no one became aware of specific ideals at some earlier point in time. (Personally, I prefer to avoid the whole problem by providing an historically specific explanation for historically specific ideals, but that’s another matter…)

I haven’t read Hauser’s work, of course, and he may well focus only on ideals or values that have a more transhistorical resonance. On this blog, I concentrate on understanding the rise and perpetuation of historically-specific political and ethical ideals because I am specifically trying to understand what is distinctive about recent history. Occasionally – probably because I don’t always contextualise the motives for my work clearly enough – my project gets interpreted more broadly, as though I’m making a strong ontological claim about the relative importance of, say, socialisation versus natural endowment – as though I’m intervening in a direct way into a kind of nature-nurture debate. I should perhaps take this opportunity to clarify that I see nature-nurture style debates as beside the point for my work: I have no difficulty being open to the concept that our forms of perception and thought might also be determined – perhaps even predominantly determined – by factors that are not historically or socially specific.

My difficulty arises only when someone tries to explain phenomena that are demonstrably socially and historically specific, with reference to purported causal factors that themselves are not… I have no specific knowledge of whether Hauser does this – although, given that the Language Log describes his work as “a Chomskyean interpretation of (some aspects of) John Rawls’ 1971 A Theory of Justice“, I suspect there is at least a risk that he does… Perhaps the reading group will take a look at some future point…

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