Two critiques of Chomsky

1.) Chomsky claims both that “the physical” has a purely honorific meaning with no content, even within the physical sciences, and that it’s a matter of obvious logic that we are biological organisms with a definite structure, scope and limits. So… biological but not physical – even as defined by physical science?

2.) Chomsky claims that “real” is also an honorific adjective with no content. He always supports this with the same example, sc. the vacuity of speaking of “the real truth”. But this is so obviously a special case that you could literally pick any noun out of the dictionary at random to refute it. Here, let me prove it…

…I couldn’t find a dictionary so I pointed to a random page in Shakespeare and got…

death

So is it purely honorific to speak of “real death” as opposed to, say, apparent death (hibernation, stasis, lack of breathing with some brain activity) or fake death (playing possum, acting on stage, setting up scenarios to fool your creditors or your insurance company, etc.) or metaphorical death (sleep, extreme shock, renunciation of the world) or analogous death (sin, damnation, banishment)?

It is not even honorific to speak of “the real truth” but simply pleonastic.  Real gold = true gold.

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3 Comments

  1. April 12, 2017 at 3:15 pm

    I’ve always taken Chomsky’s point not as implying that ‘physical’ doesn’t apply in cases like biology, but that it does apply, but trivially. That is, there is nothing “biological but not physical” because we just apply ‘physical’ to whatever happens to be studied by biology, etc. ‘Physical’ doesn’t do any substantive work in biology, so biological studies aren’t building on it; and once you’ve identified something as ‘studied by biology’, ‘physical’ doesn’t add anything to our understanding of it.

    But it is definitely difficult to see how ‘real’ could possibly work the same way.

    • April 12, 2017 at 3:26 pm

      ‘Physical’ doesn’t do any substantive work in biology, so biological studies aren’t building on it; and once you’ve identified something as ‘studied by biology’, ‘physical’ doesn’t add anything to our understanding of it.

      Maybe I’m missing something in this interpretation, but is there some way to insulate “the biological” from the vacuity of “the physical”?

      • April 12, 2017 at 3:46 pm

        I’m not sure he addresses it anywhere, but I would guess that the idea would be that we can make discoveries about whether something is biological, in the sense that we could learn (e.g.) that such-and-such reaction is really a process of the sort studied by biology, which would distinguish it from other, non-biological things studied by other sciences using different methods; but we don’t make discoveries about whether what a science studies has to do with the physical world — if biology, or chemistry, or physics, find it useful to include it in their theories, we just count it as part of the physical world — the ‘physical’ is just whatever we think we’ve discovered in the sciences. This is why it’s an issue for physicalism, which is his main target: there is no a priori conception of the physical, and the a posteriori conception is indefinite and ever-changing and doesn’t actually tell us anything substantive on its own, leaving us with no idea about what the physicalist is trying to say.

        The asymmetry with real, I think, is that ‘real’ does seem to do real work in investigation rather than just labeling results — as witnessed by your examples of real vs. fake, etc.


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