Facing Reality

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Michael C. Haley and Ronald F. Lunsford

Excerpted from Haley & Lunsford, Noam Chomsky, Twayne, 1994, pp. 182-4, pp. 194-6

QUESTION: I’m really intrigued by your concept of abduction.

CHOMSKY: Abduction? Well, Peirce had this one very stimulating essay, which I don’t think he ever pursued further, called — when it was reprinted in the fifties, it was called — “The Logic of Abduction.” I don’t remember what he called it; I think that was the first time it ever appeared, actually — when the Peirce stuff started coming out in the fifties — but it was about the turn of the century. He began by saying that you can’t — he’s talking really about theory construction in the sciences, but the same would be true in any kind of learning whatever, and he made that clear — he said that you can’t get anywhere by association, you can’t get anywhere by induction; induction is not a method of acquiring any knowledge. He said that induction and confirmation, and so on, may be ways of checking out what you’ve discovered, and clarifying it and filling out the details, and so on, but there’s something else going on. And the other thing that’s going on is what he called abduction. He didn’t tell you much about what it was, which is not so surprising, but he said whatever it is, it’s instinctive. He said it’s on a par with a chicken pecking at grain, so there’s some instinctive mechanism we have that is a kind of a theory construction module of the brain, to put it in contemporary terms. And that maps — that constructs — theoretical interpretation from scattered data. And we do it instinctively. And then we check it out by induction and methodology of science and all that kind of stuff. And he said if you really understand what happens in science — or what happens in ordinary life when people gain a conception of the world — why, you have to understand this instinctive process. And I think that’s exactly right.

QUESTION: I’m intrigued by that and I was wondering if there is any sense in which you feel that there’s any kind of abductive process at work in your political thought, just as there is —

CHOMSKY: Sure, and there is in everything you do. I mean, forget political thought. Take something even simpler. How do you place yourself in a social structure? Plainly, you do. You interact with other people in a way which relates to their expectations. Sometimes we make mistakes and get into trouble, but there’s a tremendous amount of adaptation in complex social situations, which by and large works. And that must mean that you have in your head, somehow, a theory of society, a theory of personality, and when things go wrong, you notice it and try to adjust. How did that get there? Well, it got there by animal instinct again, by abduction. It is a theory that we don’t know much about, but if we could figure out what it was, we would doubtless find that it’s extremely refined in comparison with the crude evidence on which it was constructed, that it’s pretty much uniform in basic respects across the species because it reflects species characteristics. And in fact that’s kind of like language.

And what one calls political thought is just a conscious part of this, dealing with problems that are somewhat remote from direct, immediate experience — problems of power and decision-making and control in the broader social world, beyond those of the world in which you are directly interacting. So everybody has a theory about their school, let’s say, and that’s a sytem of power; they have a politics of their school. If you want to think beyond, you’ll also get a politics of your city, or of your government, or of the world, or of your history. But it’s not different in essentials; it’s just different in the limits to which you push your thinking and reasoning. Maybe you do it somewhat more consciously when you get beyond immediate circumstances, but everybody is doing it all the time, just in order to live in the world.

QUESTION: Is this a Cartesian “common sense morality” with which you approach the facts of the world political situation, or is that something that comes from your early training, your early environment?

CHOMSKY: I am not exactly sure what it comes from. It’s a little tricky to dig out influences in your early childhood. I can think of things that might have been significant, but I don’t think there’s anything very profound going on here. I think that political issues and moral issues are rather generally accessible to common sense, Cartesian common sense, if you like. There are cases which are difficult and require thought, undoubtedly, but I don’t know of anything that’s beyond the scope of normal reasoning. I also suspect that moral values are pretty much shared across the species. To the extent that they seem to be different, it’s because we’re missing the uniformities and only observing the differences, or because you get cases in which society distorts or modifies, in a way which really is counter to fundamental human needs and concerns — that plainly happens…

QUESTION: [re: competition?]

CHOMSKY: Oh, I don’t think competition is a good thing… Take sports, which doesn’t lead to much in the way of hierarchy and domination — some, but not much. But I think especially professional sports brings out just the worst instincts in people. I mean it brings out gladiatorial instincts. First of all, it enhances blind and foolish loyalty. Why should you be loyal to your home team? What do you know about those guys? Do I ever meet anybody out of the [New England] Patriots? I remember when I was in high school, and I was all excited, passionate, about the high school football team. And I remember asking myself, Why do I care? I couldn’t say one word to any of these guys. And I don’t want to sit at the same table with them, and they don’t want to sit at the same table with me, and they’re no different than the guys at the other school, and what do I care whether they win a game or they lose a game? All that this does is enhance blind and foolish loyalties, which is extremely dangerous, because that carries over into chauvinism for the state and others; it’s extremely dangerous. And in things like, say, professional football and professional boxing, it’s really horrifying. It’s like gladiatorial contests. You know, you’re watching people kill each other — and cheering. So that kind of stuff is extrememly dangerous.

QUESTION: You just raised a point there that reminds me of another question. Some studies in clinical psychology have indicated that a certain amount of self-deception is necessary for a person to function. Those who suffer continual or enervating depression are sometimes the most uncompromisingly realistic. Is a certain amount of self-sanitizing also necessary for a healthy national ethos? For instance, is it healthy and natural for a nation, perhaps even necessary to a nation’s survival, for it to mythologize its own history and behavior to a certain extent? Where do we draw the line between a healthy national ethos and “manufactured consent”?

CHOMSKY: Well, I would think it’s worth raising the prior question, too, about individuals. I mean it’s certainly true, and I think we all know it, that a certain amount of self-deception is helpful for getting around in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Maybe it’s better to face reality. I think it probably is. If you face reality, you’re going to find a lot to be depressed about. But the question is whether it’s better to be honestly depressed or falsely euphoric. I don’t know what the clinical psychologists you’re talking about are saying, but if people were to ask me for advice, I’d say be honestly depressed. Face reality and try to deal with it. And come to terms with it, and recognize that there are things that are not the way you want them, rather than pretending that they’re not there. I think you’re probably better off that way. So I don’t even accept the prior assumption about people.

As far as nations are concerned, it’s even worse. A national ethos is not something that’s of very much value. Here we’re back to the original question about patriotism. When you talk about the national ethos, which of those two nations are you talking about — the state that you’re supposed to serve, or the people who we’re supposed to be for? Now if you’re talking about the people, most of them suffered under the nation. The slaves suffered, the poor immigrants suffered, the work force suffered. There’s a tremendous amount of suffering in our national ethos. That’s how the industrial system got built up. So when you care about our history, who are you caring for? The people who were working in the sweat shops? Well, if you are, you aren’t going to create any illusions about our great magnificence. Or do you care about the roughly ten million Native Americans who lived here before the European colonists took it away from them? Why not? Of course, they’re not around anymore — they’re all dead. But that’s part of the national ethos. Do you care about what was really going on, let’s say, in New England in the 17th century when Cotton Mather was talking about how we should “cleanse the forest of this pernicious growth” by wiping out the native peoples who were “infesting” it and getting in our way? I think we should care about that; I think we should recognize what the national ethos was: It was destruction of the native population, destruction of the environment, blind pursuit of gain, exploitation, rapaciousness, and so on. Those things are in fact a very substantial part of the national ethos. And if you ask me if it is healthy to recognize that, I’d say that it is extremely healthy to recognize it — healthy for ourselves, to try to compensate for much of what is done, and healthy for potential victims.

This sense of American innocence has cost millions and millions of people their lives. They’re the ones who have to suffer that burden of our innocence. So we should divest ourselves of it and face reality — face reality about what the nation was and what the state was and who suffered internally and externally and who benefited internally and externally.