Words, Brains and Science: A Response to Gary Marcus’s The Trouble with Brain Science

Gary Marcus, who seems to be gradually emerging as the Neil de Grasse Tyson of psychology, has a nice Times op ed today calling for greater scholarly focus on (and possibly funding for) efforts to not just compile but to make sense of the huge amounts of data which neuroscientists have been accumulating over the past decade or so. He notes, in particular, that the success of the field “ultimately rest(s) not just on the data to be collected but also on what can be done with those data once they are collected.”

He gives an indication of what he has in mind in observing that “we know that there must be some lawful relation between assemblies of neurons and the elements of thought, but we are currently at a loss to describe those laws. We don’t know, for example, whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.”

While this is surely well taken, it struck me as a bit unfortunate that the observation is not fleshed out by mentioning the field implicated in the “”memories of individual words” which assemblies of neurons will need to be reconciled with. That field is, of course, linguistics.

Gary, who is, at least for Facebook purposes, a friend, responded to me when I brought this to his attention that “linguistics actually was in the early draft, but cut in the savage but elegant trim to 800 words.”

The cut was understandable. However, one wonders what direction the piece would have gone in had the cut been restored and Gary able to develop it somewhat. Obviously, I don’t know, but I can suggest one sort of story he could have told which might have made the case for the relevance of the field.

It would begin with the observation that we all have a pretty good intuitive understanding of what a word is though if you ask most people, they would likely offer as a definition that a word is the group of letters separated by spaces when we write or read texts. But of course people don’t really believe that since they know that whose who either speak unwritten languages or who, for whatever reason, do not read or write are well aware of what linguistic segments are and are not words. Even those English speakers who have only heard or spoken, for example, the sentence

1)The dog is well trained.

know that the unit indicated by the letters “dog” is a word, whereas the last two letters “-ed” are not.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a grey area-and we intuitively understand this as well.

For example, consider the closely related sentence

2) The dog’s well trained.

Is “-‘s” a word? I don’t know what people would say, though I think it’s likely that those who provided a yes or no answer would be more or less evenly divided into two groups: lumpers designating “-‘s” as included within the single word “John’s” and splitters who would argue that “-‘s” remains a separate word.

Both sides have a basis for their conclusions.

The splitters might argue that we know that “-‘s” in 2) is a word since it can be moved to the front to produce the question

3) Is the dog well trained?

It would seem that only separate words are sufficiently self-contained linguistic objects so that they can be moved around in this way so on these grounds it seems reasonable to designate “-‘s” (what linguists call a clitic) as belonging to the mental category word.

But to that the lumpers would respond: yes, but notice that you can make the same argument with the “-ed” in the word “trained.”

Consider the sentence

4) Bill trained the dog.

When we change that to a question

5) Did Bill train the dog?

the same thing happens: you detach the “-ed” from the stem “train”, move it to the beginning of the sentence and then-so that it can function as a self-contained word-tack on a “d-” at the beginning to make “did”. We do almost exactly the same thing in converting in 2) to 3): the “-‘s” is altered to “is” and then it is moved to the beginning to make the question.

So, says the lumper, if you want to call “-‘s” a word, you have to call “-ed” a word too. But we know that “-ed” is not a word, it’s just a syllable (more precisely a past tense suffix), so by that logic, the lumper concludes the splitter is wrong to call “-s” a word.

To be honest, I don’t know who’s right-whether clitics such as “-s” should be construed as words-or “phonological words” as the linguistics refer to them (as distinct from the orthographic word which is an artifact of writing systems, as mentioned above). I do know that the question of what constitutes a word boundary is something which linguists have given considerable thought to having advanced what is known as the “prosodic hierarchy” for this purpose. Applying one formalism devised to describe the relevant facts, the boundaries between “Bill” and “trained” in 4), understood to be considerably more prominent than the boundary between “the” and “dog” with the former thereby represented with three as opposed to, for the latter, one pound sign (#) resulting in something like

6) Bill###trained##the#dog####.

I’m not going to continue with this discussion here since my objective in laying it out is not to provide an answer but rather to show in a simplified form the kinds of arguments which are made by linguistics-or more precisely one specific aspect of these arguments. Notice that nothing in what was just outlined required any sort of neurological data. This is so because, to repeat Gary’s observation, neuroscience as of yet has nothing to say as to “whether our memories for individual words inhere in individual neurons or in sets of neurons, or in what way sets of neurons might underwrite our memories for words, if in fact they do.”

Neurology is no help in telling us anything about what a word is, let alone whether “-s”, or for that matter “the” or “dog” is. But does that mean we should abandon trying to come up with an answer for what we understand words to be and how they are arranged to form sentences until neurology has something to tell us? Surely not; it means rather that we need to look elsewhere for evidence, namely in the sort of data the lumper and splitter were appealing to in their argument: our intuitions with respect to linguistic form. To take their examples, we know intuitively that certain sentences including 1)-5) are all more or less unproblematically acceptable in English, and based on this, they were correct in assuming that the arguments they were offering were supported by these sentences.

Furthermore, they were right in proposing that 5) can be derived from 4) and 3) from 1) or 2) according to the movement operations outlined, though it’s important to keep in mind that this is only the initial stage of the inquiry. To return to their argument as an indication of how it can be extended, as we saw in 4) we know that you can form a question by moving the last syllable of a past tense verb like “trained” to the front of a sentence, after altering it to “did”. However, it will be seen that you cannot apply the same operation to passive sentences such as

7) The dog was trained by Bill.

Here moving the “-ed” produces the sentence

8) Did the dog was train by Bill.*

which is clearly impossible (as indicated by the asterisk). It follows that the computation deriving questions from declaratives is more complicated than the simple movement rule suggested by the splitter.

As it turns out, the problem of how one derives the grammatically correct question from 7) is hard-or, rather, I should say that it’s been relatively hard for linguistics to come up with the answer (though it’s very easy for us English speakers to do it!) But while tricky the problem has turned out to be by no means impossible, and linguists have made real progress identifying the mechanisms underlying passive constructions (in particular, the theory of theta roles interacting with Case assignment) which need to be posited to get the right answer.

I won’t discuss what these are except to reiterate the point that our intuitions with respect to language are both necessary and, as it has turned out so far, sufficient, to provide the data which goes into constructing this kind of account. In short, within a theory of syntax and neurological data is, at least so far, neither helpful nor relevant.

Now, as Gary notes, it is true that we will eventually hope to unify linguistic syntactic theory with neuroscience, just as, for example, genetics was unified with chemistry with the discovery of the DNA molecule. Prior to the unification of these two fields, genetics and chemistry were self-contained disciplines each achieving results based on theoretical frameworks each had devised for its own purposes. As it turned out, pretty much normal application of existing principles of chemistry was all that was required to explain the basic facts of genetics. But before this could occur, a substantial theoretical literature within genetics having to do with inheritance of specific traits, dominant and recessive genes, alleles, chromosomes etc. dictated the form of the answer which chemistry was required to provide by means of atoms, molecules, compounds, reactions etc. And Franklin, Crick and Watson were required to understand, at least to a sufficient degree, what these boundary conditions imposed by genetics were in order to devise the correct account within the terms fundamental to their own field.

As Gary suggests, much the same should be the case with linguistics and neuroscience: we know there are words, but beyond this we know there is movement of these elements in sentences. In fact, we know, according to linguistic theory that there are two types of movement covert and overt movement (one taking place before the sentence is uttered the other after). We also know that movement is constrained within certain configurations as can be seen when the linguistic hierarchy is represented as a tree structure derived from combining (i.e. merging) pairs of syntactic units-the basis of the computation we perform in assembling sentences.

As the linguistic account becomes more detailed and robust, it becomes on the one hand more intricate and requires a bit more work to assimilate. But neuroscientists should be enthusiastic about engaging it. For as linguistics develops, the questions which neuroscience can and should be able to derive the answers to become clearer. At this happens, the “troubles with brain science” which Gary cogently discusses, while surely never disappearing, will begin to recede into the background.

Theorizing Underpants and Mr. Burns’s Skirt: Multiculturalism and the Left Road to Nowhere

A couple of weeks ago Jacobin ran a blog post by Peter Frase attempting to answer certain criticisms pertaining to the dominant role of multiculturalism and identity politics in the left as it is now constituted.

The consensus, in my social media circles at least, appeared to indicate that it was not very convincing, with some objecting to what one commenter referred to as its reliance on “90’s grad seminar” discourse.

If it were only a question of style, the piece wouldn’t be worth discussing. What requires that it be dealt with is the substance, revolving around the claim that critics of the diversity agenda “do away with race” by taking “class (to be) the universal solvent that does away with all identity.”

That Frase’s characterization is not without merit is apparent in that it is not hard to find examples of what he has in mind. One is the following remark by Adolph Reed.

(T)he fact of the matter is that if you want to improve the social position of black americans, latino americans or non-whites the most effective way to do it, the biggest bang for the buck, would come from pursuing programs and goals that would enforce the economic well-being and security of the vast majority of working americans. Because not only (does) the vast majority of those non-white groups fall into the working class broadly construed but disproportionately so according to those who focus on racial disparity as a key metric of inequality. So that’s the only way to do it.

Another is from a Jacobin article by Sam Gindin cited by Frase, though not what would seem to be the most relevant passage:

“The alternative (to attempting to mobilize African-Americans as a particularly oppressed group) is to define racially coded inequality as part of a more general class inequality and mobilize the class as a whole around universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions. Only the latter approach would seem to hold out the potential to build political capacity for substantive reform and such reforms would, given the nature of existing inequalities, disproportionately support the African-American working class.”

Frase is correct to construe these strategic proposals as “doing away with race” provided they are understood in the following narrow sense: any left majority will need to be assembled from groups which could, if they choose to do so, define themselves as minorities. The left needs to provide a reason for why they should ally themselves with what will necessarily (based on demographic reality) be a white majority coalition advancing issues such as “universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions”. And they need to do so even when this means withholding their support from, indeed, opposing, for example, an African American leadership class, including the president and members of his administration, whose hostility to the left agenda is by now a matter of record.

If helping the left succeed in this way is “doing away with race”, Gindin and Reed provide a simple basis for why it makes sense to do so: it will benefit the great majority-including minorities and women disproportionately, which is to say what the coalition achieves will benefit them substantially more than it will benefit everyone else.


While the argument seems straightforward enough-not to mention plenty familiar-it is revealing that nowhere does Frase attempt to address, let alone answer it. Instead, his rebuttal consists largely of repackaging various elements of 90s social construct theorizing, among them the “current (of) discussion among radical feminists, . . . which sees the ultimate aim not as an equality between hypostatized essences but as eliminating the gender binary entirely.”

As Frase continues the old story, this “performance of gender could then become more fluid, playful, and theatrical, following the models set down by queer and transgender cultures.”

Of course, there would be nothing wrong and a great deal right in achieving the gender negationist utopia Frase describes. However, there would be nothing socialist-or even necessarily just or decent about it; to see why, all we need to do is imagine Mr. Burns in a skirt. Frase along with an alarming number of others on the left completely miss this obvious point: exploitation without discrimination is still exploitation. As a result of their conflation of opposition to discrimination with opposition to exploitation, the essence of their proposals amounts to a multiculturalist restatement of the underpants/gnome theory which here take the form 1) elimination of gender binary 2) ???? 3) expropriation of the expropriators.

Just as it is unclear what stroke of gnomic inspiration can derive profits from collecting underpants, it is hard to see what step 2) can link radical conceptions of gender performativity to nationalization of major industries, democratic control of the means of production, or the institution of a wealth tax.

The reason why Frase doesn’t attempt to argue for or even mention how 1) and 3) are to be connected may be due to there being no real connection to be had. As the economist Gary Becker has suggested, the meritocratic logic of neoliberalism is intrinsically hostile to all forms of arbitrary discrimination and by extension fully consonant with “the elimination of the gender binary.” If multiculturalism can be naturally achieved within neoliberalism, what purpose is served by attempting to show that it is a natural fit with socialism?

One of many indications of the harmonious combination of neoliberalism and multicultural diversity is the top prize “in workplace innovation” from the Human Rights Campaign having been awarded to Goldman Sachs for its creation of an LGBT friendly workplace. While Goldman is, needless to say, among the more odious capitalist institutions, most accounts of its hiring practices indicate a sincere commitment to recruit candidates who will serve as the most effective plunderers of the remaining assets of the 99%. By doing so, it shows that it fully accepts Becker’s logic that its shareholders’ interests in a maximum return of their investment derived from successful plunder would not be served by excluding candidates on the basis of their race, gender or sexual preference. Goldman’s policies in this respect are a special case of the general trend towards rainbow complected corporate boards far beyond that which left institutions have managed to achieve. All this is indicative of both how naturally multiculturalism can be accommodated and how cheaply multicultural credentials can be purchased by those with a prime claim to huge agglomerations of capital.

It should be noted that none of this has any bearing on Reed and Gindin’s argument. Rather it serves to show how the multicultural agenda can function as a smoke screen through which neoliberalism is legitimated and even accepted by some of its primary victims. Among these are African American communities who have suffered the largest drop in aggregate wealth in their recorded history, hemorrhaging rates of home foreclosures and continuing application and maintenance of the new Jim Crow system of incarceration. The administration’s continuing high approval ratings demonstrate the success of multiculturalism in obscuring the target which should be clearly in the sights of those most on the receiving end of its predations.

In addition to the smoke screen there is the offensive weapon of raising doubts as the sincerity of the left’s commitment to racial and gender equity. Frase offers a low-wattage recycling of this charge in his suggestion that “among intellectuals, appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others.” Frase offers no evidence of attempts by intellectuals to “exclude” for the likely reason that very little exists. What possible objective, after all, would “exclusion” of any significant group serve those trying to build a mass movement? By reinforcing African American suspicions that they need to be continually on the look out for “masks” hiding an underlying racialist agenda Frase’s rhetoric is a close cousin to that of Obama apologists’ routine claim that any criticism of the current administration derives from white intellectuals threatened by “black faces in high places”.

If Glenn Greenwald is correct, a gendered variant of the same tactic is in the offing should Hillary Clinton receive the nomination. A debased, neoliberal feminism will be deployed to tar all criticism of Clinton’s policies and governance as sexist, to be followed in the sequence by a gay neoliberal Democratic nominee, protected by the inevitable charge of homophobia directed at his or her critics.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Jacobin itself has been one the receiving end of a particularly unpleasant form of weaponized identity politics, namely the charge that all males are implicated in perpetuating a “culture of rape” designed to silence and prevent women’s participation in the left. As Jacobin well knows, these smears, usually based on little to no evidence are highly effective at undermining and discrediting promising left institutions.

Frase and Jacobin should know better than most the damage which a debased multiculturalism inflicts when it is resurrected in a vampiric form. It’s high time that they, and we, began a more critical examination of its underlying premises.