On Questions and Answers

‘Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself.’

– sign in The Prisoner (1967)


‘Using his ideas about the fictional status of art, Aristotle made a particular study of the emotions aroused by tragic drama. This formed the basis for his theory of “catharsis”. Aristotle perceived how tragic drama draws on the audience’s feeling of pity and fear – it was common for Athenian spectators to weep openly at stage performances.

“These feelings are aroused particularly when the hero suffers a significant reversal of fortunes such as when Oedipus, in Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Rex, discovers that Jocasta, his wife, is in fact his mother. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the messenger who reveals Oedipus’ true identity initially came to deliver joyous news.”

Catharsis is the feeling of sympathy aroused in the audience for Oedipus in this tragic moment of reversal. Aristotle argued that the fictional status of the play creates a sense of distance between the spectator and the tragic hero, and that because of this it is possible to enjoy tragedy and take aesthetic pleasure in it.’

– Kul-Want. C. (2012) Aesthetics London, United Kingdom: Icon Books p. 21-22

Universal Mental Structures

Osiatynski: Do you mean that we may be, by virtue of this accidental origin of science, capable of development of some disciplines of science and incapable of others? And that we are not conscious of that?

Chomsky: Yes, as human beings we are not too conscious of that because we naturally assume that our mental structures are universal. But I suppose an outside biologist looking at us would see something very different. He would see that, like other organisms, we have a narrow sphere within which we are very good, but that sphere is very limited. And that, in fact, the very achievements we can have within that sphere are related to lack of achievements in other spheres.

To construct a scientific theory from the data and to be able to recognize that it is a reasonable theory is possible only if there are some very sharp restrictive principles that lead you to go in one direction and not in another direction. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have science at all, merely randomly chosen hypotheses. Then, human genius may have limitless opportunities to develop in one direction, but at the same time this genius will not go in other directions. And those two considerations are related. The very properties of the human mind that provide an enormous scope for human genius in some domains will serve as barriers to progress in other domains, just as the properties that enable each child to acquire a complex and highly articulated human language block the acquisition of other imaginable linguistic systems.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

Genetic Linguistics

Osiatynski: What, then, in the field of linguistics, are the greatest achievements?

Chomsky: I think the most important work that is going on has to do with the search for very general and abstract features of what is sometimes called universal grammar: general properties of language that reflect a kind of biological necessity rather than logical necessity; that is, properties of language that are not logically necessary for such a system but which are essential invariant properties of human language and are known without learning. We know these properties but we don’t learn them. We simply use our knowledge of these properties as the basis for learning.

Osiatynski: Do we genetically inherit this knowledge?

Chomsky: Yes, we must. In fact, by universal grammar I mean just that system of principles and structures that are the prerequisites for acquisition of language, and to which every language necessarily conforms.

Osiatynski: Does it mean that this genetic basis of language is universal?

Chomsky: Yes, that’s right. But we are only one species. You can imagine a different world in which a number of species developed with different genetically determined linguistic systems. It hasn’t happened in evolution. What has happened is that one species has developed, and the genetic structure of this species happens to involve a variety of intricate abstract principles of linguistic organization that, therefore, necessarily constrain every language, and, in fact, create the basis for learning language as a way of organizing experience rather than constituting something learned from experience.

Osiatynski: Would such knowledge also be helpful in understanding human nature?

Chomsky: It would, in two respects. For one thing, it is by itself a part of a study of human intelligence that is, perhaps, the central aspect of human nature. And second, I think, it is a good model for studying other human properties, which ought to be studied by psychologists in the same way.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

Biology, Sociology and Language

Osiatynski: As I understand, language has an innate biological basis. Its use, however, is social. What do you think of the social functions of language? Is it primarily an instrument of communication?

Chomsky: I think a very important aspect of language has to do with the establishment of social relations and interactions. Often, this is described as communication. But that is very misleading, I think. There is a narrow class of uses of language where you intend to communicate. Communication refers to an effort to get people to understand what one means. And that, certainly, is one use of language and a social use of it. But I don’t think it is the only social use of language. Nor are social uses the only uses of language. For example, language can be used to express or clarify one’s thoughts with little regard for the social context, if any.

I think the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people. It doesn’t have much to do with communication in a narrow sense; that is, it doesn’t involve transmission of information. There is much information transmitted but it is not the content of what is said that is transmitted. There is undoubtedly much to learn about the social uses of language, for communication or for other purposes. But at present there is not much in the way of a theory of sociolinguistics, of social uses of languages, as far as I am aware.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

Dichotomies of the Rational and the Linguistic

Osiatynski: I’ve read several times that we think in language but “feel” in nonlinguistic ways.

Chomsky: I know that it’s false of me, at least if “language” refers (in my case) to English, and I assume that it’s false of everyone else. I don’t think you would have any trouble at all in deciding that you are thinking of some event and then visualizing it happening with its consequences, and constructing a rational analysis of it without being able to verbalize it adequately in anything like its full complexity.

Osiatynski: You used the expression “rational analysis.” Do you believe that all our thinking is rational and linear?

Chomsky: I don’t think all thinking is a kind of rational structure. But I don’t think it is correct to identify the rational-nonrational dichotomy with the linguistic-nonlinguistic dichotomy.

Osiatynski: Can language be nonrational?

Chomsky: Yes; so those are two dimensions that do not correlate. It’s true that language is in a sense linear but that is as obvious as perceptual space is three-dimensional.

– Wiktor Osiatynski (ed.), Contrasts: Soviet and American Thinkers Discuss the Future (MacMillan, 1984), pp. 95-101

The Scharff Approach to Interrogation

Perhaps ironically, the most effective approach to extract information from someone may be kindness. In 2014, Swedish researchers compared a common, direct interrogation—where the questions are direct and specific—to the Scharff Technique, named after the highly successful German interrogator Hanns Scharff.[1]

Scharff was not a typical Nazi interrogator. Unlike the infamous Klaus Barbie, he did not believe in using physical violence. Instead, Scharff got prisoners to spill their secrets through kindness and cunning.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire

According to Pacific Standard magazine, he even used to share his wife’s baked goods with allied fighter pilots. Once, while strolling with a captured allied fighter pilot through the woords, Scharff claimed that American tracer bullets left a white instead of red smoke due to a chemical shortage, the pilot jumped in to correct him, saying the white smoke was a signal to pilots that they were low on ammo. Thus Scharff was armed with the information he sought. Contemporary researchers are now beginning to put his techniques to the test.

In the Swedish study, participants were given a story with 35 details and interrogated by phone, Scharff’s approach not only resulted in more (and more precise) information, but those being interrogated thought they gave up less information than they actually had, while those being interrogated directly felt they gave up more than they actually had. Kindness is not the only key ingredient to the Scharff Technique; having a “know-it-all” attitude compels information-disclosing corrections, as in the case of the pilot correcting his “friend.”

“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?” ― George Orwell, 1984

[1] Oleszkiewicz. S., Granhag. P.A., Montecinos. S.C. (2014) The Scharff-technique: eliciting intelligence from human sources.