In 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault faced off on Dutch television, or at least that’s what their host, Fons Elders, kept prodding them to do. They were discussing the idea of human nature, and though Elders knew they shared a left libertarian politics, he assumed they would have philosophical disagreements, that Chomsky would defend the idea of an essential human nature, rooted in biology, and that Foucault would dismiss it as a mere social construction. Yet the men kept agreeing with each other, until Chomsky said that violent resistance to illegitimate power could only be defended ‘in terms of justice … because the end that will be achieved is claimed as a just one.’ Foucault responded: ‘If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this … it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power.’ And Chomsky replied: ‘Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis – if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out – ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded.’
In subsequent decades, left-wing intellectuals drifted increasingly from Chomsky’s epistemology to Foucault’s, from a belief in universal ideals to a hermeneutics of suspicion, but Chomsky’s unfashionable essentialist humanism has proved politically resilient; he continues to inspire readers throughout the literate West and beyond, despite his virtual banishment from the mainstream media in the United States. (In 1988, in Manufacturing Consent, he argued that the US mass media ‘carry out a system-supportive propaganda function’.)
Chomsky is, of course, not just a political activist and critic; he is also an extraordinarily prolific and influential linguistic theorist. It isn’t always easy to see the connections between his linguistic theory and his politics. His academic critics (and they are many) think he’s a con man or the high priest of a religious cult, or both. In fact, in both linguistics and politics, he is an Enlightenment rationalist and humanist.
Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928. He grew up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood full of German and Irish Catholics. His household was an enclave of Socialist Zionism, and he was enrolled in a progressive school. At ten he published an editorial in the school paper lamenting the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s forces. When he moved to a public high school he found an atmosphere of indoctrination and competition rather than learning. He began to take the train alone to New York, haunting bookshops, reading the anarchist Rudolf Rocker and any anti-Bolshevik Marxists he could find. He also managed to find a British edition of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which wasn’t published in the US until after the Second World War. Orwell celebrated the anarchists in Barcelona, who had been opposed by both the Americans and the Soviets. Struck by the contrast between Orwell’s account and the hostile reports in the established press, Chomsky began to develop a sense of the way the boundaries of ‘responsible opinion’ could be maintained by excluding dissent.
Enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, he read Dwight Macdonald’s essay ‘The Responsibility of Peoples’. Macdonald asked why, if the German people were to be held responsible for Nazi atrocities, the American people were not thought responsible for the saturation bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, as well as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Two decades later, the question shaped Chomsky’s response to the Vietnam War, articulated in ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ (1967). ‘The question “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves,’ Chomsky wrote, ‘as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam – as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defence of freedom.’
Chomsky’s route to this position began with his reaction against the conformist culture of Penn. Searching for alternatives, he was drawn to the kibbutzim being organised in Palestine, and to the Zionism of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who advocated the foundation of a binational state in Palestine, rather than a Jewish one. He stayed at Penn thanks to the presence there of Zellig Harris, a linguist and left-wing Zionist who was interested in psychoanalysis. Chomsky, already the budding rationalist, didn’t share his mentor’s enthusiasm. In the early 1950s he pursued an idiosyncratic academic career, eventually receiving a PhD from Penn in 1955, but attracting attention en route for his innovative theoretical work. The linguist Roman Jakobson invited him to become a researcher at MIT, and he was soon made a full-time faculty member. MIT has been his institutional home ever since. Over the next half-century, Chomsky, and eventually his students and colleagues, transformed the discipline of linguistics and created a new idiom for an old way of thinking: the rationalist humanism that stretches back to Descartes and Plato.
When Chomsky was starting out, his rationalism cut against the grain of conventional wisdom in philosophy and psychology. Both disciplines were dominated by a distrust of what Gilbert Ryle called ‘the ghost in the machine’ – the elusive, invisible human mind. Talk of mental states, on this view, was empty; subjective experience was unmeasurable and therefore unreal. Chomsky found this unsatisfying. In challenging it, he made the implicitly Cartesian claim that there are things we know innately, though the knowledge may be tacit or unconscious. He was struck by young children’s capacity to form and understand phrases and sentences without being taught. ‘The poverty of the stimulus’ they received – the brevity of their contacts with the world – suggested the inadequacy of behaviourist explanations for language acquisition, which Chomsky skewered in a review of B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1957). He concluded that children’s rapid mastery of grammatical structures suggested that ‘human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data-handling or hypothesis-formulating ability of unknown character and complexity.’ Chomsky has spent sixty years exploring this undiscovered country.
The project required a focus on what Chomsky eventually called the I-language of internal, individual structures of meaning rather than the E-language of external expression. The mental capacity to think in words – to talk silently to oneself, generating one’s own stream of thought – was rooted in a biological system he called Universal Grammar, or UG. UG generates I-language, and I-language in turn undergirds consciousness.
The question of how I-language developed eventually led Chomsky into debates over evolutionary origins, that swamp of speculation pervaded by ‘just so’ stories about what happened on the savannah thousands of years ago. Chomsky resisted this sort of thinking for years but has finally succumbed to it in collaboration with his MIT colleague Robert Berwick, producing Why Only Us: Language and Evolution. Identifying the earliest known symbolic object, a geometrically engraved plaque from South Africa dating from eighty thousand years ago, the authors infer that it indicates the emergence of the human capacity for complex symbolic thought.
Apart from this recent turn to evolutionary speculation, most sources of evidence for what has come to be known as generative linguistics have been inferences based on intuitions, in particular the intuition that certain sentences (‘John speaks fluently English’), though understandable, are nonetheless ‘in some way bad’, as Neil Smith and Nicholas Allott put it in their study of Chomsky, and that the ability to sense this badness is innate. Another piece of evidence for innateness, on the Chomskyan view, is the ease with which children learn their first language, contrasted with the difficulty adults face in acquiring a second one. The clearest non-intuitional evidence for an innate language faculty comes from cases where language fails to develop properly owing to some genetic defect, or is sabotaged by illness or trauma.
Chomsky’s rhetoric shifts between sweeping universalist pronouncements and sober reflections on the limits of human cognition. The pronouncements reveal the unreconstructed rationalist in Chomsky; the sober reflections show the openness of the rationalist to a wider stream of Enlightenment thought, a more capacious conception of mind and cosmos (and the relationship between them) that can be found in thinkers from Isaac Newton and John Locke to Adam Smith and David Hume. What Kind of Creatures Are We? reprints a series of lectures Chomsky delivered at Columbia University, with a lucid foreword by the philosopher Akeel Bilgrami. The second lecture, ‘What Can We Understand?’, opens with an avowal of ‘the new mysterianism’ – a term coined by the philosopher Owen Flanagan, who described it as ‘a postmodern position designed to drive a railroad spike through the heart of scientism’ by holding, as Bilgrami puts it, that ‘consciousness may never be completely explained’. Differentiating between problems, which we can solve, and mysteries, which we cannot, Chomsky concludes that the relationship between brain and consciousness may well be a mystery. Still, we can explore the ‘language of thought’ that exists inside our heads and that our introspection tells us only ‘reaches consciousness in scattered fragments’. His reliance on introspection is an implicit riposte to reductionist neuroscientists, who like to put the word in scare quotes.
Chomsky the mysterian bases his position on his interpretation of the ‘hard problems’ generated by the 17th-century scientific revolution: the problems of motion, attraction and repulsion. They were never solved, he insists, but abandoned, regarded by more perceptive observers, including Locke and Hume, as permanent mysteries – at least for humans. Newton’s postulate of an invisible force he called gravity had undermined the common sense distinction between the body and soul (or mind), and introduced the possibility of ‘thinking matter’. ‘We cannot say that all nature is not alive,’ Newton wrote. Notions of vibrant matter, far from being a recent innovation, were everywhere. As Chomsky writes, ‘it was the machine that Newton exorcised, leaving the ghost intact.’ Reductionists have been trying to exorcise that spectre for centuries.
Chomsky grants the centrality of mystery to his enterprise, but there is one thing about which he remains certain: language is unique to humans. This shifts the framework of discussion from thought to communication – the very framework Chomsky rejects with respect to people. Why not give animals the benefit of the same doubt? Isn’t it possible that an I-language for certain animals – a Universal Grammar for whale song – might exist but remain inaccessible to human cognition? Here we are on well-trodden philosophical ground, with Thomas Nagel asking ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ and vindicating the incommensurability of subjective experiences, especially across species lines. Yet Chomsky has remained wedded to the humanist tradition and the search, the notion of an immortal soul having been abandoned, for some other explanation of human uniqueness – though the quest seems oddly irrelevant to his major theoretical claims.
Still, Chomsky’s essentialist humanism may be a necessary foundation for his political thought, especially his challenge to any hierarchy that obstructs human development. For him, Cartesian linguistics converge with Enlightenment humanism. ‘To Descartes and his followers,’ Chomsky writes, ‘the only sure sign that another organism has a mind … is its use of language in the normal, creative human fashion.’ Seeking humanist antecedents, Chomsky pieces together an idiosyncratic intellectual lineage: Adam Smith assaulting the greed of the ‘masters of mankind’; John Stuart Mill and John Dewey advocating self-development and workers’ control of production. In contrast to 20th-century liberalism’s reliance on managerial expertise, Smith’s liberalism mingled with his moral philosophy, which postulated an innate moral sense in every human being. Chomsky embraces this assumption, arguing that ‘whenever we see a rich intricate system develop in a uniform way under restricted stimulus conditions’ (as we do with systems of morality), we must assume some innate capacity for that development. Something like a universal moral sense parallels Universal Grammar, some sense of the rightness or wrongness of actions as well as words.
Chomsky’s critics have often complained of his focus on his own country’s crimes and hypocrisies. His response is always the same: the US is the most powerful country in the world, the one most able to wreak havoc on others and therefore the one most deserving of critical scrutiny. But, even more important in his eyes, he is a privileged American intellectual: ‘Privilege yields opportunity; and opportunity confers responsibilities. An individual then has choices.’ Since 1967, when he published his essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, he has believed it is appropriate to choose to take responsibility for misdeeds committed by one’s government in the name of its citizens.
He brings these commitments to bear on American policymakers’ exceptionalism: ‘We should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not harsher ones,’ he argues. It is a truism routinely ignored in Washington, and indeed by Americans generally. Consider the recent outcry over Donald Trump’s suggestion that, while Vladimir Putin might be ‘a killer’, ‘There are a lot of killers.’ ‘What do you think?’ he asked Bill O’Reilly. ‘Our country’s so innocent?’ Defenders of conventional wisdom were livid at any hint that ‘the indispensable nation’ might be as imperfect as any other.
Chomsky’s universalist perspective has enabled him to develop a powerful critique of the double standard that runs through mainstream discourse on American foreign policy. The United States and its proxies are allowed to overthrow elected governments with impunity, pass off the mass murder of civilians as ‘collateral damage’, and reduce ancient cities to rubble – all ‘because we say so’ – without a twinge of self-doubt or a hint of self-examination. Chomsky’s epistemology supports a radical critique of state power which has deep roots in the homegrown anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian socialist traditions of the early 20th century. He has much in common with Randolph Bourne and Dwight Macdonald, articulate critics of the warfare state and of concentrated economic power, as well as with other thinkers in the Jeffersonian Populist tradition (not to be confused with the authoritarian pseudopopulists who have recently arrogated that label). Noam Chomsky’s politics are as American as apple pie.
His conception of public life, like his epistemology, is conservative. He laments that ‘the Great Charter is being shredded before our eyes’ by the war on terror – in particular its assaults on due process and the presumption of innocence. Here, as in his devotion to Smith and Mill, the anarcho-syndicalist reveals his devotion to an archaic ideal of justice, as well as to the integrity of the human person. Like Orwell, Chomsky believes that the language of power can make actual human beings disappear. ‘The phrase “national interest” is a residual Orwellism that should be removed in the cause of semantic hygiene,’ he writes, adding that ‘for the most part, people within a nation have very different interests. The interests of the CEO of General Motors and the janitor who cleans his floor are not the same.’ But the janitor and the CEO are both citizens, and Chomsky clings to the antiquated ideal of an informed citizenry.
Chomsky’s humanism underpins his outrage when certain populations come to be treated as ‘unpeople’ in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions and other human rights manifestos. Consider the Palestinian unpeople who inhabit Gaza, ‘the world’s largest open-air prison, where some 1.5 million people on a roughly 140-square-mile strip of land are subject to random terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade’. US law requires that ‘no security assistance may be provided to any country the government of which engages in gross violations of internationally recognised human rights.’ In the assessment of Amnesty International, Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, carried out against Gaza, met that criterion, but the US didn’t agree.
Latin American dissidents, like the victims of the Reagan-sponsored death squads in El Salvador during the 1980s, were similarly treated as ‘unpeople’, while the dissidents of Eastern Europe were feted for their anti-communism. A week after the Berlin Wall fell, six Salvadoran Jesuit priests (advocates of the blend of Marxism and Christianity known as liberation theology), along with their housekeeper and her daughter, had their heads blown off by an elite battalion armed and trained at the School of the Americas, where the US army taught counterinsurgency tactics to the military defenders of reactionary regimes. The murders provoked no outrage and little notice in the American press. A few weeks later Václav Havel came to Washington. He hailed his American hosts as ‘defenders of freedom’ who ‘understood the responsibility that flowed’ from ‘being the most powerful nation on earth’. The US media swooned.
The rest of the world has become less ecstatic about American defenders of freedom. As early as 1999, the US was seen by many as a ‘rogue superpower’, as Samuel Huntington observed in Foreign Affairs. An international poll conducted by the BBC in 2013 confirmed that the US was viewed as the most dangerous nation on earth by a large margin. American policymakers and pundits seem unaware of this global sentiment. American public discourse is permeated by powerful currents of national self-regard – in Trump’s ‘America First’ slogan as well as the sugar-coated dreams of humanitarian interventionists.
The most dangerous arena for this arrogance is Russia, with China close behind. As Chomsky details, the problems began at the end of the Cold War, when Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to German unification in exchange for Nato’s undertaking not to move ‘one inch to the east’ – as James Baker, the US secretary of state, put it at the time. Yet within just a few years, Bill Clinton began the expansion of Nato to Russia’s borders. This was ‘a tragic mistake’, the seasoned diplomat George Kennan wrote, a ‘policy error of historic proportions’. And it has triggered a crisis in US-Russian relations.
Exceptionalist assumptions are central to the belief that the expansion of Nato can be justified. ‘One can imagine,’ Chomsky observes, ‘how the US would react if the Warsaw Pact were still alive, most of Latin America had joined, and now Mexico and Canada were applying for membership.’ The treatment of Nato as sacrosanct, long after its original purpose of providing collective security against Soviet invasion has passed, is one of the mysteries of contemporary public discourse. Still, a certain mood among academic and foreign policy elites helps explain this strange reverence – a longing for the moral clarity of the Cold War.
This nostalgia may exact a fearful price. A nuclear arms race with Russia is every bit as much of an existential danger as global warming. It is as if we cannot tolerate more than one vision of apocalypse at a time. But the threat of US missile defence systems near Russia’s borders is nothing if not apocalyptic. As Chomsky observes, these systems constitute ‘in effect, a first strike weapon, aimed to establish strategic primacy – immunity from retaliation’. Nuclear strategists agree that US missile defence systems would be virtually useless against a massive first strike; they are meant to be deployed against an opponent whose ability to retaliate has already been disabled by a US first strike. The prospect of ‘immunity from retaliation’ removes the incentive for the US to refrain from striking first. This brinksmanship lies at the core of what Chomsky calls ‘a fateful geographical paradox’: that Nato ‘exists to manage the risks created by its existence’. The risks are growing daily.
Vladimir Putin distrusts the motives behind US/Nato actions in Ukraine, beginning with the US backing of the coup that overthrew the elected (and corrupt) president, Viktor Yanukovych. ‘Washington may not like Moscow’s position,’ John Mearsheimer has written, ‘but it should understand the logic behind it.’ It is the same logic (only more modest) as that of the Monroe Doctrine: Putin is keen to keep potentially hostile foreign regimes away from Russia’s borders. ‘As in the case of China,’ Chomsky observes, ‘one does not have to regard Putin’s moves and motives favourably to understand the logic behind them.’
This is a crucial observation. In our multipolar world, it is more necessary than ever to negotiate not only with allies but also with rivals in an attempt to find common interests. In the Russian case, the common interest is global survival. Chomsky recognises that imperfect human institutions can promote desirable aims, just as he did in 1971 when he said in the exchange with Foucault that our ‘systems of justice … embody systems of class oppression and elements of other kinds of oppression, but they also embody a kind of groping towards the true humanely valuable concepts of justice and decency and love and kindness and sympathy, which I think are real.’ Fine words, and easily dismissed as mere sentiment. But we still need to act as if they mean something.