- Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky
MIT, 215 pp, £18.95, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 262 03424 1
- Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky
Penguin, 199 pp, £9.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 97248 9
- What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky
Columbia, 167 pp, £17.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 231 17596 8
- Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky
Hamish Hamilton, 307 pp, £18.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 18943 6
- Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals by Neil Smith and Nicholas Allott
Cambridge, 461 pp, £18.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 44267 2
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.
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Vol. 39 No. 10 · 18 May 2017
Jackson Lears writes that, on the Chomskyan view, evidence for innateness is the ease with which children ‘learn’ their first language, contrasted with the difficulty adults face in ‘acquiring’ a second one (LRB, 4 May). He is perhaps using these terms interchangeably, but for Chomsky it is children who ‘acquire’ their first language and adults who ‘learn’ a second. In the Chomskyan worldview, language acquisition is rooted in biology whereas language learning is not.
Vol. 39 No. 11 · 1 June 2017
Jackson Lears asserts that since the 1970s left-wing intellectuals have been drifting away from Chomsky’s rationalist humanism towards a hermeneutics of suspicion (LRB, 4 May). Yet Foucault was politically engaged, especially with the prisoners’ movement, and although today’s Foucauldians may have retreated from the barricades, Chomsky is still a towering figure of the left, unsilenced and unsilenceable.
However, Lears doesn’t mention the contradictions in Chomsky’s radical position, and seems to regard Chomsky’s academic home, MIT, as if it were like any other powerful university. It isn’t. MIT’s chief source of funding has long been the US military. Chomsky sees his linguistics as parallel to pure physics, floating above and entirely uninfluenced by the social; thus being funded by the military cannot influence his science. But since the mid-1970s Everett Mendelsohn, based just across the road in Harvard’s history of science department, has argued – he isn’t the only one – that science and society are co-constructed. Each shapes the other.
Chris Knight, in Decoding Chomsky (2016), tells a story that bears on the happy marriage between Chomsky’s research and the military’s need for a cognitive account of mind. MIT was a prime target of the student movement against the Vietnam War. Chomsky, who was opposed to the war, was caught between the students’ attack on military research at MIT and his reliance on military funding. He was invited by a canny MIT administration to join the committee it had established to discuss the matter. While one activist student on the committee remained hostile to each and every military research project on campus, another joined Chomsky in his more selective criticism. Chomsky’s contribution helped take the steam out of the student revolt.
Vol. 39 No. 12 · 15 June 2017
Hilary Rose’s letter concerning alleged ‘contradictions’ in my ‘radical positions’ relies on an account by Chris Knight that is rich in innuendo and falsification, but lacking in evidence (Letters, 1 June). Knight’s crucial charge, which Rose repeats, is that military funding influenced my scientific work. There is a very simple way to verify the charge: determine whether (and if so how) the work changed from the time I was a graduate student at Harvard with no military funding, to my early years at MIT, when its funding was quite generally military, to subsequent years when I received no military funding at all. Answer: not in the slightest relevant way – which is doubtless why Knight evades this test. Exactly the same is true of the other researchers in the same programme. End of story. And an end to the slanderous charges against all of us.
Further, during the years of military funding in the 1960s our group was at the centre of academic resistance – not protest, resistance – to the war in Vietnam. My own involvement in such activities was even more direct. Knight sidesteps all this.
Rose mentions one specific example, a faculty-student committee on military labs of which I was a member. Following Knight, she misrepresents the issues and the background. In fact the issue of military funding of academic research never came up. As for the labs, it was understood, of course, that whatever the commission determined, the military work would continue. The only question was where. One position, which prevailed, was to end ‘each and every military research project on campus’ (Rose’s approving words). The meaning was obvious: while formally separated from the campus, the military labs would continue their work as before, also effectively maintaining relations with academic programmes, though not visibly. It’s quite true that I didn’t share this concern for the purity of campus, which was a matter of no interest to the Vietnamese or any of the US military’s other victims. Again, no contradiction.
There is much more to say about Knight’s quite astonishing performance and, more important, about the idea that scientific work is necessarily influenced by its source of funding (corporate, military, whatever). That claim, easily refuted, should not be confused with the work of Everett Mendelsohn on science-society relations that Rose adduces. But no need to pursue these matters here.
Noam Chomsky is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. From the centre and the right he has been vilified for his alleged anti-Americanism, and from the left for his supposed complicity with Pentagon-supported research at MIT. Hilary Rose takes this latter tendency and runs with it, concluding that Chomsky’s putative failure to condemn all military-funded projects at MIT ‘helped take the steam out of the student revolt’. Chomsky is not above criticism, but this is a bizarre claim. Surely there were other more compelling causes for the weakening of anti-war protest: the infiltration of the student movement by FBI agents provocateurs, the ending of the draft, the rise of identity politics. Whatever the ambiguities of Chomsky’s actions at MIT during the Vietnam War, he played a major role in legitimating the anti-war position among the American intelligentsia at a moment when Cold War liberalism was still ascendant and speaking out against militarist pieties required real courage.
There is also an epistemological argument in Rose’s letter, which contrasts Chomsky’s faith in pure science with the historicist view that ‘science and society are co-constructed.’ As a historian I am committed to that constructivist perspective, and there is nothing in my essay to suggest otherwise. What I argued was that Chomsky’s philosophical position is idiosyncratic: he is a rationalist and humanist who believes in the reality of such universal ideals as truth and justice, while at the same insisting that certain problems may remain forever resistant to questions posed by scientific research. From a constructivist view, as I acknowledged, Chomsky’s universalist epistemology may be naive, even fundamentally mistaken. But it may also provide a firmer foundation for political action than a postmodern impulse to question absolutes and universals. In this Chomsky resembles Orwell, whose slogan ‘good prose is like a windowpane’ embodied a simple-minded view of language but also underwrote a commitment to truth-telling in a time of lies.
Ringoes, New Jersey
Vol. 39 No. 14 · 13 July 2017
Much as I admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathisers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ (Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favoured them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.
That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.
Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as a stand-alone digital ‘device’ was a product of its time. No one expects an academic who has committed his career to a particular paradigm to discard it just because the funding stops.
I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection with the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.
Noam Chomsky may honestly believe that the source of his funding in the 1960s was irrelevant but the funder may have had a different perspective. When a government body funds research, it does so on the basis that it considers the research relevant to the department’s brief. To the funder there is no disinterested knowledge. In the decades following the Second World War, not all military funding was directed at finding better ways of killing or maiming more of the enemy’s population than your own; significant funds were directed at information and control, seen as key in future forms of war. Research funded by the military with these ends in mind ushered in artificial intelligence, informatics, the web, GPS, smartphones and Siri, as well as Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory.
Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017
The distasteful correspondence that Chris Knight and Hilary Rose have carried forward began with their very serious charges against the linguistics programme at MIT, and against me in particular: namely, that we abandoned honest research and scholarship and followed the demands of the military (Letters, 1 June). Though the charges did not merit attention, I did respond, and suggested a simple test: show how our work changed in any relevant respect from what preceded it (Letters, 15 June). There was no change. End of story. All that remains is the need for apologies.
Knight now claims that work I completed before there was any thought of military funding was undertaken ‘to ensure that [my] militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use’ (Letters, 13 July). He further claims that when I continued exactly the same work at MIT, I ‘had to move mountains to avoid collusion’ with the military. Evidently, he couldn’t know whether that claim was true or false. In fact, there was no pressure at all, as is demonstrated by the record of appointments and promotions during the period when the programme he maligns was becoming the main academic centre for resistance (not protest) against the war in Vietnam.
Knight goes on to claim that I have been trying to ‘dragoon’ him into accepting my linguistics as ‘science’. I couldn’t care less what he thinks about my work.
Rose’s response is even worse. She now reduces her charges to the claim that the Pentagon considered ‘the research relevant to [its] brief’. She doesn’t even attempt to justify the claim. Doctrinal verities suffice. (Knight tries, at least: he says that my work was inspired by ‘the dream of accurate machine translation’ – a topic I have never had the slightest interest in, and to which my work has no relevance.) Rose is effectively claiming that the Pentagon was greatly interested in Turkish nominalisation (the first dissertation in our programme), Australian aboriginal languages, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s inquiries into language and the political order, and other work of comparable military relevance. And, by the same logic, that it took a similar interest in the incipient programme in philosophy and other teaching and research programmes sustained in the same manner, including undergraduate courses in radical politics. As for her claim that the military funded these endeavours along with ‘Chomsky’s revolution in linguistic theory’ because they were ‘seen as key in future forms of war’ – I will make no comment, out of politeness.