Review of Decoding Chomsky in the American Ethnologist

American Ethnologist Vol. 44 (3), Aug 2017 pp. 541–542

Noam Chomsky is one of the intellectual giants of our times. His work in linguistics, including his pathbreaking anthropological theories about the birth of language and its influence on human evolution, has transformed the discipline. But he is perhaps better known for his voluminous writings on current political events. Anthropologists, for our part, have hardly had that kind of public impact since the days of Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, and perhaps Claude Lévi-Strauss. Yet somehow Chomsky has been largely ignored by anthropologists—sometimes willfully so—in protest against the spirit of his work in linguistics, which characteristically eliminates the social side of human life to pursue the deeper cognitive essences that reside in the human brain.

This stimulating intellectual biography by Chris Knight begins to fill this gap by coming close to delivering what its title promises: deciphering Chomsky's lifework so that an anthropological audience can benefit from the distilled insights while avoiding Chomsky's own missteps along the way. After all, human nature has been Chomsky's primary subject matter all along, whether or not we in anthropology have been willing to listen or, for that matter, decipher all the code. Knight is not a devotee or a fan but a critical interpreter. As a practicing Marxist activist and biological anthropologist concerned with language and evolution, he could not afford to ignore Chomsky's incandescent legacy in his own areas of expertise. Thus, he has become an expert on Chomsky's legacy.

Why Chomsky may be unappealing as a theorist of human nature for most anthropologists is not hard to understand. He has promised nothing less than uncovering the universal secret underlying all human languages in their baffling diversity, in addition to suggesting that this secret may have emerged from a single random genetic mutation in the relatively recent evolutionary past. This sounds like the opposite of the kind of humanism that is cultural anthropology's default position. But Chomsky has also been a tireless advocate for human rights, especially the rights of those who are usually ignored, and this squares with the perspectives of most anthropologists. He has used his considerable linguistic acumen to uncover the otherwise obscure stories that circulate around the planet as they break in different languages and forms of discourse. Talk about having a Rosetta stone to human diversity!

The bulk of the book is devoted to intellectual history, placing Chomsky squarely within a well defined lineage as well as within the social climate of his times. This is where Knight's book shines—history comes alive via compelling narrative. As a devoted historian of the profession, I was particularly delighted by the sections on how Russian linguistics influenced the development of cognitive science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the height of the Cold War and for many decades thereafter. The revealing sections on Roman Jakobson and his own intellectual predecessors are worth the price of the book. Knight is indeed an impressive historian when it comes to recounting the gripping personal histories behind Chomsky's groundbreaking contributions to science and philosophy.

Knight eschews history as contextualization to doggedly take Chomsky to task for not engaging deeply enough with biologists and other scientists, especially in terms of the scientific method, where a hypothesis can be put to an empirical test and evaluated among equals in the peer-review process. So much it seems, in the Chomskyan realm, must be accepted on faith, according to Knight and many other, less relentless critics over the decades. One of Chomsky's most alarming claims is that language is an instinct pure and simple, inscribed in the human essence before birth, rather than being a fusion of both genetics and neurological conditioning, which is closer to both Boas and the current biological paradigm concerning neural plasticity as a fundamental trait of the human brain. Many of Chomsky's other claims, including the innateness of ideas, wired in advance, also seem ridiculous in this light—such as the impossible idea that even the concept of the carburetor was on the metaphorical back burner of the human psyche from the very beginning. Here and elsewhere, it's not always clear that Knight is being fair, given that Chomsky's responses to his critics are not hard to find—whether in the library or on the Internet. He has, in fact, often answered criticisms by revising his theoretical frameworks. His ideas are not set in stone, despite some of the cringing that anthropological readers might feel when they read through the version of Chomsky that Knight lays out.

Another constant throughout this book is the oft- repeated claim that Chomsky separated his
social activism from his asocial linguistics for a supposedly obvious reason: his early military
funding. Is there really such a simple answer here? Knight's reasoning, or lack thereof, is based
on a kind of secondhand armchair psychology. Chomsky must have separated the two, so the
argument goes, because the cognitive dissonance was too great for anyone to tolerate. Such
psychological reductionism without empirical support! Yet the underlying observation in itself is valid. Chomsky has always been a severe social critic while at the same time studying language apart from its social circumstances. That is, his vision of linguistics has always been rooted in the premise that language is best understood as abstraction, apart from its embodiment in real-time social interaction, where arguably all the ethnographic magic happens.

Though no book could possibly deliver what the title promises—definitively deciphering the work of Noam Chomsky once and for all—this book is nonetheless a success in one key way: it provides a gripping, if flawed, intellectual history of one of the world's most important thinkers. Everyone who cares at all about human nature or human rights should read this book. Afterward, they might want to engage more with Chomsky, since he's so much more complex as a thinker than anyone, even Knight, could ever capture in the two-dimensional format of a book. Some will even wish to engage with Chomsky himself, as he is still very much alive, pursuing science and revolutionary politics with the characteristic passion that made him one of the world's most influential thinkers—even for those who, like Knight, continue to profit intellectually from the dialogue by reacting against his ideas.

Dan Everett's review of Decoding Chomsky

Dan Everett's review of Decoding Chomsky

Language and Cognition (2017), Page 1 of 15. doi:10.1017/langcog.2017.15 © UK Cognitive Linguistics Association

Decoding Chomsky

DANIEL L. EVERETT* Bentley University

[*] Address for correspondence:

Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky: science and revolutionary politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

An anthropologist contemplates Chomsky

Chris Knight, an anthropologist at University College London, has produced a well-written, thought-provoking, and controversial examination of the interaction of politics and science in the work of Avram Noam Chomsky, the most dominant figure in linguistics, cognitive science, and philosophy from the latter half of the twentieth century. In linguistics Chomsky’s influence is unique. Perhaps only Charles Darwin in biology has been equally influential in a single field of study. This means that, like Darwin, linguistics for a long period at least, has been constrained by Chomsky’s work and ideas. For many years research could be classified as either advancing it or criticizing it (though for a growing number of linguists, psychologists, and others these days, I suspect that Chomsky’s work has simply become irrelevant). Some believe that Chomsky’s influence has been detrimental. Others believe it has transformed linguistics from a pre-scientific exercise in taxonomy into a genuine science, on solid intellectual footing for the first time in its long history.

            Knight’s purpose is to explain, describe, and criticize Chomsky’s nativist, non-sociological theory of the nature, origins, and use of human language, and to draw special attention to what he takes to be an enormous disconnect between Chomsky’s politics, in which social engagement is crucial, and his science, in which it is to be avoided at all costs. Knight agrees with Chomsky’s politics, but disagrees with his linguistics. This is in part because the former concerns itself with the socio-cultural existence of Homo sapiens, whereas the latter ignores it.

            This is a courageous project for at least two reasons. First, the history of the field of linguistics is something every linguist has a slightly different take on, so anything spoken against received narratives is going to provoke a chorus of disagreements. Second, any criticism of Chomsky’s work is almost always greeted by the refrain that “This person doesn’t understand Chomsky”. And indeed, Decoding Chomsky has faced vociferous criticisms of both types.

            As an anthropologist, Knight enjoys a vantage point that many historians of science lack, an understanding of the role of culture and society in shaping individual and group thought, not only in science but in life more generally. At the same time, not being a linguist brings at least one disadvantage: Knight fails to provide convincing examples to the effect that formal linguistics cannot account for its own primary empirical focus, grammar, without a theory in which socio-cultural constraints are causally implicated.[1]  After all, Chomsky must be evaluated based on the goals he himself sets for his theory, not on what others think his goals should be. Therefore, Decoding Chomsky  would have been more effective had it included more discussion of the empirical shortcomings of Chomsky’s views that devolve from the failure to engage culture and society. Merely juxtapositioning Chomsky’s different approaches to the separate issues of US foreign policy and the nature of grammar does not demonstrate that Chomsky is mistaken to include social considerations in the former and ignore them in the latter. This is the principal flaw in an otherwise wonderful book. But, by any standards, the book affords an interesting, rich, and well-argued perspective on Chomsky’s development and subsequent intellectual influence.

            Decoding Chomsky  is organized into twenty-three chapters, beginning with Chomsky’s early days learning and writing about politics and language up to his current thoughts about the origin of language. The first chapter of the book, ‘The revolutionary’, explores the idea that Chomsky’s work is a sterling example of “disruptive innovation” in the 1950s. This chapter is important for a number of reasons. But its principal significance is that it clarifies some of the myths surrounding Chomsky’s ascent, a common one being that he sprung Minerva-like from the forehead of science, a fully formed intellect, presenting a new perspective to the world that had not been available before he appeared. In fact, the truth is more mundane. Chomsky was a brilliant reflection of the zeitgeist – the beginning of a computational and cognitive subculture – in which he was raised and worked. His math came from others, as Knight points out (and is otherwise well known). Some of his leading linguistics ideas came from others (X-bar theory and Transformations came – in slightly different form – from his thesis advisor, Zellig Harris). Whenever we idealize “geniuses”, we forget the social nature of knowledge and progress. As I say elsewhere (Everett, 2017b):

But what is an invention? It is a creation of culture. Edison did not invent the light bulb. He needed Franklin’s work in electricity nearly two-hundred years before him. No one person invents anything. Everyone is part of a culture and each other’s creativity, ideas, earlier attempts, and the general world of knowledge in which they live. Every invention is built up over time, bit by bit. (Everett, 2017b, p. xviii)

The present paper does not review each chapter of Knight’s book. But it does review both Knight’s account of Chomsky’s early history, as well as what Knight sees as the apparent contradiction between Chomsky’s political stance and his employment by one of the institutions most responsible for the technology of war in world history, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From the outset, it is worth mentioning that Knight’s narrative matches a first-hand account relayed to me by someone who was there.

            The late Hu Matthews, a former professor of linguistics at MIT cum missionary linguist, recounted to me, about thirty years ago, his version of how Chomsky came to MIT in the late 1950s. As he told it, Victor Yngve had taken over the direction of the research on Machine Translation from Yeshua Bar-Hillel.[2]

            In Matthews’ narrative, Yngve was already working with Morris Halle when he began searching for additional linguistic talent for the project. Zellig Harris strongly recommended Noam Chomsky and Hu Matthews. Hu told me that it was obvious from the first that Chomsky was of high intelligence, even for the MIT crowd. He worked on the project, focusing on his theory of syntax, but, according to Hu’s recounting, would say to others that machine translation was not going to work. Another person working there was Robert Lees. He started using less discretion in repeating Chomsky’s assessment of the possibilities of machine translation to others and, according to Matthews, was consequently terminated by Yngve.[3] But he was then taken on as a PhD student by Chomsky once the linguistics program began, shortly thereafter, in 1961.[4] From this point, Halle and Chomsky together founded the most important linguistics department ever established, judged by influence in linguistics hirings around the world and citation indices.

         Chomsky’s methodology has always been based on the idea that native speakers’ intuition is the best source of data on their grammars. Such intuitions, ex hypothesis, provide better data, for example, than is possible for a nonnative- speaker field researcher from another culture. Clearly native speakers enjoy advantages. But when any methodology relies on intuition, in particular when Generative Grammar ignores standard social science research methods, as it has by and large, it runs the risk of becoming less closely driven by the facts.[5] For example, although Chomsky has given lip service to field research in his career, he has preferred to rely on the highly problematic, nonquantitative methodology of looking at his own intuitions – a feature of the humanities rather than the sciences – as opposed to the application of quantitative methodologies common in science (for example, one can work in Chomsky’s theory just fine with no math background at all).[6] This hasn’t prevented him from endorsing field research as important, however:

It is only through intensive studies of particular languages that one can hope to find crucial evidence for the study of Universal Grammar. One study such as that of Matthews on Hidatsa is worth one thousand superficial studies of varied languages from this point of view. (Chomsky, 1972, p. 167)

  And yet the field has long favored “superficial” non-grammar-length studies. Actual grammars produced by theoretical linguists are relatively rare compared to those produced by linguists from other subfields of linguistics, such as typology, descriptive linguistics, and documentary linguistics. Grammars still lack the cachet of papers in high-impact journals, such as Linguistic Inquiry  – the gold standard among generativists. It is more common to find grammars emerging from the work of a resurgent group of descriptive linguists interested in documenting endangered languages. Yet such efforts still lack (at least in their citation indices) the prestige among theoretical linguists that Chomsky attributes to Matthews’ grammar. That is not Chomsky’s fault, but the quote above is ironic when we consider that Chomsky himself has never attempted a grammar or any “intensive study” of any particular language.

            The peculiar absence of the cultural in Chomsky’s theory is highlighted by Knight on page 124 (and elsewhere), where he discusses Chomsky’s rejection of socio-cultural sources of concepts. Chomsky (1995) says, “The very notion of ‘lexical entry’ presupposes some sort of fixed, universal vocabulary in terms  of which these objects are characterized, just as the notion of ‘phonetic representation’ presupposes some sort of universal phonetic theory.” Knight goes on to discuss how Chomsky believes that all humans, therefore, have innate concepts – such as ‘carburetor’. In Chomsky’s view:

Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument is at least in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburetorand bureaucrat [Chomsky’s emphasis, DLE], which, in fact, pose the familiar problem of poverty of stimulus if we attend carefully to the enormous gap between what we know and the evidence on the basis of which we know it … However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities. (Knight, p. 164)

Knight rightly finds Chomsky’s proposal here a bit strained. To me it is more than that.[7] It ignores nearly all of the work of philosophers and anthropologists over the past century on the acquisition of concepts. For example, C.S. Peirce had a great deal to say about concepts and how we come by them, still some of the best work ever done on the subject.[8] Robert Brandom (Brandom, 1998) has also written extensively on the nature and origin of concepts, but Chomsky ignores such work entirely. Rather, Chomsky bases his speculation here on an over-inflated concept of “poverty of stimulus” (what Dan Slobin (1988) has called “poverty of imagination”).

            Chomsky’s work is in several senses similar to that of Sigmund Freud. It has been influential, inspiring to some, original to many, but overall it has arguably failed to sustain itself empirically, because it has failed to engage the interactions of human psychology and language, as each emerge from local societies and cultures, as Knight is careful to point out in detail.[9] Moreover, Chomsky, like Freud, proposed many fascinating ideas about the unconscious workings of the mind, most of which have turned out to be wrong (deep structure, clarity of poverty of stimulus arguments, surface structure, X-bar theory, rules, transformations, movement as more than a metaphor, syntactic chains, government, and so on). Knight doesn’t really address the many changes in the theory so much as Chomsky’s avoidance of the social in his linguistic theory.

            Chris Knight’s book has been derided by Chomsky (as Knight mentions in the ‘Introduction’) as nearly completely in error. To the contrary, after forty years in this business, my conclusion is that Knight is overall unerringly accurate in his portrayal of Chomsky and his intellectual legacy. The view that emerges from Decoding Chomskyis one that surprises few of us who have scratched our heads for decades about Chomsky’s appeal – Chomsky’s theories emerge in large part from non-quantitatively based intuition, combined with strong personal opinions about how the world works, driven by a largely deductive theory.[10]

            Nevertheless, Chomsky’s work has brought him great acclaim. So much so that throughout his adult life Chomsky has enjoyed privilege and wealth. His brilliance, luck of the draw, the appeal of his politics, and a ferocious work ethic, especially in rebutting critics, have all contributed to his influence, wealth, and success. Evidence of his intellectual influence is easy enough to find. For example, his numbers on Google Scholar are astounding (see Figure 1).

            The i10 index of 860 means that 860 of Chomsky’s works have been cited at least ten times. Chomsky’s h-index means that he has had more than one hundred publications cited heavily. And then there is just the raw fact of over 300,000 citations period. If Google Scholar were taken as an absolute measure of scientific importance then the New York Timeswould be correct in its description of Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive” (Robinson, 1979).

            But of course Google Scholar is also a social measure in part. It can measure popularity as much as scientific accomplishment. And our cultural assumption is that popularity among scientists means importance. Clearly it can indicate important research. But not always. What I have elsewhere (Everett, 2016) called “Ivy League Bias” means that it is simply easier, for scientists, reporters, and teachers, to take the words of a culturally prestigious members of society than to work out things independently. Chomsky’s amazing citation numbers do show that there are many, many researchers for whom his research is a touchstone, and there is no disputing that this means he is hugely influential among a wide variety of scientists, especially linguists.

            Among those under his influence, many have great devotion to him and to his research program or activism, such as they interpret that. As Knight points out, moreover, for many of his political fellow travelers and admirers, it is desirable to think of Chomsky as a genius of the level of Newton or Einstein. If he indeed occupies the Newtonian heights of importance and brilliance then his political judgments necessarily must carry more weight, so some believe. This sounds plausible initially. But there are a couple of problems with this idea. First, it breeds ad-hominem arguments in politics and linguistics, as people appeal to the person of Chomsky rather than the ideas in debate. Second, Chomsky is no Newton nor Einstein. This is not to  say that he is not as intelligent as they were.  


Fig. 1. Chomsky’s citation indices on Google Scholar

I have no idea. But the former established mathematically based fields of study that were universally recognized as accurate in their contexts.[11]  Chomsky’s principal proposals over the years, those for which he became famous originally, such as ‘deep structure’, ‘surface structure’, ‘meaning-preservation’, the ‘structure preservation principle’, and many other aspects of Chomsky’s theory of syntax, have been abandoned. His most recent work on the centrality of the operation ‘Merge’ faces severe (and well-known) empirical problems from languages that appear to have linear, non-recursive grammars or ternary branching syntax, or exocentric structures.[12]  Such problems are linked directly to cultural constraints on syntactic operations in some analyses (Everett, 2012). Moreover, Chomskyan theory does not now, nor has it ever, taken ‘language’ – a necessarily socio-cultural construct – as its object. Chomsky (1995) claims these days that he studies ‘I-language’, which is “Language is taken to be the object of study in linguistic theory; it is the mentally represented linguistic knowledge that a native speaker of a language has, and is therefore a mental object”. In other words, the grammar in someone’s head.

            But there are a couple of sleights of hands in this definition. The first is that it does not tell us what the linguistic knowledge is. There are many types of linguistic knowledge. But when Chomsky talks about it, here is roughly what he means: knowledge of recursive syntax that cannot be explained by logic, history, culture, society, physics, or any experience of the speaker outside of the mastery of their native language before puberty. In other words an I-language is knowledge that is unique to grammar. The problem is, outside of Chomsky’s theory, many linguists doubt the extent of such knowledge.  Cognitive Linguistics, for example, would be unlikely to acknowledge little if any grammatical knowledge that meets that definition. Moreover, a priori, under these constraints, we cannot tell what empirical facts such a theory should study. The theory itself offers little guidance as to which syntactic constraints could be due to extrinsic factors.

            A common example Chomsky gives concerns the structures proposed by many linguists as models for what the speaker knows. For example, consider the hierarchical structure of constituents. This type of ‘chunking’ of units has been well known even long before the pioneering work of Herbert Simon’s (1962) ‘Architecture of complexity’ and George Miller’s (1956) ‘The magical number seven, plus or minus two’, and is not limited to grammar. Recursive structures are common apart from language, as Simon pointed out.[13]  Therefore, Chomsky was far from the first to notice ‘chunking’ in human languages or constituent structures. Nor did he, unlike others, note how pervasive recursion is in nature, especially in information transfer.

            Language evolution is of interest to linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and the general public. Here Knight is right on when he focuses (p. 167) on puzzling statements by Chomsky and Robert Berwick, in their (2016) book, Why Only Us? Language and evolution. Throughout their book, they make statements like the following: “In some completely unknown way, our ancestors developed human concepts. At some time in the recent past … a small group of hominids in East Africa underwent a minor biological change that provided the operation Merge – an operation that takes human concepts as computational atoms and yields structured expressions … [that] provide a rich language of thought.” For Berwick and Chomsky language did not arise from anything social. Rather, because they believe that grammar is not only central to language, but in effect grammar is language, and that language is not for communication, this statement makes sense to them.

            Knight is not amused. He says that such vague statements should not be confused with science. And Knight is indisputably correct here.[14] Knight is also right to point out that Why Only Us?  is deeply flawed because it lacks any engagement with the social origins of language, much of which is not “completely unknown”.

            In fact, the ‘argument’ by Berwick and Chomsky seems to be based largely on Chomsky’s reputation rather than any solid evidence, the ‘ad-hominem danger’ that I mentioned earlier. They offer the thinnest of speculations, ignoring huge amounts of work in anthropology, linguistics, and sociology, appearing to be utterly unaware of huge amounts of recent work in archaeology and Peircean semiotics that bears directly on the origins of human language, appealing instead implicitly to Chomsky’s non-existent authority in this area. Knight is absolutely correct to knock a hole in their conjectures on the non- Darwinian appearance of language for, along with other things, ignoring the social aspects of language and, from my own perspective, inflating the importance of grammar in language. (There are languages today, such as Pirahã and Riau, that seem to use linear grammars, avoid embedding, yet people communicate and think in them just fine.) Moreover, though Knight doesn’t mention this, the crucial component of human languages is not grammar but the symbol, in the sense of Peirce’s semiotics. Development of the symbol was the birth of language, not grammar (see Everett, 2017a, 2017b).

            On various pages Knight takes Chomsky to task for his Cartesianism. Interestingly, C. S. Peirce, the founder of Semiotics (and Pragmatism) invested a good deal of space in his writings to criticisms of Cartesian ideas – Dualism, the Cartesian concept of intuition (to Peirce, Descartes’ notion of intuition was but another example of some philosophers’ confused thinking), and Cartesian epistemology, among others. Cartesianism and Rationalism, by avoiding the social, the cultural, the background knowledge that Peirce and Hume occasionally labeled ‘instinct’, have done linguistics no favors. Among the consequences, again, is the failure of some Chomskyans to regularly apply standard social science methodology, to an aversion to evidence that supports the communicative basis of language, towards a shaky empirical foundation based on the Cartesian notion of intuition, and so on (see, e.g., Peirce, 1878).

            Knight, in chapter five especially, explains how Chomsky’s views were and are shaped by a seriously questionable metaphor, namely, that the mind is a computer, a metaphor that was beginning to appear during Chomsky’s appointment as a Junior Fellow at Harvard University, one of the most prestigious positions in the academic world at the time. This metaphor was and is harmful to the development of linguistics as a discipline because it leads to the idea that language is primarily a type of software that underwrites only a narrow set of operations to constrain language emergence (the rules, constraints, and so on of phonology, syntax, and morphology). Knight cites Hilary Putnam (1960), Chomsky’s old high school and undergraduate classmate, then world-class philosopher, in this regard (p. 46):

It is important to recognize that machine performances may be wholly analogous to language, so much so that the whole of linguistic theory can be applied to them. If the reader wishes to check this, he may go through a work like Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures carefully, and note that at no place is the assumption employed that the corpus of utterances studied by the linguist was produced by a conscious organism.

One vital question raised in several studies of the history of North American linguistics, one that Knight addresses, is how and why Chomsky came to dominate the field of linguistics so unquestionably for so long. Of course there have always been dissenters and pockets of linguists outside of Chomsky’s gravity, but he not only immediately attracted many while in his twenties, even today, at eighty-nine years of age, he dominates the field as no other ever has. To my mind, there are at least three reasons for Chomsky’s rise, each mentioned by Knight.

            Knight traces the precipitous rise of Chomsky in the early chapter, referring back to the roots of his ideas throughout the book. Chomsky’s early personal history is well known. As a young man from Philadelphia, he completed his bachelor’s degree, master’s, and PhD, all in linguistics, under a single influential figure, Zellig Harris at the University of Pennsylvania. Harris attracted Chomsky because he was a family friend and defended a political perspective close to Chomsky’s own.

            During this period of time, the late 1940s and early 1950s, mathematical modeling of communication was on the rise, especially in the work of Claude Shannon at Bell Labs, who later joined the same laboratory as Chomsky, MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, under the direction of Jerome Wiesner. Upon completion of his master’s thesis, Chomsky received the above mentioned multi-year position as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, in order to pursue his PhD work.

            Once his work got underway at Harvard, Chomsky absorbed what was around him and wove it all into his own ideas. The first reason for Chomsky’s rise – as we have seen – was the zeitgeist. Chomsky tapped into the desire to connect the study of language to computers, formal communication theory, and the hard sciences, at the same time that he shaped a new identity for the field that succeeded in getting many folks from other fields interested in linguistics to a degree not seen before in linguistic history. In his The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory  (Chomsky, 1975 [1955]) he outlined a formal model of linguistics that derived forms from a deductive model.

            Thus, this common base hypothesis eventually took two separate paths. In the Universal Base Hypothesis of Generative Semantics, all languages shared a common semantic substrate, an underlying meaning structure. But in Chomsky’s own work the universal base was Universal Grammar. I have questioned a lot of non-linguists over the years and my anecdotal evidence is that the average person finds it quite likely that culture, however they define it, affects the way we talk and the grammars that we employ. But if Chomsky is right, this cannot be the case, because the core of language is a computational system based on extremely simple principles (at least they have been claimed to have become more simple over the years) that allows – requires – formal operations orthogonal to social organization or cultural values. Chomsky also produced, however much he might have borrowed from professional mathematicians, the idea of the ‘Chomsky hierarchy of grammars’ that became important for computer scientists, philosophers, and psychologists. Chomsky made utterly brilliant contributions on numerous fronts, across several disciplines. This is the first reason that he rose to dominance so quickly. He was a comet across the sky.

            The second reason for Chomsky’s quick rise to power was that the US government was spending heavily on linguistics – from machine translation efforts to the study of foreign languages through the Department of Defense, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. One program, the National Defense Foreign Language Fellowships, though not related directly to Chomsky, was very helpful to the field of linguistics, by funding PhD dissertations on foreign languages. At one time just about any foreign language fit the specifications of the program.[15] Many field researchers at the time received significant financial assistance through this program. Knight, as have many other works, shows how the growth of Chomsky’s theory was funded directly by the US military.

            The third reason for Chomsky’s rise was the state of linguistics as a field when Chomsky’s work began. Linguistic work until this point was largely inductive. But Chomsky proposed a theory that was deductive and that in principle required no field research. This work could be done just fine from one’s office. Chomsky’s theory, moreover, predicted things, things that had not been imagined before him, such as the differential complexity in the derivation of structures (e.g., the passive being derivationally more complex than the active since the passive was proposed to be the active subject to the ‘passive transformation’). Thus, psychologists became keen to test the idea that more derivationally complex sentences were harder to process, among other ideas of Chomsky’s. He claimed that meanings were determined exclusively by Deep Structures (deriving from his even earlier idea of ‘kernel sentences’), and that transformations produced different surface structures, which were stylistic or discourse variants (which was the basic idea of Zellig Harris; in Harris’s system, the active and the passive were paraphrases, linked as a transformation pair, though Harris did not claim that one was derived from the other). This was exciting, in spite of the fact that Deep Structure wasmisunderstood almost from the outset as the universal semantic basis shared by all languages (which is indeed what Generative Semantics took it to be; Lakoff, 1971). But this misunderstanding helped Chomsky solidify his position because it was an extremely attractive idea for many – the idea that in spite of superficial dissimilarities between all languages, in the core meaning of sentences, all languages shared a common base.

            As discussed also in Frederick Newmeyer’s well-known history of Generative Grammar (a topic I also engage in Everett, 1990 [1983]), the state of linguistics at the time of Chomsky’s early work was concerned primarily with the twin issues of methodology and description. The field arguably lacked the kind of theory, purpose, and rigor in argumentation that Chomsky introduced to it.[16] Chomsky’s attacks on description for its own sake, i.e., in the absence of an overarching theory, as well as his rejection of the methodological goals that previous linguistics so favored, excited many young students of language as holding the promise of making linguistics a theoretical science. There were, to be sure, American linguists like Bloomfield, Pike, Hockett, Bloch, Trager, and – above all – Sapir, who preceded Chomsky, but no one had the bold theoretical vision of Chomsky that could bring linguistics into line with the computational and cognitive winds that were beginning to blow. The methodology focused on describing and classifying (more charitably, on the getting the facts down and understood as a prolegomena to theorizing). Chomsky brought a sense of purpose to many linguistic graduate students for the first time, transforming the perception of the activities of linguists into the enterprise of understanding, it was argued, the innate linguistic component of the mind/brain.

            Yet, early on in the history of Chomskyan theory, some philosophers raised doubts, as in the following Chomsky quote from Searle (1972):

The syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind, and they have no significant connection with communication, though, of course, people do use them for, among other purposes, communication. The essential thing about languages, their defining trait, is their structure. The so-called ‘bee language,’ for example, is not a language at all because it doesn’t have the right structure, and the fact that bees apparently use it to communicate is irrelevant. If human beings evolved to the point where they used syntactical forms to communicate that are quite unlike the forms we have now and would be beyond our present comprehension, then human beings would no longer have language, but something else.

Searle concludes that “It is important to emphasize how peculiar and eccentric Chomsky’s overall approach to language is.”

            Knight further traces the roots of the ideas that led to Transformational Generative Grammar. Commenting on the obvious inspiration of the Russian–American linguist Roman Jakobson, Knight suggests that a direct influence on Jakobson, and thus indirectly Chomsky, was the Russian futurist–poet–philosopher–linguist Velimir Khlebnikov. Khlebnikov in fact did espouse some ideas that appear to prefigure Chomskyan theory. For example, he advocated a ‘universal language’ of elemental sounds inseparable from atoms of meaning, in particular noting the likely importance and universality of ‘sound symbolism’. This is an interesting story, but I doubt that the ideas of Khlebnikov are likely to have had even an indirect influence on Chomsky via Jakobson. Chomsky has never been interested in the kinds of topics, such as sound symbolism, that so animated Khlebnikov. One cannot rule it out, however. The story earns its place in Knight’s book because it traces influences on Jakobson’s thought and there is no question that Jakobson was a crucial figure in the development of Generative Grammar, especially Generative Phonology.

            Another reason for Chomsky’s rise, according to Knight and David Golumbia, is his status as brilliant opponent to Marxist dogma integrating the social and science. Knight begins with this quote from Golumbia (2009, pp. 31–32):

Scholars have offered any number of plausible explanations for Chomsky’s rise to prominence, not least his own personal brilliance, and the incisiveness of his linguistic theories. Yet it seems reasonable to set aside some of these explanations and to think carefully about just what the times were and just what was the content of Chomsky’s writing that made it seem not merely compelling but revolutionary. In what sense was the world ready and waiting for this particular Chomsky to emerge.

According to Knight (p. 196), Chomsky’s “revolution in linguistics – crown jewels of the cognitive revolution – satisfied a deep social need”. This need was the splitting of the social from the intellectual, breaking science from the pragmatics of social revolution. Chomsky produced a ‘safe’ revolution that had no worrisome social consequences, allowing scholars to have their cake and eat it too – drawing great salaries in great jobs without fear of major disruption. Chomsky of course did participate in many protests and was even arrested on occasion. But these were not protests against Capitalism but against specific US foreign policies, not the economic basis of the country.

            Chomsky even spoke against the potential utility of a society of scientists in one of his more slanderous, condescending passages (Chomsky, 2008, p. 23): “If scientists and scholars were to become ‘collectively self-organized and consciously activist’ today, they would probably devote themselves to service to state and private power.”

            My own work for the past thirteen or so years has been focused on how the cultural is causally implicated in the psychological. This was also Sapir’s work and a common concern of many US anthropological linguists prior to Chomsky’s rise. Therefore, Knight’s perception that Chomsky’s theory is bizarre and deeply misguided in ignoring the social and political in understanding human language is a judgment I share.

            Having said that, once again, I believe that the case could have been much stronger had Knight taken actual Chomskyan analyses and shown how they could have been improved or how they failed at their own objectives by failing to recognize that the social and cultural are causally implicated in the mental. Also, I believe that the criticisms would have more likely found their mark had Knight engaged the workings of the American Pragmatists, especially C.S. Peirce, who made it clear that cognition is embodied and socially shaped (Everett, forthcoming). Since Chomsky was influenced by Peirce (in particular via Peirce’s notion of ‘abduction’ or ‘retroduction’), one does wonder why he, Chomsky, failed to engage with more significant points of Peirce’s philosophy. With all of Knight’s criticisms, and even to some degree with his particular Marxist perspective on the importance of integrating the social and the mental, I am in strong agreement. But were I working in the Chomskyan paradigm, I would not feel that the nail had in fact been hit on the head. Crucial arguments are missing. Still, the points are well taken and should be explored more in the future.

            Knight’s exploration of Chomsky’s politics, linguistics, and intellectual history is unparalleled. No other study has provided such a full understanding of Chomsky’s background, intellectual foibles, objectives, inconsistencies, and genius. If Knight had himself been more linguistically analytic, probing ways in which Chomsky’s own objectives are short-changed by his failure to see language as a communicative tool for building society, it would have been stronger (some examples are found in Everett, 2012). But as is, it is a worthy read for all cognitive scientists. It is a rich, detailed, and well-written book, written by a well-informed outsider to the generative enterprise of Chomsky. It is full of interesting facts and criticisms that can help all linguists better understand their discipline. It isn’t always as on point as it might have been, and there are moments of speculation in trying to establish historical correlations and causes. But read it!


Behme, Christina (2014). A ‘Galilean’ science of language. Journal of Linguistics, 50(3), 671–704.

Berwick, Robert C., & Chomsky, Noam (2016). Why only us? Language and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Biber, D., & Finegan, E. (1991). On the exploitation of computerized corpora in variation studies. In K. Aijmer & B. Altenberg (Eds.), English corpus linguistics: studies in honour of Jan Svartvik (pp. 204–220). London: Longman.

Blumberg, Marc (2006). Basic instinct: the genesis of behavior. New York: Basic Books.

Brandom, Robert (1998). Making it explicit: reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1975 [1955]). The logical structure of linguistic theory. London: Plenum Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1972). Language and mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam (2008). Interview with Noam Chomsky. Radical Anthropology, 2, 19–23.

Everett, Daniel L. (1990 [1983]). A Lingua Pirahã e a Teoria da Sintaxe: Descrição, Perspectivas e Teoria. Campinas, Brazil: Editora da UNICAMP.

Everett, Daniel L. (2012). Language: the cultural tool. New York: Pantheon Books.

Everett, Daniel L. (2016). Dark matter of the mind: the culturally articulated unconscious. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Everett, Daniel L. (2017a). Grammar came later: triality of patterning and the gradual evolution of language. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 43(B), 133–165.

Everett, Daniel L. (2017b). How language began: the story of humanity’s greatest invention. London: Profile Books.

Everett, Daniel L. (forthcoming). Peircean linguistics: a chapter in the history of empiricist thought.

Futrell, Richard, Stearns, Laura, Everett, Daniel L., Piantadosi, Steven T., & Gibson, Edward (2016). A corpus investigation of syntactic embedding in Pirahã. PLOS One, online: <>.

Gibson, Edward, & Fedorenko, Evelina (2010). The need for quantitative methods in syntax and semantics research. Language and Cognitive Processes, 28(1/2), 88–124.

Golumbia, David (2009). The cultural logic of computation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jackendoff, Ray, & Wittenberg, Eva (2017). Linear grammar as a possible stepping-stone in the evolution of language. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(1), 219–224.

Lakoff, George (1971). On generative semantics. In D. D. Steinberg & L. A. Jakobovits (Eds.), Semantics (pp. 232–296). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81–97.

Newmeyer, Frederick (1980). Linguistic theory in America: the first quarter century of Transformational Generative Grammar. New York: Academic Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1878). Illustration of the Logic of Science, VI. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 286–302.

Pullum, Geoffrey K., & Scholz, Barbara C. (2002). Empirical assessment of stimulus poverty arguments. Linguistic Review, 19, 2–50.

Putnam, H. (1960). Minds and machines. In S. Hook (Ed.), Dimensions of mind (pp. 148–180). New York: University of New York Press.

Robinson, Paul (1979). The Chomsky Problem. New York Times, 25 February.

Searle, John (1972). Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics. New York Review of Books, June 29, 16–24. [Reprinted in Gilbert Harman (Ed.) (1974), On Noam Chomsky: critical essays (pp. 2–33). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Simon, Herbert A. (1962). The architecture of complexity. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 106(6), 467–482.

Slobin, Dan I. (1988). Confessions of a Wayward Chomskyan. In Eve V. Clark & Yo Matsumoto (Eds.), Papers and Reports on Child Language Development, Vol. 27 (pp. 131–137).

Yngve, Victor H. (2000). Early research at M.I.T.: in search of adequate theory. In W. John Hutchins (Ed.), Early years in machine translation: memoirs and biographies of pioneers (pp. 39–72). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.



[1] Readers of this journal, however, will be familiar with such examples.

[2] According to Hutchins’ (2012) obituary of Yngve: “After Bar-Hillel’s departure from MIT, he was appointed in July 1953 by Jerome Wiesner at the Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE) to lead the MT research effort there (for a retrospective survey of his MT research activities see Yngve, 2000), online: <>.

[3] Lees was known for his strong opinions and defense of Chomskyan methodology. When he learned of a grant to Nelson Francis for the creation of the Brown Corpus, he remarked: “That is a complete waste of your time and the government’s money. You are a native speaker of English; in ten minutes you can produce more illustrations of any point in English grammar than you will find in many millions of words of random text.” (Biber & Finegan, 1991.

[4] Interestingly, in the 1990s, Yngve phoned me out of the blue, when I was Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Pittsburgh, to repeat much of this history and to complain about Chomsky’s subsequent fame.

[5] C. S. Peirce wrote a good deal on the philosophical shortcomings of intuition as a source of knowledge. Unfortunately, his criticisms of Cartesianism never had the influence on modern linguistics they should have had.

[6]  Ted Gibson and Evelina Fedorenko (2010) have demonstrated clearly the problems with this methodology.

[7] See, for example, Pullum & Scholz (2002) and Blumberg (2006).

[8] For example, Peirce (1878) discusses the sources of concepts in great detail.

[9] For a detailed discussion of this topic, see Everett (2016).

[10] Nevertheless, it is difficult not to admire Chomsky. I don’t think I would have become a professional linguist were it not for him (and the myths that surround him), as well as the personal intellectual energy he exudes.

[11] Chomsky often disputes this, in his regular mention of the questionable notion of ‘Galilean Science’ (see Behme, 2014).

[12] Jackendoff & Wittenberg (2017); Everett (2017a, 2017b); Futrell, Stearns, Everett, Piantadosi & Gibson (2016).

[13] Recursion is very useful, as I have pointed out in many places, for information transfer, and so in that sense is not grammar-specific. Binary-branching, likewise, to the degree that it exists in natural languages follows from the notion of adjacency, that things which affect one another prefer to be adjacent to one another. See especially Everett (2012).

[14] See Everett (2012, 217b).

[15] Many early missionary-linguists, for example, were supported in their dissertation

research by the NDFLF program, now known as FLAS (Foreign Language and Area

Studies Fellowships).

[16] [16] Everett (1990 [1983]); Newmeyer (1980).

 Review of Decoding Chomsky in 'The Chronicle of Higher Education'

Review of Decoding Chomsky in 'The Chronicle of Higher Education'

The Chomsky Puzzle: Piecing together a celebrity scientist


You can order Gnome Chomsky, the Garden Noam for $195, plus shipping. A “What Would Noam Do?” mug can be yours for $15. “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” an oft-repeated demonstration of how words can be simultaneously grammatical and nonsensical, is available both as a bumper sticker and an iPhone case. Noam Chomsky is souvenir-level famous.

That’s what happens when you are “arguably the most important intellectual alive today,” a line from a 1979 New York Times book review that’s been recycled ever since as shorthand for a hard-to-summarize man. The same book review, written by Paul Robinson, a Stanford historian, goes on to outline what he calls “the Chomsky problem,” that is, “the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist.”

There is Noam Chomsky, father of modern linguistics, whose theory of Universal Grammar seeks to explain human language. And there is Noam Chomsky, the political activist and writer, who remains among the most unrelenting critics of American military action.

In his new book, Tom Wolfe takes a crack at explaining that bifurcated persona. (Yes, that Tom Wolfe — the Bonfire of the Vanities, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test guy.) He describes the divide with patented Wolfeian exuberance: “Chomsky’s politics enhanced his reputation as a great linguist, and his reputation as a great linguist enhanced his reputation as a political solon, and his reputation as a political solon inflated his reputation from great linguist to all-around genius, and the genius inflated the solon into a veritable Voltaire, and the veritable Voltaire inflated the genius of all geniuses into a philosophical giant ... Noam Chomsky.”

Once he’s fully inflated, Wolfe proceeds to stick a pin in him. The Kingdom of Speech (Little, Brown and Company) is one of two new books that offer sour portraits of the soft-spoken, if not always mild-mannered, emeritus professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The other, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics (Yale University Press), by Chris Knight, was a decade in the making and may be the most in-depth meditation on “the Chomsky problem” ever published. Like Wolfe, Knight first consecrates Chomsky, noting that, by one measure, he is the eighth-most-cited thinker in the humanities — hot on the heels of fellow one-namers like Freud and Plato — before setting fire to the shrine.

Is this any way to treat arguably the most important intellectual alive?

At least he’s used to it by now. Chomsky, who at 87 is still cranking out books at an astonishing clip (he’s written more than a hundred, and several in just the past year), has a decades-long history of fending off political and scientific adversaries. In the 1989 book, Challenging Chomsky, Rudolf P. Botha documented this track record and advised would-be contenders to beware lest they, too, end up skewered. “Many of intellectual class have come to do battle with The Master about his ideas on language and mind,” Botha wrote. “With woeful consequences, alas!”

Daniel Everett did not heed that warning. Everett, an anthropologist, linguist, and former Chomskyan, came to believe that certain features of a language spoken by a primitive tribe in the Amazon, called the Pirahã, disprove Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. He spelled out that argument in his 2008 book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, an adventurous hybrid of memoir and linguistics. Everett’s irresistible narrative attracted mainstream attention for ideas usually relegated to peer-reviewed journals and sparsely attended conferences. John Colapinto traveled to the Amazon to write about Everett and the Pirahã for a 2007 New Yorker article. In 2012, I wrote about Everett v. Chomsky, prompted by the publication of Everett’s following book, Language: The Cultural Tool.

Tom Wolfe couldn’t resist either. He draws from those articles, academic papers, and interviews with Everett to flesh out a “redheaded, redbearded” character who battles both enormous anacondas and enormous reputations. The Kingdom of Speech might seem an unlikely project for a white-suited literary legend who hung out with Ken Kesey back in the day and later wrote best-selling novels in the social-realist vein. But it actually fits nicely alongside two other books in the Wolfe oeuvre: The Painted Word, and From Bauhaus to Our House, both extended essays that send up pretension in the worlds of art and architecture, respectively. My paperback copy of The Painted Word bears the following cover blurb: “Another Blast at the Phonies!”

Wolfe is on the hunt for phonies here, too. In the first half of the book he takes aim at a past-his-prime Charles Darwin, then “sixty years old and more of a hopeless dyspeptic, or hypochondriac, than ever. Vomiting three or four times a day had become the usual. His eyes watered and dripped on his old gray philosopher’s beard.” Wolfe pokes at Darwin for thinking that language might have resulted in part from humans imitating birdsong, equating such speculation with Rudyard Kipling’s famous Just So Stories, like “How the Leopard Got Its Spots.” (For the record, a hunter paints them on the leopard to help it blend in.)

Here’s Wolfe: “Kipling’s intention from the outset was to entertain children. Darwin’s intention, on the other hand, was dead serious and absolutely sincere in the name of science and his cosmogony. Neither had any evidence to back up his tale.” (Well, maybe. When it comes to birds, Darwin may have been right: In 2013, researchers at MIT concluded that “there are striking parallels between birdsong and human language acquisition.”)

After dispensing with Darwin, Wolfe moves on to Chomsky. Everett’s hirsute, man-about-jungle authenticity is contrasted with Chomsky and his effete, clean-shaven acolytes, the “armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.” Not only is Chomsky faux-manly, in Wolfe’s telling, he is self-satisfied and incurious: “Chomsky was bored brainless by all those tiny little languages that old-fashioned flycatchers like Everett were still bringing back from out in ‘the field.’”

Wolfe dips briefly into the substance of Everett’s case, which runs something like this: Noam Chomsky believes that all languages exhibit certain characteristics (the “universal” in Universal Grammar) and that the nonnegotiable component is recursion, defined as the ability to infinitely embed phrases. For example: “Dan killed a snake” is a straightforward expression of a discrete event, whereas “Dan, the anthropologist from the United States, a former evangelical, who also has a red beard, killed a snake,” shows how multiple ideas can be embedded into that original, simple statement.

Pirahã speakers, the people whom Everett studied for decades, seemed not to embed phrases. They appeared to get along just fine without them. Therefore recursion could not be universal. Therefore Chomsky is wrong. In Wolfe’s phrasing, then, Everett had “KO’d Chomsky’s theory.”

Pretty much everything in the previous two paragraphs, except for Everett’s red beard, has been vigorously disputed. For starters, the assertion that embedding is central to Chomskyan theory is based mostly on a very close reading of a 2002 Science paper co-authored by Chomsky, a reading that is contested by Chomsky and his fierce allies — whom Wolfe dubs, sarcastically, “the truth squad.” A 2014 paper co-authored by Chomsky rules out this interpretation — or seems to, anyway (parsing Chomsky is asking for trouble). Besides, Chomsky argued via email with me that it doesn’t even matter whether one particular language lacks recursion: “To take an analogy, if a tribe were found where people don’t stand upright, though of course they could, that would tell us nothing about human bipedalism.”

The response from linguists to an adapted excerpt of Wolfe’s book that ran in Harper’s Magazine was predictably scathing. One frequent Chomsky defender, Norbert Hornstein, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland, referred to the piece in a blog post as “sludge at the bottom of the barrel.” Another tweeted that Wolfe is the “Donald Trump of linguistics.” Fredrik deBoer, an independent linguist and blogger, reacted with a 4,000-word post. “I might be in the market for a Chomsky reconsideration,” he allowed. “But Tom Wolfe is not the guy to do that.”

Sludge and Trump aside, Wolfe does breeze past a few niceties in his barreling narrative. For instance, Wolfe writes that the Pirahã are “preconceptual” and “incapable of abstract thought.” He’s right that Pirahã language and culture are firmly rooted in the present and that they eschew even basic 1-2-3 numeracy. But to say that they are incapable of abstract thought is something else entirely. Even Everett, who is more or less the hero of Wolfe’s book and praises the author for getting the linguistics “largely right,” was taken aback. He calls the assertion that the Pirahã cannot think abstractly as “wrong as wrong can be.”

In addition, a reader of Wolfe’s book would walk away thinking that the question of whether Pirahã has recursion is settled science. It is not. In a paper published this year, Everett and his co-authors admit as much, writing that after years of investigation, no one can say for sure that the Pirahã never embed phrases — which is the primary pillar of Everett’s challenge to Chomsky. “We don’t have nearly enough data to reach a conclusive answer,” Edward Gibson, a computational linguist at MIT and one of Everett’s co-authors told me recently.

The gloss given by Wolfe of Chomsky’s activism is also somewhat less than laudatory. He stops just short of accusing Chomsky of “radical chic”-ness, Wolfe’s noted neologism for those celebrities who embrace social causes in order to appear righteous and relevant. According to Wolfe, Chomsky felt “pressure” to be one of the “brave intellectuals” (emphasis his) who protested the Vietnam War. An intellectual, Wolfe writes, was a “figure who gave off whiffs — at least that much, whiffs — of Left-aware politics and alienation of some sort.” That was Chomsky. And, what’s more, he knew how to “exploit” the Vietnam War in order to increase his status and promote his ideas.

Chomsky’s prominence as an activist and his accomplishments as a linguist thereby combined to make him a bespectacled avatar for braininess. “Even in academia it no longer mattered whether one agreed with Chomsky’s scholarly or political opinions or not,” Wolfe writes, “for fame enveloped him like a golden armature.”

In Decoding Chomsky, Chris Knight likewise recounts the remarkable rise of two seemingly separate figures, “each as extraordinary as the other.” Knight, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at University College London, follows the money, focusing on the funding that supported Chomsky’s early research at MIT. Those funds came, ironically, from the United States military, the institution Chomsky has chronicled and criticized in book after book. In the preface to Syntactic Structures, the treatise that put a not-yet-30-year-old Chomsky on the academic map, he notes that his work was paid for in part by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force.

What really seemed to bother Chomsky is the suggestion that his political activism was merely for show.

Why would the Pentagon support the theoretical musings of an up-and-coming linguist? Knight explains that the military brass hoped that the crude computers of the time could be taught to “understand” simple English, making them more useful for planning operations. Chomsky’s research seemed to generally align with that goal, though there is no evidence presented that anything Chomsky did then or since was even accidentally helpful to the military in carrying out so much as a single sortie.

And Knight doesn’t argue otherwise. He does, however, see this early assistance as the secret to understanding the so-called Chomsky problem: “To align his scientific career with his political conscience, Chomsky resolved from the outset to collude neither politically nor practically” with the government’s aims. This created a permanent fissure in his thinking, according to Knight. He isn’t accusing Chomsky of hypocrisy; instead, he’s floating a psychological diagnosis for his dual missions.

You don’t have to entirely buy Knight’s solution to the Chomsky problem to find his book a compelling read. In fact, Knight’s not-so-secondary objective appears to be launching a bombing run of his own against Chomsky’s scientific reputation. The genteel, donnish photo of Chomsky on the book’s cover and the generic subtitle (“Science and Revolutionary Politics”) gives a falsely benign impression. Knight has come not to praise Chomsky but to bury him.

Knight mostly sidesteps recursion, the debate that forms the heart of Wolfe’s book. Instead he accuses Chomsky of creating a modern linguistics mired in “tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancor without parallel in any other scientific field.” He dismisses Chomsky’s core ideas as nonsensical and makes the case that developments in evolutionary psychology and computational linguistics have long since left his theorizing in the dust. Chomsky’s body of work is “not conscientious scholarship, but devious, Machiavellian tricks designed to ensure victory by moving the goal-posts or tipping up the board — in other words, sheer foul play.”

While Knight’s disdain for Chomsky the scientist is impossible to miss, so is his admiration for Chomsky the activist. He writes that “it would be difficult to think of any prominent academic who has done more to take to the streets, risk arrest, measure up to the events of the day, speak truth to power and, in the process, endured ferocious political hostility matched only by passionate grass-roots support.” This image of a people’s champion runs counter to the aloof sage sketched by Wolfe, the sort who “never leaves the building except to go to the airport to fly to other campuses to receive honorary degrees.”

While Wolfe arches an eyebrow at Chomsky’s activism, Knight salutes him.

If you email Noam Chomsky, he will email you back. He’s known for that. Even if you’re a stranger with a random question. Even if you’re a journalist asking about two new books that denigrate his life’s work and cast doubt on the purity of his motivations.

Chomsky had not yet read Wolfe’s book, and wasn’t sure he was going to either. He had read the Harper’s excerpt and called it a “moral and intellectual disgrace.” He questioned Wolfe’s understanding of the field, writing that “the errors are so extraordinary that it would take an essay to review them.”

Among those errors, according to Chomsky, is the claim that he is uninterested — or “bored brainless,” to use Wolfe’s more biting phrase — by little-known languages like Pirahã. “MIT has been one of the major world centers of research into indigenous languages for 50 years,” Chomsky writes. “I and others make constant use of what has been discovered in seeking to explain and understand the range of phenomena unearthed.”

His opinion of Knight’s book was equally unfavorable, though he only made it through the first couple of pages. That’s all it took. Chomsky said he received a prepublication copy, noticed “extreme errors” immediately and informed Knight, who, he said, stubbornly refused to correct them. “At that point I dropped the correspondence,” Chomsky writes.

Knight has his own version of this exchange. They did carry on an email back-and-forth, though what Chomsky asked him to correct was not, in Knight’s view, an error: He was instead disagreeing more or less with the premise of the entire book and any such “correction” would require deleting everything but the first page. “Naturally, I was not willing to do as he asked,” says Knight.

Chomsky rejects outright Knight’s notion that government funding had any influence whatsoever on his thinking or his behavior. “His main point is based on a total misunderstanding of public funding of research,” Chomsky writes. “MIT in those years was about 90 percent funded by the Pentagon. There was precisely zero pressure.”

What really seemed to bother Chomsky — what he calls “slanderous” — is the suggestion in The Kingdom of Speech that his political activism was merely for show or prompted by a desire for notoriety. “In Wolfe’s infantile little world, all of this is ‘radical chic’ posturing — he of course continues to parade the one phrase that is his contribution to modern social/political analysis,” Chomsky writes. “But it was deadly serious business.”

I called Tom Wolfe and relayed the comments of one octogenarian icon to another (Wolfe is 85). He told me he was surprised that the book was not more warmly received by its subject. He spoke to Chomsky once, by phone, and found him cooperative and expansive. “If I were he, I would really like the person who comes across in my book,” Wolfe says. “He’s a man of great influence, great thoughtfulness. He is the outstanding linguist in the history of that field.”

Wolfe says he doesn’t think Chomsky’s opposition to the Vietnam War was an example of radical chic (though he notes that the label does apply perfectly to the late Norman Mailer, who briefly shared a jail cell with Chomsky — a piece of trivia in need of a movie script). “I think I was certainly correct in what I call the ‘multiplier effect’ — the more publicity he received over his opposition to the Vietnam War, the more important in the eyes of many intellectuals were his linguistic theories,” Wolfe says. “His eminence in both areas multiplied his overall status.”

As for whether Chomsky’s linguistic theories are fundamentally flawed, Wolfe acknowledges that he’s no expert. Instead he is, as he’s always been, an alternately charming and caustic observer. “I’m sitting in the grandstands,” he says. “I don’t know enough about linguistics to make a judgment myself and claim any validity.”

Chomsky may not be, in Wolfe’s opinion, an example of radical chic, but he does find him guilty of the crime of charisma, which emanates from the professor’s “bearing and his certitude about what he’s saying.” That’s an element of Knight’s thesis, too. He sees linguistics under Chomsky as somewhat closer to theology than hard science, with Chomsky as godhead.

The real Chomsky problem may be the problem of a field in which the forceful personality of its founder and the field itself grew upward together and became deeply entwined. Whether that’s Chomsky’s fault, or simply a byproduct of his half-century or so of celebrity, is hard to say. Chomsky himself may have put it best (though he was referring to presidents rather than scientists): “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes. We should be looking for good ideas.”

That quote is available, no kidding, on a T-shirt.


Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.




Double Agent

Some contradictions between linguistic and political philosophy

Times Literary Supplement, October 6, 2017

Noam Chomsky has led an unusually public double life, as both a ground-breaking linguistic scholar and a trenchant political polemicist. Over the years he has taken pains to stress that these two métiers have occupied wholly distinct spheres, but Chris Knight begs to differ: Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics avers that Chomsky’s linguistics work was inextricably bound up in politics, often in ways that ran counter to his left-wing beliefs. If the suggestion that Chomsky was ethically compromised by his decades-long association with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – with its deep connections to the US military-industrial complex – is hardly new, Knight’s contention that his linguistic theories are implicitly reactionary in themselves is altogether more intriguing.

            At the heart of Chomsky’s theory is the proposition that our capacity for language and the basic structures that underpin it are innate. Knight, who is an anthropologist at University College London, traces the genealogy of this idea back to the revolutionary futurism of the Russian formalists. The poetic visionary Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) believed in the existence of a universal language rooted in laws of nature – a kind of skeleton key whereby each speech sound, vowel or consonant, has its own intrinsic meaning, transcending national or local variations; this concept resurfaced in the work of Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), who conceived of a universal alphabet of ‘distinctive features’. Knight dismisses this as scientifically unfounded ‘delightful nonsense’; what interests him is how these ideas, which originated in a vision of anti-militarist, internationalist utopianism, found themselves enlisted in the service of US geo-strategic policy in the latter half of the twentieth century.

            By repudiating the then-prevalent behaviourist ideas associated with B. F. Skinner – which prioritized environmental factors in the shaping of language and culture – Chomsky played his part in what would come to be known as the ‘cognitive revolution’, which brought together psychology, anthropology and linguistics to spur the development of the emergent fields of artificial intelligence and computer science. This coincided with the stepping up of US Army interest in precisely these domains: at the dawn of the Cold War, it was increasingly clear that electromechanical military systems – in which the human soldier is merely a subordinate cog in the technological machinery – would be the future of warfare. Knight contends that the demise of behaviourism was the product of ‘Corporate America’s urgent need for a mind-centred psychology’.

            Chomsky’s assertion that language is essentially a scientific phenomenon, the product not of human interaction but of biology, was also expedient on the ideological battlefield. Never mind whether it relieved him of any pangs of conscience regarding his work at MIT (because, so the argument goes, if linguistics is mere science, then it is politically neutral by definition); more importantly, this divorcing of mind from matter has profound philosophical implications, turning on its head Marx and Engels’s dictum that ‘life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life’. The mutability of mankind has been a longstanding kernel of progressive thought, whereas dogmatic talk of human nature belongs to the pessimistic vernacular of conservatism. Knight even discerns, in Chomsky’s emphasis on the separateness of human ontology from questions of materiality and society, a degree of overlap with religious mysticism. Invited to address a Vatican audience in Rome in 2014, Chomsky gave a talk in which he suggested that the origin of language evolution was likely to remain a mystery. Here, then, was a most unusual thing: a scholar, a scientific thinker, seemingly deferring to the unknowability of truths.

            Having begun his inquiry in a tone of friendly scepticism, Knight proceeds to quietly eviscerate Chomsky’s entire system of thought, highlighting a number of lacunae. By the late 1970s, Chomsky himself had disowned his notion of a ‘deep structure’ of semantics hidden within the ‘syntactic component’ of the digital blueprint. Conversely, he has staunchly defended the idea that even such words as ‘carburettor’ have been genetically programmed in humans for thousands of years before the objects they denoted had even come into being. Knight argues that once you strip away from the theory all the caveats, qualifications and vacillations that have accumulated over the years, there is very little left of it.

            The suggestion that Chomsky’s elimination of politics from linguistics was essentially instrumental and self-serving will be attractive to his detractors, who will doubtless enjoy the irony of seeing him subjected to precisely the kind of critique – apropos of his proximity to power – he is known for dishing out. The proposition that his entire oeuvre has been one long exercise in making a virtue of necessity is enticing, but ultimately speculative and futile. Chris Knight is nevertheless to be commended for this engaging and thought-provoking intellectual history of a thesis that remains hotly contested – and the reverberations of which, as he rightly observes, resonate far beyond academia.

* * * * * * 


Bruce Nevin's review of Decoding Chomsky

Bruce Nevin's review of Decoding Chomsky


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Knight says his ‘subversive intention’ is ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America’ (xiii). Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I).

Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in—more than that, has participated in and abetted—a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.

Understanding the Labyrinth:
Noam Chomsky’s Science and Politics

Bruce Nevin

On July 25 the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival screened Requiem for the American Dream, a documentary film built around an interview with Noam Chomsky, with the great man himself present for a Q&A afterward. Expecting a crowd, my wife and I arrived early at the Tabernacle, a wonderful open-air wrought-iron building in Oak Bluffs. We put our things on chairs just behind the sixty seats front and center, which were reserved for those who had paid a premium for the opportunity to chat with Chomsky at a wine-and-cheese soirée under a tent outside. Each reserved seat had been thoughtfully provided with a woven cane fan.

Martha’s Vineyard is a showcase for disparities of wealth and privilege. Belying its reputation, it has been accounted the poorest county in the state. In the summer, visitors are almost seven times more numerous than year-round residents, few of whom have time or money for such events; and in the winter, almost half of the housing stock is vacant, while homeless people camp here and there in the woods. And yet it remains a haven of genuine community, an essential aspect of human nature that draws people summer after summer.

We wandered over to chat with our friend and neighbor Brian Ditchfield, who, with Thomas Bena, created and directs the Festival. When I mentioned that I had corresponded with Noam, he said, “Oh, would you like to meet him? Thomas is bringing him this way.” No, I said, I don’t think he will be interested in talking with me. But there he was, reflecting the warm glow of adulation, and we were duly introduced. There was no reason he should have remembered me in that context, nor was there any point in reminding him. This event was about politics, and our correspondence had been about linguistics.

The utter sundering of these two domains in Chomsky’s mind and in his practice is a major theme of Decoding Chomsky.(1) The author, Chris Knight, is a British activist and radical anthropologist who has made influential contributions to research into the evolutionary origins of language and culture.2 In contrast to Chomsky, his political activism cost him his academic post.(3) “I was struck by the disconnect,” writes Knight,

between Chomsky’s politics—which seemed passionate and courageous—and his concept of science, which seemed the reverse on every count. It soon became clear to me that the scientist in Chomsky excluded social topics with the same scrupulous rigour that the activist in him excluded any reliance on science. This disastrous way of fragmenting human knowledge made no sense to me at all (xi).

He attributes this “disconnect” to Chomsky’s feelings of guilt that virtually all of his income from MIT derives from military funding, which, by his own account, is aimed at the domination of the peoples of the world by subversive and destructive means. At least one correspondent, as I write this, dismisses the guilt hypothesis, saying it was simple arrogance that he could trick the merchants of death into paying him for theories that are of absolutely no use to them, a notion that is not in the least contradicted by the tone of books and papers produced by Chomsky’s students during and after the Vietnam War—with their flippant titles and politically sneering example sentences, in sharp contrast to the contractually required footnotes crediting grants from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). And as to military or any other usefulness, a search on “practical applications of generative linguistics” is strongly suggestive that there still are none. Siri, Google Translate, Dragon, and their military kin have other pedigrees.

Knight says his “subversive intention” is “to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America” (xiii). Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I). Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in—more than that, has participated in and abetted—a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.

Science had previously been understood to be intrinsically revolutionary. The applications of “humanity’s only universal, international, unifying form of knowledge” (195) necessarily have social and political consequences for which scientists must take responsibility. But after the defeat of European fascism, the all-out “war on Communism” made social activism a hazard to a career in science. The social sciences, anthropology and sociology, were directly affected. Their roots are in the work of Karl Marx, the first to think of society as a system. Although the long-accepted truism that anthropology was the handmaiden of colonialism may be questioned,4 there can be no doubt of its deliberate conscription in service of neocolonialism.

In 1956, the Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare, the section of the U.S. army responsible for all aspects of unconventional warfare, set up the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) [...] to provide the army with ‘scientific bases for decision and action’ in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ (187).

Federal funding poured in to the social sciences. Princeton sociologist Harry Eckstein identified the goal as “knowledge of the causes of revolutionary ferment in order to be able to repress it at its source, or for that matter to induce it at the source” (189). According to a briefing in 1962, rather than “200 monographs on the 200 tribes of Nigeria” the military needed “basic concepts involved in Nigeria or any place in the world because everywhere there are human beings” (188). Ratified by Chomsky’s claims about universal grammar, social scientists plunged into the quest for what is universal in human nature, abstracted from realities of cultures and communities.

Chomsky had to distance himself from them in order to reconcile his ideology with continued employment at MIT. In his view, the social sciences are a fraud (8) and natural science is a realm of arid logical abstraction that has no relevance to effecting social change. “Naturalistic inquiry is a particular human enterprise that seeks a special kind of understanding, attainable for humans in some few domains when problems can be simplified enough,” writes Chomsky. “Meanwhile, we live our lives, facing as best we can problems of radically different kinds” (193).5

There is a larger enabling context. Knight ably summarizes the historical literature showing how a confluence of interests in the post-war military-industrial-security complex birthed and fostered the Siamese-twin fields of cognitive psychology and generative linguistics. From the turn of the century, psychologists had promised “prediction and control of behavior.” Now, the ever-increasing speed, scale, and complexity of operations demanded prediction and control not just of the behavior but also of the mental states of the all-too-human cogs in the machinery of war and commerce, subject to fatigue, distraction, and other “defects.” But behaviorist dogma had dismissed mental states and cognitive processes as unscientific fantasy because only outward behavioral actions could be directly observed. Furthermore, the inherently coercive methods of behaviorism are problematic. (A typical “enabling condition” for an experiment in which the “reward” is food is to maintain the subject animals in a starving condition at 85% of their normal body weight.) Human beings find ways to meet their own authentic preferences while satisfying the letter of the requirement, in the manner of the Good Soldier Švejk, or of a jaded employee whose youthful idealism has been exploited.6

The “cognitive revolution” is rooted in the metaphor which says the brain is a computer. ENIAC was announced at the University of Pennsylvania as the first “giant electronic brain” in 1946, followed by further developments of computer technology cascading exponentially year after year. The generals’ shining vision was called C3—communication, command, and control. They wanted to say, “Computer, report!” and get an answer, in English, as in Star Trek. For Knight, the establishment of the computer metaphor exemplifies a generalization by Karl Marx:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant relationships grasped as ideas (191).

If the brain is a computer, then we can program people’s brains, and so “prediction and control of behavior” is still on offer to those who wish to pay for it. The academics got their career-making revolution without upsetting any important apple-carts. Not coincidentally, in both the Cognitive revolution and the Generative linguistics revolution Marxist materialism was equated with empiricism (or logical positivism), and,

Chomsky uses the terms ‘behaviorism’ and ‘empiricism’ more or less interchangeably. For him, ‘behaviorism’ has always served as a sweeping catch-all which included not just Pavlov and Skinner, but also Durkheim, Foucault, and vast swathes of materialist philosophy and social theory (199).

In the computer metaphor, the stuff of mental states is information, and cognition reduces to information processing in the “human biocomputer.” Warren Weaver’s “information theory” (a.k.a. communication theory) had imparted magical fundraising powers to such words. Never mind that George Miller, a founding father of cognitive psychology, said in 1982: “How computers work seems to have no real relevance to how the mind works, any more than a wheel shows how people walk. I think artificial intelligence will develop along its own lines and leave psychology alone entirely.”(7) And never mind that virtually all neuroscientists have now rejected computationalism8 in favor of dynamical and connectionist models. The computational metaphor has pervaded our culture and shaped public discourse, and it continues to provide life-support to Chomsky’s ever-more abstract proposals and counter-proposals. Chomsky even applies it to himself:

According to his own account, one modular component of his brain—‘the science-forming capacity’—functions autonomously as a computational device. Chomsky the activist is not responsible for the science, which comes from a different region of his brain. ‘The one talent that I have which I know many other friends don’t seem to have,’ Chomsky explains, ‘is I’ve got some quirk in my brain which makes it work like separate buffers in a computer’ (135).

Knight, accepting the hagiographies by Barsky (9) and others, calls Chomsky possibly the greatest scientist of the 20th century, the genius who made linguistics a science. The nature of the invisible clothing here is that Chomsky is not a scientist, he is a philosopher who says, “I hate experiments” (171), as though the experimental method were not the very heart and soul of doing science. The overriding responsibility of the scientist who proposes a hypothesis or theory is to subject it to every imaginable experimental test that might disprove it, and if an idea cannot be tested, it has no more worth than the claims in an advertisement for toothpaste. Knight reviews how Chomsky’s proposals are notoriously inaccessible to empirical test and have become more so with each successive revision. It is a disgrace to the field that there still exists no broad-coverage generative grammar of any language.

Knight reports the growing consensus among historiographers that Chomsky’s revolution was political in nature, a “palace coup” (170); and he delineates the progressive leaching of substance from Chomsky’s theories, now approaching utter vacuity (176), which is why it cannot seriously be considered a scientific revolution. But concerning the actual science of language from which all of this sprang, and which Chomsky’s mentor and benefactor continued developing in parallel to it, Knight knows only the partisan view promulgated in the “eclipsing stance” of the Generativists. (10) For linguistics was already a science before Chomsky diverted it into philosophy of mind subserving cognitive psychology.

In that year of ENIAC, 1946, the University of Pennsylvania formalized Zellig Harris’s program in linguistic analysis as the first Department of Linguistics in the U.S. A year later, Chomsky was a freshman taking courses in logic and philosophy and attending Harris’s seminars. It is rarely noted that Harris, then thirty-five years old, was a family friend who had been Chomsky’s mentor and protector since the age of eight or nine. (11) Over the next six years, (12) taking the systematization of logic as a model, Chomsky tried to reformulate Harris’s methods of linguistic analysis as “discovery procedures,” what today we would call an algorithm that might be programmed in a computer so that one could input a phonetic transcription of an unknown language and it would output a grammar of the language. He later maintained that this was what Harris was trying to do, though Harris explicitly denied it. (13) By his own account,(14) Chomsky was not able to understand what Harris was doing and why. Harris regarded the methods of linguistics as tools, exploratory means of finding out what the essential properties of language are, so that eventually a theory could be formulated. That turned out to take about forty years. Chomsky was impatient, not a little ambitious, and needed to individuate and establish himself. Intellectual disagreement is insufficient to account for Chomsky’s self-contradictions (141 – 42) about his debt to Harris, much less his inexplicable anger at him as expressed in his correspondence with students and colleagues. (15)

Chomsky is a master of logical argumentation, and appears to believe that the path to truth is by winning arguments. Logic is an essential and powerful tool, but if even one premise of the most impeccably logical argument is false then its conclusion might be true, or it might be false; no one can say. Ben Franklin’s amusing story about his youthful lapse from vegetarianism ends with a wry acknowledgement of the prevalent use of reason to rationalize: “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”(16) And of course arguments are often won by rhetorical rather than logical means.

If a computer algorithm cannot discover the grammar of a language, then Chomsky’s logic compels him to accept that the computer in the brain of a child must necessarily be pre-programmed with that grammar, whence an innate “language organ” and universal grammar. But Chomsky’s conception of grammar is wrong (was avowedly wrong when he came to that conclusion in 1953), and the assumption that the human brain is a programmable, information-processing device like a digital computer has been rejected by most neuroscientists. This is not the place to describe an empirically sound alternative to the computationalism of cognitive psychology,(17) nor to summarize Harris’s science of language (18) and how Chomsky diverged from it to ever more complex and abstract logical inferences from faulty premises. (19) Suffice to say, Harris showed that grammar is not abstract and is not so complex, and that what must be learned involves dependencies and equivalences among perceptions, socially standardized in use.

As a researcher into the evolutionary origins of language, Knight is particularly exercised by Chomsky’s absurd claim that a biologically innate “language organ” did not evolve but appeared suddenly due to a single mutation in a single individual, perhaps caused by a “strange cosmic ray shower” (150 – 51), conferring a uniquely human capacity for recursion. (Recursion is a property of symbolic rules when a symbol in the input to a rule also occurs in its output, so that it can re-apply to its own output. This is relevant for a theory of language that employs symbol-manipulating rules.) According to this tale, this lone super-hominid was thereby endowed with rule-governed symbolic information-processing that other animals did not enjoy. It could “think” or “talk to itself” mentally. Obviously there were no others to talk to, but according to Chomsky it wouldn’t have conversed even if there were, because although the superior capacity of its brain to manipulate abstract concepts conferred reproductive advantage and was inherited by its descendants, two- or three-thousand generations of such super-hominids used this private “mentalese” only to engage in interior monologues, thinking to themselves, until, perhaps some 50,000 years later, for unspecified reasons that are of no interest to Chomsky, the social use of language for communication emerged.

Interior monologue, for Chomsky, is the essence of universal human nature. The “words” of this innate mentalese are universal “concepts,” the same in everyone’s brain but materialized as superficially different words in the various languages of the world. The logic of Chomsky’s secular Neoplatonism (which he calls Realism) compels him to claim not only that the abstract concepts that were appropriate to the world of proto-humans were innate, but so also every concept that we now have and may possibly have in future. “Carburetor” and “bureaucrat,” for instance, were innate in the brain of that first super-hominid and lay latent in the brains of all his or her descendants for all the millennia down to our recent generations who have at last found social use for these concepts. Chomsky is driven to this bizarre conclusion not by any evidence but rather by “conceptual necessity”—meaning that without it the entire biolinguistic edifice would collapse, and meaning that since so far as he can tell no other explanation is possible it must therefore be true, Q.E.D. This recalls the great physicist Niels Bohr, who “never trusted a purely formal or mathematical argument. ‘No, no’ he would say, ‘You are not thinking, you are just being logical.’”(20)

In contrast to what Chomsky sometimes has admitted is a fairy tale (150), Harris’s account of the origin of language (21) accords well with neo-Darwinian theory and with the proposals made by Knight and other serious researchers into the evolution of language. He shows how language is a self-organizing system that plausibly arose from a social process of useful institutionalization, which is “by no means unique, being widely known—for better or for worse—in culture and in social organization.” (22)

But Chomsky cannot countenance a theory of language that is grounded in social processes. If Knight’s analysis is correct, Chomsky’s split into two personae is an unusual response to the economic incentives and political coercion that disrupted the social sciences and gave preferential support to computer “science” and cognitive psychology, bearing up with them his trademarked generative linguistics, which he has repeatedly changed and made yet more abstract as soon as anyone with a claim to understand it began asking awkward questions. But its lack of utility could be overlooked. Chomsky’s high-profile activism has redeeming social value, because it demonstrates that MIT upholds high standards of academic freedom. “Chomsky’s position on academic freedom uncannily resembled the MIT management line on these issues. You can research what you like—provided you don’t actually do anything about it” (38). So contorted is his defense of this ideal that, “at a time of mounting antiwar unrest, Chomsky seriously proposed that he could lead MIT’s most radical students in a campaign to defend the right of someone he regarded as a ‘war criminal’ to rejoin the university community” (39). Questioned about this alliance with Walt Rostow, “one of the great war contractors and intellectual makers of the [Vietnam] war,” he said, “The logic of that argument is that Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied in the British Museum.” “Somehow,” Knight observes,

He manages to draw a favourable comparison between himself as a full-time salaried employee in one of the most advanced weapons research laboratories in the world and an impoverished Marx, taking notes for revolutionary purposes in a public library—the reading room of the British Museum (112).

With the old Cartesian mind-body dualism reframed in terms of mental “information,” the particular circumstances of political and social life are immaterial for his conception of science, much as software is independent of this or that particular computer hardware in which it may be installed. Indeed, Chomsky has dismissed matter itself (162). But real science is not an abstract creature of the ivory tower. Its effects on political and social life cannot be denied. Nor the converse. The sciences seem especially embattled by political and economic pressures today. Under political pressure, government funding agencies mimic industry in treating science like engineering, demanding specifications of what will be delivered before granting support and expecting delivery on schedule, neglectful that science is essentially exploratory in nature, and that a great proportion of significant findings have not been predicted in advance. Even the frequent public invocation of science as an authority is a social burden that can inhibit its open-endedness and the inherent uncertainty of doing science. Many people do not realize that science proves nothing, and that proof is possible only for logic and mathematics.

Knight describes how Chomsky selects data that fit into an intellectually satisfying explanatory system, and sets aside data that don’t fit, claiming that this is in fact how science works (171 – 72). This keeps him safe from what the evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley called “the great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis with an ugly fact.” Perhaps the most important function of scientific method and of peer review is to counteract bias, especially confirmation bias, seeing what you expect to see. (23) However, it is many years since Chomsky’s writings in linguistics have been subject to formal peer review prior to publication, and he derides scientific methodology as data-bound empiricism.

Chomsky’s stance undercuts the responsibility of scientists to speak out as public intellectuals against dishonest invocation of pretended science in behalf of commercial and political interests. If a scientist incurs any personal risk by defending tobacco, dismissing epidemiological effects of environmental toxins, or denying the human role in climate change, such risks are mitigated by teams of lawyers defending corporate ownership of intellectual property and “trade secrets,” but let them become whistle-blowers and they are isolated and on their own, under attack from those same phalanxes of lawyers. Needless to say the withholding of information and the adversarial use of patents erodes the necessarily communal character of science.

“Central to Marxism is the unity of theory and practice” (193), but for Chomsky, science is apolitical, and political activism cannot be informed by science, resulting in what Knight calls “mindless activism and tongue-tied science.”

At any given moment […] you are either a scientist or an activist; you cannot play both roles at the same time. A climate scientist, for example, will be respected for reporting worrying findings, but condemned for resorting to direct actions to avert the consequences. Those who do confuse roles in this way risk being accused of betraying their vocation (197).

Severing theory from practice quarantines science and redefines scientific objectivity and professionalism, reducing them from essentially social values in the community of scientists to arid legalisms that might be spelled out by a Human Resources Department. Knight reviews work by David Golumbia (24) showing how this estrangement of science and society from each other was essential to the creation of neoliberalism, admirably suiting the purposes of those who control the purse-strings (196). And it allowed Chomsky’s radical ideology to cohabit with his employment at MIT, albeit in different compartments of his brain and personality. For Chomsky, “Development of weapons of mass destruction […] was perfectly acceptable, provided it was kept separate from subsequent deployment of such weapons” (197). In the words of Tom Lehrer’s 1965 song,

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Chomsky’s friend, the late Howard Zinn, author of the monumental A People’s History of the United States and no stranger to the effects of modern armaments, said that:

the call to disinterested scholarship is one of the greatest deceptions of our time, because scholarship may be disinterested but no one else around us is disinterested. And when you have a disinterested academy operating in a very interested world, you have disaster (197).

This emerges in an odd way in the film, Requiem for the American Dream that my wife and I saw in Oak Bluffs. Chomsky benefits from an editing process that has segmented the interview into topics that could have been selected from Robert Reich’s recent survey of the ailments of capitalism, (25) each punchily introduced by animations in the manner of The Story of Stuff and spiced with atmospheric television clips from the 1950s. These topics should be familiar to a literate and engaged public, including obviously the causes of the prevalent great disparities of wealth and privilege. Among factors not mentioned is the erosion of the countervailing bottom-up influence of special-interest groups, the “American pluralism” that was celebrated (26) in the 1950s and 1960s for its success in offsetting the anti-democratic influence of business interests. In the panicked retrenchment by the right wing after 1968, (27) and their assiduous social engineering (such as they claim to oppose), “special-interest group” has become a pejorative phrase, and not coincidentally a “nation of joiners” has been atomized to a population of harried, economically insecure individuals with no time to talk to their neighbors, much less to be literate and engaged. This organization of the film under headings called “principles” suggests some kind of theory of social change. But as we have seen such a theory is impossible for Chomsky, who says, “There is no relationship at all between what is humanly interesting and what is intellectually interesting” (193).

Knight mentions (239) Zellig Harris’s only book on politics. The manuscript Directing social change (28) was published posthumously in 1997, five years after his death, as The Transformation of Capitalist Society. (29) As with all of Harris’s writings, the reader sees the succinct conclusions with only illustrative extracts from the huge amount of data and analysis supporting them, investigations over many years beginning in the late 1940s with a collective of like-minded scientists in diverse fields. He also read widely, not wanting to redo what had already been done. In this book, he asks: “Whether, in spite of its success, the capitalist system will end or change substantially in the foreseeable future. If so, what are the possibilities that the change will foster more equitable socio-economic conditions?” (30) Recognizing the obvious failings of top-down revolutions and how they simply replace old elites with new ones, he offers considered guidance for recognizing and fostering seed-points of successor arrangements in neglected backwaters of capitalism where people can gain experience living and working together without exploitation, for example in businesses that are entirely owned by employees. Social experience changes people’s understandings, and confidence in the expectations and capabilities that develop in the experience of mutual aid can then spread to other domains from the bottom up—much as capitalism unexpectedly supplanted feudalism in the 15th to 17th centuries. (31)

A “celebration” of the book’s publication was organized at the University of Pennsylvania in November 1997. Over the misgivings of some of the organizers, but because he would draw a crowd, Chomsky was invited to speak. He spoke at great length about East Timor, which was then his particular focus, with a few sentences about Harris in the middle, and referred to the book not at all. As the first to the microphone in the Q&A I asked if he had any constructive suggestions such as those advanced in the book, recognizing, of course, the problems of capitalism. “Problems!” he said, “Capitalism is a disaster!” and was off and running. (A student later went to the microphone to ask the same question, also in vain.) Chomsky’s righteous concern is with what’s wrong, and he does a very good and worthy job pointing it out. As to what to do about it, beyond a generic “organize” he has little to say.

I mentioned some correspondence. Its context is the coup in linguistics, an attack (32) on what is still its fundamental methodology, the investigation of what can occur with what (termed “taxonomic linguistics”). This has been generally understood as Chomsky’s repudiation of Harris in particular. Twenty years later, in 1995, I sent Chomsky a paper (33) in which I showed that, while he may have characterized the views of some linguists of the 1940s and 1950s, none of his criticisms applied to Harris’s work. We exchanged several polite letters, at which point he said there was no point in continuing unless I agreed to some unspecified “ground rules,” to which I replied:

You close your letter with a request for agreement on some ground rules. I can promise to write with honesty and forthrightness, to adhere to valid forms of argumentation, and to accept correction when shown that I have not done so. […] I cannot promise to accept premises with which I disagree. I can help to identify and clarify terms of disagreement so that they can be set aside so as not to make the discussion unproductive, and so that they can either be worked on separately or be accepted for the nonce under an agreement to disagree. What do you have in mind?

He never replied. Two years later, I joined a klatch of admirers after his speech at the “celebration” of The Transformation of Capitalist Society and mentioned that he had not replied to my last letter, “Oh, I always reply. Send me a note to remind me.” I did, and two months later he wrote:

When we met, I was surprised to hear from you that I had not responded to a letter of yours, since I try to be scrupulous about either responding to letters, or else explaining why I am not responding. On reviewing the material you sent me, I see that the latter was the case. Your response made it clear that we were not going to be able to agree on ground rules. The new material simply makes that more clear. Accordingly, it seems there is little point in wasting your time or mine.

Indeed. The word decoding in the title of Knight’s book suggests that Chomsky is an encrypted puzzle. Knight says (xiii) that he has tried to be cautious in his approach to Chomsky’s linguistic theorizing, duly advised by Rudolph Botha’s characterization (34) of

Chomsky as a skilled fighter at the center of a vast intellectual labyrinth whose forks and hidden pitfalls are used aggressively to defeat anyone foolish enough to intrude. Nobody ever wins in a battle with ‘the Lord of the Labyrinth,’ because the Master makes sure that each contest will take place on terrain which he himself has landscaped and designed (12).

In his political discourse as well, Chomsky chooses peculiarly unassailable ground: “So far is he to the left of, say, Lenin or Trotsky that such figures appear to him little different from fascists” (199). From this point of view, practically everyone (except for him) has been taken in by propaganda. Because of Chomsky the “scientist” divorcing science from social action and promoting an abstract characterization of universal human nature, Chomsky the activist has become inexorably trapped in a peculiar fatalism in which “ordinary people faced with the need to explain poverty and injustice will continue to blame human nature. It is widely held—often on supposedly scientific grounds—that poverty, sexism, inequality and war will always be with us, just as humans will continue to be born with five digits on each hand” (241).

Chomsky’s maze would ensnare us all. He says that “not even the germs of new institutions exist, let alone the moral and political consciousness that could lead to a basic modification in social life.” (35) Here, Knight is wrong to attribute the same views to Harris, who calls for us to recognize and nurture the seeds (“germs”) of a successor to capitalism. But Knight’s main brief is with Chomsky for insisting “that mass political consciousness must change first,” inverting Marx’s insight that “experience counts for more than abstract ideas.” As is well known,

Under capitalism, people tend to feel competitive and isolated. This leads to deep feelings of fragmentation and helplessness—which are a logical response under the circumstances. Newspaper and other mass media proprietors will then find a ready market for individualistic, racist, sexist and other divisive ideas. If that is true, it cannot be propaganda that is the root cause of the low level of consciousness—as Chomsky argues in his influential article, ‘Manufacturing Consent.’ Rather, it is the lack of community, solidarity, and activism which gives rise to a profitable market in reactionary ideas (240, footnote suppressed).

As a way out of learned helplessness, Knight points to research into the social matrix of the “human revolution” in which our remote ancestors created language and culture. A paramount value in egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities is respect for one another and for the resources upon which they depend. The revolution in “human nature” was in the establishment of trustworthiness, a social achievement that is beyond the merely Machiavellian capabilities of non-human primates (211) which is a prerequisite for communication with language, and made possible “the rule of law” (224). The social learnings which are possible to us in niches neglected by capitalism, which Harris indicates as a way forward to a successor of capitalism, are re-learnings of the ancestral wisdom that made us human in the first place, but this time with computer-enabled, world-wide human communication and interconnectedness. Communal song and dance, the stuff of ritual, are now thought to have been the nursery of language and culture in the small hunter-gatherer communities of our remote ancestors. Today, Eric Whiteside can conduct a choir comprising thousands of voices scattered across scores of countries. (36) “To end on an optimistic note in these bleak times—when revolution has been written off even by the left—the conclusion must surely be that having won the revolution once, we can do it again” (242). Such optimism, the youthful optimism of Occupy (37) grounded in science that is unbiased by mercenary motives, (38) is inaccessible to Chomsky’s “tongue-tied science and mindless activism.”



1.      Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary politics (Yale University Press, 2016).

2.      C. Knight, Blood relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press, 1991); C. Knight, R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power, eds., The Evolution of Culture (Rutgers University Press, 1999); C. Knight, D. Dor, &d J. Lewis, eds., The Social Origins of Language (Oxford University Press, 2014).

3.      G20 protest professor suspended, BBC (March 26, 2009). [].

4.      H. Lewis, In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology (Transaction Publishers, 2013).

5.      Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 115.

6.      Or the Simple sabotage field manual prepared by the OSS in 1944 for the resistance.

7.      Tom Ferrell, “Pioneering Cognitive Psychologist has Everyone’s Mind on His,” The New York Times (October 12, 1982).

8.      For a cogent lay presentation, see R. Epstein’s essay “The Empty Brain.” [].

9.      R. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 2007); The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (MIT Press, 1997).

10.    D. Hymes & J. Fought, American Structuralism (Mouton, 1975).

11.    Personal communication of Naomi Sager, Harris’s widow.

12.    N. Chomsky, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, 25 – 33.

13.    “These procedures […] do not constitute a necessary laboratory schedule in the sense that each procedure should be completed before the next is entered upon. […] [Their] chief usefulness […] is […] as a reminder in the course of the original research, and as a form for checking or presenting the results, where it may be desirable to make sure that all the information called for in these procedures has been validly obtained.” Z. Harris, Methods in Structural Linguistics (University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1 – 2.

14.    He has suggested this in numerous places in print, and has explicitly said as much in personal correspondence, first in September 1995 regarding something I had written, and several years later when I invited him, and he declined, to contribute “anything, on any subject, at any length” to two volumes presenting research related to Harris’s work, The legacy of Zellig Harris, CILT 128 & 129 (John Benjamins, 2002).

15.    Reported to me by a former student who had been tasked with organizing his correspondence. The word he used was “rage.”

16.    B. Franklin, Autobiography (Knopf/Everyman), 43.

17.    W. Powers, Behavior: the control of perception, 1973;Aldine de Gruyter; P. Runkel, People as living things: the psychology of perceptual control (LCS Publishing, 2003); W. Mansell & A. Powers (eds.) Living control systems IV: the world according to PCT (Benchmark, forthcoming).

18.    Z. Harris, A grammar of English on mathematical principles, 1982; Wiley; Z. Harris, Language and Information (Columbia University Press, 1988); Z. Harris, A theory of language and information: a mathematical approach (Oxford University Press, 1991).

19.    B. Nevin, Noam and Zellig, in D. Kibbee (ed.) Chomskyan ®evolutions (John Benjamins, 2010), 103 – 168.

20.    H. Margolis (1993), Paradigms and Barriers (University of Chicago Press, 1993), 201.

21.    Z. Harris, (1988) Chapter 4, (1991) Chapter 12.

22.    Z. Harris, Language and Information (Columbia University Press, 1988), 111.

23.    R. Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2.2, 1998: 175 – 220.

24.    D. Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation, (Harvard University Press, 2009).

25.    R. Reich, Saving Capitalism (For the Many, Not for the Few), (Knopf, 2015).

26.    R. Reich, Saving Capitalism, Chapter 18.

27.    L. Lapham, “Tentacles of rage: The Republican propaganda mill, a brief history,” Harper’s Magazine September 2004; Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday, 2016).

28.    For the manuscript, see [].

29.    Z. Harris (1997) The Transformation of Capitalist Society, Rowman & Littlefield. (rev at []).

30.    Z. Harris, The Transformation of Capitalist Society, 2.

31.    F. Braudel, Civilization and capitalism 15th – 18th Century (vol. 1: The structures of everyday life; vol. 2: The wheels of commerce; vol. 3: The perspective of the world), tr. by Siân Reynolds, (Harper Collins, 1985).

32.    In several revisions beginning in 1959 and culminating in N. Chomsky (1964), Current issues in linguistic theory, Mouton.

33.    B. Nevin, “Harris the Revolutionary: Phonemic Theory,” in K. Jankowsky (ed.) History of Linguistics 1993 (John Benjamins, 1993), 349 – 358; uncut version at

34.    R. Botha, Challenging Chomsky: The generative garden game (Blackwell, 1989).

35.    N. Chomsky (2002 [1969]) American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon Books, 2002 [1969]), 17 – 18, quoted on 240.

36.    There are many video recordings, such as [] and [].

37.    M. White, The end of protest: a new playbook for revolution (Knopf, 2016).

38.    In addition to references cited in fn. 1 above, see e.g. K. A. McClelland, Social Structure and Control: Perceptual Control Theory and the Science of Sociology, forthcoming in W. Mansell & A. Powers (eds.) Living Control Systems IV, Benchmark, forthcoming 2017).


Bruce Nevin

BRUCE NEVIN is a linguist who has worked closely with the Pit River tribe in northeastern California since 1970, preserving their language and supporting language revitalization. He is currently completing a database of their language under a grant from the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages Program. From 1982 until 2011 he was employed as a manager and information architect, first for Bolt Beranek & Newman until 1994, and then for Cisco Systems. Since 1991 a particular focus, in collaboration with researchers from diverse fields in the Control Systems Group, has been integration of the empirical linguistics of Zellig Harris with Perceptual Control Theory, showing how the constraints on word dependencies that constitute the objective information in language are an ongoing product of collective control. He lives with his family in his ancestral home on Martha’s Vineyard.


20+ reviews of Decoding Chomsky

Decoding Chomsky has been generally well reviewed (see the Times Literary Supplement, Chronicle of Higher Education, Brooklyn Rail, American Ethnologist, Language and Cognition and New Scientist) but it clearly upset Chomsky and some of his supporters.

If you enjoy shrill partisanship and name-calling, check out these three delightfully hostile reviews: (1) Norbert Hornstein & Nathan Robinson (2) Robert Barsky and (3) Wolfgang Sperlich.

Here are some more positive responses to Decoding Chomsky: Labour Briefing, Weekly Worker, Babel's Dawn, Overweening Generalist, Tendance Coatesy, Doug Lain's podcast, Laura Gawne's Superlinguo blog.

The whole story is a wreck... complete nonsense throughout.
— Noam Chomsky
I can say that this is the best critique of Chomsky from the left that I have ever read. I disagree with Knight quite profoundly on a number of key issues, but in every chapter I learned something new and, in fact, found myself agreeing with him more and more as the book progressed.
— Frederick Newmeyer, author of 'Linguistic Theory in America'.
This is Chomsky from a new perspective, the perspective of a social anthropologist. It connects his science with his politics in a novel and convincing way. Knight has dug deeper and made more interconnections than anyone has done before. The result is truly revelatory.
— Michael Tomasello, author of 'A Natural History of Human Thinking.'
Chris Knight tells a compelling story with startling clarity and forceful elegance, about the bizarre results of studying language, that most human of faculties, by removing it as far as possible from lived human experience. He provides a persuasive explanation for Chomsky’s strategy that reveals striking perspectives on the relationship between science, politics and values.
— Marek Kohn, author of 'As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind.'
Knight’s exploration of Chomsky’s politics, linguistics, and intellectual history is unparalleled. No other study has provided such a full understanding of Chomsky’s background, intellectual foibles, objectives, inconsistencies, and genius.
— Daniel L. Everett, author of How Language Began: The Story of Humanity's Greatest Invention
History comes alive via compelling narrative. As a devoted historian of the profession, I was particularly delighted by the sections on how Russian linguistics influenced the development of cognitive science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the height of the Cold War and for many decades thereafter. The revealing sections on Roman Jakobson and his own intellectual predecessors are worth the price of the book. Knight is indeed an impressive historian when it comes to recounting the gripping personal histories behind Chomsky’s groundbreaking contributions to science and philosophy.
— Sean O'Neill, American Ethnologist
Few disagree that language has been a game-changer for the human species. But just how we came by language remains hotly contested. In ‘Decoding Chomsky’, Chris Knight strides into this minefield to bravely replace miraculous leaps and teleology with a proposal that actually makes evolutionary sense.
— Sarah Hrdy, author of 'Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.'
This is one of the most exciting scholarly books I have read in years. Decoding Chomsky will be required reading for anyone at all interested in the history of intellectual and political thought since the 1950s.
— David Golumbia, author of 'The Cultural Logic of Computation.'
Decoding Chomsky reads like a detective novel. So many of the arguments I found right on the mark, but I would recommend it just for the pleasure of reading Knight’s great English prose, particularly his talent for understatement. A truly fantastic work, simply brilliant. I could not put it down.
— Luc Steels, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Free University, Brussels.
Decoding Chomsky was a decade in the making and may be the most in-depth meditation on ‘the Chomsky problem’ ever published. A compelling read.
— Tom Bartlett, Chronicle of Higher Education.
Chris Knight is to be commended for this engaging and thought-provoking intellectual history of a thesis that remains hotly contested – and the reverberations of which, as he rightly observes, resonate far beyond academia.
— Houman Barekat, Times Literary Supplement
Simply brilliant. Others have noted the systematic disjunct between Chomsky’s Pentagon-funded linguistics and his political dissidence, but this is the first theoretically sophisticated analysis of a chasm between mind and body, theory and practice which has become profoundly symptomatic of postmodern culture as a whole.
— David Hawkes, author of Ideology.
Decoding Chomsky is a groundbreaking analysis of the wide chasm that now exists between modern language science and Chomsky’s view of language. A must-read for anyone trying to understand the history and trajectory of Chomsky’s ideas.
— Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin
This book provides a fascinating account of the disconnect and symmetry between Chomsky’s value-free science and his science-free politics. Knight roots this in the tension between Chomsky ‘s detestation of the US military and his dependence on military funding for his linguistic research.
— Les Levidow, editor, 'Science as Culture'
Intellectually hip and iconoclastic, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ surveys 1950s McCarthyite politics and 1960s student unrest in order to get a handle on the extraordinary influence of Noam’s ideas. If you’re a former New Left protestor against university collaboration with the US war machine or a current 21st-century anti-war student, you’ll find Knight’s chapter on MIT’s historical relationship to the Pentagon – titled ‘The Most Hideous Institution On This Earth’ – especially cutting-edge, ground-breaking and informative.
— Bob Feldman, Students for a Democratic Society Steering C'ttee, Columbia University 1968.
A totally engrossing roller coaster ride. Riveting and revealing, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ gives badly needed perspective to an American icon.
— David Wineberg,
An authoritative, deeply thoughtful and very well written analysis, shedding light on a hitherto incomprehensible tangle. Knight’s revelatory investigation helps me understand why for so many decades I could never make sense of Chomsky’s various pronouncements about the evolution of language.
— ‘Fifth Generation Texan’,
Social anthropologist Chris Knight has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I’ve been trying to solve it for 20 years; I now feel the euphoria that one of us has solved it. ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is an astonishingly well-written and researched volume that will probably be the most important work in the history of ideas, post World War II, that you’ll read for quite some time. It’s so lucid and well-researched and intellectually and emotionally gripping I couldn’t find a fault with it, though I tried.
— Michael Johnson, 'Overweening Generalist'
Really important books do not come along very often. But here is one of them.
— Jack Conrad, 'Weekly Worker.'
‘Decoding Chomsky’ will make uncomfortable reading for some because while Knight celebrates Chomsky’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, he reminds us of the other Chomsky, the world-famous linguist. Most of us in the labour movement know little and care less about this side of Chomsky’s work. Why should we? It’s highly technical, appears irrelevant to our activism and anyway, who am I to judge? Chris Knight thinks we should care.
— Jackie Walker, 'Labour Briefing.'
Knight offers a sustained argument against the view that Chomsky’s work as a linguistic scientist can be separated (compartmentalised) from the military and state ties of the institution in which he worked, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
— Andrew Coates, 'Tendance Coatesy.'
Knight argues that Chomsky needed to deny any connection between his science and his politics in order to practise both while based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an institution that was heavily funded by the US military. Trenchant and compelling.
— Marek Kohn, 'New Scientist.'
I enjoyed reading this book... If you’ve ever pondered the way Chomsky acts like he’s basically two separate people, you will find this book well-stocked with quotes and anecdotes that outline the strange relationship between Chomsky and Chomsky…
— Lauren Gawne, 'Superlinguo.'
Knight says his ‘subversive intention’ is ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.’ Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I).

Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in – more than that, has participated in and abetted – a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.
— Bruce Nevin, 'The Brooklyn Rail.'











'London Review of Books' Debate on 'Decoding Chomsky'

'London Review of Books' Debate on 'Decoding Chomsky'

Chomsky Says (LRB Letters, 1 June 2017)

Hilary Rose says

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.

Hilary Rose
London WC1


Chomsky says (LRB Letters, 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
Cambridge, Massachusetts



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.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey


Chomsky Says (LRB letters 13 July)


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.

Chris Knight
London SE22



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.

Hilary Rose
London WC1


Chomsky has the last say (LRB 17 August)

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.

Noam Chomsky
Cambridge, Massachusetts



By titling this letter 'Chomsky has the last say', the LRB prevented me or Hilary from continuing the debate. Much of what I would have said will be in the new edition of my book, out in January 2018.

War Research in Chomsky's Lab at MIT

War Research in Chomsky's Lab at MIT

Noam Chomsky has repeatedly claimed that at MIT 'there was zero military work on campus'. This claim is difficult to reconcile with the fact that his own workplace, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, has made many important contributions to US military technology.

In 1971, the US Army's office of Research and Development published an article that began with this sentence:


Enumeration of the many RLE research contributions that have had military applications necessarily must be limited to a few examples.

It went on to mention the following examples, stating that they were only a 'few' of the many contributions made:


A classic paper with a 'negative' result saved the military countless dollars by pointing out the limitations of 'super-gain' antennas.

Contributions to the theory of beam-shaping antennas and helical antennas have had important applications. Work on microwave filters examined the possibility of broadband impedance matching.

Pioneering work was done on such diverse topics as ionospheric communication, missile guidance, phased-array antennas, and atomic clocks.

Contributions to signal detection in the presence of noise have been acclaimed as exceedingly important in military and commercial applications.

Early work in communications included trans-Atlantic frequency-modulation tests. Results led to substantial improvements in FM receiver design, special-purpose analog and digital computers, work in tropospheric and ionospheric scatter techniques, and theory of sequential switching circuits.

Major contributions were reported in development of the statistical approach to communication theory, and in information and coding theory.

In [an] environment of active research on communications theory and advanced electronic instrumentation techniques, the stimulus provided by the late Norbert Wiener encouraged the initiation and growth of research related to living systems.

Work was done also on simple automata, possibilities of human sensor augmentation or replacement and measurement techniques were developed to study neuroelectric signals.

In each of these area, RLE made continuing contributions and has had a part in stimulating similar work in other laboratories.

(From: 'Tri-Services Honor MIT Achievements in Military Electronics R&D', Army Research and Development News Magazine, Vol. 12 no.4, July-August 1971, p68.)

Noam Chomsky’s 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on - Video of conference at University College London

Noam Chomsky’s 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on - Video of conference at University College London


Nicholas Allott (co-author of Chomsky, Ideas and Ideals) – Introductory remarks

Jackie Walker (former vice-chair of Momentum) – A black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals

Kriszta Szendroi (senior lecturer in linguistics at UCL) – Value-system and intensity; a tribute to the late Tanya Reinhart

Milan Rai (author of Chomsky’s Politics) – The propaganda model and the British nuclear weapons debate


Chris Knight (author of Decoding Chomsky) – Speaking truth to power from within the heart of the Empire

Craig Murray (former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan) – The abdication of responsibility

Noam Chomsky – Video from Arizona

To see Chris Knight's response to Chomsky's comments about MIT's war research, click HERE.



Chomsky at MIT: Between the war scientists and the anti-war students

Chomsky at MIT: Between the war scientists and the anti-war students

It is now fifty years since Noam Chomsky published his celebrated article, 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals'. Few other writings had a greater impact on the turbulent political atmosphere on US campuses in the 1960s. The essay launched Chomsky's political career as the world's most intransigent and cogent critic of US foreign policy - a position he has held to this day.

No one could doubt Chomsky's sincerity or his gratitude to the student protesters who brought the war in Vietnam to the forefront of public debate. On the other hand, he viewed the student rebels as 'largely misguided', particularly when they advocated revolution. Referring to the student and worker uprising in Paris in May 1968, Chomsky recalls that he 'paid virtually no attention to what was going on,' adding that he still believes he was right in this. Seeing no prospect of revolution in the West at this time, Chomsky went so far as to describe US students' calls for revolution as 'insidious'. While he admired their 'challenge to the universities', he expressed 'skepticism about how they were focusing their protests and criticism of what they were doing' - an attitude that led to 'considerable conflict' with many of them. [1]

As is well known, Chomsky's university was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught and researched linguistics in one of its research laboratories funded by the military. Although he sometimes understates MIT's military role, Chomsky has never made a secret of its Pentagon connections. Referring to the 1960s, he explains that MIT was 'about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab. If you take a look at my early publications, they all say something about Air Force, Navy, and so on, because I was in a military lab, the Research Lab for Electronics.'[2]

By the late 1960s, MIT's various laboratories and departments were researching helicopter design, radar, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the ongoing war in Vietnam. In Chomsky's words: 'There was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. ... In fact, a good deal of the [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.'[3] One of the radical student newspapers of the time, The Old Mole, expressed things still more bluntly:

'MIT isn't a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It's a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT's purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations - research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world.'[4]

In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that, according to one former MIT student, 'most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research.'[5] But in 1969, in a contribution to an official MIT report, Chomsky took a significantly different position. Echoing the language of defense and deterrence favoured by the university's military scientists, he proposed that, rather than closing down the military laboratories, 'they should be restricted to research on systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character.' One of the leading student activists at MIT at the time, Michael Albert, later described Chomsky's cautious position as, in effect, 'preserving war research with modest amendments.'[6] I should point out, however, that despite their disagreements, Albert remains supportive of Chomsky to this day, as do other student radicals who have known Chomsky personally over the years.

Back in 1969, MIT's student radicals were keen to take direct action against the university's war research by, among other things, occupying the office of its president, Howard Johnson. Again, Chomsky took a different position and at one point, according to one of his academic colleagues, he joined with other professors in standing in Johnson's office to prevent the students from occupying it. As he said later about such occupations, 'I wasn't in favor of it myself, and didn't like those tactics.'[7]

MIT's radicals not only organised occupations, they also organised a mass picket of the university's nuclear missile laboratories. Determined to put a stop to this kind of disruption, the university eventually had six students sentenced to prison terms.[8] One of these students, George Katsiaficas, served time for the crime of 'disruption of classes'. To this day, he remains indignant about his treatment and says that the phrase, the 'banality of evil' - famously used by Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi war criminals - applies equally to President Howard Johnson. Adopting a quite different tone, however, Chomsky told Time magazine that Johnson was an 'honest, honourable man' and it seems he even attended a faculty party held to celebrate Johnson's success at containing the student protests.[9]

Chomsky has acknowledged that some students did suffer from incidents 'that should not have happened'. But, while student leader Michael Albert described MIT as another 'Dachau' whose 'victims burned in the fields of Vietnam', Chomsky has again and again come to the university's defence.[10] In view of the imprisonments, expulsions and job losses suffered by MIT's radicals, it is hard to know what to make of Chomsky's claim that MIT's anti-war activists 'had no problems' from the university. Nor is it easy to recognise his description of MIT as 'one of the most free universities in the world' with 'the best relations between faculty and students than at any other university.'[11]


Still more puzzling was Chomsky's attitude when Walt Rostow visited MIT in 1969. Rostow was one of those prominent intellectuals whom Chomsky had so eloquently denounced in his 'Responsibility of Intellectuals' article. As an adviser to both President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Rostow had been one of the main architects of the war in Vietnam. In particular he was the strategist responsible for the carpet bombing of North Vietnam.

Against this background, it was hardly surprising that when Rostow arrived at MIT, his lecture was disrupted by students furious at his presence on their campus.[12] Far from associating himself with such student rage, however, when Chomsky heard that Rostow was hoping to return to his former job at MIT, he actually welcomed the prospect. Then, when he heard that the university was poised to reject Rostow's job application for fear of more student disruption, Chomsky went to Howard Johnson and threatened to lead MIT's anti-war students to 'protest publicly' - not against - but in favour of Rostow being allowed back to the university.[13]

Rostow wasn't the only powerful militarist at MIT to receive support from Chomsky. Twenty years later, Chomsky was, as he says, 'one of the very few people on the faculty' who supported John Deutch's bid to become university President.[14] Deutch was particularly controversial because, as MIT's radical newspaper, The Thistle, explained, he was both an 'advocate of US nuclear weapons build-up' and 'a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.' In fact, by the late 1980s, Deutch had not only brought chemical and biological weapons research to MIT, he had apparently 'pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus'.[15]

Fearing that the university was about to become even 'more militaristic', MIT's radicals - with the notable exception of Chomsky - joined others on the faculty to successfully block Deutch's appointment. Then, later, when President Clinton made Deutch No.2 at the Pentagon and, in 1995, Director of the CIA, student activists demanded that MIT cut all ties with him. Chomsky once again disagreed, The New York Times reporting him as saying of Deutch that 'he has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've ever met in academic life, or any other life.... If somebody's got to be running the CIA, I'm glad it's him.'[16] And, of course, the most remarkable thing about all this is that, throughout this entire period, Chomsky was churning out dozens of brilliantly argued articles and books denouncing the CIA and the US military as criminals, their hands dripping in blood.

One way of making sense of Chomsky's various contradictory positions is to view them in the light of the public statements made by MIT's managers at the height of the student unrest in 1969. At this time, President Howard Johnson described his university as 'a refuge from the censor, where any individual can pursue truth as he sees it, without any interference.'[17] Underlying such statements was Johnson's anxiety lest MIT's military scientists suffer 'interference' from protesting students and Johnson himself wasn't too consistent in defending this position, readily abandoning it when he declined Rostow's request to return to MIT. Unlike Johnson, however, Chomsky stuck to the university's principles. He remained true to the MIT's non-interference stance, even to the point of defending the right of a potential war criminal, John Deutch, and an actual 'war criminal' (Chomsky's description of Walt Rostow) to hold important posts at the university.[18]

Part of the explanation for all this may have been Chomsky's reluctance to fall out with fellow faculty members, especially those with whom he associated regularly. As he remarked at one point, 'I'm always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.'[19] But there must have been more to Chomskyís behaviour than this.

In 1969, one MIT student is reported to have justified his opposition to the university's military research on the grounds that 'one doesn't have the right to build gas chambers to kill people', adding that 'the principle that people should not kill other people is more important than notions of freedom to do any kind of research one might want to undertake.'[20] Chomsky, by contrast, extended the principle of academic non-interference to unusual lengths. It was crucial to him that MIT held strictly to the management ideal of the university as 'a refuge from the censor'. After all, a less libertarian policy might have undermined his own conflicted position as an anti-war campaigner working in a laboratory funded by the US military.

None of this makes Chomsky's opposition to US militarism any less genuine or admirable. If anything, his dissidence was all the more remarkable given the context in which it was expressed. My aim here is simply to highlight how conflicted Chomsky must have felt, being a committed anti-militarist in an institution so closely associated with a war machine that was inflicting so much death and misery across the globe.

Chomsky's moral qualms were particularly apparent at the height of the war in Vietnam when, in October 1968, Chomsky told The New York Times that he felt 'guilty most of the time'.[21] One way to assuage this guilt might have been to resign and, as it happens, around the time that the New York Review of Books published 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' in its February 1967 edition, Chomsky was thinking of doing just that. The March edition of the Review included a letter from Chomsky saying he had 'given a good bit of thought to ... resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university associated with the activities of the Department of "Defense"'. However, Chomsky soon had second thoughts which he expressed in a follow-up letter published in the April edition. Whereas in his original letter he had complained that MIT's 'involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible', in the follow-up he claimed - in a surprising about-turn - that 'MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort. Individuals at MIT, as elsewhere, have direct involvement and that is what I had in mind.'[22]

So it appears that, despite his sincere and often courageous opposition to the US military, Chomsky felt a simultaneous pull in the opposite direction, prompting him to tone down criticisms of MIT in order to protect his ability to continue with the job he loved. My own view is that the intensity of Chomsky's anti-militarist dissidence can be explained in part by his need to square his continued MIT employment with a political conscience that refused to lie down.

I have no space in a short article to explain how such moral dilemmas influenced not only Chomsky's political work but also his linguistics. Suffice it to say that Chomsky was hired to work at MIT by Jerome Wiesner, a military scientist who, in the 1950s, was arguing 'fervently for developing and manufacturing ballistic missiles.' Wiesner was an adviser to both the CIA and President Eisenhower and it is hard to think of anyone in US academia who was more deeply involved in both the technology and decision making of nuclear war than he was.[23]

Wiesner initially employed Chomsky because, as he said, '[we wanted to] use computers to do automatic translation, so we hired Noam Chomsky and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel to work on it.' In this Cold War period, the US military were investing millions of dollars in linguistic research not only to automatically translate Eastern bloc documents but also to enhance their computer systems of 'command and control' for both nuclear war and, later, for the war in Vietnam.[24]

Chomsky, therefore, found himself from the very beginning of his career working in a largely conservative institutional milieu among colleagues more or less happy to conduct advanced weapons research. Given his own political commitments, on the other hand, he needed to ensure that his own particular contribution would not assist the military in any way. He solved this problem by extricating linguistics from practicalities altogether. Language, under Chomsky's novel definition, became non-communicative, non-social and, in effect, little more than a Platonic abstraction. In short, for fifty years, much of linguistics was driven into an academic dead-end from which it has taken decades to emerge. But all that is another story ....[25]

Chris Knight is author of Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics (Yale University Press, 2016).


1. R.Barsky, Noam Chomsky, a life of dissent, p122, 131; N.Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, p17-18.

2. G.D.White, Campus Inc., p445.

3. M.Albert, Remembering Tomorrow, p97-99; C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics (2004), p216; S.Bridger, Scientists at War, Ch.6. Of course, any university that restricted its research to the development of military technology would soon run out of new ideas so MIT does a lot of pure science, including linguistics. But, as Michael Albert says, 'War blood ran through MIT's veins. It flooded the research facilities and seeped even into the classrooms.' In the late 1960s, some 500 students worked in MIT's military laboratories. Most worked in the Instrumentation Laboratories that were part of the engineering school and which, in Chomsky's words, were only 'two inches off campus' with people going 'between them all the time'. MIT also did military research 'on campus' for both the Navy and the CIA. Albert p99; MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p59-69; Works And Days 51-4: Vol. 26/27, 2008-09, p533; MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p237-40, 255; The Tech, 31/10/69, p1, 10.

4. 'Why Smash MIT?', in I.Wallerstein, The University Crisis Reader, Vol.2 p240-3; Albert p113-4.

5. Stephen Shalom, New Politics, Vol.6(3) No.23.

6. MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p37-8; Albert p98.

7. J.Segel, Recountings; Conversations with MIT mathematicians, p206-7; N.Chomsky, ëMIT 150 Infinite History Projectí.

8. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8 and The Tech, 4/8/72, p1.

9.; Time, 21/11/69 p68 and 15/3/71 p43; H.Johnson, Holding the Center, p202-3.

10. N.Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, p311; Albert p9, 16. Chomsky's ambivalence about any kind of illegal or confrontational action at MIT was shown again, in 2011, when the university cooperated with the prosecution of Aaron Swartz for the 'crime' of downloading Jstor journals from MIT's library. Although Jstor agreed to a deal whereby Swartz would avoid prison, MIT apparently rejected this deal and the threat of decades in prison helped drive Swartz to suicide. When asked about this tragic event, Chomsky did say that MIT should have acted differently. However he also implied that Swartz should have been prosecuted - if only for a 'misdemeanour' - and he even said: 'If you take Jstor and make it public, Jstor goes out of business ... [and] nobody has access to the journals. ... You can't just liberate things, pretending you don't exist in the [capitalist] world.' 'Noam Chomsky at the British Library' (video, at 1hr.30mins.); The Boston Globe, 15/1/13; The Atlantic, 30/7/13. See also: 'Passing Noam on My Way Out, Part 2: Chomsky vs. Aaron Swartz'.

11. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8; N.Chomsky, Class Warfare (1999), p137; White p445-6; R.Chepesiuk, Sixties Radicals, p145; S.Diamond, Compromised Campus, p284-5.

12. D.Milne, America's Rasputin; The Tech, 11/4/69, p1, 8.

13. Barsky p141; 'TV debate between Noam Chomsky and William Buckley'.

14. Chomsky, Class Warfare, p135-6.

15. The Tech, 7/3/89, p2, 16 and 27/5/88, p2, 11; The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7.

16. The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7; The New York Times, 10/12/95.

17. MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p3.

18. J.Wiesner, Jerry Wiesner, p582; Johnson p189-90; Barsky p141.

19. N.Chomsky, Understanding Power (2013), p10.

20. The Tech, 22/4/69, p1.

21. The New York Times, 27/10/68.

22. New York Review of Books, 25 March and April 1967.

23. The New York Times, 23/10/94; D.Welzenbach, 'Science and Technology: Origins of a Directorate', p16, 21; L.Smullin, 'Jerome Bert Wiesner, 1915-1994, A Biographical Memoir', p 1, 7-10, 20; D.L.Snead, Eisenhower and the Gaither Report, p189; M.Rosenberg, Plans and Proposals for the Ballistic Missile Initial Operation Capability Progam, piii-iv, 6-11, 17-22.

24. S.Garfinkel, 'Building 20, A Survey'; J.Nielsen, ëPrivate Knowledge, Public Tensions: Theory commitment in postwar American linguisticsí, p 39-42, 194, 338-42; F.J.Newmeyer, The Politics of Linguistics, p84-6. Wiesner went on to say, 'It didn't take us long to realize that we didn't know much about language. So we went from automatic translation to fundamental studies about the nature of language.' Wiesner later became critical of US policy on both nuclear weapons and on the Vietnam war but this did not stop him from continuing to oversee MIT's huge military research program which he, naturally, justified on the grounds of 'academic freedom'. The Tech, 28/4/72, p5; L.Kampf, 'The University in American Power' (audio, at 48mins.).

25. Another academic dead-end, in the form of postmodernism, befell cultural theory and it is notable that MIT also played a formative role in that intellectual disaster. See: B.Geoghegan, 'From Information Theory to French Theory', Critical Inquiry 38 (2011).

'Decoding Chomsky' - the book

Front cover.jpg

Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics

by Chris Knight

Occupying a pivotal position in postwar thought, Noam Chomsky is both the founder of modern linguistics and the world's most prominent political dissident. Chris Knight adopts an anthropologist's perspective on the twin output of this intellectual giant, acclaimed as much for his denunciations of US foreign policy as for his theories about language and mind. Knight explores the social and institutional context of Chomsky's thinking, showing how the tension between military funding and his role as linchpin of the political left pressured him to establish a disconnect between science on the one hand and politics on the other, deepening a split between mind and body characteristic of Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. Provocative, fearless, and engaging, this remarkable study explains the enigma of one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.


“This is Chomsky from a new perspective, the perspective of a social anthropologist. It connects his science with his politics in a novel and convincing way. Knight has dug deeper and made more interconnections than anyone has done before. The result is truly revelatory.”

— Michael Tomasello, author of A Natural History of Human Thinking

Knight’s exploration of Chomsky’s politics, linguistics, and intellectual history is unparalleled. No other study has provided such a full understanding of Chomsky’s background, intellectual foibles, objectives, inconsistencies, and genius.

               — Daniel Everett, author of Language: The Cultural Tool


© Chris Knight 2016

'Campus best place to keep an eye on the military' - Chomsky on war research

'Campus best place to keep an eye on the military' - Chomsky on war research

Chomsky stressed that if military research were to take place anywhere in society, it should be in universities. (See his Language and Politics, p216-7.)

Chomsky made this argument while major student unrest was occurring at MIT. One of his talks that referred to this was entitled 'The Function of the University in a Time of Crisis'. It is reported that radical students in the audience of this lecture were 'surprised' and 'dismayed' by Chomsky's stance.

Here are two reports from the 30 December 1969 editions of, first, The Boston Globe and, then, The Los Angeles Times:

When Chomsky had made a similar argument around the time of the 1968 Columbia University occupation, many students were equally 'surprised':

Faculty Group Holds Forum on the Nature of the University. (May 13 1968)

The Independent Faculty Group, one of the many bodies which is now developing proposals for the reorganization of Columbia, held the first of a series of discussions Friday evening on the nature of the university.

Earlier Friday the group released a statement calling for ‘a form of discourse less concerned with the punishment of persons and more with the task of understanding and evaluating their behaviour in social and political settings not anticipated by previous disciplinaryprocedures.’

The forum did not address itself directly to the disorders of the past few weeks, but was concerned with the larger concepts of the university that have been the context of political activity here during the crisis.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Robert P. Wolf, after discarding the Marxist view of the university as a ‘capitalist corporation’ and the Clark Kerr model of the university as a ‘social service station’ presented what was obviously his and the audience’s conception: the university as a ‘community of learning’. According to this construct, Professor Wolf explained, the faculty and students literally are the university, while the administrators are their servants.

‘We must decide collectively to act as a university’, Professor Wolff declared. ‘The administration and the Trustees will have no choice but to accede to our conception of a university’. Noam Chomsky, professor of philosophhy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spoke later in the forum after Stuart Hampshire, Professor of philosopohy at Princeton, and Peter Gay, Professor of History. Professor Chomsky, who is a supporter of the Resistance, surprised many in the audience by dissenting from radical arguments in vogue at Columbia.

‘The defects of universities are marginal,’ Professor Chomsky said. ‘Not all the problems of the world are problems of the university.’ The failings of universities are generally the faults of individual members and not of the institutions themselves, Professor Chomsky told the audience. The responsiveness of administrations is usually high, he said, and the opportunities for self-expression are great.

‘Professor Chomsky stated that no gain would result if the Institute for Defense Analyses were forced to leave university campuses. He claimed that the main problem was changing people’s ‘consciousness’ about the war. ‘My task is to change the opinions of those who do war research’ Professor Chomsky said. The only other way of stopping them from working for agencies like the IDA he observed, would be to kill them.

The university is inherently a ‘parasitic institution,’ Professor Chomsky stated. The way to overcome the danger of outside control is by ‘fostering values of academic freedom.’
— Columbia Daily Spectator. New York. Monday May 13 1968, pp. 1, 4.

Chomsky responds to my book

Chomsky responds to my book

Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times (October 31, 2016) interviews Noam Chomsky:

Chomsky here claims that no 'military or classified work' was being done on the MIT campus during the 1960s. Unfortunately, he has previously admitted the opposite on so many occasions that it's hard to know why he considers this a sensible way to take issue with me:

There was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. ... In fact, a good deal of the [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.
— Noam Chomsky, 2004. 'Language and Politics' (ed. C. Otero), p. 216.
6 .END WAR RESEARCH AT MITjpg copy.jpg

In fact, as Chomsky explains in a 2009 interview, that claim made by the Pounds Commission was essentially an administrative fiction designed to conceal the fact that MIT's numerous weapons-research laboratories were part of the Institute:   

But the real issue in the Pounds Commission was whether to separate the laboratories from the Institute. There were sort of three views that came out. There was what was called the liberals, who said yeah, we’ve got to separate them from the campus. There were the conservatives who said we’ve got to keep them on campus. There were two or three of us, one student, one me, who were called the radicals. Who agreed with the conservatives. We’ve got to keep them on campus, so that people know what’s going on. It’s a focus of attention and concern, and you think about it, let’s not hide it somewhere – where the same relationships are going to continue, but under an apparent administrative break. Well, we lost, the liberals won. They were formally separated.
— Noam Chomsky interviewed by Karen Arenson in 2009. MIT 'infinite history project.'

Here is how Chomsky describes the true situation in a further 2009 interview:

There wasn’t any classified work on campus, but it was two inches off campus. The labs right next door were doing classified work and people were between them all the time.
— 'Lessons from history'. Edward Carvalho interviews Noam Chomsky. Works and Days, 51//54: Vols. 26 & 27, 2008-09, p. 530.
Knight does the better job of destroying Chomsky’s story by showing a constant, failing effort to make the unshakeable idea work. Wolfe makes the tale more dramatic, but probably less convincing. And Wolfe hangs his drama on secondary issues. He badly misunderstands the whole matter of recursion, for example.
— 'Babel's Dawn'

Abstracts for the UCL conference

Jackie Walker. ‘I don’t want no peace’, a black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals

Professor Chomsky’s 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, was written in the context of the ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. American post Second World War optimism was dissolving as stories of defeat, American use of chemical warfare and scenes of drug hazed GIs on the rampage overlapped with televised, home grown footage of white barbarity against fellow black citizens. For people of colour, always excluded from the dream of America, this ‘fall from grace’ was simply another encounter with the truth as they lived it; an America built on genocide, enslavement and oppression.

Today, while Trump’s presidential campaign suggested a desire for decreased US involvement overseas, his rhetoric implies an America unwilling to accept limitations to its power, with calls for a fight to the finish with Isis and assurances of increased support for Israel. While this time round the bogey-man is Muslims rather than Communists, there’s a whiff of McCarthyism to Trump’s policies, a move that sounds a warning for all who campaign for a better world.

The overriding demand for justice Peter Tosh speaks of, or rather sings of, strikes against strategies of the Establishment that appear to valourise peace and quietude while enforcing a violent and destructive status quo.

Chomsky’s assertion that intellectuals have a responsibility to speak truth remains a potent call to arms today. Of course, intellectuals are not a homogenous group. Many promote, or turn a blind eye to the oppressions of the Establishment – after all, bolstering the status quo can bring huge rewards, and control over university academics, with austerity cuts and job insecurity, has increased

While I share Jewish heritage with, I believe, others on this panel, it is my black voice that speaks in this session. So while I occupy this intellectual space for this moment, as a black woman I inhabit a markedly different set of realities. No post-war uplift has raised blacks from ghetto to power. Historical injustices against blacks remain barely acknowledged, let alone commemorated; it is with trepidation people of colour raise their head above the parapet to speak truth to power on any issue, even those that relate to their own history and experience.

In Britain, black academics lack the numbers to be significant. The best universities and schools are mostly closed to us. People of colour remain excluded in all spheres of life, except in popular culture, sport and in prisons. Divorced from the structures of power, even the concept of ‘the intellectual’ needs fundamental rethinking if it is not to be practically meaningless for blacks.

However, while separation from power is a particular problem for black intellectuals, it’s a problem shared among all who seek global transformations.  To effect fundamental change we must break through the isolation that separates us from the forces which can change the world – the mass of the people.


Kriszta Szendroi. Value-system and Intensity – A tribute to the late Tanya Reinhart

This paper will be concerned with two things: the idea of a universal value-system, and intensity. I will first recall an intellectual journey that two Hungarian thinkers, Lajos Szabó and Béla Tábor, undertook in 1937 in their essay entitled The Indictment of the spirit, which was translated by István Cziegler into English for this occasion. In parallel with the arguments proposed by Noam Chomsky in his ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, this journey will reveal that the failure of intellectuals to uphold truth is a systematic failure. It is systematic not only in the sense that it is wide spread, but also in that it is self-preserving.

Our next stop must then be introspective: do we intellectuals conduct ourselves within our own fields in such a way that we first ‘establish a universal scale of values [...] and let all our actions fall somewhere on that scale in a way which always realizes the highest possible grade of the scale’? Their answer – 80 years ago – was a resounding no. I will illustrate with various examples that the situation has certainly not changed for the better. At a time when we deplore the devaluation of experts and expertise, we must take their words very seriously. But what is this ‘universal set of values’ and why do we need them? Truth indeed must be one of them, and, I would argue, others must be added. A system of values, as opposed to a single value, allows for measurement, or a scale. We can, and must measure values, and we can and must measure our actions in relation to those values. Our value system must be hierarchically organised, and complex enough to be an effective measure of our actions in the technological age.

From matters of the head to matters of the heart. A person I loved very dearly died exactly 10 years ago. Her life was an intense, burning flame. I will try and convey to you this intensity by telling you about her, about the person I met, because as Martin Buber said, ‘All real living is meeting’. I will tell you what I have learnt from her about life, about linguistics, and about the world.

My conclusion will be that truth has no chance without intensity. We must be torch-bearers. There can be no separate matters of the head and matters of the heart.


Milan Rai. The Propaganda Model and the British Nuclear Weapons Debate                    

According to the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model, the mainstream media in industrial democracies limit freedom of expression by restricting the spectrum of thinkable thought, and by effectively suppressing uncomfortable facts. A clear example is given by the debate around nuclear weapons in Britain in the postwar period. The mainstream public debate has been framed as a contest over the morality of nuclear ‘deterrence’. ‘Deterrence’ has been defined in this debate as promising nuclear retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack on the homeland.

This framing of the debate makes it unthinkable that ‘nuclear deterrence’ could be aggressive rather than defensive, that it could be aimed at nuclear weapon states who have not used their nuclear weapons – or non-nuclear weapon states, and that ‘deterrence’ could have little or nothing to do with defence of the homeland. When we investigate the policy debate within the foreign policy establishment and the record of nuclear deployments, we find that British nuclear deterrence has indeed been aggressive rather than defensive, that it was been aimed at non-nuclear weapon states as well as nuclear weapon states that have not used nuclear weapons, and that homeland security has been secondary at best in driving British nuclear policy.

All these facts have been obscured by public discussion and mainstream media reporting of nuclear weapons. The very fierceness of the British nuclear debate has tended to strengthen the fundamental assumptions that the state means well and acts defensively.



Chris Knight. Speaking truth to power – from within the heart of the Empire                

For fifty years, Noam Chomsky has been speaking truth to power not from a safe distance – anyone can do that – but from right up close and personal. The intellectuals responsible for what Chomsky in the 1960s rightly described as war crimes in Vietnam were in many cases academics and scientists conducting research as part of his own professional milieu at MIT. 

How ironic that the world’s best-known anti-militarist dissident, tirelessly calling the military and their apologists to account, should be none other than the prominent linguist who has spent his working life in a research institute heavily involved in weapons design.

How easy can it have been? How precisely do you work alongside military scientists while maintaining your anti-militarist principles? Chomsky himself claims that MIT was an easy place in which to work. No pressures from anyone, no difficult choices to make. On that account, preserving moral integrity was always straightforward, requiring no special ingenuity or courage.

It is this claim that I find so hard to believe. Chomsky is surely being too modest. If you check the historical record, it turns out that during the Vietnam War, the dilemmas became painful enough for him to consider resigning. Here is Chomsky in his own words, written in March 1967 and published in The New York Review of Books:

‘I have given a good bit of thought to … resigning from MIT, which is more than any other university associated with the Department of Defense . . . I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible. One should, I feel, resist this subversion in every possible way.’

This surely suggests that the pressures on Chomsky were immense. Reconciling his continued employment with his conscience would require correspondingly immense ingenuity, tenacity and courage. To my mind, this makes Chomsky’s steadfastness in speaking truth to power all the more impressive and remarkable.


Craig Murray. The Abdication of Responsibility                                      

Chomsky sets out a hard test at the end of his essay. He quotes Dwight Macdonald: ‘Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.’ 

I intend, as myself a whistleblower who paid the price with his career and livelihood, to claim that right. I take this as license to be freely condemnatory in what follows!

After a brief period in the 60’s and 70’s when progress appeared to be made in western societies in personal freedoms, in social mobility and reduction of wealth inequality, things have now regressed. In the 70’s it was still possible to subscribe in essence to the Whig historical theory of Progress, and indeed I did so.

We now live in darkened times. The surveillance state has become all-pervasive. Obama’s persecution of whistleblowers should give pause to the many who seen to think intolerance was invented by Trump.  The imperialist projection of American power has widened in scope and ambition since Chomsky wrote.

It is worth noting the clear-eyed recognition in Chomsky’s work that the Soviet Union was also a rival empire. Even while deploring irrational Russophobia and the continual threat posture of encirclement – which Chomsky also notes in its essay – I always find it is worth reminding people that Russia itself still is an empire. Much of its current land – and I mean Russia itself not the former Soviet Republics - was acquired in the nineteenth century by imperial conquest precisely contemporary with British acquisitions in India or indeed the westward expansion of the USA. These territories are majority muslim. Russian imperialism really is a thing.

Chomsky’s essay refers to academics with influence in the public sphere, and I suspect in general that influence has reduced.  But we must also mark that the scope of atmospheric freedom has declined significantly in the last few decades.

Universities are now expected to function as corporations. The bottom line has become all-important, and the notion of a democratic self-governing community has vanished after an onslaught of macho corporate governance culture, including the ludicrously high levels of remuneration for executives such a culture involves. Furthermore, the value of universities is frequently defined by government in terms of the commercially viable knowledge it can pass to the corporate sector, or the well-conditioned corporate labour it can churn out. Tenure is shrinking. Funding has become short term and dependent on continual measurement of research outputs, putting the funders in de facto academic and intellectual control.

I am afraid I suspect that the junior faculty organising 1967 teach-ins to which Chomsky refers would have their careers substantially damaged today. Indeed I suspect a young Chomsky would be instructed to give up other interests and devote himself solely to a narrow definition of linguistics.

As a historian I enjoyed Chomsky’s castigation of some of that profession. It caused me to reflect on the ‘historians’ whose views on public policy are sought in the UK and who are called up by the media as commentators. Andrew Roberts, David Starkey, Niall Fergusson.  All are on any analysis well to the right of the political spectrum. Fergusson has made a career or regurgitating the nonsense which Chomsky derided in his essay.

Indeed, it is impossible now to imagine that the public intellectuals the BBC admired 50 years ago, such as Bertrand Russell and AJP Taylor, would ever be given significant air time now. Support for nuclear disarmament or the nationalisation of major industries would put them way beyond the window of permitted thought. The vicious media assault upon Jeremy Corbyn shows the reaction to even the mildest radicalism.

This process of narrowing of permitted political thought is long term. In 1880, Gladstone, campaigning in an election that brought him to power for his second term as Prime Minister, stated in terms in a major speech that Afghans fighting British troops were justified in doing so because Britain had invaded their country. 

‘If they resist, would you not do the same’? Gladstone asked. It is a simple moral test. But who can doubt that in the UK or the US today, to say that anybody fighting ‘our’ troops might be justified would bring a unanimous hellstorm of media condemnation combining false patriotism with militarism?

Still less is there interest in the media in exposing the truth and holding the government to account. In the UK recently, the Attorney General gave a speech in defence of the UK’s drone policy, the assassination ofpeople, including British nationals, abroad. This execution without a hearing is based on several criteria, he reassured us. His speech was repeated slavishly in the British media. In fact, The Guardian newspaper simply republished the government press release absolutely verbatim, and stuck a reporter’s byline at the top.

The media have no interest in a critical appraisal of the process by which the British government regularly executes without trial. Yet in fact it is extremely interesting.

The genesis of the policy lay in the appointment of Daniel Bethlehem as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Chief Legal Adviser. Jack Straw made the appointment, and for the first time ever it was external, and not from the Foreign Office’s own large team of renowned international lawyers. The reason for that is not in dispute.  Every single one of the FCO’s Legal Advisers had advised the invasion of Iraq was illegal, and Straw wished to find a new head of the department more in tune with the neo-conservative world view.

He went to extremes. He appointed Daniel Bethlehem, the legal ‘expert’ who provided the legal advice to Benjamin Netanyahu on the ‘legality’ of building the great wall hemming in the Palestinians from their land and water resources.  Bethlehem was an enthusiastic proponent of the invasion of Iraq. He was also the most enthusiastic proponent in the world of drone strikes.

Bethlehem provided an opinion on the legality of drone strikes which is, to say the least, controversial. To give one example, Bethlehem accepts that established principles of international law dictate that lethal force may only be used to prevent an attack which is ‘imminent’. Bethlehem argues that for an attack to be ‘imminent’ does not require it to be ‘soon’. Indeed you can kill to avert an ‘imminent attack’ even if you have no information when and where it will be. You can instead rely on your target’s ‘pattern of behaviour’, i.e. if he has attacked before, it is reasonable to assume he will attack again and that such an attack is ‘imminent.’

There is a much deeper problem that the evidence against the target is often extremely dubious. Yet even allowing the evidence to be perfect, how for the state to kill in such circumstances is not death penalty without trial for past crimes, rather than frustration of another ‘imminent’ one, is beyond me. 

You would think that background would make an interesting story. Yet the entire ‘serious’ British media published the government line, without a single journalist, not one, writing about Daniel Bethlehem’s controversial past, how he got the FCO job, or the fact that his proposed definition of ‘imminent’ has been widely rejected by the international law community.

The public knows none of this. They just know drone strikes are keeping us safe from deadly attack by terrorists, because the government says so, and nobody has attempted to give them other information.

50 years on, I think we can say that, as a general rule, the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth has been well and truly abdicated. More than ever is truth telling at odds with careers prospects, and most ‘intellectuals’ care a great deal more about their career than about the truth.


The Chomsky Enigma

The scientific community needs to defend itself against political interference, no matter how cleverly it is concealed. If science is to come first, we don’t have a choice as to whether to become politically active. If you’re inactive, you’re colluding in someone else’s politics.
I prefer to think of Chomsky as the conscience of America. Once you view him in that light, the mysteries begin to clear.
We’re all supposed to keep political activism
locked up in a separate box, insulated by a firewall from science. Mindless activism on the one hand; tongue-tied science on the other – that’s been the tragic result.
The brain-equals-digital-computer theory marginalises anthropology. Computers don’t have a sense of humour, don’t understand irony
or metaphor, don’t try to cheat or lie, don’t have sex, don’t pursue political agendas.
The thread connecting Khlebnikov via Jakobson to Lévi-Strauss and Chomsky was a certain conception of freedom — a yearning for necessity imposed not externally but from within.
Q: So a school of linguistics originating among Russian revolutionary anarchists ends up being sponsored by the US military-industrial establishment?

A: Yes. And to understand that trajectory is to decode a good chunk of the twentieth century.
— Chris Knight, 'The Enigma of Noam Chomsky.'

John Deutch - Chomsky's friend in the Pentagon and the CIA

John Deutch - Chomsky's friend in the Pentagon and the CIA

In December 1995, The New York Times reported that Noam Chomsky approved of the appointment of his fellow MIT academic, John Deutch, as head of the CIA. Until then, Deutch had been No.2 at the Pentagon. These are Chomsky's reported words:

'[Deutch] has more honesty and integrity than anyone I've ever met in academic life, or any other life. If somebody's got to be running the CIA, I'm glad it's him.'[1]

Similar support for Deutch was expressed during an interview published in 1996 in the book Class Warfare. Asked about Deutch, Chomsky replied:

'We were actually friends and got along fine, although we disagreed on about as many things as two human beings can disagree about. I liked him. We got along very well together. He's very honest, very direct. You know where you stand with him. We talked to each other. When we had disagreements, they were open, sharp, clear, honestly dealt with. I found it fine. I had no problem with him. I was one of the very few people on the faculty, I'm told, who was supporting his candidacy for the President of MIT.'[2]

If many of Chomsky's MIT colleagues felt differently about Deutch, it was for understandable reasons given the man's long-standing role as a Pentagon adviser.

Deutch headed two Pentagon panels on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Along with Alexander Haig, Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, he was an influential advisor on President Reagan's Scowcroft commission, which in 1983 recommended the deployment of the MX missile.[3] Then, when the Cold War came to an end, he became anxious that the US military might turn away from nuclear weaponry by, for instance, removing tactical nuclear weapons from ships and submarines.[4]

MIT's student activists called Deutch the 'War Provost'. One said that his activities 'really changed the atmosphere at MIT'; he complained that Deutch's involvement made the university 'more militaristic'.[5] These activists evidently feared that if Deutch did become MIT President, as Chomsky wanted, then the whole university would become even more deeply involved in military research of the most barbaric kind.[6]

For more on this whole episode see these articles:

'Myth and Reality in Chemical Warfare', Chemical and Engineering News, February 1982. - The radical students at MIT accused Deutch of actively supporting the development of chemical weapons. In this article, Deutch confirms this by writing: 'There is no alternative to deploying a credible CW [Chemical Warfare] capability.'

'Military Provost', Science for the People, March/April 1988, p6. - This article summarises Deutch's deep involvement with nuclear, chemical, biological and fuel/air weapons.

Articles from MIT's official newspaper, The Tech:

'Examining John Deutch's Pentagon connections', The Tech, 27 May 1988 (Vol. 108 Issue 26)
- Deutch encouraged MIT to apply for 'army contracts for mycotoxin research'. His enthusiasm for biological warfare research led MIT Professor Vera Kistiakowsky to complain that 'he has no business being in the education business.'

‘Twenty years later, MIT still doing military research projects’, The Tech, 24 February 1989, (Vol. 109 Issue 6)
- Daniel Glenn explains how ‘MIT is currently engaged in several hundred research projects for the Department of Defense.' Unclassified on-campus research projects include "hardening of integrated circuits to withstand nuclear attack’'… "target identification using infrared radar" … "optical signal processing for' missile guidance" … "arctic military facilities"… "application of composite materials for Army helicopter blades’' … '’SDI space-based radar".’

'MIT research heavily dependent on defense department funding', The Tech, 28 February 1989 (Vol.109 Issue7)
- Daniel Glenn reports that 80 per cent of MIT's research funding comes from the Pentagon.

'Teach-in focuses on research and activism', The Tech, 7 March 1989 (Vol.109 Issue 9 p2, 16)
- An MIT nuclear engineering student reports that Deutch helped 'MIT secure $2.3 million dollars in defense department funding for chemical and biological weapons research.'

A fuel-air bomb.

A fuel-air bomb.

Articles from MIT's activist newspaper, The Thistle:

'Who is John Deutch', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- We learn of Deutch's innovative work on 'fuel-air bombs, one of the most devastating non-nuclear weapons in existence'. It is reported that as well as being 'a long-term advocate of US nuclear weapons build-up, [Deutch] is also a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.'

'An open letter to [MIT] President Vest', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- MIT's Alternative News Collective writes that 'Deutch not only supported research into chemical/biological weapons, … he pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus.' On the issue of the CIA, the Collective asks: 'How should MIT treat an Institute Professor who has just been chosen to lead a terrorist group? It is time that MIT fired John Deutch.'

'Institute Professor John Deutch heads CIA: What next?', The Thistle, (Vol.9 Issue7)
- 'What is the nature of MIT? Is it a "neutral" educational institution, or is it just another piece of the Pentagon-CIA-Weapons Manufacturers establishment, that has had - and continues to have - a negative impact on most of the world?'

An MX missile.

An MX missile.

Extract from a letter to Chris Knight by Daniel Glenn, a former MIT student activist and author of some of the above articles:

I was not aware of Chomsky's support of John Deutch and do find it surprising.

As part of my activism at MIT, I was part of a protest at my 1989 graduation ceremony in which we protested the hypocrisy of the administration and faculty for wearing black arm bands in support of the student movement at Tiananmen Square. The administration had banned the distribution of the student newspapers for the first time in MIT's history, because we were publishing information about the interlocking directorships of John Deutch and other MIT administration officials and its connection to their support of military expenditures.

We smuggled copies of The Thistle into the graduation ceremony under our robes that detailed those connections. And four students, including myself, unfurled banners on the stage and shook John Deutch's hand with a banner in the other that read: 'MIT War Research Kills'. The banners were in the style of the Tiananmen Square student banners. ... We did feel vindicated in our concerns about the direct line from MIT's research funding and faculty connection's to the military when John Deutch was appointed as Deputy Secretary of Defense and then CIA Director.

... I did take Noam Chomsky's course on activism and society, and we did engage with him on a number of occasions about our political efforts with the university, and his presence at the university is one of the reasons I was willing to go to MIT. I thought that if he could be there, then I could learn from that institution in spite of its deeply troubling connections to the technology of warfare. I was surprised to learn that he was limited by the politics of academia to teaching within his primary subject area of linguistics, in spite of being such an esteemed intellectual in political science. The course we took from him was not an official course in the university.

I am a great admirer of Noam Chomsky, and would not want to disparage him in any way. I do find this particular issue interesting and somewhat troubling, but I do imagine that he had to make compromises of many kinds over his decades as a resident radical in an institution so entrenched in the military-industrial complex; and he its most profound and substantive critic.


1. The New York Times article (10/12/1995) also said that Deutch was reforming the CIA by reviewing its paid informants across the world so they could 'identify the crooks and the fingernail-pullers, to weigh the information they provided against their records, and to sack them if they failed the test.' The article, in other words, implied that Deutch was OK with CIA 'nail-pullers' as long as they provided useful information.

2. N.Chomsky, Class Warfare, Interviews with David Barsamian, p135-6.

3. The Washington Post, 9/12/77; New York Times, 29/3/86; B.Scowcroft, Report of the President's Commission on Strategic Forces, 1983.

4. The Washington Post, 12/3/83 and 26/12/86 and 3/12/87; Technology Review, Vol. 95 (February 1992).

5. 'MIT students allege defense conflict', UPI, 2/6/89; The Tech, 27/5/88 and 24/1/90 and 2/3/90, p7.

6. It seems highly unlikely that Chomsky really wanted more military research at MIT. As he said, his attitude was more that 'whether [a university is] being directly funded by the CIA or in some other fashion seems to me a marginal question.' Milan Rai, Chomsky's Politics p. 130.

Review of 'Decoding Chomsky' in 'Philosophy'

Philosophy, Volume 92, Issue 4, October 2017, pp. 660-668

What Kind of Creatures Are We? By Noam Chomsky Columbia University Press: New York, 2016. 167pp., £17 ISBN: 9780231175968 Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics. By Chris Knight Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2016. 285 pp., $30 ISBN: 9780300221466

Two books published in late 2016 have been causing a stir: one by Noam Chomsky, and one by fellow anarchist Chris Knight about Noam Chomsky. Chomsky's What Kind of Creatures are we? (hereafter WKCW) is a comparatively accessible addition to his oeuvre, and a good starting point for those interested in an overview of the key features of, and motivations for, the latest iteration of his ‘nativist’ linguistics. WKCW? is to be commended for its effort to communicate the central concerns of the Chomskyan linguistic project in a significantly less technical format than many of Chomsky's works. Moreover, while WKCW? does not explicitly entertain or make an argument for mutually supporting qualities in common between his linguistics and politics, it is noteworthy that, after having written over 100 books, Chomsky has now decided to interweave essays on political matters with those on linguistics. This is particularly striking, given that Chris Knight's book Decoding Chomsky (hereafter DC) is a brilliant, if slightly harsh, disquisition that takes as its central argument the claim that Chomsky has purposefully obscured any relations between his linguistics and politics because they are in irreconcilable contradiction. Knight argues that if Chomsky were to take seriously the political ramifications of his linguistic work then he would have to concede that the funded work he undertook (particularly) in his early career was at fundamental odds with his political project of challenging US imperialism. By defining politics and linguistics as occupying different domains of thought, the latter being in the domain of science and knowledge, the former a tool of practical intelligence where expertise is not possible, Chomsky is charged with, in Knight's words, making activism mindless, and science tongue-tied (i.e. about political matters) (DC, 187). In this review we give an overview of Chomsky's new book and subject some of the claims therein to scrutiny, before assessing the merits of Knight's claims in light of Chomsky's new book.

WKCW? consists of four essays which between them address these questions, ‘What is language? What are the limits of human understanding (if any)? And what is the common good to which we should strive?’ (WKCW, 1). After lamenting the lack of clear definitions among those that have historically been assigned to language, and surveying a few of them, Chomsky proposes that the unique feature of language is in its alleged power to generate infinite combinations of linguistic structures despite being a feature of a finite system – the brain. This ability is central to what Chomsky terms the Basic Property of language, which he claims is its power to construct ‘structured expressions that receive interpretations at two interfaces, sensorimotor for externalization and conceptual-intentional for mental processes’ (WKCW, 4). It will come as no surprise that Chomsky is concerned overwhelmingly with the latter use: that which concerns mental processes and computation. He labels this computational system of language the ‘I-language’ and moves on to outline the mechanisms by which it functions. Crucially, the ‘I-language’ does not account for our specific everyday use of language for communicative purposes, rather it encompasses the underlying framework from which our everyday communicative language is supposedly generated. Chomsky contrasts the ‘I-language’ with the ‘E-language’, which stands for ‘external language’ and is used for communicative rather than computational purposes.

Chomsky's reliance on a finite vs infinite distinction here is doing substantive methodological work. This distinction that plays an utterly pivotal role in the apparent force of his theorising is problematic. On page 2, he makes the remarkable claim that the human power of (he quotes Darwin here) ‘associating together the most diversified sounds and ideas’ is ‘actually infinite’. This invocation of an ‘actual infinity’ is extraordinarily bold. He goes on (WKCW, 3): ‘That infinite power rests in a finite brain.’ ‘Infinite’, he seems to have stated, means ‘actually’, in the mathematical sense ‘infinite’. But what does ‘finite’ mean, here? Finite as opposed to what? With what kind of brain is Chomsky contrasting our ‘merely’ finite brains?

One obvious possibility would be that the contrast-class is theology: that the alternative that Chomsky is imagining, an alternative infinite brain, would be the brain of gods or angels, who have the advantage of being ‘unlimited’ immaterial beings. This may seem an implausible way to interpret Chomsky, an ultra-rationalist and (presumably) atheist. But in fact, it turns out simply to be the literal meaning of his would-be claim. For on pages 28–9 he writes: ‘if we are biological organisms, not angels, then our cognitive faculties are similar to those called “physical capacities” and should be studied much as other systems of the body are.’

It seems to us unsatisfactory to define one's field of study by contrast with something that is less false than systematically unclear. But perhaps Chomsky has much higher regard than we do for theology. Perhaps he thinks that traditional theology makes perfectly good sense, only it happens to be (provably?) false?

Chomsky famously uses a distinction made by Charles Sanders Peirce between ‘problems’ and ‘mysteries’, the former being composed of those intellectual endeavours that fall within the scope of human cognitive capacities, the latter are those questions that are beyond the scope of these capacities. (At page 27, Chomsky insists that reliance on the distinction, and acceptance of there being ‘mysteries’, is a truism. This is an example of a rhetorical manoeuvre repeatedly undertaken in this book, a manoeuvre which it is unfortunate to find being made by one who claims to believe in free and open inquiry; the manoeuvre of labelling his own claims as so self-evidently true that anyone questioning them must be congenitally confused. Chomsky leaves alarmingly little room for civilised discussion. This seems an authoritarianism ill-befitting an anarchist.). Chomsky claims that the human mind has a limited array of ‘admissible hypotheses’ that structure our scientific inquiry and cognitive attainments, and that this is just a fact of biology: ‘the structural properties that provide scope also set limits’ (WKCW, 30). The ramifications of this are that there exists a rather large set of knowledge that is unattainable to us because of the limits to our computational system. In defence of this, Chomsky notes that generally theorists hold the human brain to a different explanatory standard than other parts of the body when it comes to hypotheses about innateness. He suggests that the ‘gut brain’ that vertebrates possess, and that is capable of mediating parts of our body's functioning without input from the brain in our heads, never has questions raised about its innateness. Chomsky attributes this double-standard to a ‘methodological dualism’, which is in his view unjustified given that different biological ‘organs’ ought to be treated with the same explanatory methodology.

If we accept that knowledge acquisition is based on innate faculties as opposed to socially constructed belief-systems then Chomsky believes that we can identify that there are inevitably cognitive limits to human understanding. This view is mutually supportive of Chomsky's relegation of the role of communication to being a secondary externalisation of the underlying language faculty. For if communication were central to the shaping of the language faculty, and that faculty is in turn central to computation, then explanatory methodologies would be forced to account for the role that ‘external’ social influences have upon the development of the language computational function.

However, Chomsky's methodology risks being scientistic, in the following sense; Chomsky takes mysteries to be problems that are beyond us. Problems that it just so happens our cognitive architecture is not suitable for solving. But this ignores another conceptual possibility: that there may be philosophical ‘issues’ that are not problems at all, neither soluble by us nor insoluble by us. (This thought is integral to Wittgenstein's philosophy. Perhaps we set ourselves insoluble ‘problems’, the right way of responding to which is to seek to see how they might turn out not to be problems at all, when they are re-viewed. What isn't dreamt of in Chomsky's philosophy is that there are questions which turn out not to be problems at all, because they haven't so much as been framed. These, we need freeing from.) The prejudice that anything which can seemingly be stated as a problem actually is a problem is a scientistic prejudice: one that sees only scientific problems, problems that can be solved either by us or by beings we might imagine with greater cognitive powers than us (aliens – or, better still, angels). This is a monistic way of seeing, one that doesn't consider the possibility of other ways of thinking, such as philosophical ways (and aesthetic ways, and so on).

Moreover, there is a peculiarity to Chomsky's way of handling the ‘gut-brain’, one that follows directly from the way in which his idea of studying our physical capacities is given its sense only by contrast with some fantasised study of infinite purely mental/spiritual capacities (i.e. those of supernatural agents). It is this: Chomsky presumes we should regard the gut brain as obviously simply part of the gut, understood in some narrowly physico-biologistic terms (WKCW, 29–30). And he presumes we should by analogy regard the brain as simply a kind of better version of the gut-brain, one with different and more expansive built-in limitations, but still strictly limited. But these presumptions ignore another possibility: that the gut-brain should be considered truly a part of one's identity. A necessary sub-component of the organism; and the organism in turn a sub-component of the community.

Chomsky thinks we should reduce the brain to being like the gut-brain (only: less limited than it). But why not proceed the other way around? Why not take the gut-brain as being surprisingly like the brain? Why not take seriously that the gut inflects who we are? That it enables, rather than merely constraining. That people without guts (the phrase is telling; does our language know things that Chomsky has forgotten?) wouldn't really be people at all – and not ‘merely’ because they could not digest food. What if the gut-brain is part of what it is to be human, and has light shed on it by the brain, and sheds light too on the brain? Try seeing the gut-brain as more brain embodied, and brain as a way of understanding person – rather than simply as part of a biological organ.

This kind of possibility is being taken increasingly seriously in biology, and indeed in broader humanistic thinking. Chomsky's completely ignoring it, in the service of a physicalistic ‘biologism’ that appears to regret that we are not pure disembodied beings, is telling. (As Chomsky is quoted by Knight at his book on page 158: linguistic ‘imperfections may have to do with the need to “externalise” language. If we could communicate by telepathy, they would not arise.’ So that's alright then.)

Such regret also leads to the serious risk of Chomsky placing ‘in the head’ things that are surely in part contingent, culturally-variable, etc. Here is an example, cited by Knight at on page 163 of his book; ‘There's a fixed and quite rich structure of understanding associated with the concept “house” and that's going to be cross-linguistic and it's going to arise independently of any evidence because it's just part of our nature.’ This might be a surprising conclusion, to some nomads or forest-dwellers.

Having defined language as at its core a computational device that merely happens to be physically embodied, Chomsky then turns his attention to convincing the reader of the innateness of that device. He claims that ‘I-language’ is generated by a genetic endowment, which he calls Universal Grammar. To support the claim that what sits behind our communicative language usage is a computational language, and that what sits behind the computational structure is a genetic endowment, Chomsky draws the reader's attention to what he identifies as shared structural features across all ‘E-languages’. While Chomsky does concede that field linguists have discovered a few counterexamples to the shared structural features that he pins his argument to, he does not think that those counterexamples refute the validity of his project. Instead all they show, he says, is that the postulated structure of Universal Grammar may need some tweaking or expanding (22).

Because computation allegedly precedes communication, Chomsky argues that ‘I-languages’ are far richer in terms of content than ‘E-languages’, claiming that ‘Externalisation is rarely used. Most use of language use by far is never externalized’ (WKCW, 14, sic). One curious feature of Chomsky's nativist linguistics then is that it relegates communication to a non-integral part of language. Indeed, communication does not seem to be necessary to formulate an ‘I-language’, and even those animals that use phonetic or signing communication, Chomsky believes, do not possess the underlying ‘I-language’ that is needed for those utterances to qualify as ‘language’ (WKCW, 42). This leaves Chomskyans in the strange position of having to accept that the ability to communicate is not necessary to have language use and nor is it sufficient to qualify as having language use.[1]

It is important to be clear on this point. The true radicalism – or extremism, if you prefer – of Chomsky's position, well understood by Knight, but not appreciated by many, is that language is fundamentally nothing to do with communication. Language, according to Chomsky, is basically about one person thinking to themselves. This is a radically Cartesian vision.

The alternatives to it – such as Merleau-Pontyan or Lakoffian emphasis on our mobility and embodiedness, Wittgensteinian emphasis on our forms of life as largely constitutive of our capacity for thought, or Arendtian emphasis on thinking itself as quintessentially socio-political – are not considered by Chomsky. Arendt or Rush Rhees would claim that you can't in the end keep the most ‘basic’ of language apart from conversation, dialogue. That how we think as individuals inherently involves our being parts of collectivities.

Knight takes up a further such alternative to Chomsky's methodological solipsism. He cleverly juxtaposes Marx's prioritising of life over consciousness, matter over mind and practice over theory against the Chomskyan ‘Cognitive Revolution’ (DC, 192). He makes the intriguing claim that the latter turned out to be the decisive throw of American anti-Marxism.

Chomsky states that the way that the brain ‘secretes’ consciousness is ‘inconceivable to us, but that is not a fact abuot the external world but about our conscious limitations’ (WKCW, 35). But perhaps it need not be inconceivable to us when we see ourselves, as Knight does, as social, acting, moving creatures. Rather than as isolated chunks of matter, each chunk spectating a world ‘external’ to itself.

Chomsky imagines a God's eye view that would enable that eye to see the answer to all problems, to know everything. He appears to think that this conception makes perfect sense; a questionable claim which he does not appear to realise is a claim at all (He in effect treats it, to use his phrase, as a ‘truism’). He bars humanity from this knowledge. But, in the act of such barring, he tacitly nevertheless arrogates to himself a God's eye-view: because he thinks that he can see both sides of the limit. He thinks that he can describe what it would be for us to not be limited in the way that we are. The situation is precisely that observed by Wittgenstein, when he remarked that people like to talk about the limits of knowledge, because they secretly imagine, when they do so, that they can see over those limits…

Let us turn to what Chomsky says about the emergence of language itself. Drawing on the work of the human evolutionary scientist Ian Tattersall, who claims that language was likely acquired suddenly around 50,000–100,000 years ago, Chomsky argues that any attempt at understanding language evolution must account for the emergence of the Basic Property. It is, Chomsky claims, difficult to see how the Basic Property central to Chomskyan linguistics could have evolved over time, given its computational and allegedly ‘infinite’ nature. Explanations of language evolution would seem to be naturally more favourable to referentialist accounts of language use, as it is easier to postulate the gradual emergence of signs and phonetic utterances gradually becoming associated with ever more complex communicative functions. It may be this seemingly easier compatibility of evolution with referentialism that leads Chomsky to attack gradual evolutionary accounts before moving onto arguing that referentialist accounts of language use are implausible. Of particular interest is his idea that evolutionary theories fail to account for the basic structure that is common to (nearly?) all human languages, and the fact that non-human animal communication appears to be referentialist while lacking in the computational structure that is common to human languages (WKCW, 41). If we accept that language is likely to have evolved suddenly, probably in a single mutation, and that referentialism is an implausible theory to account for our language use, then Chomsky's nativist linguistics may prove convincing. However, there are serious difficulties accepting such a claim. One specific such difficulty is in taking Chomsky's own proposal of it is as a scientific claim at all. In a 2008 interview, cited by Knight (DC, 166), Chomsky places the claim into the ever-widening class of ‘truisms’. He argues that the claim that language arose in one sudden step is ‘not even controversial enough to require empirical test.’ Interestingly, in his new book, he has somewhat dampened that claim, describing it as the product of what ‘the very limited empirical evidence indicates’ (WKCW, 3). Such a dampening may possibly even be a response to his reading Knight's manuscript, alongside the arguments of other critical authors, who have increasingly questioned the rationality of speculating a single evolutionary mutation underlying language use.

By contrast, Knight develops a passionate account of the politically-engaged scientific research about the evolution of language of Sarah Hrdy et al, and their postulation of an originary ‘human revolution’ that saw both our radically overcoming the individualism of primates in favour of an egalitarian society and our developing language. The Hrdy-Knight claim is that the two events were part and parcel of one historical trajectory, two sides of the same coin. We find the account pretty convincing, and certainly more convincing than Chomsky's peculiar claim that language was a random once-only mutation in some one individual's skull, a mutation which allegedly had such extraordinary selective advantage that all humans subsequently allegedly descend from this one lucky individual.

We disagree with Knight only when he takes his argument further than he needs to, feeling obliged to dress it up in the terms of science just as Chomsky did. Knight writes (DC, 233) that ‘the language of science’ is humanity's only ‘common tongue’. But this is dangerous monistic rhetoric – and moreover it's false. Philosophy is our oldest common tongue.

Knight's ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is nevertheless a well-researched explanation as to why Chomsky has historically presented his linguistics as an enigmatically insular science devoid of any real-world application. Knight argues persuasively that the reason Chomsky refuses to politicise his linguistics is because if he were to do so then the resulting ideology would be counter to his anarcho-syndicalist politics (which Knight is broadly supportive of). Moreover, Knight gives us an historical analysis of the ascent of Chomsky's linguistic rationalism to almost complete-dominance in the linguistics field, while highlighting the social and political conditions underlying that startling rise to supremacy.

The central thesis of Knight's book is that in response to competing ideological and institutional pressures, Chomsky was psychologically forced into segmenting his politics from his linguistics. Knight wants, ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America’ (DC, xii–xiii). He comes up with some intriguing examples of the danger inherent in the segmentation that he sees Chomsky as having conducted. Consider:

During the student upheavals at MIT in the late 1960s, Chomsky endorsed the MIT management line that development of weapons of mass destruction – research into their design – was perfectly acceptable, provided it was kept separate from subsequent deployment of such weapons. This distinction – which to my mind uncannily recalls Chomsky's distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ – met with considerable opposition from colleagues on the political left [such as Howard Zinn] (DC, 197).

We agree with Knight that Chomsky's politics is mainly splendid. Where we disagree with Chomsky (and agree with Knight in the criticism) is in his thinking that he has meanwhile put linguistics on a natural-scientific footing. Where we disagree with Knight (and would agree with Chomsky in the criticism) is in his thinking that linguistics is properly primarily a social science.

What neither Knight nor Chomsky consider is the possibility of linguistics beyond scientism no matter of what kind. Ultimately, we suspect, and hope to have sketched, that most of the recalcitrant ‘problems’ of linguistics are at root philosophical. Which, we have suggested, following Wittgenstein, means that some of them turn out not properly to be problems at all, not even ‘mystery’-problems.

[1] It may also explain why Chomsky isn't a vegetarian given that communication is often cited as proof of non-human animal intelligence.

Chapter One

Noam Chomsky began his political career as a scientist employed ostensibly to research machine translation in an electronics laboratory built to replace an earlier one in which radar had been developed for the armed services during the Second World War.[1] Since childhood, he had been keenly aware of politics, identifying himself as a libertarian socialist. He hated the military in general and the Pentagon in particular. On the other hand, his income, once employed as a young scientist, came almost exclusively from the US Defense Department.  

To align his scientific career with his political conscience, Chomsky resolved from the outset to collude neither politically nor practically with his employers’ aims. He recalls that in the 1960s, during the US carpet bombing of Vietnam, there came a point when he felt so compromised ‘that I couldn’t look myself in the mirror anymore’.[2] Unless he took decisive action, he too would be complicit in that crime. The pressures he experienced had the effect of splitting him in two, prompting him to ensure that any work he conducted for the military was purely theoretical – of no practical use to anyone – while his activism was preserved free of any obvious connection with his science. To an unprecedented extent, mind in this way became separated from body, thought from action, and knowledge from its practical applications, establishing a paradigm which came to dominate much of intellectual life for half a century across the Western world.  

If you know anything about Noam Chomsky, you will not be surprised that we begin with superlatives. Think Galileo, Descartes or Einstein. Chomsky is the foremost intellectual of modern times, who ‘did for cognitive science what Galileo did for physical science’, to quote a respected authority.[3] Chomsky has radically altered our perception of the human condition, overturning established thinking in what has been described as a Galilean revolution. Since launching his intellectual assault on the academic orthodoxies of the 1950s, he has succeeded – almost single-handedly – in revolutionizing linguistics, elevating it to the status of a genuine natural science. ‘If a Nobel Prize were offered for linguistics,’ comments one intellectual historian, ‘he’d get the first one. Then they’d have to stop giving it out. No-one else comes close.’[4] Much has changed over the past six decades, but Chomsky remains to this day the most powerful force in contemporary linguistics.  

But he is more than that. At one point, Chomsky was hailed as ‘the most visited person on the internet’ and ‘the most quoted man alive today’.[5] In 2005, he was declared the world’s top public intellectual after winning 4,827 out of 20,000 votes in a poll conducted jointly on both sides of the Atlantic.[6] In 1992, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index ranked him as the most cited person alive (the Index’s top ten being Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel and Cicero). The Social Science Citation Index gave a similar picture, as did the Science Citation Index. ‘What it means’, according to the librarian who checked these statistics, ‘is that he is very widely read across disciplines and that his work is used by researchers across disciplines . . .’ She added that apparently ‘you can’t write a paper without citing Noam Chomsky’.[7] Things may have changed since the 1990s, but to many people Chomsky’s achievements remain unparalleled in modern times. Chomsky, we are told, is ‘the scholar who is to the period initiated by the cognitive revolution of the mid-1950s what Descartes was to the first phase of the age of modern philosophy’.[8] It is widely held that ‘nothing has had a greater impact on contemporary philosophy than Chomsky’s theory of language’.[9] He has been described by the New York Times as ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive’.[10] One of his biographers goes even further, describing him as someone ‘who will be for future generations what Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Mozart, or Picasso have been for ours’.[11] In the words of a recent intellectual historian:  

More than any other figure, Noam Chomsky defined the intellectual climate in the English-speaking world in the second half of the 20th century . . . not only did Chomsky redefine the entire academic discipline of linguistics, but his work has been something close to definitive in psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, and even computer science.[12]

‘He has shown’, explains a senior figure in modern linguistics, ‘that there is really only one human language: that the immense complexity of the innumerable languages we hear around us must be variations on a single theme . . .’[13]  

Knowing Chomsky personally has been described as ‘a bit like knowing Newton’.[14] Chomsky has also been called the ‘Einstein of linguistics’.[15] ‘Like Einstein’s theory of relativity,’ we are told, ‘Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics have spread in their influence, and their effects are gradually filtering down to the lives of ordinary people.’[16] ‘Noam Chomsky is the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar’, writes Guardian journalist Seamus Milne. ‘A philosopher of language and political campaigner of towering academic reputation, who as good as invented modern linguistics, he is entertained by presidents, addresses the UN general assembly and commands a mass international audience.’[17]  

In 2014, Chomsky gave an invited talk to a Vatican foundation in Rome. There was a certain irony in this in view of the well-known atheist’s perceived status as the Galileo of our age. According to The Tablet’s report, the Vatican’s Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest Foundation – the body responsible for the event – goes back ‘to the commission set up by Pope John Paul II to investigate the Galileo affair’.[18] Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, introduced the speaker warmly as ‘one of the princes of linguistics’.  

It is for his work in linguistics that Chomsky is honoured and celebrated. Yet he seems to be not one person, but two – each as extraordinary as the other. Addressing a largely separate audience, Chomsky has over the years become far and away the Western world’s best-known political dissident. His books and articles on political topics far outnumber his publications on linguistics. When we turn to his political writings, however, we find academics less enthusiastic. While popular with students, these publications, it has been pointed out, ‘rarely appear on undergraduate reading lists nor do they, on the whole, enter the fray of mainstream debates about social and political organization’.[19] It would be hard to name a wealthy corporate funding agency or scholarly foundation that has honoured Chomsky explicitly for his politics. The Vatican, no matter how supportive in other ways, would hardly invite him to talk about revolutionary socialism or anarchism.  

Again and again, Chomsky has stressed that the two great ‘temptations’ in his life – his politics and his science – pull him in opposite directions. He may try to connect the two, but it never works – his two interests ‘just don’t seem to merge’.[20] Chomsky views his hectic life, therefore, as a ‘sort of schizophrenic existence’,[21] made possible by a fortunate glitch in his brain which causes it to function ‘like separate buffers in a computer’.[22]  

Science, says Chomsky, is politically neutral – hence irrelevant to his activist concerns. The search for theoretical understanding, he explains, ‘pursues its own paths, leading to a completely different picture of the world, which neither vindicates nor eliminates our ordinary ways of talking and thinking . . . Meanwhile, we live our lives, facing as best we can problems of radically different kinds.’[23]  

 Chomsky does not encourage his scientific colleagues to care too much about his politics. Neither does he need his activist supporters to worry about his science. If you haven’t the necessary expertise, he advises, ‘you’re just not part of the discussion, and that’s quite right’.[24] In this, he has been successful. Over the years, most of his activist supporters have accepted that his linguistics is simply none of their business.  

Chomsky’s colleagues and employers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) seem to have known little about his politics until the mid-1960s, when he first began taking to the streets in opposition to the Vietnam War. Already celebrated for his linguistics, he soon began commanding a mass audience, helping to organize draft card burning and other direct action against all aspects of the war. In October 1967, with many thousands of others, he attempted to form a human chain around the Pentagon – an event famously celebrated in Norman Mailer’s book Armies of the Night.[25] ‘The dominant memory’, Chomsky later recalled, ‘is of the scene itself, of tens of thousands of young people surrounding what they believe to be – I must add that I agree – the most hideous institution on this earth . . .’[26]  

 Walking up to a line of troops in front of the Pentagon building, Chomsky appealed directly to them through a loudhailer. As he was speaking, the soldiers advanced. Chomsky’s activities that year shot him to prominence, propelling him toward his current status as the best-known academic dissident in the world. From the 1960s until the present day, it would be hard to think of a US military adventure that has not faced moral and intellectual opposition voiced passionately and effectively by Noam Chomsky.  

More single-mindedly than any other Western academic, Chomsky has shone a spotlight on the high-tech terrorism inflicted on much of the planet since the United States displaced Britain as the world’s leading superpower. He has a low opinion of most of his fellow intellectuals, especially the self-appointed experts who dominate the universities and media outlets. Accusing them of Orwellian double-speak, he describes how they replace the dictionary meanings of words with diametrically opposite doctrinal meanings, such that ‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.’[27] Corrupting the meaning of words, Chomsky argues, is a good way of dumbing people down, preventing them from talking about shared problems and in this way keeping them under control.[28]   

Chomsky illustrates the technique by showing how, following the 1962 American invasion of Vietnam, double-speak was used to cover up the crime. There had been no invasion. ‘For the past 22 years,’ he later explained, ‘I have been searching in vain to find some reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to an American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an American attack against South Vietnam, or American aggression in Indochina – without success. There is no such event in history.’[29] Any journalist mentioning the invasion would have met with incomprehension:  

Such a person would not have been sent to a psychiatric hospital, but he would surely not have retained his professional position and standing. Even today, those who refer to the US invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 . . . are regarded with disbelief: perhaps they are confused, or perhaps quite mad.[30]  

This, for Chomsky, illustrates what he terms ‘Orwell’s problem’ – the problem of explaining how people can know so little even when the evidence is before their very eyes. The explanation, he writes, lies in the extraordinary sophistication of the US media’s steady stream of double-speak and propaganda. To solve Orwell’s problem, Chomsky observes, ‘we must discover the institutional and other factors that block insight and understanding in crucial areas of our lives and ask why they are effective’.[31] While noting the importance of this problem, however, Chomsky does not find it particularly intellectually exciting, because, in his view, it is not susceptible to the methods of science.   

Having described Orwell’s problem, Chomsky then tells us that he has another problem, which is the exact opposite. He calls it ‘Plato’s problem’. This time, it is not the ignorance of people which seems so baffling, but their extraordinary knowledge and understanding. Plato’s problem belongs to the sciences and is ‘deep and intellectually exciting’ to Chomsky.[32] He cites the case of a child acquiring its first language, apparently knowing the essentials from birth without having had time to learn anything at all.  

The problem is this: how does that child succeed in working out so complex a theoretical structure as the grammar of its native tongue when it receives no instruction, is not corrected for mistakes and hears only a fraction of the creative sentences that she/he will be able to express? The solution to Plato’s problem is innate knowledge. Chomsky’s ‘argument from poverty of the stimulus’, as he calls it, states that the child doesn’t need to learn anything because she knows the basics already, thanks to her genetic nature.[33]   

Chomsky is aware that talk of ‘genetic nature’ or ‘human nature’ upsets many intellectuals, especially followers of Michel Foucault and others on the political left. But he shows no patience with such people:  

Yes, I speak of human nature, but not for complicated reasons. I do so because I am not an imbecile, and do not believe that others should fall into culturally imposed imbecility. Thus, I do not want to cater to imbecility. Is my granddaughter different from a rock? From a bird? From a gorilla? If so, then there is such a thing as human nature. That’s the end of the discussion: we then turn to asking what human nature is.[34] 

Chomsky rejects the ‘rather obscure’ Marxist notion of the dialectic, dismissing it as ‘a kind of ritual term which people use when they are talking about situations of conflict and so on’.[35] He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]   

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.  

In his scientific role, Chomsky’s commitment is to Plato, whose point of departure is the doctrine of the soul. Plato, Chomsky reminds us, asked ‘how we can know so much, given that we have such limited evidence’.[37] ‘Plato’s answer’, says Chomsky,   

was that the knowledge is ‘remembered’ from an earlier existence. The answer calls for a mechanism; perhaps the immortal soul. That may strike us as not very satisfactory, but it is worth bearing in mind that it is a more reasonable answer than those assumed as doctrine during the dark ages of Anglo-American empiricism and behavioral science – to put the matter tendentiously, but accurately.[38]  

Chomsky acknowledges that talk of the soul does sound a bit medieval. To improve the way it sounds to modern ears, he rephrases it: ‘Pursuing this course, and rephrasing Plato’s answer in terms more congenial to us today, we will say that the basic properties of cognitive systems are innate to the mind, part of human biological endowment.’[39] Chomsky’s purpose, then, is to bring Plato up to date. He terms his modernized version of the ancient philosophy, ‘internalism’ – the restriction of scientific attention to patterns inside the head.   

It is interesting to ask how our subject’s activist voice connects with that of the scientific linguist. A reviewer for the New York Times phrased the question this way:   

On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded. The ‘Chomsky problem’ is to explain how these two fit together.[40] 

Leaving aside the ‘simple-minded’ jibe, it is true that reconciling the two Chomskys is no easy matter. In establishment circles, the linguist is celebrated, the activist ignored or even reviled. A good example is the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, who praises the scientific Chomsky’s ‘important and original ideas’ which ‘nobody in his right mind’ would dismiss – while writing off the political Chomsky as ‘a spoilt brat’.[41]   

Ask Chomsky to define his politics and he will typically describe himself as a libertarian socialist or ‘some kind of anarchist’.[42] Anarchism, for him, means freeing people from authority, although he qualifies this by cautioning that no genuine anarchist will disregard the intellectual authority of Western science. He also clarifies that the freedom advocated by the libertarian right – the freedom of powerful people to do as they please – has no place in his political philosophy. We will always need rules: ‘Any effort to create a more human existence is going to inhibit somebody’s freedom. If a kid crosses the street in front of me when I have a red light, that inhibits my freedom to run him over and get to work faster.’[43] In many immediate contexts, Chomsky advocates not less regulation of individual or corporate behaviour, but more.   

Chomsky’s political positions ‘haven’t changed much since I was about 12 or 13’.[44] ‘There is a remarkable consistency to Chomsky’s political work’, confirms his biographer, Robert Barsky, who adds: ‘The same cannot, of course, be said of Chomsky’s linguistic work.’[45] Indeed, to the outsider it seems that Chomsky discards and replaces his former scientific theories at almost breathtaking speed, making it difficult to pin down precisely what they are. As one critic complains:   

The history of Chomskyan theory is a study in cycles. He announces a new and exciting idea, which adherents to the faith then use and begin to make all kinds of headway. But this progress is invariably followed by complications, then by contradictions, then by a flurry of patchwork fixes, then by a slow unraveling, and finally by stagnation. Eventually the master announces a new approach and the cycle starts anew.[46]  

One consequence is that if you browse through a textbook on modern linguistics – or perhaps a popular introduction to Chomsky’s work – you are likely to find everything already out of date. Most authors begin, for example, with tree diagrams depicting noun phrases, verb phrases and their ordering in accordance with rules – notions abandoned long ago by Chomsky himself. Again, almost everyone still devotes page after page to Chomsky’s insistence that core principles of grammar are part of our genetic endowment – despite the fact that, since turning to ‘Minimalism’ in the mid-1990s, he has been stressing just how few of these principles should be traced back to the genes.[47] A final example is the idea that Chomsky refuses to debate the evolutionary emergence of language in Homo sapiens. You are likely to hear much of this well-known self-denying ordinance – despite the fact that Chomsky has since changed his mind, in 2016 co-authoring a book devoted entirely to ‘language and evolution’.[48]   

Such apparent swings between extremes are characteristic of Chomsky’s intellectual odyssey. Yet beneath all such fluctuations, one bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]   

So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.   

Chomsky is famed, then, not only for his many changes of mind, but also for his lifelong commitment to that basic idea. His particular theories – ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ in the terminology of Lakatos[52] – keep changing from month to month, year to year; meanwhile, the protected core remains intact. So a further theme in this book will be to explore whether these seemingly incompatible characteristics – the variability on the one hand, the fixity on the other – are linked. If the auxiliary hypotheses keep getting abandoned and replaced, it may be because the theoretical core is preserved immune to change. After all, it is precisely when nothing works – when for deep reasons nothing can possibly work – that peripheral changes must continually be made.   

While happy to keep changing his auxiliary hypotheses, Chomsky has at all times remained committed to the following:  

 • Insofar as linguistics is a truly scientific discipline, it is restricted to the study of ‘I-language’ – a system of knowledge internal to the individual. (‘To summarize, we may think of a person’s knowledge of a particular language as a state of the mind, realized in some arrangement of physical mechanisms. We abstract the I-language as “what is known” by a person in this state of knowledge. This finite system, the I-language, is what the linguist’s generative grammar attempts to characterize.’)[53]  

• At a deeper level, scientific linguistics is the study of Universal Grammar (UG), defined as the innate cognitive equipment enabling humans to acquire such an I-language. (‘ . . . the study of generative grammar shifted the focus of attention . . . to the system of knowledge that underlies the use and understanding of language, and more deeply, to the innate endowment that makes it possible for humans to attain such knowledge . . . UG is a characterization of these innate, biologically determined principles, which constitute one component of the human mind – the language faculty.’)[54]  

• Scientific linguistics is therefore a branch of natural science. Set apart from social anthropology or sociology, it excludes investigation of human social interaction, politics, communication or culture. In particular, it has no place for the popular notion of ‘E-languages’ (‘external’ languages) such as ‘Chinese’, ‘Swahili’ or ‘English’ conceived as culturally distinct traditions. (‘Rather, all scientific approaches have simply abandoned these elements of what is called “language” in common usage . . .’)[55]  

• Linguistic variation is superficial. (‘The Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins.’)[56]  

• Strictly speaking, a child does not need to ‘learn’ from others how to speak its native tongue, since it is equipped with the basics already. (‘Learning language is something like undergoing puberty. You don’t learn to do it; you don’t do it because you see other people doing it; you are just designed to do it at a certain time.’)[57]  

Extensions and elaborations include these:  

 • A child acquires its native tongue by discarding one language after another from the vast repertoire of tongues installed in its head from birth. (‘It’s pretty clear that a child approaches the problem of language acquisition by having all possible languages in its head but doesn’t know which language it’s being exposed to. And, as data comes along, that class of possible languages reduces. So certain data comes along and the mind automatically says “OK, it’s not that language it’s some other language.”’)[58]  

• Lexical concepts – including even industrial-age ones, such as carburettor – are not variable products of history and culture, but are somehow natural givens. (‘However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.’)[59]  

• Although language is a biological organ, it did not evolve by natural selection. Language is simply too different from anything else in nature for Darwinian theory to be relevant here. (‘There is no reason to suppose that the “gaps” are bridgeable. There is no more of a basis for assuming an evolutionary development of “higher” from “lower” stages, in this case, than there is for assuming an evolutionary development from breathing to walking; the stages . . . seem to involve entirely different processes and principles.’)[60]  

• Unlike other biological adaptations, language is close to perfect in design, suggesting the work of ‘a divine architect’. (‘The language faculty interfaces with other components of the mind/brain . . . How perfectly . . .? If a divine architect were faced with the problem of designing something to satisfy these conditions, would actual human language be one of the candidates, or close to it? Recent work suggests that language is surprisingly “perfect” in this sense.’)[61]   

Chomsky concedes that many people find such ideas utterly baffling. How can a biological organ exist if it did not evolve? How can a child acquire its first language without learning from others about the words and rules? By what conceivable mechanism can German, Guugu Yimithirr and all possible languages be deposited in a child’s head? How can carburettor have been installed in the brain during the Stone Age, when people hadn’t even invented the wheel? Why on earth would anyone expect a biological organ to be ‘perfect’?   

Chomsky retorts that any scientist must work not with the complexities of life, but with abstractions, whose advantage is their simplicity:  

It goes straight back to Galileo . . . for Galileo, it was a physical point – nature is simple, and it’s the task of the scientist to, first of all, discover just what that means, and then to prove it. From the tides to the flights of birds, the goal of the scientist is to find that nature is simple: and if you fail, you’re wrong.[62]  

While philosophers of science might go along with this, not all would agree that Chomsky’s own theories can be said to have passed this test. A widespread perception is that, far from simplifying things, Chomsky’s interventions have immersed linguistics in tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancour without parallel in any other scientific field.[63]   

It would be wonderful if language did reveal simple logical form, like the formula for a snowflake – Chomsky’s current claim.[64] But demonstrating that an idea is simple is not the same thing as showing that it works. Some assumptions are just too simple. In much of what follows I will be exploring whether there are grounds for suspecting that, in Chomsky’s case, what looks like oversimplified nonsense really is oversimplified nonsense. I am certainly not the first to suggest the possibility that Chomsky’s core assumptions are nonsensical – many others have done that before me.[65] But, to my knowledge, few have delved further to explore the sociological conundrums which arise. Why would the dominant military, corporate and academic institutions sponsoring cognitive science in post-war America value a contribution of baffling incomprehensibility which, on close examination, turns out to make no sense at all?   

I agree that this is a difficult concept to digest. Why would such powerful institutions choose to value nonsensical doctrine at the expense of empirically based science? Various possibilities have been suggested, all worth exploring. The view that Chomsky is another Galileo or Einstein is far from universally held. Many critics view the aura surrounding him as essentially scientism – adherence to an idealized concept of science as eternal truth.[66] The philosopher John Searle remarks: ‘But these guys think they’re doing something called Science with a capital “S”. And it’s almost a religion.’[67]   

When science becomes religion, Searle complains, no conceivable counter-evidence can possibly weaken the faith. Sacred postulates command loyalty not by providing evidence or logical argument, but by provoking endless wonderment.[68] The more striking and unlikely, the better. Religious beliefs have been defined as ‘hard-to-fake commitments to counterintuitive worlds’.[69] Think of transubstantiation or virgin birth. Showing that you can believe in ‘six impossible things before breakfast’[70] is a good way of demonstrating commitment. When converts express faith in far-fetched postulates and go on to proselytize, they have passed the all-important commitment test.[71] The more circular, meaningless or self-contradictory the beliefs, according to this view, the greater their value as tests of commitment, the more costly the work of maintaining them in people’s heads – and, therefore, the more energetically and passionately they are defended and proclaimed.[72]   

In their 1983 book, Language, Sense and Nonsense, two Oxford philosophers analysed Chomskyan linguistics and its offshoots not exactly as religion, but as ‘the pseudo-sciences of the age, grounded in conceptual confusions and protected from ridicule only by a facade of scientific procedure and mathematical sophistication’.[73] In similar vein, the linguist Geoffrey Pullum describes the hold exercised by Chomsky’s recent theorizing as ‘the most influential confidence trick in the history of modern linguistics’.[74] Many view Chomsky’s entire theoretical framework as, to quote Larry Trask, ‘more a religious movement than an empirical science’.[75] Chomsky’s former MIT collaborator Paul Postal likens the linguist and his followers to an end-of-the-world movement, noting how charismatic cult leaders so often feel obliged to appear undaunted as their predictions are repeatedly disconfirmed: ‘People’s ability to “save” their ideas from even the most devastating counterexamples is thus extraordinary. I suspect that that fact goes a long way toward helping us understand what goes on in a field like linguistics.’[76]   

A related point is made by Rudolf Botha in his highly original book, Challenging Chomsky.[77] Botha pictures Chomsky as a skilled fighter at the centre of a vast intellectual labyrinth whose forks and hidden pitfalls are used aggressively to defeat anyone foolish enough to intrude. Nobody ever wins in a battle with ‘the Lord of the Labyrinth’, because the Master makes sure that each contest will take place on terrain which he himself has landscaped and designed. The cleverest feature of Challenging Chomsky is that Botha presents his book as a defence of the Master and his fighting skills. In the course of celebrating these skills, however, the author reveals them to be not conscientious scholarship, but devious, Machiavellian tricks designed to ensure victory by moving the goal-posts or tipping up the board – in other words, sheer foul play. Reading Botha’s sobering account made me reflect that my own book is an attempt to avoid the fate of so many by declining to enter the maze.   

But many problems remain. Why was that maze ever built? Who financed its construction and why? What secret concealed at the heart of that maze matters so much that none of us should ever be allowed to discover it? Botha is convincing in conceiving Chomskyan linguistics as an intentionally constructed maze whose awesomely complex features have been designed for the purpose of demoralizing and confusing all intruders. But no critic has satisfactorily explained why labyrinthine nonsense on such a scale – if nonsense it is – should be corporately funded and institutionally endorsed. This is the conundrum I will address in the chapters to follow.



1. Harris and Harris 1974.

2. Chomsky; quoted in Chepesiuk 1995.

3. Neil Smith; quoted in Jaggi 2001.

4. Harris 1998.

5. Dean 2003, viii.

6. Barsky 2007, ix; Guardian, 18 October 2005.

7. MIT News 1992; quoted in Achbar 1994, 17.

8. Strazny 2013, 207.

9. Harman 1974, vii.

10. Chomsky 1989.

11. Barsky 1997, 3.

12. Golumbia 2009, 31.

13. Smith 1999, 1.

14. Albert 2006, 63.

15. Leiber 1975, 19.

16. Cogswell 1996, 7.

17. Milne 2009.

18. Cartlidge 2014, 8.

19. Edgley 2000, 1.

20. Chomsky 1988a, 2.

21. Chomsky 1988f, 98–99.

22. Chomsky 1996a, 15.

23. Chomsky 2000b, 115.

24. Chomsky 1988h, 16.

25. Mailer 1968.

26. Chomsky 1967b.

27. Chomsky 1992, 86–87.

28. Chomsky 1996a, 128.

29. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

30. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

31. Chomsky 1986, xxvii.

32. Chomsky 1986, xxix.

33. Chomsky 1980a, 66.

34. Letter dated 15 December 1992; in Barsky 1997, 208.

35. Chomsky 1988a, 189–190.

36. Chomsky 1986, xxvii ff.

37. Chomsky 1986, xxv.

38. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

39. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

40. Article on 25 February 1979; quoted in Achbar 1994, 19.

41. Scruton 2016, 118–119.

42. Chomsky 1988k, 744.

43. Chomsky 1998a, 17–18.

44. Chomsky 1988j, 697.

45. Barsky 1997, 95.

46. Williamson 2004, 234.

47. Chomsky 2007a.

48. Berwick and Chomsky 2016.

49. Chomsky 1988a, 36–37.

50. Chomsky, personal communication to A. Edgley, 21 February 1995; Edgley 2000, 154.

51. Chomsky 2000b, 2.

52. Lakatos 1970.

53. Chomsky 1986, 40.

54. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

55. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

56. Chomsky 2000b, 7.

57. Chomsky 1988a, 174.

58. Chomsky 2016b, 1 hour 17 seconds.

59. Chomsky 2000b, 65–66.

60. Chomsky 2006a, 59.

61. Chomsky 1996b, 29–30.

62. Chomsky 2012, 88.

63. Harris 1993.

64. Berwick and Chomsky 2011; cf. Chomsky 2007b, 20.

65. Baker and Hacker 1984; Seuren 2004.

66. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

67. Searle 2003, 55.

68. Rappaport 1999.

69. Atran 2002, 264.

70. Wolpert 2006.

71. Alcorta and Sosis 2005; Atran and Norenzayan 2004.

72. Rappaport 1999.

73. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

74. Review comment on back cover of paperback edition of Seuren 2004.

75. Trask 1999, 109.

76. Postal 1995, 140.

77. Botha 1989.



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MIT's Anti-War Protests 1967-1972

The protests that erupted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1960s were an important part of the wider student unrest that shook the US in this period.

Noam Chomsky has often talked sympathetically about these protests, which focused on MIT's development of both nuclear weapons and weapons used in the Vietnam war. However, Chomsky also has a strong loyalty to MIT – at one point describing the university as ‘the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than any other ... [with] a good record on civil liberties’ – and it seems this loyalty has prevented him from giving a full account of these events. The following links show the remarkable story of what happened when students at the centre of the US’s university-based war research program decided to rebel.

New York Times copyright applied for.

New York Times copyright applied for.

  • Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky, science and revolutionary politics, Chapter 4.
  • Noam Chomsky:

‘The responsibilities of intellectuals’, New York Review of Books, February 1967.

Letter in New York Review of Books, March 1967 – where Chomsky said MIT’s ‘involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.’

Letter in New York Review of Books, April 1967 – where Chomsky said ‘MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort.’

TV debate with Michel Foucault, 1971 – where Chomsky said MIT ‘embodies very important libertarian values' but that he hoped his presence there helped ‘to increase student activism against a lot of things that MIT as an institution does.’

'MIT review panel on special laboratories final report', October 1969 – includes contributions by Noam Chomsky and Jon Kabat (now known as Jon Kabat-Zinn).

  • 'Why smash MIT?', The Old Mole, November 1969 – where radical students said: 'MIT isn’t a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It’s a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT’s purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations – research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world. NAC’s (November Action Coalition’s) campaign was directed against MIT as an institution, against its central purpose.'
Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Courtesy of MIT Museum

Associated Press copyright applied for.

Associated Press copyright applied for.


'SDS sits-in on Dow recruiter', 7 November 1967. (Vol.87 Issue 43)

'Sala [army deserter] sanctuary established', 1 November 1968. (Vol.88 Issue 41)

'March 4 activities fill Kresge', 7 March 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 8)
See also 'Beyond March 4', the founding document of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

'Rostow defends [Vietnam] policies in Kresge confrontation', 11 April 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 15)

'Johnson confronted on I-Lab', 22 April 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 18)
In this article, one student justified his determination to stop MIT's scientists from doing military research by saying that 'one doesn't have the right to build gas chambers to kill people.' He went on to explain that 'the principle that people should not kill other people is more important than notions of freedom to do any kind of research one might want to undertake.'

‘150 students peacefully disrupt CIS, 14 October 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 36)

Reports on the anti-war November Actions: 31 October and 4-6 November and 9 November 1969. (Vol.89 Issue 41-3)

'Noam Chomsky: a journey to North Vietnam', 5 May 1970. (Vol.90 Issue 23)

'Overkill', 15 September 1970 p5. (Vol.90 Issue 30)

'Krasner loses final appeal', 5 October 1971 p1,3,5. (Vol.90 Issue 37)

'Battering ram: the occupation of the president's office', 7 December p5 and 10 December p5 and 14 December 1971 p4. (Vol.91 Issue 53-5)

'MIT may be dangerous to the world', 28 April 1972 p5. (Vol.92 Issue 21)

'Riot police hit MIT campus', 12 May 1972. (Vol.92 Issue 25)

‘19 appeal trespass cases’, 4 August 1972 p1, 13. (Vol.92 Issue 28)



  • An extract from Ricky Leacock's documentary, November Actions, on MIT's student protests in 1969:


  • 'Vietnam – the American holocaust' documentary, 2008:



  • Walt Rostow, Henry Kissinger and President Lyndon B Johnson in the White House:

Students staging a protest against research into nuclear and other weapons at MIT in 1969/1970. (Jon Kabat is facing the megaphone.)


  • This sit-in appears to be in, or near, MIT’s Center for International Studies where academics were working with the US military on torture and assassination programmes in Vietnam. (Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow p99-101; The Tech, 14/10/69.)


  • This photograph shows the moment that students broke down the door to the office of the president of MIT, Howard Johnson. The students were protesting against the expulsion of the anti-war student president, Michael Albert. After this incident, as one MIT professor said, 'the faculty came down with a giant iron fist' and three students ended up serving prison sentences. (The Tech, 14/12/71)