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: (and Q&A:

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

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

Chris Knight (author of Decoding Chomsky) – Speaking truth to power from within the heart of the Empire: and (Q&A)

Craig Murray (former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan) – The abdication of responsibility: and (Q&A)

Noam Chomsky – Video from Arizona:

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



Fritz Newmeyer, Randy Allen Harris, Les Levidow, David Golumbia, Wolfgang Sperlich and Peter Jones join the debate

Fritz Newmeyer, Randy Allen Harris, Les Levidow, David Golumbia, Wolfgang Sperlich and Peter Jones join the debate

According to Chomsky, words (such as 'book' and 'carburetor') are genetically determined

According to Chomsky, words (such as 'book' and 'carburetor') are genetically determined

Chomsky claims that every child comes into the world knowing already what a house is. As it grows up and acquires its natal tongue, it just has to connect that concept with the locally appropriate sound:

‘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.’[1]

If this applies to house, Chomsky reasons, it must apply in the same way to other concepts:

‘There is overwhelming reason to believe that concepts like, say, climb, chase, run, tree and book and so on are fundamentally fixed.’[2]

Note the inclusion of ‘book’ in this list. This is puzzling since no books existed during the palaeolithic age, when our species emerged and humans were everywhere hunter-gatherers.

Why does Chomsky make this strange claim? As so often, he denies that he is offering a hypothesis.[3] If it were a testable hypothesis, his astonished critics might be tempted to cite counter-evidence. Not believing in empirical tests or experiments, Chomsky argues instead from what he terms ‘conceptual necessity’. Lexical concepts, he observes, ‘have extremely complex properties when you look at them’. From this it follows ‘that they’ve got to basically be there and then they get kind of triggered and you find out what sounds are associated with them’.[4]

So much for climb, chase, run, tree and book. But Chomsky knew he could not restrict himself to an arbitrarily chosen list of words. Was ‘house’ natural, whereas ‘book’ was cultural and artificial? Where exactly should we draw the line? For his thesis to have any merit, it had to apply across the board. So what about, say, ‘carburettor’? Or ‘bureaucrat’? Or ‘quantum potential’?

When the philosopher Hilary Putnam realized what Chomsky was claiming, he could hardly conceal his astonishment. Such nonsense, he complained, had nothing to do with real genetics or biology. To have installed in our last common ancestor a complete stock of the words which future generations might need, observed Putnam, ‘evolution would have had to be able to anticipate all the contingencies of future physical and cultural environments. Obviously it didn’t and couldn’t do this.’[5]

But to everyone’s surprise, Chomsky did not flinch. Young children, he reaffirmed, acquire words so rapidly that learning cannot be what is really happening. He proposes instead that each child needs merely to discover which locally appropriate vocal label should be applied to a concept which is already in its mind.[6] After elaborating this idea with respect to relatively simple words such as ‘table’, Chomsky continued:

Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument is at least in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburetor and bureaucrat, 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.[7]

‘Thus Aristotle had the concept of an airplane in his brain, and also the concept of a bicycle – he just never had occasion to use them!’, responded philosopher Daniel Dennett, adding that he and his colleagues find it hard not to burst out laughing at this point. Perhaps ‘Aristotle had an innate airplane concept’, Dennett continued, ‘but did he also have a concept of wide-bodied jumbo jet? What about the concept of an APEX fare Boston/London round trip?’[8]

Despite the hilarity, however, Chomsky has continued to defend the idea.

  1. Olson G. and Faigley, L. 1991. Politics and composition: a conversation with Noam Chomsky. In Journal of Advanced Composition 11.1, pp 1-36.

  2. Chomsky, N. 2000a. The Architecture of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 75.

  3. Chomsky, N. 2000b. New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 66.

  4. Chomsky, The Architecture, p. 75.

  5. Putnam, H. 1988. Representation and Reality. Cambridge MA: MIT., p. 15. Putnam is criticizing the ‘strong innateness hypothesis’ as presented by Chomsky’s colleague Jerry Fodor. Fodor, J. A. 1975. The Language of Thought. Scranton, PA: Crowell. Fodor’s position is equally Chomsky’s.

  6. Chomsky, New Horizons, p. 61.

  7. The same, pp. 64–66.

  8. Dennett, D. 1991. Consciousness Explained. London: Penguin, pp. 192-93; note 8.’

The MITRE Corporation's project to use Chomsky's linguistics for their weapons systems

The MITRE Corporation's project to use Chomsky's linguistics for their weapons systems

The first, 2016, edition of Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics did not explore the fine details of military research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT is so well-known as a Pentagon-funded university that specifying the details seemed unnecessary. The only quote I cited which connected Pentagon funding to the new linguistics was this one:

Defense of the continental United States against air and missile attack is possible in part because of the use of such computer systems. And of course, such systems support our forces in Vietnam. The data in such systems is processed in response to questions and requests by commanders. Since the computer cannot ‘understand’ English, the commanders’ queries must be translated into a language that the computer can deal with. … Command and control systems would be easier to use, and it would be easier to train people to use them, if this translation were not necessary. We sponsored linguistic research in order to learn how to build command and control systems that could understand English queries directly.[1]

This statement from 1971 seemed sufficient because the whole point of my book was not to suggest that Chomsky worked directly on military research but, rather, that he had to move mountains to avoid doing so. The mere threat of his work being used for military research was enough, I argued, to prompt him to resist, steadfastly refusing to help with engineering or other practical applications. Chomsky’s linguistics remained at all times so abstract and other-worldly that it could not be used for any practical purposes at all, let for alone direct military ones.

However, since finishing my book, I have become aware that the situation was more nuanced. In the early 1960s, Chomsky acted as a consultant on an ambitious Air Force-funded project whose military purposes were plain enough.

The evidence is contained in a February 1964 article from MIT's official journal, the Technology Review. In it, Air Force Lieutenant Samuel Jay Keyser explains his thinking. Once a computer has been appropriately programmed in the light of Chomsky's insights, writes Keyser, it will be 'endowed with the ability to recognize instructions imparted to it in perfectly ordinary English, thereby eliminating a necessity for highly specialized languages that intervene between a man and a computer.'  He continues:

In fact a great deal of work in doing just this has already been undertaken. Donald E. Walker of the MITRE Corporation, Associate Professor G. Hubert Matthews of MIT and J. Bruce Fraser have placed a significant portion of the grammar of English on a computer.[2]    

A follow-up article by Keyser was published by the MITRE Corporation in 1965. Here, Keyser discusses the limitations of the various artificial 'control languages' then being used in the military’s command and control systems. He refers both to the SAGE air defense system (pictured at the top of this page) and to the various computer control languages of the US Air Force (473L), the Navy (NAVCOSSACT) and NORAD (425L) etc.

Keyser goes on to suggest an alternative in the form of an 'English control language' developed on the basis of Chomsky's linujistic insights. During the course of his technical discussion, Keyser cites Chomsky’s classic sample sentence, 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'. He then incorporates words such as 'aircraft', 'fighter', 'bomber' and 'missile', combining them in such sentences as:

  • The bomber the fighter attacked landed safely.
  • The bomber the fighter the radar spotted attacked landed safely.[3]


At this point, it helps to know something about the MITRE Corporation for which Donald Walker and Bruce Fraser were working at this time. MITRE was jointly set up in 1958 by MIT and the US Air Force in order to develop air defence and 'command and control' technology for both nuclear and conventional warfare. Here is a diagram of the SAGE system, initiated by MIT and then set up by MITRE:


Here is a quote from the Corporation's official history:

'Most of MITRE'S commitment to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam occurred during the latter part of the 1960s. … During fiscal year 1967, MITRE was devoting almost one-quarter of its total resources to the command, control, and communications systems necessary to the conduct of that conflict.'[4]

And here is the first page of Donald Walker's 1965 paper, The MITRE Syntactic Analysis Procedure for Transformational Grammars, in which he acknowledges the key role played by Chomsky:

MITRE article based on Chomsky.jpg

Walker made a similar statement in his 1966 paper on the same subject:

The model of language underlying the analysis procedure is that of transformational grammar as developed in particular by Chomsky.[5]

When (Lieutenant) Bruce Fraser surveyed the field for the US Air Force in 1967, he explained:

The linguistic framework within which almost all of the current work in language processing is carried out involves the theory of language developed by Chomsky and others that was introduced in Syntactic Structures, and elaborated on in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.[6]

That same year, another commentator explained:

The MITRE English Preprocessor ... system was intended to translate English sentences into instructions in a formal command and control language, but almost all of the research has gone into the development of the transformational grammar and a procedure for performing the syntactic analysis.[7]

Finally, here is yet another summary of the situation, published in 1968:

The most ambitious effort to construct an operating grammar is being made by a group at MITRE, concerned with English-like communication in command and control computer systems. It is no accident that Noam Chomsky, the major theorist in all of American linguistics, is located at MIT.[8]

Throughout this period, the connection between this MITRE project and MIT remained strong.  According to Donald Walker's biographer, at least 10 MIT linguistics students 'played a key role, often spending their summers at MITRE'.[9]  All of these would have probably been Chomsky's students at some stage.    

The specific documents which clarify Chomsky's relationship to this military project are two restricted-access papers from 1963, both of which name Chomsky as a 'consultant' to Walker's department at MITRE.

Here are two snapshots from one of these papers:

Distribution list.jpg

Both papers concern the 'development of a program to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control.'[10]  And both share the same forward:

MITRE Chomsky Consultant 2.jpg

On of Chomsky's former students, Barbara Partee, has confirmed to me that Chomsky visited MITRE in this consultancy role in 1965. She has also explained that the head of the whole project, Donald Walker, convinced the military to hire her and other students on the basis that 'in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program.'

It is difficult to know precisely how Chomsky felt about working as a MITRE consultant during these years because, to my knowledge, he has never discussed this in public. But we do know how he reacted when his wife, Carol, began working on an Air Force project at MIT in 1959.

The project was intended to enable 'the business executive, the military commander and the scientist' to communicate with computers in 'natural language'. According to the project's head, Bert Green, Chomsky was 'very nervous' about all this and required reassurance because he feared that his wife might end up working on 'voice activated command and control systems'.[11]

So when, a few years later, Chomsky himself ended up working on a real Air Force command and control project, we can only imagine how 'nervous' he must have felt. We can be pretty sure that that he would have felt no less uncomfortable about the whole project than his student at the time, Barbara Partee. Discussing her work at MITRE, she recalls:

For a while, the Air Force was convinced that supporting pure research in generative grammar was a national priority, and we all tried to convince ourselves that taking Air Force money for such purposes was consistent with our consciences, possibly even a benign subversion of the military-industrial complex.[12]

Maybe Chomsky, too, managed to persuade himself that working on this project was somehow consistent with his anti-militarist conscience. But he would surely have felt uncomfortable had his linguistic research in real life helped the military to accomplish what they wanted, which was an ‘operational language for command and control’.

Fortunately for the consciences of both Partee and Chomsky, their research failed to produce anything that actually worked. As the former Air Force Colonel Anthony Debons, wrote in 1971:.[13]

Anthony Debons.jpg

After a couple of years of involvement with the MITRE Corporation, Chomsky seems to have had enough. As he said later about this period, 'I couldn’t look myself in the mirror any more' and, from 1965, he threw himself into political activism in a determined attempt to halt the war in Vietnam.[14]

From then on, as Chomsky’s political positions became more publicly known, whenever he modified his linguistic theories he did so only in one direction: never toward greater realism, always toward what Adele Goldberg has rightly described as 'ever-increasing layers of abstractness'.[15] Instead of studying languages, Chomsky focused exclusively on something of his own making - Universal Grammar. Since this could not be precisely specified, Chomsky’s approach had one great advantage. It soon became clear that nothing worked, or could possibly work. Once this realization sank in, Chomsky the activist was safe. Never again would the US military imagine they could use his work to develop systems of computerized command and control. Unfortunately, this same abstractness meant that his models had little apparent relevance to what the rest of us term ‘language’, offering few insights into how language might have evolved in the past or how it is continuously being created and re-created by speakers today.

Samuel Jay Keyser has told me that he was the Air Force contract manager for Chomsky's 1965 book, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Keyser was head of  the Department of Linguistics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1972 to 1977, in which year he went on to become head of MIT's Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, two years later becoming concurrently director of the Center for Cognitive Science. In 1985, future CIA director John Deutch, the newly named Provost at MIT, asked him to become associate provost, to which position he was appointed.[16]

Here is a photo of Keyser, taken in 1955 at an Air Force ROTC summer camp  in Panama City, Florida. 'At the time', Keyser recalls, 'I had never heard of Chomsky, let alone his work.'


Photo from Washington Monthly.

Here is the full text of Keyser's 1964 article in MIT's Technology Review:


Here are two MITRE recruitment adverts from MIT's publications, The Tech and The Technology Review:

mitre advert2 .jpg


[1]. F.J. Newmeyer, The Politics of Linguistics, 1986, p85–86.

[2]. Technology Review, February 1964, p20-1.

[3]. S.J. Keyser in J. Spiegel and D. Walker, 'Linguistic Theory and System Design', Information Systems Sciences, 1965, p495-6, 499-500, 515; R. Meisel and J. Jacobs, MITRE: The First Twenty Years, A History of the MITRE Corporation (1958 -1978), p65.

[4]. R. Meisel and J. Jacobs, p114-5.

[5]. D. Walker et al., 'Recent Developments in the MITRE Syntactic Analysis Procedure', The MITRE Corporation, Bedford, MA., 1966, p2.

[6]. D. Bobrow et al., 'Survey of Automatic Language Processing 1966', Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, 1967, p3.

[7]. A. Oettinger, Mathematical Linguistics and Automatic Translation: Report to the National Science Foundation, 1967.

[8]. A. Newell in G. Bugliarello (ed.), Bioengineering: An Engineering View, 1968, p271.

[9]. A. Zampolli et al., Current Issues in Computational Linguistics: In Honour of Don Walker, 30 June 1994, pxxi-xxii.

[10]. A. Zwicky, 'Grammars of Number Theory: Some Examples'. Working Paper W-6671, The MITRE Corporation, Bedford, MA, 1963, Foreword, back page; A. Zwicky and S. Isard, 'Some Aspects of Tree Theory', Working Paper W-6674, The MITRE Corporation, Bedford, MA, 1963, Foreword, last page.

[11]. B. Green, C. Chomsky et al., 'The baseball program: an automatic question answerer', (MIT Lincoln Laboratory 1963); B. Green, Digital Computers In Research (McGraw-Hill 1963), pviii, 238-48, 258; 'Profiles in Research: Bert F. Green', Journal of Educational and Behavioral Statistics, vol 29, no. 2, summer 2004, p263.

[12]. B. Partee, 'Reflections of a Formal Semanticist as of February 2005', p8n.

[13]. A. Debons, 'Command and Control: Technology and Social Impact', in F. Alt and M. Rubinoff, Advances in Computers, Vol. 11, 1971. New York/London 1971, p354.

[14].  Chomsky quoted in R. Chepesiuk, Sixties Radicals, p145; N. Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969, p8.

[15].  A. E. Goldberg, Constructions At Work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, p.4.

[16]. S. J. Keyser, Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows. Cambridge, Mass, 2011, p8-9



Chomsky's Students Recall their Time at the MITRE Corporation

Chomsky's Students Recall their Time at the MITRE Corporation

Several of the linguists employed at the MITRE Corporation between 1963 and 1965 were kind enough to email their recollections to me in January and February 2018. I was particularly interested in how scientists whose passion was developing linguistic theory, not military technology, felt about working for the Air Force. My impression is that, for understandable moral and political reasons, they tend to play down the Air Force's stated mission to apply insights into language structure to military problems of weapons command-and-control.

Barbara Partee's reminiscences have been the most informative. She started by saying:

Chomsky got lots of funding for research and for supporting graduate students from the Air Force during the same period when a number of us, his graduate students, were working summers at the Air Force-funded MITRE Corporation. It was my understanding that our standard rationalization was that it was better for defense spending to be diverted to linguistic research than to be used for really military purposes. … The summers I worked at MITRE were 1963, 64, and 65. I think we had the most interaction with Chomsky there in 64, when we were working out a real grammar fragment of English; probably also in 1965, as we were further refining our grammar.

In her next email, Barbara recalled:

Chomsky definitely did come out and consult with us at least once, in either my second or third year there, probably third (and last), 1965, when we were trying to clean up our 'MITRE Grammar' which we had written in the summer of 64, and which the two programmers in Don's group, Joyce Friedman and Ted Haines, had worked on programming up over the winter, uncovering various bugs and indeterminacies in what we had written. I remember the term 'Chomsky-adjunction' was coined in our group for the particular proposal Chomsky gave us in discussion for how adjunction should work. …

Really it was in my first summer, 1963 (which I think was the first summer that any of us were there, but I'm not positive), that we had total freedom. Everybody could choose their own topic, as long as it could be related to the goal of eventually getting machines to process English sentences and do some question-answering on topics of potential interest to the Air Force.

I worked on tenses and adverbs, and produced my first LSA talk on the syntax of plain and counterfactual conditionals. But after that first summer, dear Don [Donald Walker, the head of the MITRE project] realized that he'd have to get us to work collectively on producing a grammar and a parser in order to convince the generals that it was valuable to hire us.…

I remember a meeting when Don invited in 'the generals' (I call them that – the guys from the [Air Force] – I have no idea of their actual ranks) to talk with us. We knew that Don's rationalization for hiring us (in reality he just wanted to support us) was that in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program. And I remember that in my little presentation I said something honest like that it would probably take 100 linguists 100 years to write a real grammar of English, but that we were happily working towards that goal, and Don had to hop up and talk very fast to recover from that statement.

On the issue of how they felt working for the military, Barbara explained:

I never sensed any discomfort with taking Air Force money, of which Chomsky had a great deal for supporting students at MIT. I had the impression that we all considered it something like benign pacifist sabotage.

She then recalled that she

had a shock … when outside of class one time some political topic came up and Noam said that he was an anarchist, I think, and said something about how awful he considered everything about the American government. … I was totally unready to listen to anything like that. It wasn't until the Vietnam War that I began to appreciate his politics, but I never did become comfortable with his manner of arguing, so totally disparaging of everything that ordinary middle-class people like our family believed. … But for the record, I never heard him say a political word in any linguistics class or linguistics lecture.

In another email, Barbara said:

When I told you about our story of the generals being underground during the war and the computers therefore needing to understand English, really I'm not sure that anybody believed it. If you look at all the ARPA (DARPA) projects funded over the years, lots of them are really basic research that might be somehow be valuable to the military but could be much more widely valuable. …

Jay Keyser, he, like Don Walker, was one of a number of people a little older than us graduate students who was a regular visitor to MIT, even with some temporary office space there. Sometime in the early 1960s, the AFROTC [Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.] finally caught up with Jay, who had been managing to stay under the radar for some years, and he had to go serve as an Air Force officer (Lieutenant, I think) for a few years. While he was there, he persuaded them that his own research task should be to work on Old English metrics –[11]  I no longer remember his lovely story of how he convinced them that that would be in the national interest. And importantly for the rest of us, he persuaded them to let him choose a number of linguistic projects for funding. I went to UCLA in 1965, and in 1966, Robert Stockwell, Paul Schachter, and I got a big grant from the Air Force to write a big transformational grammar of English, synthesizing as nearly as possible everything that had been done in that framework since it began with Syntactic Structures in 1957.

Other linguists working at MITRE agreed with much of Barbara's version of events. Arnold Zwicky added that it was 'colonels we had to impress, not generals' and that he also never heard Chomsky talk politics in his lectures. He also said:

 I too was astonished to discover these attitudes (but then became an anti-Vietnam protestor). But it's part of Noam's intense, passionate belief that any position he comes to is the only possible one and that those who believe otherwise are deluded or even evil. (recall the Skinner review.)

Arnold also said:

Believe it or not, Noam really was a consultant. [He] came to MITRE several times to look at the English grammar Barbara Hall (Partee) and I and our group were working on.

And that:

When Noam visited, he got a visitor's badge, which committed him to be under the care of a staff member at all times (and stay within the appropriate clearance-color lines on the floor.) I remember this because on at least one of his visits I was the responsible person, and I had to accompany him to the men's room. 'At all times' was meant quite literally.

Another MITRE linguist, Haj Ross, said:

I knew nothing about Noam’s political thinking, till I finally arrived at MIT in January 1964. … [I] was allowed to stay on at MIT in the fall of 1964, as a regular student, I had made it into Valhalla. … I remember, after Jack Kennedy had been shot, arriving at MIT, and going to a course taught by Noam, on politics, perhaps, walking back from building 23 to building 20, and asking Noam what he thought of President Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, which I was totally enamored of. I remember almost word for word what Noam said: he thought that Johnson’s administration was the largest collection of criminals that had ever infested the White House. I was speechless, I followed Noam’s course, became totally radicalized.

At MITRE I had never had the slightest hint about Noam’s radicalism. I was completely innocent, till that conversation in the halls of Building 20. I must also say that I never had any whiff of military work at MITRE. Maybe we had to wear badges, I have no recollection of that, but what we talked about had nothing at all to do with command and control or Air Force or anything similar. Our talk was about syntax and confusions about semantics.

Thomas Bever, told me:

I do not recall any time when [Chomsky] was cooperating with the Air Force on anything related to the US war effort anywhere. … From the viewpoint of the grad students who were [at MITRE], it was an interesting and well paid adventure. We were given total freedom.

Bruce Fraser recalled:

I don't remember much talk about the implications of the work, the talk was mostly about our various projects. … I do recall that Noam didn't talk with us much about what we were doing. We were graduate students just getting started. I know that he knew that MITRE was Air Force supported, but as I recall, he didn't have any problem with us working with the company. We were doing linguistics, it was the early 60s, and Vietnam was just heating up, as I remember the time.

And Jay Keyser said:

As for interesting discussions about the pros and cons of taking military funding, there just weren't any that I can remember. As I said in my book, MIT was the love child of the War Department. That's how the government supported higher education back then.

I had a lot of interesting conversations with Noam. But they were all about linguistics. If you get a copy of Mens et Mania out of the library, there is an account of my very first professional article and the role that Morris Halle and Noam played in guiding the writing of it.

MITRE adverts from MIT's  The Tech  and  The Technology Review.

MITRE adverts from MIT's The Tech and The Technology Review.

'If you're going to do defense research, you should  do it as well as you can. At MIT we can do it very, very well.' Jerome Wiesner

'If you're going to do defense research, you should do it as well as you can. At MIT we can do it very, very well.' Jerome Wiesner

[Photo: MIT’s Jerome Wiesner with Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara.]

Chomsky’s claim that ‘MIT itself doesn’t have war work’ echoes MIT’s official position.

This interesting Boston Globe article exposes MIT’s line in the 1980s that its war work was OK because it wasn’t ‘operational weapons’ work. Or as one anti-militarist campaigner says in the piece:

‘MIT seems to think it's OK to work on weapons as long as it doesn't involve the parts that goes bang … MIT is so deeply involved in work relating to weapons systems that they have to resort to some sort of sophistry to justify it.’

MIT Role in Research for Military Questioned; classified work is done at off-campus labs

Robert Levey, Boston Globe Newspaper Aug 7, 1983

As the expanding national military budget continues to push more defense work back onto college campuses, it is rekindling questions about the touchy relationship between basic science and military research.

Among the schools whose policies are being questioned is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which along with Johns Hopkins University accounts for almost half the Pentagon research being conducted by American universities.

The Defense Department now spends almost $800 million a year - up from $577 million two years ago - for both unclassified and secret military research, carried out either on campuses or facilties operated by universities under contract with the government.

In the struggle for new sources of revenue, educational institutions have found a windfall in the government's growing ardor for defense research. But this windfall also challenges each school's institutional conscience regarding what it deems appropriate as research activity.

At the University of Michigan, for instance, the board of regents struggled last month with a proposal to set up a review process for accepting any unclassified government research "a substantial purpose of which is to destroy or permanently incapacitate human beings."

The university already has such a policy covering secret research. By a 7-1 vote, the regents decided not to extend it to unclassified work, arguing it was unnecessary to add a review process to academic work already being done in the open.

MIT, on the other hand, presents the unusual case of an institution that refuses to do any classified research on its Cambridge campus, but accepts close to $200 million a year in government money for military-related research - much of it secret - conducted in Lexington at its Lincoln Laboratories.

Other universities avoid classified military research not so much because it poses a moral conflict as that it raises the issue of academic freedom. Harvard University, for instance, does not accept any secret research projects but emphasizes that the policy is strictly a matter of academic freedom, that it won't permit research to be done under its auspices if the results cannot be published.

Less than 4 percent of Harvard's $109 million in government- sponsored research comes from the Defense Department; the rest is in unclassified projects.

There are other seeming contradictions. Former MIT president Jerome Wiesner says that though he has long fought for slowing down the arms race, national security needs require that military research continue. "And if you're going to do defense research," Wiesner says, "you should do it as well as you can. At MIT we can do it very, very well."

MIT qualifies, along with an imposing list of the nation's most powerful private corporations, as one of the 100 top defense contractors in the country. And when examining the history of MIT's overall posture on defense research, its current status can appear confusing or even contradictory.

More than 10 years ago, in the intense emotional climate of the Vietnam war era, MIT severed its relationship with its Draper Laboratory because of campus concern that it was too intimately involved in the design, testing and production of nuclear missiles.

There was a consensus at MIT that though it should continue to use its research expertise in support of national defense, it was inappropriate for MIT to produce parts for nuclear missiles right on the campus.

As one MIT physicist recalls the issue: "Draper was actually fabricating parts for weapons systems that were being deployed. It was a factory. That's what people found most upsetting."

At the same time, there was a less heated campus protest about the secret defense research that was being conducted at Lincoln Laboratories, which is a leading radar research center wholly operated by MIT on contract with the US Air Force.

MIT resisted those pressures and decided to continue to run Lincoln Laboratories. But the MIT Corporation adopted a policy forbidding all secret research at its Cambridge campus, where its education program is based and undergraduates are taught. And it said it would do no work on "operational weapons systems" at either the Cambridge campus or Lincoln Laboratories.

MIT spokesman Robert Byers confirmed last week that those two policies are still in force and are even monitored by a seven- member standing committee of MIT faculty.

Under the Reagan Administration's large defense budget, the research business at Lincoln Laboratories has mushroomed to unprecedented levels in the past three years. MIT revenues from the government contract for the labs reached $155 million in fiscal 1982 and are headed toward an estimated $196 million in fiscal 1983, Byers said.

The enormous increase in the volume of research for the military, then, raises questions about what Lincoln Laboratories is doing for the money. Since at least one-fourth of the work is highly classified, there is no way to obtain detailed descriptions of the newest research there.

Even if available, it would be illegal to publish the information under various US laws protecting sensitive military information.

But some government documents recently obtained through a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information request initiated by the American Friends Service Committee national office in Philadelphia suggest the scope of some research at Lincoln involves mainstream war work that differs little from the kind being done at the Draper Lab 10 years ago.

This includes participation in Pershing missile tests, helping enhance performance of Precision Locator Strike System weapons and developing growth options for LANTIRN, the highly sophisticated nighttime infrared targeting system for firing Maverick air-to- surface missiles from E16 and A10 aircraft.

Furthermore, an article on nuclear weapons technology in the July 8 issue of the respected magazine "Science" states that as part of the sophisticated search for decoys to trick the Soviet Union into ignoring oncoming US missiles, Lincoln Laboratories scientists have "created a special aerosol, which reflects the earth's shine, thereby creating numerous false light impressions."

In essence, they have invented a product with but a single military use - to fool the enemy when US nuclear warheads are sent in their direction.

MIT officials maintain these kinds of research projects do not constitute "operational weapons work." But critics argue MIT is engaging in misleading semantics.

Thomas Conrad, the Friends Committee researcher for its NARMIC (National Action/Research on the Military Industrial Complex) project, said it had to sue the government after being refused listings of the unclassified contract information assembled by the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC).

The Defense Department said it could not issue the documents to NARMIC because it included "data relating to manufacturing or using munitions of war." The court forced the department to release the requested material, Conrad said, but as of last Jan. 1, the DTIC contract listings have been returned to the category of classified information and the department does not have to turn them over now.

"MIT seems to think it's OK to work on weapons as long as it doesn't involve the parts that goes bang," Conrad said. "But modern weapons systems are just that . . . they are systems. They involve platforms, launchers, targeting and guidance devices, along with the warheads. If you're involved in any one of them, you're helping a weapon get to its target.

"And it's important to remember that these weapons are basically designed to snuff out lives.

"It stretches credulity for MIT to call this work acceptable, to be doing these things and saying it's all right because we don't do work on operational weapons.

"From looking at these documents, it seems to us that MIT is so deeply involved in work relating to weapons systems that they have to resort to some sort of sophistry to justify it."

Though Byers and others at MIT insist the character of the work at Lincoln Laboratories has not changed over the years, he said "that doesn't mean the work doesn't have military value."

He said the distinction made by MIT is that its researchers will not actually "build, manufacture or supply the government with a weapons system."

If Lincoln Lab scientists go to missile test ranges and work on improving guidance and targeting systems for nuclear weapons, that is regarded as appropriate research and development activity, not operational weapons work. "Now, you may not agree with our definition of operational weapons," Byers said.

Alan Oppenheim, a member of the MIT standing committee assigned to monitor research at Lincoln Laboratories, said some of the disagreement about the nature of MIT's involvement in weapons research could come from the way contracts are written.

The actual contracts between the Air Force and MIT specify, among other things, that Lincoln Laboratories shall conduct a strategic research program that "will embrace efforts related to ballistic missle offense and defense to include the management and operation of a test site and work in penetration technology."

It states that the tactical program at Lincoln "will include developments in surveillance of ground and air targets, strike and weapon guidance, tactical communications and countermeasures."

And though Lincoln isn't involved in regular production of weapons systems, the contract states part of its complex mission is to "produce, or have produced, initial models of Lab-developed equipment suitable for field demonstration and test by appropriate military services or agencies."

But Oppenheim suggested that "these contracts tend to sound more specific than the work really is. As the proposals move through the funding system, people do a lot of crafting to make a round peg fit in a square hole. We all know this goes on."

Oppenheim said it enhances the possibility of getting basic research sponsored if some practical applications that could result from the work are described. For better or worse, he added, "the Defense Department is our Ministry of Science."

Robert Levey, Boston Globe Newspaper Aug 7, 1983

Anarchist Studies Review of 'Decoding Chomsky'

Anarchist Studies Review of 'Decoding Chomsky'

Noam Chomsky is a famous anarchist and scientist, but he is not an anarchist scientist. In his latest book, What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016), there are no links between the political (and indeed quite anarchist) chapter ‘What Is the Common Good?’ and the linguistic and epistemological rest of the book. This separation of spheres of thinking is odd – and typical of Chomsky. It is also understandable and his most serious mistake, claims Chris Knight in his sharp book Decoding Chomsky. It is a straightforward, clear, and fast read. It focuses on all the major phases of Chomsky’s linguistic theory, their institutional preconditions, and their ideological and political ramifications. And it is absolutely devastating.


Knight picks all versions of Chomsky’s theory to pieces until they appear as an inaccessible private fantasy about a thing we virtually cannot know anything about: ‘language’, a thing that has nothing to do with people talking with each other. This ‘language’ and any science of it is utterly useless for all practical purposes – here, Chomsky and Knight agree.


It is one of Knight’s main points that the purposeful uselessness of Chomsky’s theories is the result of an intellectual split in Chomsky himself. On the one hand, there is the political activist who attacks the Pentagon. On the other hand, there is the scientist whose research and career are mainly financed by the Pentagon. To be able to look in the mirror without shame, the MIT professor Chomsky had to sever any links between his politics and his science. Although his activism against the Vietnam War was a real nuisance and his linguistics proved, in the end, to be void of any practical use, the US war machine still supported its strange dissident. Why?

Knight draws a bigger picture of scientific revolutions and their uses. Chomsky was the Platonic and quasi-Cartesian champion of the ‘cognitive revolution’, a revolution very useful for those that wanted to defeat Marxism. While Marxism united science and politics, Chomsky’s rejection of materialism in favour of mentalism divided them. For him, science is something that happens in the minds of singular scientists, while politics cannot be treated in any scientific way at all. Thus, for Knight (who is a Marxist), Chomsky is one of the main culprits for the demise of the left because he made science, formerly an emancipatory endeavour, into an exclusive and feckless activity for those lucky enough to have Pentagon funding.


Chomsky erects intellectual barriers to science, thereby shutting off ordinary people from the knowledge necessary for revolution. This resembles mainstream media’s manipulation of public opinion – with regard to Chomsky’s famous Manufacturing Consent, this is quite ironic, finds Knight.


Knight’s writing style is sometimes polemic, but as far as I, someone without expertise in linguistics, can tell, the arguments about linguistics are valid. Knight presents convincing alternative theories that, unlike Chomsky’s, are consistent with Darwinism, anthropology, and other empirically testable theories on child development, language use, and evolution. He has modest respect for Chomsky’s impressive impact on activists. He may even be right about Chomsky’s and the Pentagon’s motivations, and does not get caught in the trap of conspiracy theories.

But there is also a typically Marxist inconsistency in his argument. In his closing paragraphs, he asserts that ‘it is not consciousness which determines conditions, but the other way round. Experience counts for more than abstract ideas’ (p240). From ‘Universal Grammar’ to ‘Minimalism’, Chomsky’s theories are surely abstract ideas. But so are Marx’s. The father figure of Communism was treated as worshipfully by his disciples as the father figure of the cognitive revolution is by his. Surely, Knight is right when he observes that ‘Chomsky comes close to revolutionary politics, yet always steps back at the last moment … he appears torn between the anarchist dream of overthrowing the state and a variety of all-too-familiar proposals for reforming it’ (p241). But this reformism is just what distinguishes Marxism from anarchism – in this respect, Chomsky is too Marxist! Whilst I would agree with Knight that ‘[o]nce people feel empowered and connected, they are likely to experience a thirst for newly relevant ideas, perhaps utterly revolutionary ones’ (p240), I would add that these are unlikely to be found in the writings of Marx or Engels. The people could create their own ideas, from the bottom up. As useful as science may be for this endeavour, Chomsky’s arguably is not.

Peter Seyferth, Anarchist Studies, Autumn 2017.

A 1971 Survey of Military Research in US Universities

In 2016, the psychologist Howard Gardner suggested to Noam Chomsky that the US military initially hoped to find practical uses for his work. Chomsky replied:

That’s actually a widespread illusion. … It’s very widely believed but the military didn’t care what you were doing. … The military didn’t care. What the military was doing was serving as a kind of a funnel by which taxpayer money was being used to create the high-tech economy of the future. … This was just US industrial policy. The way you develop the economy of the future was by the government, meaning the taxpayer, funding research and ultimately handing it over to private corporations for profit. … The Pentagon happens to be a natural way of funding electronics based research and development. [‘A Conversation with Noam Chomsky and Howard Gardner’, 2016, available at, 1 hour 7–11 mins.]

This is a persuasive argument, especially when coming from someone like Chomsky. But it was rather contradicted by the following research paper by anti-militarist activists in Science from November 1974: 


Department of Defense R & D in the University

The Department of Defense designs its R & D programs intelligently so that they meet projected military needs.

By Stanton A. Glantz and Norm V. Albers (from Science, no. 4165, 22 November 1974, pp. 706, 710-11.)

Since World War II, universities in the United States have received substantial sums of money from the Department of Defense (DOD) to pay costs of scientific and technological projects. In the years immediately after the war, the military-in particular, the Office of Naval Research-was the preeminent source of support for academic science in a broad range of disciplines. Subsequently, other agencies developed research budgets, but the DOD still remains a major, and sometimes, dominant, source of money for scientific research. The availability of these large sums of money led many universities to adopt policies that would encourage faculty members to develop research interests that would be "fundable"; and this, in turn, led to affluence and rapid growth in many areas of science.

This situation continued quietly until the movement against the Indochina war gathered strength and increasing numbers of people began to question the role of universities in the war. This questioning often grew into acrimonious and occasionally violent debate on the nature and propriety of R & D done in the university under contract with the DOD. Opponents of DOD projects argued, on political and moral grounds, that individual responsibility required scientists to take a moral stand against U.S. policy in Indochina by refusing to work on military projects. Backers of DOD projects argued that the DOD supported projects solely on their scientific merits and that investigators supported by the DOD were simply engaged in an unbiased search for scientific truth which happened to be funded by DOD, not in projects that would benefit military operations in Indochina. Thus, the debate was focused on the merits and morality of specific individuals or laboratories connected with specific contracts or grants, not on the overall effects and implications of DOD funding on science, scientists, or universities.

To resolve this controversy we, with other investigators, studied all the DOD contracts at Stanford University active on 9 February 1971 (1). On that date, Stanford faculty members held 96 research contracts (worth $12.6 million) and 15 development contracts (worth $1.5 million). We found that individual scientists paid with DOD money did indeed view themselves as being involved in objective searches for scientific truth and that they did not consider their searches to be intimately connected with the immediate military problems in Indochina. We also found that the DOD supports research to obtain capabilities for which military planners foresee a need, and supports development to implement these capabilities in terms of specific military systems. Our study demonstrated that the military had developed a rational, well-administered program to define research priorities in terms of current and projected military needs and to purchase R & D from universities based on these needs. Thus, while the scientific process as reflected in each individual project proceeded objectively, funding availability biased scientists' choices on which projects to pursue.

The situation represented by the system of DOD sponsored work at Stanford raises serious questions about the university's efforts to fulfil its role of protecting the processes by which people search for scientific truth. For nonscientific standards set outside the scientific community to have a heavy influence on the choice of which projects are undertaken may be proper and desirable for industry or government; but, if one believes that universities exist in part to foster the unbiased development of human knowledge, it is not compatible with the universities' role as agency to protect the scientific process.

A DOD position paper (2) summarized our study of Stanford's 111 DOD contracts and grants:

The report contains a project-by-project review of the content of about 100 Stanford Defense research projects, examining the military as well as the scientific objectives, and includes comments offered by research faculty members who were invited to contribute. The authors compared the university descriptions of each project . . . with the abbreviated description filed in the Defense Documentation Center [(DDC) (Fig. 1)]. . . . Great differences were found in statements of military objectives; in many cases the DDC statement contained a highly relevant objective for each project written by the DOD project monitor, while the university proposals, written by faculty researchers, largely ignored this point. A very simple explanation for these differences can be obtained by examining the research support brochures from defense agencies, . . . for these are the brochures regularly supplied to universities detailing the content requirements of research proposals. . . . None of the current brochures require the university faculty member to describe the military relevance of his proposed research [(3)]. . . . On the other hand, it has become common practice within the defense agencies to utilize the DDC statements in screening projects for relevance. ... From these two different practices it can be seen that the discrepancies reported . . .are those which should have been expected to arise, and no more than that. There is therefore some truth in the allegation that the passage of the "Mansfield Amendment" provoked these differences. The need to more carefully delineate the military relevance of defense research projects was emphasized by the military departments during the FY 1970 review of all the current research projects.

The Mansfield Amendment to the "Authorization for Military Procurement, Research and Development, Fiscal Year 1970, and Reserve Strength" states (4): "None of the funds authorized by this act may be used to carry out any research project or study unless such a project or study has a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation." While the Mansfield Amendment forced the DOD to "more carefully delineate the military relevance of defense research projects," it did not significantly affect the nature of DOD sponsored work at Stanford. Most contracts active on 9 February 1971 originated before the amendment and already met the test of having "a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function or operation."

The DOD's university programs are well organized and well administered to support the Armed Services' missions. The DOD need not coerce individual faculty members to work in areas of military technology; indeed, the DOD receives mostly unsolicited proposals (5). Since the DOD receives four to ten times as many proposals as it can fund, it merely selects those projects which fit its needs. There are nonmilitary applications of much DOD sponsored R & D but, when one assesses the nature of DOD research in the university, this random civilian "spillover" must be contrasted with the systematically organized program to develop military technology that underlies every DOD decision to fund or not to fund a proposal.

How the Military Selects Proposals

The DOD purchases research to develop capabilities needed for its current and projected operational requirements, not to build a generally strong technology base for the nation. Such requirements ultimately justify each contract. In defining military requirements and linking them to military research objectives, each service completes four stages (6): (i) Analysis of actual performance of military tasks (for example, can a foot soldier communicate with his commander?), which leads to operational objectives. (ii) The related systems division or military laboratory translates operational objectives into systems objectives (for example, a new piece of communications equipment). (iii) The systems command uses the systems objectives to generate technical objectives (micropower integrated circuitry). (iv) Finally, the research office (the Army Research Office) compares these technical objectives with the present status of applicable technologies and R & D resources to design a set of research objectives, which, if successfully realized, will yield the needed technical capabilities. Contact monitors in the research offices use these objectives, listed in the Army's Military Themes for Oriented Research of High Scientific Merit (7), in the Air Force Research Objectives (8), and in the Naval Research Requirements (9), to decide which proposals are worth funding [for example, the Stanford contract, "Micropower Integrated Circuits" (10)].

The research offices are organized into sections paralleling the services' research objectives, with competent technical specialists heading each section. They administer a two-part review process to choose proposals to fund (11). After receipt, several referees selected by the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council consider the proposal's scientific merit. Simultaneously, scientists in the military laboratory supporting work on systems which require the new capabilities judge whether or not successful completion of the proposed work will help their work. Both the National Research Council's determination of scientific merit and the military laboratory experts' judgement of relevance must be affirmative or DOD will not fund the proposal.

Research Contracts: Two Examples

Tracing DOD sponsored research back to military operations is difficult because operations, systems, and technical objectives are classified. However, we know these connections exist because a contract monitor must declare that a proposal promises to fulfil some technical requirement listed in the classified Technical Objectives Document when he recommends funding (12). Sometimes the operations, systems, and technical objectives appear in congressional hearings, as with the Army helicopter program (13, part 1, p. 719):

Our R & D effort in support of our activities in Southeast Asia continues. In this war without battle lines . . . our helicopter developments have provided improved mobility in terrain that presents numerous obstacles to conventional land movement. . . . Air mobility is our first priority for R & D in the Army. Our primary effort in this area is directed toward the development of an attack helicopter. It is a part of the evolutionary concept of using an aerial platform for close support and antitank missions [(14, part 6, p. 30) ]. . . . As the preeminent employer of rotorcraft, we must continue and increase our R & D support of these vehicles which are uniquely suited to Army use. We plan a broad technology program encompassing the design and demonstration of new concepts in rotors, innovations in rotary wing aircraft designs, and maintainability and reliability. We require a rotary wing technology base equivalent to that of fixed wing aircraft.

The Proceedings of the Chief Investigators' Conference and Review of the Military Theme "Helicopter and VISTOL [vertical and short takeoff and landing aircraft] Aircraft Research" reflects further systems objectives and technical requirements (15):

Over the next few years the Army proposes to develop several new aircraft . . . the Advanced Aerial Fire Support Systems, the Heavy Life Helicopter, the Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System, and the Manned Air Vehicle for Surveillance. To provide demonstrated technology to support these aircraft system developments, the Army is funding efforts in advanced rotary wing technology, maintainability and reliability, propulsion, survivability, noise reduction aerial weapons, night vision, advanced fire control systems, and advanced navigation and control systems.

Looking toward our new aircraft, here are some of the problems to which we seek solutions: rotary wing aerodynamics and dynamics, . . . materials that improve the survivability, reliability and economy of rotary wing aircraft, . . . reduce the noise of rotor craft without penalizing performance, . . . gas turbine engines of high power-to-weight ratio with improved reliability, . . . improved stability and controllability for V/STOL aircraft.

In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee (13, part 1, p. 804) the Army gives a breakdown of 32 budget items relating to helicopter development, including programs in propulsion, structures, weapons, guidance, surveillance, and target acquisition. The first entry in the list, the research program "Mechanics: IF061 101A33F Research in Aeronautics," supports 708 Stanford's contract, "Research in Aircraft Structural Analysis and Design." The code number appears on the contract's DDC statement, which describes the work as "development of structural analysis and design criteria for the application of advanced composite materials to future Army rotary wing and V/STOL vehicles" (16). Stanford holds two other Army helicopter contracts. Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center funds them through a reciprocal agreement with the Army Air Mobility Research and Development Laboratory, there are no DDC statements available to yield project numbers; however, their place in this Army effort is easily discerned. The "Basic Studies in Aerodynamic Noise" contract (17) relates to the problem of excessive helicopter rotor noise. John Foster, director of Defense Research and Engineering, cited this example (14, part 6, pp. 33-36):

An OH-6 helicopter was modified so that its noise was reduced to less than current levels. In particular, this OH-6 can be flown overhead and be essentially inaudible against many backgrounds. This can be a major factor in reducing helicopter vulnerability to detection.

The second contract, "Study of the Dynamics and Control of Rotary-Wing VTOL Aircraft" (18), was aimed to produce techniques for aerial platform stabilization and for flight path control and optimization. The Army's "aerial platform for close support and antitank missions" requires these techniques. Helicopter technology illustrates how military operational objectives (moving soldiers and equipment easily in difficult terrain) lead to system formulation (the Utility Tactical Transport Aircraft System), technical objectives (improved structural analysis; new materials, such as composites for lightweight construction; control techniques for better flight performance), and finally research directions. In both of these examples, the DOD and the researcher seek the same final result. In other cases, however, DOD is not concerned with the researcher's final result, but rather the process or technology he uses to achieve it. Thus, the Navy supports Stanford's superconducting accelerator program (19) even though there are no apparent military applications for most of the physics done with the accelerator's electron beam (20). To accelerate the beam, a substantial amount of electromagnetic energy must be transferred at microwave frequencies, a process made more efficient by cooling the system to liquid helium temperatures, where the components become superconducting. Robert A. Frosch, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development explained (13, part 2, p. 1505):

... how scientific work which sometimes doesn't have-for everyone-an obvious connection to military missions can frequently be seen to have such a connection. For example . . . this large scale refrigerator for operating at very, very low temperatures means that we can build electronic systems which will be much more compact, reliable, and efficient. The cryogenic technique would permit a great advance in certain kinds of radar and electronic warfare systems. The fact that we can build this refrigerator on this scale means that it will probably become a practical matter to obtain high efficiency in the transfer of electromagnetic radiation on board ship.

While we do not have the resources to trace every contract back to a military operational requirement, we can identify the military research objectives they are funded to meet. This identification process is similar for Air Force and Navy contracts, but somewhat different for Army contracts. The Army describes its research needs in 51 "military themes" (7), as "Ceramics for Structural Use," "Gas Dynamics of Missiles and Projectiles," or "Helicopter and V/STOL Aircraft Research." In contrast, the Air Force (8) and the Navy (9) divide their research needs by major scientific discipline (21). Either singly or in small groups, research contracts comprise code number "projects" in the booklets of both services. (Projects, which are lowest on the DOD budget's scale, include many contracts, called "work units," given on a competitive basis to industry and university researchers.) -The DDC statements include project codes; the four-digit entry under "primary number code" (see Fig. 1 ) enabled us to match all but six contracts with their military research objectives (22).

The Development Contracts

In comparison with research contracts, development contracts are one step closer to the creation of operational military hardware or capabilities. Whereas the military significance of a research contract follows from its associated technical objectives, the significance of development contracts lie in their systems objectives. In other words, DOD purchases research to create technical capabilities; development to implement them. The military laboratory or systems command responsible for developing and testing components or finished hardware, not the service's research agency, lets development contracts. Industry (such as the Rand Corporation) and military laboratories hold 95 percent of development contracts. Universities hold the remaining 5 percent (13, part 1, p. 323).

Faculty members hold contracts for each of three types of development: (i) exploratory development, which "is pointed toward specific military problem areas with a view toward developing and evaluating the feasibility and practicability of proposed solutions and determining their parameters"; (ii) advanced development, which includes "all projects which have moved into developing hardware for experimental or operational test; the design of the items is directed toward hardware for test or experimentation as opposed to items designed and engineered specifically for eventual military use"; (iii) engineering development, which describes "those development projects being engineered for military service use but which have not yet been approved for procurement or operation" (23).

As with research, detailed information showing the military importance of development contract work is classified, but we can occasionally deduce this connection from sources besides the DOD. For example, the trade journal, Microwaves and Laser Technology, devoted an issue to electronic warfare (24). The section "Surface Acoustic Waves: New Processing Tools for Electronic Warfare" outlined why these devices are being developed (24, p. 46) (our italics):

An effective electronic warfare system requires the ability to identify the various elements in a hostile environment and to take appropriate action against them. In the two key areas of this problem, measurement of threat frequencies and deception of hostile radars, acoustic surface wave devices offer the prospect of dramatic improvement in system capability.... Specifically, those surface wave devices which should find wide utility in Electronic Warfare systems include discretely variable delay lines for coherent range deception, banks of miniature bandpass filters for discriminator front ends, and large time-bandwidth dispersive delay lines for compressive receivers.

"Coherent range deception" is an electronic countermeasure used to confuse a hostile radar by giving it false information about its distance from a target. (The hostile radar judges distance by measuring the time it takes a radar pulse to propagate out, bounce off the target, and return. If the target contains a device which "records" the incoming signal, delays it briefly then retransmits it, the target appears farther from the hostile radar.) Microwave acoustic delay lines are vital to this process (24, p. 50):

A range deception repeater is required to respond simultaneously to a wide band of radar signals over extremes of both airborne and shipboard environments, and in turn retransmit deceptive and erroneous range information. Range deception may be accomplished by means of a variable delay line which permits the delay of each incident pulse by an increasing amount. The end result of this operation is confusion of the tracking radar causing it to "break lock" on the target. . . . The problems which must be conquered include reduction in the costs of materials, reduction of insertion loss, the achievement of higher frequencies of operation and the extension of achievable time delay or processing time . . . much of the insertion loss may be eliminated by means of unidirectional transducers such as those developed at Stanford University.

Both the Navy (25) and the Air Force have exploratory development contracts supporting this work: the latter sponsors the contract "Microwave Device Techniques for Aerospace Users" (26), the former sponsors "Research on Devices Using Acoustic Surface Waves" (27).

Two Different Perceptions

These typical examples demonstrate that DOD intelligently supports research and development to further progress toward well-defined military objectives or, in the case of development contracts, contribute to specific projects. Most faculty members see the situation differently. Consider this, example of how researchers and the DOD perceive the same work differently. The Army Research Office's DDC statement describes a contract, "Fundamental Investigation of Amorphous Semiconductors and Transition Metal Oxides," as a study (28)

to obtain fundamental information concerning amorphous semiconductors and transition metal oxides. This research is concerned with the influence of the disorder in amorphous semiconductors on the ability of their [sic] materials to effect the emission of electrons through radiation which is a crucial function of the materials used in photocathodes in night viewing devices.

The principal investigator objected to this description of his work; he wrote (29):

The DDC statement ... is a misstatement of the facts. As can clearly be seen from the proposal, all reports, and the publications which have been issued, absolutely no connection can be made between the studies being done here and the "ability of their materials to effect the emission of electrons through radiation which is a crucial function of the materials used as photocathodes in night viewing devices.

The military theme statement on night vision work elucidates the Army's context for funding this work and possible origins of the DDC phraseology (7, p. 52):

Tactical superiority in military operations at night depends on the ability of the soldier to operate effectively. An important adjunct to his effectiveness is to provide perfect night vision without revealing the location of the observer, and to develop techniques which are not affected by countermeasures. . . . The total night vision research program includes basic and applied research studies related to four specific areas: image intensification, optical and infrared radiation, far infrared detection, and visionics (the analysis and performance of night vision systems and their interaction with man).

The Proceedings of the Chief Investigators' Conference and Review of the Military Theme "Research on Night Vision" (30) adds insight into the Army's motivation. Benjamin Goldberg, director of the Night Vision Laboratory (NVL) is reported as saying in his opening remarks (30, p. 3) that he . . .

recalled the very successful meeting held in 1968, and hoped that the present audience would continue to be stimulated in areas of research of interest to the NVL.... He stated that the NVL knows the importance of research since without the fruits of research, systems work stalls and comes to a stop. He pointed to . . . areas in which long-term research has been very important such as in the third generation photocathode work. . . . He hoped that the presentations by NVL personnel during the session before the university papers were given would give the flavor of the work being carried on, and provide faculty members with a chance to tailor research to assist in NVL's efforts.

This contract's monitor, Robert Mace, whose job includes studying proposals and writing DDC statements certified (11) that, although the wording sounded stilted after computer processing, the DDC statement accurately indicated this research's relevance to Army requirements. He also said that the statements were written in response to congressional pressure to demonstrate the military relevance of DOD sponsored research. This did not mean that the Army justified their projects after the fact. Rather, the DDC statements express in writing the same principles under which funding had been granted prior to the Mansfield Amendment.

Mace referred us to John Dawson, the chief scientist of the Army Research Office, who said he could see how the principal investigator did not consider the DDC statement to represent accurately his perception of research, but that the criticism was incorrect when claiming that there was "no connection to be made." He summarized the difference between his and the investigator's view by observing, "Basic research, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder" (31).

A Realistic Perspective

We have seen how academic research and development fits into DOD programs. In an interview, Marshall Harrington, an Air Force contract monitor, Elliot Weinberg, director of Scientific Research, Office of Naval Research, and Edward Reilley, assistant director of Defense Research and Engineering, accurately described DOD's relationship with the university (32) (our italics):

The Department of Defense makes a very thorough effort to insure funding only research projects directly relevant to the military's technological needs. Not only is there direct pressure from the Congress to get the best possible return on every dollar spent, there is a sufficiently large number of research proposals received so that the funding agencies can afford to choose only those most nearly matching their goals. The ratio of proposals received to those accepted is anywhere from four to one to ten to one, varying from one research agency to another.

The DOD is not simply accepting scientific and technological products coming from a random pattern of independent research activities in the universities. Rather DOD interest in some particular area can stimulate growth and development planned to fill specific short-term and/or general long-term technological gaps in the military's capability. Thus, given the large amount of funds involved, and the large percentage of all engineering research these funds account for, the DOD plays a powerful role in shaping the profile of engineering research at Stanford and many other universities. This effect can be either quantitative or qualitative. In the absence of DOD interest laser physics would not enjoy the level of support it now receives at Stanford; funding by another agency, such as the National Science Foundation, would probably be allocated to different types of projects. Theoretical statistics could not have developed in the same areas it has over the past decade.

It is the responsibility of those making the higher level decisions on the directions of research funding to maintain a comprehensive understanding of the present state of technology and the relations, both actual and potential of many specific technologies to military problems. This expertise, maintained by constant study of all the major technical journals, industrial reports, and information from both civilian scientific advisory boards and military planners, gives these men a more complete and far-reaching vision of the technical and systems possibilities toward which research planning can be directed than that enjoyed by most researchers in the industrial or academic sectors of the R & D establishment. The direct link of DOD contract funding is more efficient for these purposes than having the same or similar work supported by other agencies such as the NSF [(33)]. Meetings are periodically held between top representatives of DOD, NSF, AEC, and NASA to apportion research areas in the most appropriate manner.

Once a particular project is decided upon there are a number of additional criteria bearing on the decision to fund a proposal. The work must hold intrinsic promise of high quality, judged both by the proposal and the background of the investigator. The latter should be in an environment stimulating his research, for example, there should be adequate facilities, competent workers (laboratory staff, graduate students, and so on) and colleagues with whom ideas can be exchanged and developed. The extent to which a project aids the educational function of the university is not important in the decision to grant a contract. This is presumably a consideration of the university in approving and forwarding the proposal.

Our study of all Stanford's DOD contracts supports these statements. They represent a reasonable understanding of the relationship between Stanford University and the DOD.


The DOD carefully evaluates its technical needs and executes programs of sponsored research and development to fulfil them. Thus, while individual projects proceed in accordance with established scientific principles of objectivity, the overall system of DOD funding allows the military to influence the development of science technology. Many have argued that this system of contracts and grants has well served science and the universities. One cannot deny that the influx of money led to rapid progress in selected scientific fields and increased scientific institutions' affluence. With this fact we have no quarrel. However, these same people often continue to argue that the systems of federal funding for science, specifically DOD funding of science, follows merely on the work's scientific merit, not on how it fits any larger scheme. They continue, that, since DOD supports good science for its own sake, the combination of military money and universities strongly encouraging faculty to seek that money encourages healthy competition for faster scientific progress. The DOD's approval process is seen to follow from the scientist up, with the military deciding which proposals for research have the most intrinsic (scientific) merit, then after the fact, thinking up a military justification for congressional budget requests. It is this latter belief with which we take issue. The DOD considers the scientific worth of the proposals for research it receives, but only after it has determined that the proposal fulfils a specific military need.

This fact and its implications for the university as an institution charged with protecting the process by which man discovers new knowledge have been ignored in the debates over DOD sponsored research and development in universities. In addition, the Nixon Administration's efforts to tighten management controls over civilian research, especially in the biomedical and energy areas, promises to further undermine the university's role as an institution charged with fostering a search for truth free from bias in both methodology and subject selection.


(Dr. Glantz is a senior postdoctoral fellow in the division of cardiology at Stanford University Medical Center, Stanford, California 94305. Mr. Albers is a physicist who is now working as a piano tuner-craftsman.)

Also see: Letters, Science, no. 4189, 16 May 1975, pp. 678–83; Stanford Daily, 14 February 1973, p. 2.


References and Notes

 1. Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI) sponsored this study. SWOPSI, a program of student-initiated courses, has sponsored over 200 workshop courses for credit during its 5 years of existence. For more details, see S. A. Glantz. C. A. Farlow, R. A. Simpson. N. V. Albers, D. E. Pocekay, W. E. Holley, M. F. Becker, S. S. Ashley, M. R. Headrick, DOD Sponsored Research at Stanford, vol. 1, Two Perceptions: The Investigator's and the Sponsor's (SWOPSI, Stanford, Calif., 1971); N. V. Albers, S. S. Ashley. M. F. Becker, C. A. Farlow, S. A. Glantz, R. A. Simpson, DOD Sponsored Research at Stanford, vol. 2, Its Impact on the University (SWOPSI, Stanford. Calif.. 1972). Copies of these publications are available from SWOPSI, 590A-Old Union, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. 94305.

2. Department of Defense, Analysis of the Originate of "A Rose by Any Other Name May Be Defense Research," Department of Defense position paper on DOD Sponsored Research at Stanford (1, vol. 1) (Department of Defense, unpublished paper, 7 September 1971). Written in response to United Press International stories on the same publication that were printed in the Washington Post and Washington Star, 5 August 1971.

3. A news article [D. Shapley, Science 175, 866 (1972)] on our study (1, vol. 1) stated: "Why is DOD reluctant to require scientists to come forward and state military uses of their work? Laird explained that it might cause DOD to lose top scientific talent and research. In an interview [with Science], Edward Reilley, assistant director of Defense Research and Engineering, said it would 'advertise' DOD's weaknesses. 'We don't believe it's possible for any faculty member to be versed in DOD's needs.' As for faculty who seek support from DOD telling their campus constituency that their work has no military uses, Reilley saw no need to "punish" those 'few' by requiring a statement. Whether a 'few' of the faculty at Stanford need their knuckles rapped, however, is a relatively minor matter. The main point is that DOD now exempts all scientists from grappling with the key moral issue of the uses to which their research results will be put."

4. Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 91st Congress, 2nd Session on S3376 and HR17123 (Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1970), p. 159. See S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, pp. 29-37) or R. W. Nichols, Science 172, 29 (1971) for more discussion of the Mansfield Amendment.

5. It is not uncommon for DOD representatives to suggest projects to faculty, but we have discovered no arm-twisting when the faculty member does not express an interest. Much informal communication often occurs between the faculty and their DOD task monitors. Stanford's engineering school recognizes and encourages this communication: "A strong and direct contact between the principal investigator and the research sponsor (technical staff mainly) must be developed and maintained throughout the contract period to guarantee the optimum coordination of interests, transfer of results, etc. (This evidence of personal interest is of most genuine value when contract renewal time again approaches.)" [Stanford School of Engineering, Sponsored Research in the School of Engineering- The Role of Research Coordination (Stanford Univ., Stanford, Calif., 1968), p. 4].

6. E. Reilley, assistant director of Defense Research and Engineering, interviewed by N. V. Albers, 24 August 1971.

7. U.S. Army Research Office, Military Themes for Oriented Research of High Scientific Merit (U.S. Army Research Office, Durham, N.C., 1970).

8. Air Force Systems Command, Air Force Research Objectives, 1971 (Air Force Systems Command, Washington, D.C., 1970). 9. Office of Naval Research, Naval Research Requirements (Office of Naval Research, Arlington, Va., 1970).

10. S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, p. 196). In the contract the investigator agrees to ". . conduct investigation in accordance with integrated Electronics Division Technical Guidelines for Micropower Integrated Circuits for Portable Equipment. Principal investigator: J. Meindl.

11. R. Mace, director of the Physics Division, U.S. Army Research Office, Durham, N.C., interviewed by N. V. Albers, 25 August 1971.

12. M. Harrington, contract monitor at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, interviewed by N. V. Albers, 24 August 1971.

13. 91st Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Committee on Armed Services, Hearings on "Authorization for Military Procurement, Research and Development, Fiscal Year 1971, and Reserve Strength."

14. 92nd Congress, Ist Session, House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Hearings opt "DOD Appropriations for 1972."

15. U.S. Army Research Office, Proceedings of the Chief Investigators' Conference and Review of the Military Theme "Helicopter and VISTOL Aircraft Research" (U.S. Army Research Office, Durham, N.C., 1970), pp. 4-5.

16. See S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, pp. 188- 189). Principal investigator of this project: J. Mayers.

17. , ibid., p. 162. Principal investigator of this project: K. Karamchetti.

18. , ibid., p. 59. Principal investigator of this project: A. Bryson.

19. , ibid., p. 139. Principal investigators of this project: R. Hofstadter and W. Fairbank.

20. For a good discussion of this issue, see B. T. Feld, G. W. Rothjens, S. Weinberg, Eds., Impact of New Technologies on the Arms Race (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1971).

21. G. Hansen, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development, testified: "Our research has a great diversity because the Air Force must do many different things to carry out its mission. But while our research is comprehensive to our needs, it is not encyclopedic. We don't support broad research programs in genetics, in botany, in geriatrics, in oceanography, in automotive engineering, on highways, or in other areas which either have been assigned to some other sponsor or which have little direct and apparent mission applicability to the Air Force." (91st Congress, 2nd Session, Senate Appropriations Committee Hearings on DOD Appropriations, Fiscal Year 1971, part 4, p. 563.

22. Although Air Force and Navy projects are analogous to Army "military themes," Army project numbers are not included in its research booklet. Therefore, in matching Army contracts to military themes we made educated guesses, usually obvious choices. See N. V. Albers et al. (1, vol. 2, pp. 20-38) for a list of Stanford research contracts and corresponding military research objectives.

23. 91st Congress, Ist Session, House of Representatives Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Hearings on "DOD Appropriations for 1970" part 5, p. 673. All the research contracts are funded under one budget program element, Defense Research Sciences, designated "61102." On the other hand, development contracts are parts of different program elements, identified by different numbers (exploratory development numbers begin with 62, advanced development, with 63, engineering development with 64). Just as research contracts have project numbers within the Defense Research Sciences program, so development contracts are further identified by project numbers. These numbers appear on the DDC statements and in the DOD budget presented during congressional testimony. Thus, we associate each development contract with the mission of the military laboratory which let the contract.

24. Microwaves Laser Technology. 10- (No. 10) (October 1971).

25. R. Frosch, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development, testified: "The major effect in shipboard electronic warfare has been directed against the antiship missile. To this end, a Ship Anti-Missile Integrated Defense (SAMID) program has been established to integrate discrete systems into a total ship system responsive to the command and control organization. .-. . The airborne electronic warfare project are directed toward the self-protection of our attack and fighter aircraft, and to the development of information gathering systems that will lead to a still greater capability to provide projection" (13, part 2, p. 1521).

26. See S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, p. 71). Principal investigator of this project: M. Chodorow. There was no DDC statement for this contract and no program number appeared on the contract document. However, in Senate Appropriations Committee Hearings, the Rome Air Development Center's "Ground Electronics Program" (62702F) is described with "Microwave Tubes and Devices" being one project (5573). On the following page all major contractors are listed, including Stanford. Since Stanford holds only one Rome Air Development Center contract, we conclude that the reference is to Chodorow's contract. (21, part 5, p. 673.)

27. See S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, p. 242). Principal investigator of this project: H. Shaw.

28. Principal investigator of the project: W. Spicer. Based on the principal investigator's proposals, the current contract, and a questionnaire to the principal investigator, this work was summarized (1, vol. pp. 255-256) as follows: "Amorphous (disordered) semiconductors are being studied to determine their electronic properties and to compare them with the more fully understood crystalline materials. The principal tool of the study is photoemission (process by which electrons are emitted from a material when it is illuminated). Optical measurements are also made when they are needed. Electron transport and infra-red measurements are made at the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake which has unique facilities in these areas. "In general, test materials will be chosen because fundamental questions regarding their electronic structures are still unanswered. Materials to be tested include pure amorphous Germanium and Germanium with group Ill and group V dopant. The Ge-Te system will also be studied 'since it is of practical interest as a memory device.' "The second half of the contract work is devoted to the study of transition metal oxides, crystalline materials. Of particular interest in this group is V204 which is an insulator below 67°C. and conductor above that temperature. Conventional energy band calculations predict that this material should be a good conductor. The experimental work is directed at understanding the cause of this peculiar phase transition. Other transition metal oxides similar in some ways to V204 will also be studied to gain perspective on the problem." (Material in single quotes from proposal for 24 June 1969 to September 1972.)

29. See S. A. Glantz et al. (1, vol. 1, pp. 255- 256). After the publication of N. V. Albers et al. (1, vol. 2), W. Spicer issued the following statement: "Photoemitters that are important for practical applications fall into two classes. (1) The alkali-antimony photocathodes presently in use, and (2) The Ill-V materials such as GaAs which may become important in the future. The first class of materials is so different from Ge and normally contains such a high density of structural defects (over 1C1"/cm:') that it seems highly unlikely that knowledge applicable to it can be gained from the study of amorphous Ge. "For the III-V materials, the photocathode becomes useless long before the defect structure approaches that of amorphous Ge. Therefore, I think that it is very doubtful that our work will contribute to night vision as suggested by a properly translated DDC statement. The possibility cannot be ruled out completely but I believe the work supported by the Army is no more likely to make such a contribution than that supported by the NSF or NASA."

30. U.S. Army Research Office, Proceedings of the Chief Investigators' Conference and Review of the Military Theme "Research for Night Vision" (U.S. Army Research Office, Durham, N.C., 1971). The proceedings include W. Spicer's paper, "Fundamental Investigation of Amorphous Semiconductors and Transition Metal Oxides."

31. J. Dawson, chief scientist of the Army Research Office, Durham, N.C., interviewed by N. V. Albers, 25 August 1971.

32. M. Harrington, Air Force contract monitor, Air Force Office of Scientific Research; E. Weinberg, director of Scientific Research at the Office of Naval Research; and E. Reilley, assistant director of Defense Research and Engineering, Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, interviewed by C. A. Farlow, N. V. Albers, and M. F. Becker, 12 August 1971.

33. A study, Project Hindsight, conducted by the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering and published in 1966 supports this claim. The researchers selected weapons systems, dissected them into subsystems and components, then "identified each contribution from recent science and technology which, in their judgment, is clearly important either to increased performance or to reduced cost, compared to a predecessor system...." Each discrete contribution was called an "event." They concluded: ". that the relative efficiency of production of science and technology events which have been utilized in defense is substantially higher when funded and managed by the Defense Department or defense industry than it is when funded and managed by the non-defense sector of government or industry. . Thus, we see that although technological 'spin-off' into defense weapon systems from the non-defense sector exists, it is very small, and it is quite inadequate to produce the number of innovations needed to make possible the large increases in performance which have been attained" (our italics). [C. W. Sherwin, First Interim Report on Project Hindsight (Summary) (Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 30 June 1966).]

34. We thank the coauthors of DOD Sponsored Research at Stanford, vols. 1 and 2, and the others who assisted us with this work: C. Farlow, R. Simpson, D. Pocekay, W. Holley, M. Becker, S. Ashley, M. Headrick, H. Ashley, W. Rambo, E. Reilley, E. Weinberg, M. Harrington, R. Mace, J. Murray, J. Dawson, J. Yudken, R. White, E. Cilley, A. Abramowitz, M. Perl, H. Holman, W. Hayes, D. Harrison, and G. Hayes.



A 1965 article on the value of Chomsky's approach for Air Force command and control

A 1965 article on the value of Chomsky's approach for Air Force command and control

In the 1960s, it was not uncommon for US scientists to justify their research projects on military grounds, if only to get Pentagon funding. Some of these justifications may have been spurious, but as long as a reasonable percentage of the projects being funded turned out to be militarily useful, the Pentagon wouldn’t have cared too much.

As this article shows, some MIT/MITRE linguists were seriously attempting to enhance Air Force military systems.

‘Linguistic Theory and System Design’ by Samuel Jay Keyser, in Joseph Spiegel and Donald Walker, Information Systems Sciences, Washington DC: 1965

Keyser JPEG.jpg

Chomsky's Supervisors at MIT, Professor Wiesner and General McCormack

Chomsky's Supervisors at MIT, Professor Wiesner and General McCormack

Jerome Wiesner was the laboratory director who first sought out Noam Chomsky, recruited him to MIT and in this way decisively influenced his career. In this article, Wiesner summarises his own military career. It is followed by a photo from Los Alamos showing another important figure at MIT, General James McCormack.



A TRIBUNE editorial [June 1], entitled "Professor Wiesner’s Dream World," questioned my ability to be objective on the issue of anti-ballistic missile deployment. You kindly concede my technical competence in the matter but state to at my advice regarding the current ABM controversy is suspect because of my "naive and credulous trust in the peaceful pretensions of the Russians."

The information you provide, including quotes from my writings, hardly presents an accurate or complete picture of my involvement with national security affairs thru the years, or supports the contention that I base my arms limitation proposals primarily on trust.

Because an important aspect of your argument was my opposition to certain weapon systems, I would like to amplify the record you printed. In 1951 I was a member of the group that developed plans for a continental air defense system and then persuaded the department of defense to build it.

In 1953, as a member of the Von Neumann committee, I helped get the United States ballistic missile program established in the face of strong opposition from the civilian and military leaders of the air force and department of defense

In 1954 I helped invent and promote the distant early warning [DEW] line which provided essential warning against bomber attacks for both strategic air command and the air defense command. I was also a proponent of the Polaris missile system, the ballistic missile early warning system, and the satellite reconnaissance systems.

In 1957 I worked on the Gaither panel, and in 1958 when President Eisenhower asked the President's science advisory committee to study the technical aspects of the then current arms limitation proposals in including the nuclear test ban treaty, I participated in those efforts. These two experiences convinced me that safe alternatives to the arms race were both vitally necessary and possible.

Since then I have supported a number of schemes to stop the arms spiral that I thought were entirely safe, and the Pugwash proposal you treat with such sarcasm and call my “dream world” is one such.

You correctly described my limited deterrent proposal, but you misunderstood it. I proposed that the United States and the U.S.S.R. limit their missile forces by agreement to a level in the 200-500 missile range. I believed then and I still believe that such an agreement is in the interest of both nations.

Contrary to your interpretation, I have never proposed arms control arrangement in which United States security depended upon trust or upon a perception of the intentions of the Soviet Union leaders. A safe missile limitation agreement is a dream world that was accessible to the world in 1960, still is, and is well worth striving for.

One last point. You state that I have opposed the Minuteman III and Poseidon missiles. I have not, tho I am against the deployment of multiple warheads on them, for I don't believe that they are needed at this time and would, in my view, escalate the arms race.

JEROME B. WIESNER, Provost, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1969


Los Alamos.jpg

Between 1955 and 1965 one of the more influential administrators at MIT was Air Force General James McCormack (in uniform standing next to Robert Oppenheimer).

Before coming to the university, General McCormack played a crucial role organising the US's post-war nuclear arsenal. He also worked on the hydrogen bomb, telling his political masters in Washington that 'if all of the theory turned out, you can have it any size up to the sun.'

When he became a Vice-President at MIT in 1958, General McCormack continued to supervise various research projects at the university including the Center for Communication Studies with which both Wiesner and Chomsky were involved.*


Here is the announcement in Technology Review, April 1966, of Chomsky's attainment of a named professorship:

Technology Review June 1966.jpg

The following article on more weapons development at MIT was nothing exceptional in the Technology Review in the 1960s. MIT's deep involvement with the US military continued into the 21st Century as shown by this piece of publicity:



* Hewlett, R.G. and F. Duncan. 1972. Atomic Shield: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Vol.2, 1947/1952. Washington: AEC, 65, 172, 408-9, 548; Rhodes, R. 1995. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, New York: Simon and Shuster, 379; The Tech, 4 October 1957, 1 and 21 October 1958, 2 and 20 October 1965, 1; Kay L. 2000. Who Wrote the Book of Life?: A History of the Genetic Code. California: Stanford University Press, 300-2.

Review of Decoding Chomsky in the American Journal of Psychology

Review of Decoding Chomsky in the American Journal of Psychology


Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics

By Chris Knight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.304 pp. Hardcover, $30.

"Abstraction, functioning in this way, becomes a means of arrest far more than a means of advance in thought. It mutilates things; it creates difficulties and finds impossibilities. . . . The viciously privative employment of abstract characters and class names is, I am persuaded, one of the great original sins of the rationalistic mind".

—William James (1909)


When I was in graduate school, I chanced on a book by Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1994). The book is a history and critique of suburbanization of the United States — in Kunstler’s words, “the ghastly spectacle of construction and destruction that converted a lovely, verdant, beckoning New World continent into a wilderness of free parking.” What I found most appealing about it was that it helped bring into greater focus my vague dissatisfaction with the suburban landscape. It not only helped answer questions about how the landscape came to be that way but put its finger on precisely what it is about the landscape that leads to this dissatisfaction. Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky does much the same for helping us understand how Noam Chomsky became the most highly cited person alive today, analyzing the historical and intellectual landscape that led to Chomsky being compared to Galileo, Newton, and Einstein, voted as the world’s top public intellectual in 2005, and even crowned royalty: Before a 2014 address at the Vatican, Chomsky was introduced as “one of the princes of linguistics.” Knight counterposes this acclaim with the strangeness of the ideas Chomsky has championed since the 1950s and makes a compelling case for the scientific vacuousness of these ideas.

It is routine for Chomsky to be hailed as the person who solved how language works. For example, writing for the New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb (2012) singles out David Marr’s work on vision and Noam Chomsky’s work on language as “the most solid . . . accounts of mental mechanisms.” Culture critic David Golumbia writes that not only did Chomsky redefine the entire discipline of linguistics, “but his work has been something close to definitive in psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, and even computer science” (Golumbia, 2009, cited by Knight on p. 2).

And so it comes as a shock to the uninitiated that the version of language Chomsky is supposed to have solved bears no relationship to language as understood not only by lay people but by most practicing language researchers. Beginning with the opening chapters of the book and throughout the later ones, Knight lays out the full strangeness of Chomsky’s vision. Is language primarily for communication? Did language evolve? Do children need to be spoken to (or signed to) in order to become competent language users? Is language a social product? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you fundamentally disagree with Chomsky on the definition of language.

Language in Chomsky’s view is reduced to an innate biological (though not gradually evolved) universal grammar (UG). Contra a common misunderstanding, UG is not the set of features that all languages have in common (a search for such linguistic similarities was the goal of Joseph Greenberg’s school of linguistics, which Chomsky rejected). Rather, UG is a set of computational properties that make it possible for people to learn (all) natural languages and to produce infinitely many utterances with a finite brain and a finite amount of experience. Stipulations about what is part of UG have changed radically during Chomsky’s career, but as Knight makes clear, the commitment to UG as the correct way to study language has remained (it is plainly stated in recent reviews of the generative approach, e.g., Everaert, Huybregts, Chomsky, Berwick, & Bolhuis, 2015). The focus on grammatical competence as the subject of study meant denying the reality of what the rest of  language researchers call “language.” Drawing on Chomsky’s writings and quoting him heavily, Knight describes how according to Chomsky “the technical term ‘language’ has no relation at all to the pre-theoretical term ‘language.’” Chomsky asserts that although UG is “something real, it is in your head, it is in my head, it is physically represented in some fashion,” “what is now ‘language’ does not need any term at all, because it is a totally useless concept. . . . It does not fit with linguistic theory, it has no existence”(p. 201).

Readers would be justified in thinking that this sounds like doing science by decree. Is Knight exaggerating? It would be a mistake to generalize the critiques of Chomsky to the field of generative linguistics at large, which contains many linguists who have distanced themselves from Chomsky (particularly in the wake of the Minimalist program), but it is Chomsky rather than generative linguistics at large that is at the center of Decoding Chomsky, and the characterization of Chomsky’s modus operandi seems valid. Consider, for example, the program of the University of Edinburgh’s Language Evolution and Computation Unit (e.g., Kirby, Cornish, & Smith, 2008; Kirby, Dowman, & Griffiths, 2007; Kirby, Griffiths, & Smith, 2014; Thompson, Kirby, & Smith, 2016). This work turned the “stimulus is poor therefore children must rely on an innate language acquisition device” dogma on its head by showing that it is because children have limited memory and are exposed to only a subset of utterances they will need to produce that language evolved—through cultural evolution—design features such as compositionality that allow it to be learned from limited input. Berwick and Chomsky dismiss all this work with a casual but telling remark: “In brief, [this work] does not appear to deal with the nature of the language faculty as we construe it here, and hence has nothing to say about the evolution of language” (Berwick & Chomsky, 2016). By the “language faculty as we construe it here,” Berwick and Chomsky are referring to UG. The idea that UG “can serve as the object (and the sole object) of a truly scientific study of language” is, according to Knight, “the foundational error at the root of all Chomsky’s other intellectual contradictions and difficulties” (p. 237).

How Did It Begin? The Original Allure of Chomsky’s Vision

The work that propelled Chomsky to stardom was the 1957 publication of Syntactic Structures. Quoting a variety of sources, Knight writes that it was “the snowball which began the avalanche of the modern ‘cognitive revolution.’ . . . ‘In the beginning was Syntactic Structures’” (p. 14). Knight points out that both Syntactic Structures and the similarly influential Aspects of the Theory of Syntax were funded in part by grants from the military. Knight asks two questions: First, why did Chomsky (“an outspoken anarchist and anti-militarist”) take the money? A more interesting and pertinent question is, “What did the military think they were buying?” (p. 16). Quoting some of the original Air Force backers of the work, Knight argues that the military “sponsored linguistic research in order to learn how to build command and control systems that could understand English queries directly” (p. 17). It is not that the military thought Chomsky would deliver them a product that would enable some kind of thought-to-machine-code translator. Rather, Chomsky’s vision was attractive because it promised to “reduce the amount of knowledge needed to understand the field” (p. 18). Rather than having to bother with details of specific languages and cultures, language could be reduced to pure, culture-free computation. If a division is established between competence and performance, all “imperfections” of language (that is, aspects that were not well fit to the theory) can be ascribed to performance, with competence remaining an object of a purely naturalistic science.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to describing the intellectual climate that made this vision of language so appealing. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Knight quotes mathematician Warren Weaver, envisioning – in 1955 – a kind of Babylonian antitower. Weaver imagines people living in a series of tall closed towers, and communication between the towers can be achieved only with great difficulty. “But, when an individual goes down his tower, he finds himself in a great open basement, common to all the towers. Here he establishes easy and useful communication with the persons who have also descended from their towers. . . . The way to translate from Chinese to Arabic, or from Russian to Portuguese, is not to attempt the direct route, shouting from tower to tower. Perhaps the way is to descend, from each language, down to the common base of human communication—the real but as yet undiscovered universal language” (p. 55). Chomsky never strove for the development of a universal language and did not share Weaver’s enthusiasm for the possibility of machine translation. But enough peoplein the 1950s had this dream to make Chomsky’s research program seem like the perfect fit for turning it into reality.

Where Are the Data?

Readers of Decoding Chomsky (and of this review) may naturally ask: Surely, Chomsky and his collaborators have offered empirical support for their theory! After all, it is, as Chomsky frequently reiterates, the only truly scientific approach to the study of language. Science requires data. What data have been offered in support of Chomsky’s theories? This is one area in which I wish Decoding Chomsky offered additional details because it would help strengthen Knight’s argument that Chomsky’s ideas lack empirical support. Recent articles address some of these shortcomings in greater detail (Edelman, in press; LaPolla, 2015; Lin, 2017; see Ibbotson & Tomasello, 2016, for a discussion aimed at a more general audience). As someone studying language outside the generativist tradition, what has always struck me about the generativist approach to data is that the only data offered seem to be in the form of “Sentence X is grammatical and sentence Y is not,” and it is the job of alternative approaches to show how they could address the theoretical constructs of the generativist approach. Here is an example from a recent review article whose central argument is that approaches to language that focus on statistical analysis and treat language as ordered strings can never succeed. Why not? Because, argue the authors, it is only by analyzing language using the generativist approach that one can understand phenomena such as “parasitic gaps” (Everaert et al., 2015). A parasitic gap (PG)is defined in the article’s glossary as “a gap (a null variable) that depends on the existence of another gap RG [real gap], sharing with it the same operator that locally binds both variables. PG must conform to a binding condition asserting that PG cannot be c-commanded by RG” (p. 732). It is this phenomenon that is supposed to explain why the sentence “Guess which politician your interest in Jane clearly appeals to” is grammatical while the sentence “Guess which politician your interest in clearly appeals to Jane” is not. (If the grammatical sentence strikes you as no more understandable than the ungrammatical one, worry not, you are simply the victim of processing constraints.)

There are two key problems with such data. First, the methods used to collect and analyze grammaticality judgments are characterized by a “deplorable. . . lack of rigor” (Schutze, 2016; see also Grandy, 1980). Typically, there is no systematic collection of grammaticality judgments and no statistical analysis. In other words, there is no attempt to do serious data collection in the one area that is supposed to provide empirical support for the theories. In an attempt to find out why this is the case, Schutze reached out to Chomsky, and Chomsky replied that research practices in linguistics ought to follow the natural sciences, where “almost no one devotes attention to ‘methodology’” (Schutze, 2016). I have a hunch that natural scientists would disagree.

The second problem (which helps to explain the first) is that even if we take grammaticality judgments as the behavior to be explained (which is rather strange in itself ), it is behavior that is the target of explanation, not theoretical constructs such as parasitic gaps. Suppose that an alternative to explaining the pattern of grammaticality judgments is offered based on this or that domain-general psychological principle or an analysis of language statistics or differences in learnability of one kind of construction or another. The response by Chomskyan linguists to such demonstrations tends to be, “But this does not explain parasitic gaps.” This is precisely the argument of Everaert et al.: “Applying analytical or statistical tools to huge corpora of data in an effort to elucidate the intriguing properties of parasitic gaps will not work” (Everaert et al., 2015, p. 735). Why should the goal be to account for the theoretical construct that is a parasitic gap? In the absence of independent evidence that a parasitic gap is something real, theories of language are not obliged to explain it. This point concerns far more than esoteric constructs such as parasitic gaps. What is the independent evidence for the reality of “empty categories,”“movement,” or “C-command”?

If it becomes possible for a machine to parse natural language without the use of these constructs, as is increasingly the case, does it not show the superfluousness of these onstructs (see Norvig, 2011, for a discussion relevant to this point)? Knight cites linguist Frederick Newmeyer as saying that the proof of Chomsky’s success lies not in any evidence that his theories actually worked but “because anyone who hopes to win general acceptance for a new theory of language is obligated to show how the theory is better than Chomsky’s” (p. 180). It is an unhealthy state of affairs if the test of alternate theories is to see how well they explain Chomsky’s constructs rather than how they address empirical phenomena.

Once upon a time, people thought that burning substances released phlogiston. Phlogiston was used to explain why some substances became lighter when burned and what made some metals rust. In time, our understanding of oxidation reactions made phlogiston unnecessary. Rejection by generative linguistsof nongenerative theories because the latter fail to explain constructs such as parasitic gaps is akin to rejecting modern chemistry because it has failed to isolate phlogiston.

Politics and Science

Although Decoding Chomsky is focused primarily on Chomsky’s science, Chomsky’s role as a public intellectual is linked to his political activism. When asked, Chomsky denies there is any connection between the scientific and political persona, remarking sometimes that the linguistics takes away time from what really matters (Horgan, 2016). The distinction between Chomsky the scientist and Chomsky the activist is a stark one. Chomsky the scientist believes that Language (scientifically understood) is devoid of communicative intent, social meaning and “anything else which the rest of us would associate with language” (p. 136): “While the scientist says language is not for communication at all, the ordinary human Chomsky uses language precisely to communicate – to denounce his own state, his own government, his own employers, his own institutional milieu . . . opposing just about everything which he embodies in his alternative role” (p. 136). “In order to understand the peculiarities of the science,” writes Knight, “we must understand the political commitments against which it has always been counterposed” (p. 130). Knight believes that Chomsky’s politics and activism are indeed kept separate by what he calls a “firewall” erected by Chomsky and “designed to separate ‘science’ from any kind of social or political activism” (p. 193). In perhaps the most provocatively titled chapter in the book, “Mindless Activism, Tongue-Tied Science,” Knight presents a compelling argument that Chomsky’s activism, barred from drawing on the scientific method, becomes, by design, mindless and scientifically illiterate (which according to Knight would “prove a disaster for the global revolutionary left,” p. 200). At the same time, in an effort to be “naturalistic,” the science expunges all aspects of culture and socialization as outside its purview and is consequently tongue-tied, having nothing to say about politics. In this model, “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 action to avert the consequences. Those who do confuse roles in this way risk being accused of betraying their vocation” (p. 197). That this may appear entirely normal to current scientists is precisely Knight’s point. He suggests that the current separation between science and activism is far from how it was envisaged before Chomsky and is indeed one of Chomsky’s legacies.

Politics aside, there is a second sense in which Chomsky’s science is tongue-tied.

By defining language as an idealized grammatical competence that cannot be studied using normal scientific methods, the science becomes dedicated to solving problems of its own making, having nothing to say about the kinds of scientific questions everyone else cares about. As Robin Tolmach Lakoff argues in The Language War, accepting the generative approach to studying language means “accepting the impossibility of saying almost everything that might be interesting, anything normal people might want or need to know about language” (2000, p. 7).

The Road Ahead: Chomskyan Linguistics Versus Modern Language Research

Reading Decoding Chomsky may give the impression that the state of modern language research is decidedly poor, that linguistics and the language sciences are dominated by a powerful figure whose intuitions “as to what a theory ought to look like, [led] an army of people go out and reanalyze everything to conform to that intuition” (from Kenneally, 2008, cited by Knight on p. 179). (Of course, given that the data are largely introspective judgments about grammaticality, reanalysis can simply involve adjusting one’s grammatical intuitions.)

I am saddened by the brilliant minds who have dedicated themselves to trying to resolve the specific problems posed by Chomskyan linguistics (of the “why X is grammatical and *X is not” variety) given that so many of these problems appear to be the field’s own making. Chomskyan generative linguistics seems to be an abject study of what William James called “vicious abstractionism”; it is what happens when we single out “some salient or important feature [of a phenomenon] and instead of adding to its previous characters all the positive consequences which the new way of conceiving may bring, we proceed to use our concept privatively . . . treating it as a case of ‘nothing but’ that concept, and acting as if all the other characters from out of which the concept is abstracted were expunged,” a kind of reasoning that, according to William James, is one of the “great original sins of the rationalist mind” (James, 1909). Perhaps I am simply missing the key insight that is supposed to allow me to understand the empirical phenomena Chomsky’s vision of language is supposed to have solved, but it is difficult to see a future for a scientific study of language as a grammatical competence that did not evolve and does not lend itself to empirical investigation aside from casual reliance on grammatical intuitions of linguists (Schütze,2016; see also Massaro, 2017). In contrast, the state of modern language research – at least from where I stand – looks very different. There is a vast chasm between the self-referential program of Chomskyan linguistics and modern research on just about every aspect of language that is happening outside the Chomskyan fold. Research in linguistic typology is being standardized and unified (e.g.,;, the ability to look at the full diversity of human languages is enabling us to draw richer inferences about the human language capacity (Dunn, Greenhill, Levinson, & Gray, 2011; Lupyan & Dale, 2016), and the study of language history is being made more rigorous by the application of quantitative phylogenetics (Gray & Atkinson, 2003; Gray, Drummond, & Greenhill, 2009). Combining psycholinguistic data with computational models is helping to show how more abstract grammatical knowledge emerges from experience with specific utterances (Chang, Dell, & Bock, 2006). Theories of language comprehension and production are being integrated with theories of memory and motor control (MacDonald, 2013), and we are better understanding how people may learn the meanings of words from statistical patterns in word usage (e.g., Bruni, Tran, & Baroni, 2014; Mikolov, Chen, Corrado, & Dean, 2013). There is a growing excitement about comparative and computational approaches to studying cultural evolution and for understanding the relationships between the evolution of cooperation and language (e.g., Henrich, 2015; Kirby et al., 2014; Oller & Griebel, 2004; Smith, 2010; Tomasello, 2008).

Predictably, Chomsky believes none of this work has any relevance for understanding Merge (the latest of many formulations of UG) and therefore the work is irrelevant for language (Berwick & Chomsky, 2015; Everaert et al., 2015), an opinion most practicing language researchers fortunately ignore.

Applying the scientific method to questions decreed by Chomsky as irrelevant and unscientific is paying dividends. For example, Chomsky’s repeated assertion that the input children receive does not matter because language is not something children learn, but that it is something that happens to them “like puberty” (e.g., Chomsky, 1987), led researchers to ignore, for many decades, the relationship between language input and language outcomes (see Bates et al., 1994, for an important exception). But of course in reality children’s language comprehension and production are enormously affected by input (Hart & Risley, 1995; Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013; Hoff, 2003), an issue of significant public importance.(Anyone insisting that it is linguistic competence that is independent of language input needs to explain why competence in the absence of performance matters and actually provide evidence for preserved competence in the face of truly compromised input.)


When questioned about the progress of generative linguistics, Chomsky has often remarked that linguistics and cognitive science are in a pre-Galilean state, with thinkers beginning to formulate the questions in the right way, and that “someday someone is going to come along and say ‘Look, you guys, you’re on the right track, but you went wrong here. It should have been done this way.’ Well, that will be it. Suddenly things will fall into place” (p. 178). This quote is taken from an interview conducted in 1983 (Chomsky, 2003). A nearly identical statement appears in an interview with The Atlantic in 2012 (Katz, 2012) and in a lecture at Princeton summing up 60 years of generative linguistics (Chomsky, 2014). In Knight’s words, “With each new disappointment, [Chomsky] turns with undimmed optimism toward the future – to a moment of revelation, when, quite suddenly things will fall into place” (p. 174). In an especially vivid assessment of Chomsky’s many versions of UG, Knight is “reminded of a man on the doorstep fumbling with his key in the half light. He . . . turns it this way and that. Despite all his fumblings, the lock just will not yield. To those watching, the most likely explanation is that he’s got the wrong key” (p. 178). The future of linguistics and cognitive science may indeed look very different from its present. Our intellectual descendants may see the present period as primitive, pre-Galilean even. But what are the chances that future scientists will confirm that the key to understanding language lies in stripping it from all that makes it language? And that although such an approach should be, as Chomsky often remarks,“obvious to any thinking person” (Chomsky,2014), it nevertheless failed to produce any empirical evidence that makes sense outside an ever-shifting theoretical framework of its own making? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Gary Lupyan

University of Wisconsin1202 W. Johnson St. Madison, WI


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Review of Decoding Chomsky in the American Ethnologist

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 in Language and Cognition

Dan Everett's review of Decoding Chomsky in Language and Cognition

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 by Thomas Klikauer

Review of Decoding Chomsky by Thomas Klikauer

Thomas Klikauer (2018): Chomsky: Between Science and Politics, The
European Legacy,
DOI: 10.1080/10848770.2018.1433385

Chomsky: Between Science and Politics

Thomas Klikauer

Chris Knight’s book on the science and politics of the world’s most influential intellectual — Noam Chomsky— is an insightful book and, one might say, a-pleasure-to-read kind of book. It is not strictly a biography but a discussion of “Chomsky’s dilemma,” though Chomsky might not see it as a dilemma at all, presenting the rational, logical and decidedly non-political linguist (the scientist) on the one hand, and the political activist (the progressive advocate) on the other. This, it appears, is a problem for many supporters and critics of Chomsky but not for the man himself. Chomsky neatly separates the two spheres — science here and politics over there; for him the two simply never meet. Knight traces the early years of Chomsky until today while always keeping the reader on track. He consistently alludes to the two spheres as Chomsky sees them, or the two spheres that can never be separated from one another as Knight argues.

One finds the key message already in the preface where Knight asserts that “Chomsky played a major role in strengthening the Western world’s habit of detaching social issues from the remit of science.” He admits: “I sent Noam Chomsky the uncorrected proofs” (xii). In turn, “Chomsky reassured me that all was fine [even though] to criticise my subject [Chomsky] is to tangle with a giant” (xi, xii). The book thus has traces of a semi-official certified biography. It is not free of critiquing Chomsky, and is by no means defined by Knight’s tacit admiration of Chomsky. Knight delivers a sober assessment of Chomsky’s scientific achievements linked to his political work while keeping focused on the scientific side. Knight starts in the very first paragraph with Chomsky’s “income [that], once employed as a young scientist, came almost exclusively from the US Defence Department.” But soon, “his politics and his science [began to] pull him in opposite directions,” only to emerge as “the best-known academic dissident in the world” (1, 3, 4). Throughout his life, Chomsky needed to deal with two worlds: Pentagon science vs. radical politics. These may indeed be worlds apart, but Chomsky also separates “natural” from “social” science and there may be good reasons for doing so.

On a more personal note, when I talk to my peers, business school professors, for example, and come home in the evening to talk to one of my neighbours, a professor of astrophysics, I can fully understand Chomsky when he says, “if you want to be a scientist… restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science” (8). One is tempted to add that in the world of business schools there is not even social science, there is only the ideology of managerialism with a dash of neoliberalism and hints of social-Darwinism.[1]

I discovered Chomsky via science and his first book, Syntactic Structures (1957) when I was writing two books on communication and management and yes, Chomsky’s book, as Knight writes, is indeed a “dry-as-dust technical book” and may well be based on “significant direct funding from the US military” (14, 15). Chomsky’s next significant signpost was his “case against B. F. Skinner.” “Skinner taught that humans are essentially no different from rats. No, replies Chomsky, humans are… different from rats” (24, 25). Even though Chomsky was, and still is, correct, Skinner’s behaviourism remains part of almost every textbook on psychology, behaviour economics, education, organisational behaviour, and management. Today, behaviourism often appears as behaviour “modification” (to avoid the term “manipulation”), while in business schools it is called “organisational behaviour management” and “reward management” to avoid the “rat --> food pill to worker --> money” analogy.[2] This, according to behaviourism, can be learned just like language.

Chomsky, in contrast, rejects behaviourism, seeing it as “the myth that language must be learned” (26). Behind behaviourism and conditioning always lurks one of Skinner’s many interests: total control of an organism. Chomsky argues that “the human mind is by nature active and intricately structured. Contrary to Skinner’s ‘blank slate’ doctrine, likening humans to rats who can be controlled by punishment and rewards, there is such a thing as distinctively human—often rebellious—nature” (45). For Skinner the human mind is a black box and of no interest as only observable behaviour counts. For Chomsky this is not the case.

Instead, his ideas are part of “mentalism — the idea of mind over matter — which became a defining feature of new cognitive science” (47). While cybernetics, for example, had “the overall mantra [of]: C3: Communication, Command and Control, [Chomsky rejected the idea of an] assimilation of humans as conveniently low-cost and available thinking machines” (48). Nonetheless, to some extent, this can still be found in offices of most corporations where diligent human resources write things on a piece paper (or email) to give (or send) to another person on a bigger desk, doing what has become known as “bullshit jobs” (David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant,” Strike Magazine, August 17, 2013; Jocelyn Glei, “It’s Time to Leave the Email Rat Race” (Guardian Weekly, November 25, 2016).

According to Knight, “in 1955, the University of Pennsylvania awarded Chomsky his PhD for submitting a thesis consisting of just one chapter” (57)! Furnished with a PhD and being employed by MIT, “Chomsky’s game-changing Syntactic Structures was widely perceived as relevant to machine translation [e.g. Google Translate]. … Chomsky treats language not as social communication, but as internal computation” (62, 63). Chomsky’s work at MIT was theoretical and not involved in weapon making. Not surprisingly, “Chomsky… was not interested in computers,” nevertheless he “genuinely believed that a human child comes into the world with a digital computer already in its head” (68, 69). For Chomsky “language is a natural organ,” and though “environmental factors may help trigger developments, but, apart from that, the environment is essentially irrelevant” (73, 75).

Many of Chomsky’s ideas are associated with “Russian formalism” (85), particularly — though never acknowledged —with the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922). As Knight explains, “Khlebnikov dreamed of rediscovering humanity’s lost language of sounds. Jakobson inherited this idea, passing on his own version of it — his distinctive features theory — to Chomsky” (104). Soon, however, in the “early 1960s, President Kennedy’s inauguration and a dramatic intensification of the Vietnam War [encouraged] Chomsky’s lifelong, passionate and impressively effective public struggle to highlight the crimes of his own government and his own Pentagon-funded institutional milieu” (113).

But Chomsky’s work on language soon led to another kind of war — ”the linguistic wars” (120). It divided linguists into two camps: those acknowledging the social and cultural influence on the development of language (e.g., Knight himself) and those who don’t (e.g., Chomsky). This led to Chomsky’s “most popular and accessible scientific book, Cartesian Linguistics, published in 1966” (125). Knight’s chapter “Between Colliding Tectonic Plates” carries strong biographical themes while showing how Chomsky coped with being a rational Pentagon scientist and a political activist simultaneously. In the following chapter, “The Escapologist,” Knight restates that for Chomsky “language is nature, not nurture” (148), in other words, that “language is in essence natural and biological” (161). Thus Chomsky claims that “we can think of language as, in essence, an organ of the body, more or less on a par with the visual or digestive or immune system” (162). This is strong stuff for most linguists and hence the aforementioned “wars.” Knight reports one incident in this war — the ill-treatment of one of Chomsky’s former PhD students. When he challenged Chomsky at a conference “Chomsky cut him off and refused to let him finish. … We [the conference organisers] saw his treatment of Ross as scandalous and aggressive behaviour” (172). On the other hand, Chomsky himself may well be “the most attacked linguist in history” (180).

This cannot and should not excuse Chomsky but shows that both sides dished it out to each other. Nonetheless, there has been a continuous line of attack on Chomsky, including a critique of his stark “science-vs.-politics” dichotomy to which one of America’s greatest historians responded: “Howard Zinn, political scientist at Boston University and close friend of Chomsky… complained that the call to disinterested scholarship is one of the greatest deceptions of our time” (197).

Faced with these attacks, Chomsky retreated into “Chomsky’s Tower,” while staunchly believing “what the rest of us term ‘language’ has no existence because it fails to fit with linguistic theory—by which he means his own particular theory” (201). All of this gives the impression of a conflict between science and politics, but overall Knight’s book focuses less on politics and more on science. In his most brilliant chapter, “Before Language,” Knight lays out not only what we know today about the evolution of language but also that we know this not “because” of Chomsky but “despite” him. It starts with “Michael Tomasello … the only scientist in the world to have dedicated an equal amount of time to (a) the study of children’s language acquisition and (b) the communicative skills of apes” (210). Unlike apes, we humans can (at least most of us) “put ourselves imaginatively in each other’s shoes,” which can be called “egocentric perspective reversal” (210).[3] It is this ability that remains a vital building-block in creating a human society. Of equal importance is our uniquely human competence to trust one another, which enables us to construct complicated relationships built around what Peter Kropotkin called “Mutual Aid.”[4] This is what allowed us to become what evolutionary mathematicians Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield called “Super Cooperators.” To Nowak and Highfield this explains evolution, altruism and human behaviour, and why we need each other to succeed.[5] On that, Knight emphasises,

[A]s Michael Tomasello points out, apes are so lacking in mutual trust that they do not even point things out for one another in the wild. It is the largely egocentric, competitive and individualistic dispositions of primates of both sexes which blocks any community-wide, stable sharing of values and goals and, for that reason, make it impossible for language to evolve. (211)

This might be vital in explaining why we speak and apes don’t. Beyond that, it has been imperative for humans to create the right conditions to allow language and sophisticated social structures to emerge. When these prerequisites are placed in the context of the prevailing ideology of neoliberalism, the pathological consequences of the neoliberal programme become visible.

If the evolution of language depended on mutual aid, trust, and sharing of values and goals, some might think that Friedrich Engels was not totally wrong in noting that “very serious mutual obligations… constituted a substantial part” of a successful society.[6] These language-enabling conditions also resonate with Jurgen Habermas’s Communicative Action.[7] Within mutually recognised forms of communication, the four elements of “ideal speech”— comprehensibility; sincerity; legitimacy; and truthfulness—are particularly important.

Could concepts such as these not only explain why humans developed language and successful social structures but also signal the path to humanity? Perhaps our evolutionary past has more to offer than what many realise. Based largely on the work of Hausfater and Hrdy, and of Hrdy,[8] Knight argues that

[E]galitarian hunter-gatherers tend to put childcare first, treating welfare of each new generation as their overriding social and political priority. The contrast with modern capitalist economic priorities—which make nurseries, parent support and childcare peripheral issues—could hardly be more stark. The welfare of future generations, Hrdy argues, should be the absolute priority for any rationally organised society today. (217)

However, given the way we treat issues such as global warming, and the way in which the debate on global warming takes place,[9] the future does not seem that promising. Long before we reached the current stage of miscommunication, Knight maintains that “language is unlikely to emerge in a species whose internal conflicts prevent group members from trusting each other or needing to share their feelings or thought” (220). Does this mean that human development grinds to a halt the further we engage in political ideologies that foster conflict? Aren’t these damaging ideologies formulated as a “competitive advantage” under neoliberalism?10 Don’t they set corporation against corporation, CEO against CEO, worker against worker, student against student and child against child competing for the most favourable kindergarten, school, workplace, and university?

Does this not mean that as collective humanity we should foster mutual aid and trust, as well as “female kin-bonding with mothers and daughters living together throughout life” (221)? Should we stop artificially segregating sections of society into large middle-class houses, isolating mothers from daughters and mothers from grandparents? Meanwhile, children are dumped in privatised childcare, and the elderly are mistreated in privatised so-called retirement villages—one of the more Orwellian terms in use today. Before concluding, Knight affirms that a

cooperative stance is absolutely essential if grammar is to evolve. Steels [an artificial intelligence and robotic expert] has been able to show that when his automata compete instead of cooperating—for example if you try the experiment of forcing them to struggle for energy at one other’s expense—the resulting payoffs for manipulation and deceit prevent any kind of language from evolving at all. [Steels concludes] it is a “deep puzzle” how the ultra-sociality necessary for language to evolve could have arisen through Darwinian evolution. (223)

In light of all this, a rather pessimistic picture of the future emerges. It appears that our entire systems— economic, environmental, social, political, cultural, legal and international — are heading in the opposite direction from where we should be going. We are already deep into global destruction and resource plundering while valuing merchant bankers over nurses and teachers. Perhaps to move the global steering wheel around and do so relatively fast, nothing but a revolution is required. As, indeed, Knight puts it: “to end with 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).


1. Klikauer, Managerialism. Knight might be right in saying that “nobody ever wins in a battle with the ‘Lord of the Labyrinth’ as Rudolf Botha calls Chomsky” (12). Nonetheless, I might have come close to winning one just once in our more than twenty-four email exchanges. This was on the issue of Germany’s Nazi past. I came reasonably close to convincing Chomsky that Germany never really dealt with its Nazis after the war: it put on a few show trials for highranking Nazis for the world to see, but behind the scenes Nazis were placed in Germany’s economic and political state structures.

2. Lemov, World as Laboratory; Fodor, The Mind.

3. See, for example, Singer, “The Troubled Life.”

4. Kropotkin, Mutual Aid.

5. Nowak and Highfield. Super Cooperators; Klikauer, “Evolution, Altruism, and Human Behaviour.”

6. Engels, Origin of the Family.

7. Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2; cf. Klikauer, Management Communication, 157.

8. Hausfater and Hrdy, Infanticide; Hrdy, Mother Nature; Hrdy, The Woman That Never Evolved.

9. Chomsky, Media Control; Oreskes and Conway, Merchants of Doubt,

10. Porter, Competitive Advantage of Nations.


Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. 2d ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1991.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). Edited by Mark Harris. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (, 2010.

Fodor, Jerry A. The Mind Doesn’t Work that Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action. Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Translated by Thomas McCarthy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987.

Hausfater, Glenn, and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, eds. Infanticide: Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives. New York: Aldine, 1984.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon, 1999.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Klikauer, Thomas. “Evolution, Altruism, and Human Behaviour.” Organization 19, no. 6 (2012): 939–40.

Klikauer, Thomas. Management Communication: Communicative Ethics and Action. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2008.

Klikauer, Thomas. Managerialism: Critique of an Ideology. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2013.

Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. New York: Garland, 1972.

Lemov, Rebecca M. World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes and Men. New York: Hill & Wang, 2006.

Nowak, Martin, and Rogjer Highfield. Super Cooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour (or Why We Need Each Other to Succeed). London: Penguin, 2011.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Porter, Micael E. The Competitive Advantage of Nations. New York: Free Press, 1985.

Singer, Peter. “The Troubled Life of Nim Chimpsky.” New York Review of Books, August 18, 2011.




 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 four delightfully hostile reviews: (1) Norbert Hornstein & Nathan Robinson (2) Robert Barsky, (3) Wolfgang Sperlich and (4) Peter Stone [who, bizarrely, seems to be accusing this old Trot of being a Stalinist for daring to critique Noam's linguistics!]

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
Fascinating on so many levels, Knight’s critique of an academic demigod is a compelling case study of the institutional, personal, interpersonal, historical and accidental forces shaping one of the major intellectual movements of our time.
— N.J. Enfield, author of How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation
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.'

Chris Knight’s book on the science and politics of the world’s most influential intellectual — Noam Chomsky — is an insightful book and, one might say, a-pleasure-to-read kind of book.

- Thomas Klikauer, The European Legacy



Decoding Chomsky ... is a straightforward, clear and fast read. It focuses on all the major phases of Chomsky's linguistic theories, their institutional preconditions and their ideological and political ramifications. And it is absolutely devastating.

- Peter Seyferth, Anarchist Studies










'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.)