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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extensions and elaborations include these:  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



1. Harris and Harris 1974.

2. Chomsky; quoted in Chepesiuk 1995.

3. Neil Smith; quoted in Jaggi 2001.

4. Harris 1998.

5. Dean 2003, viii.

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

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

8. Strazny 2013, 207.

9. Harman 1974, vii.

10. Chomsky 1989.

11. Barsky 1997, 3.

12. Golumbia 2009, 31.

13. Smith 1999, 1.

14. Albert 2006, 63.

15. Leiber 1975, 19.

16. Cogswell 1996, 7.

17. Milne 2009.

18. Cartlidge 2014, 8.

19. Edgley 2000, 1.

20. Chomsky 1988a, 2.

21. Chomsky 1988f, 98–99.

22. Chomsky 1996a, 15.

23. Chomsky 2000b, 115.

24. Chomsky 1988h, 16.

25. Mailer 1968.

26. Chomsky 1967b.

27. Chomsky 1992, 86–87.

28. Chomsky 1996a, 128.

29. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

30. Chomsky 1988e, 225–226.

31. Chomsky 1986, xxvii.

32. Chomsky 1986, xxix.

33. Chomsky 1980a, 66.

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

35. Chomsky 1988a, 189–190.

36. Chomsky 1986, xxvii ff.

37. Chomsky 1986, xxv.

38. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

39. Chomsky 1991a, 15.

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

41. Scruton 2016, 118–119.

42. Chomsky 1988k, 744.

43. Chomsky 1998a, 17–18.

44. Chomsky 1988j, 697.

45. Barsky 1997, 95.

46. Williamson 2004, 234.

47. Chomsky 2007a.

48. Berwick and Chomsky 2016.

49. Chomsky 1988a, 36–37.

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

51. Chomsky 2000b, 2.

52. Lakatos 1970.

53. Chomsky 1986, 40.

54. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

55. Chomsky 1986, 15, 24.

56. Chomsky 2000b, 7.

57. Chomsky 1988a, 174.

58. Chomsky 2016b, 1 hour 17 seconds.

59. Chomsky 2000b, 65–66.

60. Chomsky 2006a, 59.

61. Chomsky 1996b, 29–30.

62. Chomsky 2012, 88.

63. Harris 1993.

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

65. Baker and Hacker 1984; Seuren 2004.

66. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

67. Searle 2003, 55.

68. Rappaport 1999.

69. Atran 2002, 264.

70. Wolpert 2006.

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

72. Rappaport 1999.

73. Baker and Hacker 1984, back cover.

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

75. Trask 1999, 109.

76. Postal 1995, 140.

77. Botha 1989.



Achbar, M. 1994. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the media. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Adams, G. 1982. The Politics of Defense Contracting: The iron triangle. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Albert, M. 2006. Remembering Tomorrow: From the politics of opposition to what we are for. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Albert, M. 2007. ‘From SDS to life after capitalism, Michael Albert interview, 17 April.

Alcorta, C.S. and R. Sosis. 2005. ‘Ritual, emotion, and sacred symbols: The evolution of religion as an adaptive complex’, Human Nature, 16(4): 323–359.

Atran, S. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker, G.P. and P.M.S. Hacker. 1984. Language, Sense and Nonsense. Oxford: Blackwell.

Barsky, R.F. 1997. Noam Chomsky: A life of dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Barsky, R.F. 2007. The Chomsky Effect: A radical works beyond the ivory tower. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Berwick, R.C. and N. Chomsky. 2016. Why Only Us: Language and evolution. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Botha, R. 1989. Challenging Chomsky: The generative garden game. London: Blackwell.

Cartlidge, E. 2014. ‘Faith and science’, Tablet, 1 February.

Chepesiuk, R. 1995. Sixties Radicals, Then and Now: Candid conversations with those who shaped the era. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Chomsky, N. 1967b. ‘On resistance’, New York Review of Books, 7 December.

Chomsky, N. 1967d. ‘Letter’, New York Review of Books, 23 March.

Chomsky, N. 1967e. ‘Letter’, New York Review of Books, 20 April.

Chomsky, N. 1969. ‘Statement by Noam A. Chomsky to the MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories’, MIT Libraries Retrospective Collection.

Chomsky, N. 1971b. ‘In defence of the student movement’, available at:

Chomsky, N. 1980a. Rules and Representations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chomsky, N. 1980c. ‘Some elementary comments on the rights of freedom of expression’, available at:

Chomsky, N. 1986. Knowledge of Language: Its nature, origin, and use. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Chomsky, N. 1988a. Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua lectures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. 1988e. ‘Address given at the Community Church of Boston, December 9 1984’, reprinted as ‘Afghanistan and South Vietnam’, in J. Peck (ed.), The Chomsky Reader. London: Serpent’s Tail, pp. 223–226.

Chomsky, N. 1988f [1968]. ‘The intellectual as prophet’, in C.P. Otero (ed.), Noam Chomsky: Language and politics. Montreal: Black Rose, pp. 85–99.

Chomsky, N. 1988g [1977]. ‘Language theory and the theory of justice’, in C.P. Otero (ed.), Noam Chomsky: Language and politics. Montreal: Black Rose, pp. 233–250.

Chomsky, N. 1988h. ‘Interview’, in J. Peck (ed.), The Chomsky Reader. London: Serpent’s Tail.

Chomsky, N. 1988j [1986]. ‘Political discourse and the propaganda system’, in C.P. Otero (ed.), Noam Chomsky: Language and politics. Montreal: Black Rose, pp. 662–697.

Chomsky: Language and politics. Montreal: Black Rose, pp. 662–697.

Chomsky, N. 1988k. ‘The cognitive revolution II’, in C.P. Otero (ed.), Noam Chomsky: Language and politics. Montreal: Black Rose, pp. 744–759.

Chomsky, N. 1989. ‘Noam Chomsky: An interview’, Radical Philosophy, 53.

Chomsky, N. 1991a. ‘Linguistics and adjacent fields: a personal view’, in A. Kasher (ed.), The Chomskyan Turn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Chomsky, N. 1992. What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Tucson, AZ: Odonian Press.

Cogswell, D. 1996. Chomsky for Beginners. London and New York: Writers and Readers.

Chomsky, N. 1996a. Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian. London: Pluto Press.

Chomsky, N. 1996b. Powers and Prospects. Reflections on human nature and the social order. London: Pluto Press.

Chomsky, N. 1997c. ‘Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Human Nature: Justice versus power’, in A.I. Davidson (ed.), Foucault and his Interlocutors. Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.

Chomsky, N. 1998a. The Common Good. Chicago: Common Courage Press.

Chomsky, N. 1988g [1977]. ‘Language theory and the theory of justice’, in C.P. Otero (ed.), Noam

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

Chomsky, N. 2003. ‘Anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Palestinians’, Variant, 16 (Winter).

Chomsky, N. 2006a. Language and Mind, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. 2007a. ‘Approaching UG from below’, in U. Sauerland and H.M. Gartner (eds), Interfaces + Recursion = Language? Berlin: Mouton.

Chomsky, N. 2007b. ‘Of minds and language’, Biolinguistics, 1: 9–27.

Chomsky, N. 2011c. Video interview for MIT 150 Infinite History Project, available at:

Chomsky, N. 2012. The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. 2013a. ‘After 60+ years of generative grammar’, available at: watch?v=Rgd8BnZ2-iw (accessed 9 April 2016).

Chomsky, N. 2015. ‘Noam Chomsky and Subrata Ghoshroy: From the Cold War to the Climate Crisis’, MIT Video, available at:

Chomsky, N. 2016b. ‘Language, creativity and the limits of understanding’, lecture at the University of Rochester, New York, 21 April, available at:

Chomsky, N. and C.P. Otero. 2003. Chomsky on Democracy and Education. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Dean, M. 2003. Chomsky: A Beginner’s Guide. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Edgley, A. 2000. The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. London and New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. 1996. The Closed World: Computers and the politics of discourse in cold war America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Eun-jung, S. 2015. Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Forman, P. 1987. ‘Behind quantum electronics: National security as basis for physical research 1940–1960’, Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 18(1): 156–157.

Goldsmith (eds), Ideology and Linguistic Theory: Noam Chomsky and the deep structure debates. London: Routledge.

Golumbia, D. 2009. The Cultural Logic of Computation. Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harman, G. (ed.). 1974. On Noam Chomsky: Critical essays. Modern Studies in Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

Harris, F. and J. Harris. 1974. ‘The development of the linguistics program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’, 50 years of Linguistics at MIT: A scientific reunion, 9–11 December 2011, MIT, available at:

Harris, R.A. 1993. The Linguistics Wars. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jaggi, M. 2001. ‘Conscience of a nation’, Guardian, 20 January.

Johnson, H. 2001. Holding the Center: Memoirs of a life in higher education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Joseph, J.E. and T.J. Taylor. 1990. ‘Introduction’, in J.E. Joseph and T.J. Taylor (eds), Ideologies of Language. London and New York: Routledge.

Harris, R.A. 1998. ‘The warlike Chomsky. Review of R.F. Barsky, 1997. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press’, Books in Canada, March.

Hughes, S. 2006. ‘Interview with Noam Chomsky, 21 April’, in Penn in Ink: Pathfinders, Swashbucklers,

Kabat-Zinn, J. 2014. Coming to Our Senses. London: Piatkus.

Katsiaficas, G. 1969. ‘A personal statement to the MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories’, MIT Libraries Retrospective Collection.

Lakatos, I. 1970. ‘Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes’, in I. Lakatos and Leiber, J. 1975. Noam Chomsky: A philosophic overview. New York: St Martin’s Press.

Leslie, S.W. 1993. The Cold War and American Science: The military-industrial complex at MIT and Stanford. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mailer, N. 1968. The Armies of the Night. New York: New American Library.

Mehta, V. 1974. John is Easy to Please. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Milne, D. 2008. America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War. New York: Hill and Wang.

Milne, S. 2009. ‘Noam Chomsky: US foreign policy is straight out of the mafia’, Guardian, 7 November.

Postal, P. 1995. ‘In conversation with John Goldsmith and Geoffrey Huck’, in J.H. Huck and J.A.

Price, D.H. 2011. Weaponizing Anthropology: Social science in service of the militarized state. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Rappaport, R.A. 1999. Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Searle, J. 2003. Conversations with John Searle, ed. Gustavo Faigenbaum. Buenos Aires: LibrosEnRed.

Segel, J. (ed.). 2009. Recountings: Conversations with MIT mathematicians. Natick, MA: A.K. Peters.

Seuren, P.A.M. 2004. Chomsky’s Minimalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shalom, S.R. 1997. ‘Review of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, by Robert F. Barsky’, New Politics, NS

Skolnikoff, E.B. 2011. Video interview for MIT 150 Infinite History Project, available at: com/watch?v=J0cvFxzvz_c#t=22.

Smith, N. 1999. Chomsky: Ideas and ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Strazny, P. (ed.). 2013. Encyclopedia of Linguistics. London: Routledge.

Trask, R.L. 1999. Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. London and New York: Routledge.

Wallerstein, I. and P. Starr (eds). 1972. ‘Confrontation and counterattack’, in I. Wallerstein and P. Starr (eds), The University Crisis Reader. New York: Random House.

White, G.D. 2000. Campus Inc.: Corporate power in the ivory tower. New York: Prometheus Books.

Wiesner, J. 2003. Jerry Wiesner: Scientist, statesman, humanist: memories and memoirs. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Williamson, J. 2004. ‘Chomsky, language, World War II, and me’, in P. Collier and D. Horowitz (eds), The Anti-Chomsky Reader. San Francisco, CA: Encounter.

Wolpert, L. 2006. Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The evolutionary origins of belief. London: Faber & Faber.