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.