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.