Chomsky responds to my book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstracts for the UCL conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Craig Murray. The Abdication of Responsibility                                      

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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'

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.


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.

Review of 'Decoding Chomsky' in 'Philosophy'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.


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.

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