Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics
New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016; 285pp; ISBN 9780300221466
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
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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.
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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, Gesellschaftswissenschaftliches Institut Munich