How Noam Chomsky’s World Works
Anyone following the career of Noam Chomsky is soon confronted with a problem. In fact, it has become known as the “Chomsky problem”. Chomsky has achieved eminence in two very different fields, theoretical linguistics and political commentary. The “Chomsky problem” is that his approaches to these fields appear to contradict each other. In politics Chomsky is a radical, but in linguistics he takes positions that can easily be characterized as reactionary. He treats linguistics as a branch of biology. He traces language to a “Universal Grammar” resident in the physical brain. He believes that our linguistic nature is hard-wired into our genes. Because they diminish the influence of environment on human behaviour, such claims can be used to suggest that certain modes of social organization are natural and immutable. As a result, they have often been associated with conservative politics.
Chomsky himself professes to see no problem. He believes that linguistics is a natural science, and research in the natural sciences must be objective and based on the evidence alone. Indeed, part of the researcher’s job is to divest himself of his cultural and political prejudices before entering the laboratory. These methodological principles were established by the seventeenth-century scientific revolution of Newton and the Royal Society, which was in Chomsky’s view a progressive development and an immeasurable boon to humanity. He sees no reason why the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to the study of the human mind.
His critics caution that empirical science is closely linked, certainly historically and perhaps conceptually, to capitalist political economy. These discourses both emerge in late seventeenth-century England, and they conquer the world together. Surely this suggests an affinity that ought to trouble those who advocate one but castigate the other? The interviews now published as The Science of Language and How the World Works show that this paradox is at least playing on Chomsky’s mind. The conversations range promiscuously, and although one book is largely concerned with linguistics while the other is mainly political, Chomsky seems happier than usual to discuss the mutual implications of his two fields of interest.
By issuing such collections of informal discussions, transcribed and edited by others, Chomsky is presumably attempting to reach a popular audience. He certainly exploits the pedagogical potential of dialogue to impressive effect. Yet he cannot entirely hide the Brahmin’s disdain for the ways of the Untouchable. In How the World Works he avers that, although “I like to watch a good basketball game and that sort of thing … spectator sports make people more passive”, because sport indoctrinates “them” with “jingoist and chauvinist attitudes”.
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