The Chomsky paradox: the responsibility of intellectuals, revisited

Locating Chomsky’s linguistics and politics ‘in their historical perspective’ sharpens many issues for their wider relevance today, including that of the responsibility of intellectuals.

Les Levidow
6 September 2018
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Police disperse protesters outside MIT's nuclear missile laboratories, November 1969. Courtesy of MIT Museum. All rights reserved.

For several decades Noam Chomsky has been the writer most widely read among leftwing and anti-imperialist activists. The numerous reasons are familiar. His writings analyse crimes of the powerful, contrast their Realpolitik motives with their euphemistic cover-stories, mock them with a sardonic wit, and provide documentary evidence from original sources. His critical, engaging approach has been extended to a broad range of topics – without parallel in the literature.

By the 1970s his political writings had gained an enormous readership from global anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements. Meanwhile his linguistics writings gained a specialised readership.   Reviewing his book, Language and Responsibility, a 1979 essay began as follows:  ’Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual….’ (New York Times). The essay noted a gap between his ‘highly technical linguistic scholarship’ and his political writings: ‘The “Chomsky problem” is to explain how these two fit together.’    

In what sense is there a gap between these two parts of his writing? Or perhaps an implicit link?  Any answers have implications for expertise and the responsibility of intellectuals, as this essay will argue.  Sources cited are in hyperlinks.

Expertise as a tacit politics

Chomsky’s political writings have been driven by a sense of moral responsibility. This was explicit in his 1967 essay, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, emphasising their ‘role in the creation and analysis of ideology’, especially capitalist ideology disguised as expertise. His essay mocked a ‘cult of expertise’, which took different forms amongst anti-war activists and amongst pro-imperialist intellectuals. 

He denounced the latter for sanitising US foreign policy, especially mass murder in Vietnam. According to Charles Wolf, Senior Economist of the Rand Corporation, for example, the US merely wishes ‘to help the Asian countries progress toward economic modernization, as relatively open and stable societies, to which our access, as a country and as individual citizens, is free and comfortable’. Such beneficent euphemisms were sarcastically quoted in Chomsky’s 1967 essay. 

He further argued: ‘If it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective’, as a crucial basis for distinguishing truth from deception.  Intellectuals must analyse how elite ideology justifies oppression by variously appealing to moral superiority, expertise, modernisation, etc.   

As a prominent anti-imperialist activist, Chomsky analysed how US foreign policy serves its elite’s interests, initially in relation to Southeast Asia and later the Israel-Palestine conflict. Chomsky has shown how official experts promote hegemonic ideas normalising the assumptions of ruling elites, as if other viewpoints were irrational or impossible. He has likewise analysed how the mass media systematically narrows political issues to minor disagreements within policy elites. Rather than expect that they could bring us a better future, he has looked to mass movements, such as communal experiments in the Spanish Civil War and the Occupy movement. Towards such alternative futures, he has espoused his own kind of anarchism.  

For an anarchist anti-imperialist writer, however, his academic post had an unusual financial basis. He worked in an MIT unit funded by the US Armed Forces, generating tensions between his academic and political roles. Chomsky’s fellow MIT academics often denied that their scientific research had any military relevance, some to the extent of self-delusion. Such a disavowal posed difficulties for Chomsky too, given his political awareness, accentuated by his students’ involvement in a project run by the MITRE Corporation for the US Air Force. Hence the puzzle of a possible link between Chomsky’s political and scientific roles (as in the 1979 NYT essay above). 

Those tensions have been analysed in an impressive book, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics, by Chris Knight. He has discussed more specific issues about Chomsky’s dual roles in his three articles on openDemocracy, e.g. ‘Explaining Chomsky’s Strange Science’.   

In a response to Knight from Randy Harris, the Chomsky puzzle has been trivialised as a matter of the superstar’s personal idiosyncrasies. To take the debate further, my essay will locate Chomsky’s linguistics and politics ‘in their historical perspective’ (his 1967 phrase above). From his various statements, I will identify an apparent paradox: a politics-free science and a science-free anti-militarist politics. Going beyond this paradox, my essay will sharpen the issues for their wider relevance today, revisiting the responsibility of intellectuals in the final section. I will identify an apparent paradox: a politics-free science and a science-free anti-militarist politics.

Politics-free science

As noted in the NYT review essay, Chomsky devised a ‘highly technical’ linguistics.  This is better described as an abstract theory of universal grammar or syntax, which pre-dated his arrival at MIT. It was publicly launched with his 1957 book, Syntactic Structures, which soon gained fame.     

In pushing linguistics towards universal theoretical abstractions, Chomsky made claims which lack credibility – and which therefore may lack practical relevance. For example, he argued that linguistic concepts such as ‘book’ have been fixed genetically in the mind since humans first evolved, long before any books existed. In this and other ways, Chomsky promoted abstract, formal concepts, apparently designed to make his linguistics resemble mathematics (as analysed in Decoding Chomsky).   

On this conceptual basis, linguistic patterns could be identified by computer techniques, needing no knowledge of specific languages or everyday communication. The task was to identify innate linguistic concepts and structures, ideally in a form amenable to a computer program. An entire tech community saw his concepts as potentially bringing human language under computational control, although Chomsky denied such an aim or possibility (David Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation, p.38). 

His theoretical abstractions contradict recent developments in linguistics, which has extensively researched how words and concepts are jointly shaped by communicative interchanges. Nevertheless Chomsky’s concepts make sense from his own institutional standpoint, serving his claim that a truly scientific linguistics has no social content. Commentators (such as Knight and Harris) disagree about whether his theory shifted towards even greater levels of abstraction. 

In any case, if such abstraction helped to avoid any military relevance, then perhaps Chomsky was influenced by his sponsors, though not in the way they wanted. The claim that his scientific work is asocial and therefore politically neutral helped Chomsky disconnect his professional role as Pentagon-funded scientist from his moral-political role as anti-militarist activist.  

Meanwhile the stereotypical science/politics binary was being widely contested as deceptive. From the 1960s onwards, New Left activists were criticising expert and professional knowledges as ideology, serving a tacit politics of capitalist domination. Academics critically analysed their own disciplines –  e.g. anthropology, geography, sociology, economics, philosophy, etc.  – through new organisations and journals.

Such critiques were extended to claims for scientific objectivity in medical and biophysical sciences.  From the central motto, ‘Science is not neutral’, critics analysed how science naturalised socio-economic oppression along class, race, gender and neocolonial lines. The epithet ‘scientism’ criticised agendas for extending the methods of biophysical science beyond their appropriate remit to socio-political issues.  More fundamentally, the epithet helped to identify tacit socio-political assumptions within science, thus contesting the science/politics binary.  

From 1969 onwards, this critique was promoted in the US by Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (SESPA), which led to the magazine Science for the People (recently relaunched).  A similar critique was elaborated from 1969 onwards by the British Society for Social Responsibility for Science (BSSRS), a broad network for thematic working groups on agribusiness, health, gender, sociobiology, energy, etc. This network expanded a constituency for several publications such as Science for People, Radical Statistics and Radical Science Journal

In 1977 the latter’s cover featured a quote from Marx’s Grundrisse, ‘One basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie.’ Contemporary science was a capitalist form of knowledge resulting from a labour process constituted by capitalist social relations, e.g. a division of labour, professional hierarchy, proprietary knowledge, anthropomorphic metaphors, etc. (Radical Science Journal, 1981).  This critical agenda was later put in a longer historical perspective by Gary Werskey.

On the rare occasions when Chomsky spoke about such issues, he defended scientific claims for objectivity, by contrast with other forms of knowledge. Indeed, he characterised the social sciences as ‘mostly fraud’: they cannot exist, he insisted, because only natural science merits the label ‘science’ or has ‘theory’ (Decoding Chomsky, p.8). Given this judgement, ‘Chomsky faced the daunting task of presenting his linguistic work, now identified as “science”, as somehow consistent with his politics – identified as a set of common-sense beliefs and objectives falling outside the remit of science’, according to Knight  (Decoding Chomsky, p.116).

Science-free politics

Symmetrically with his politics-free science, Chomsky’s anti-militarist politics has remained putatively science-free in two senses. First, Chomsky has explicitly disavowed science as a source of political insight or inspiration. Second, he has said little about the technoscientific contribution to oppressive power.   

In the 1960s the US military-industrial-university complex was funding and designing science for myriad roles. Some academic research projects became targets of political critique and even physical attack by activists. MIT was the second largest university contractor of military research. The chief of Chomsky’s unit, Jerome Wiesner, managed a large military programme, justifying his own role on grounds of ‘academic freedom’. Student anti-war activists there sought to terminate or prevent such research, provoking intense controversy over academic complicity (Decoding Chomsky, p.37). 

Although Chomsky militantly opposed the US war machine, he was reticent about its basis in science. As perhaps his strongest statement, he wrote, ‘As to MIT, I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible’ (letter to the NYT, 23.03.67). Yet soon afterwards he shifted the responsibility from MIT as an institution to its staff, though he named no specific academic or research project there.  By contrast, Chomsky named social and political scientists at prestigious universities for their complicity in the US imperial project.

Three decades after the 1960s conflicts over MIT’s military funding, he reflected, ‘I wanted to keep the labs on campus, on the principle that what is going to be going on anyway ought to be open and above board, so that people would know what is happening and act accordingly’ (quoted originally in Barsky’s 1997 biography, later cited in Chris Knight’s book). Four decades later, however, he unpersuasively asserted, ‘There was zero military work on campus’, perhaps taking a very narrow definition of ‘military’. Such contradictory statements about MIT’s military funding indicate some ambivalence, apparently seeking to separate his own unit’s role from his anti-militarist politics.

‘Cognitive paradigm’ as intellectual counter-insurgency

Chomsky’s syntactic theory had no known military relevance – and perhaps no such potential (as explained earlier). By privileging innate cognitive characteristics, however, it played an implicit political role. 

Knight explains the political context as follows: the 1950s US imperial project identified dual threats, from ‘communism’ (code for national liberation movements), and from materialist-institutional perspectives in the social sciences, inspired by political rebellion. The US counter-insurgency strategy sought ‘to win hearts and minds’ on both fronts – violently through forced resettlement of Vietnamese villages, and more subtly within the west. 

Namely, a new ‘cognitive paradigm’ asserted the innate basis of individuals’ ideas. US Establishment figures promoted this perspective within professional associations and academic disciplines (Decoding Chomsky, pp. 192-93). While explicitly contesting behaviourist concepts of human plasticity, the cognitive paradigm had a more ambitious agenda. 

According to the historian David Golumbia, it was ‘a deliberate and also largely covert effort to resist the possibility of communist/Marxist encroachment on the US conceptual establishment’. Through this paradigm, ‘individuals, government entities including military and intelligence bodies, and private foundations like the RAND Corporation, promoted values like objectivity and rationalism over against subjectivity, collectivity, and shared social responsibility’ (Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation, p.32).  

Here the Chomsky paradox deepens. His 1967 political essay targeted Rand’s Charles Wolf for his expert euphemisms about modernising Southeast Asia, especially as regards Vietnam. According to Wolf’s 1965 advice to the Pentagon, a successful counterinsurgency strategy must go beyond ‘winning hearts and minds’; it must ‘raise the cost and difficulty of the insurgent operation’. This inevitably blurred any distinction between targeting armed insurgents and their community support base. 

Chomsky highlighted this violent logic of modernisation in his sardonic way: ‘If we want to be truly utopian, we may consider the possibility that American resources might be used to alleviate the terrorism that is the inevitable correlate of modernization….’ (‘Some thoughts on intellectuals and the schools’, 1966; reprinted in American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969). Here ‘utopian’ meant reversing or countering its state-terrorist role in the global modernisation agenda. (Let us return later to this theme.) 

Despite Chomsky attacking the Rand Corporation, its ‘cognitive paradigm’ agenda was complemented by his claims for linguistics as a natural science. He compared the human capacity for language with a digital machine conferring innate ideas and structures. His 1957 book Syntactic Structures ‘was the snowball which began the avalanche of the modern “cognitive revolution”’, according to David Lightfoot’s new 2002 Introduction. Through his linguistics theory, ‘More than any other figure, Chomsky defined the intellectual climate in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century’, further argues David Golumbia (cited in Decoding Chomsky). 

Modernisation’s science/politics binary

Let us return to the puzzle raised by the NYT’s 1969 essay. Chomsky has written on linguistics and politics in quite different languages, as if for separate readerships. Each category offers no motive for its audience to take any interest in the other. His linguistics writings have been opaque to most general readers and even to many linguists. 

Alongside that apparent gap, the two categories have a paradoxical link. Chomsky devised a politics-free linguistic science and science-free anti-militarist politics, each a reverse mirror-image of the other.  Although he has been the writer most widely read by political activists, his linguistics theory resonates with the cognitive paradigm, an intellectual counter-insurgency against critical social sciences (as above). Deepening the paradox, his science/politics binary unwittingly resonates with the capitalist modernisation project that he attacked. 

As understood by Max Weber, modernisation devises a scientific rationality for expert solutions to societal problems; efficiency calculations displace emotions and sympathy. Structured in a bureaucracy, such imperatives impose an ‘iron cage’ on participants.  Although Weber expressed some ambivalence towards modernisation, it has become widely equated with societal progress in elite agendas.

For at least three centuries, the modernisation project has elaborated a calculative-instrumental reason undermining non-capitalist social bonds, thus marginalising subaltern versions of truth and reality.  It has devised a scientistic ideology of technical knowledge, as if devoid of any socio-political content.  Professional experts have often seen the science/politics binary as a strategic protection against political interference, yet the binary has effectively concealed policy assumptions within expertise. 

In 2002 Edward Said wrote about the public role of intellectuals, echoing Chomsky’s 1967 phrase:

‘The cult of expertise has never ruled the world of discourse as much as it now does in the USA. Another reason is that even though the USA is actually full of intellectuals hard at work filling the airwaves, print, and cyberspace with their effusions, the public realm is so taken up with questions of policy and government, as well as with considerations of power and authority….’  

Edward Said’s essay cited Pierre Bourdieu on the ‘symbolic domination which increasingly relies on the authority of science…’, e.g. in methods for classifying socio-economic groups. According to Bourdieu, scientific authority helps to disguise such domination, even amongst the people being dominated (La Misère du monde, 1993, translated in The Weight of the World, 1999). This again exemplifies the science/politics binary, which warrants a systemic critique.

What responsibility of intellectuals?

In conclusion, let us return to Chomsky’s insights from a half-century ago about the responsibility of intellectuals. Here are two general implications for the future.

First, policy elites have extended a cult of expertise to all areas of life, provoking widespread disputes over the basis for distinguishing between truth, deception and self-deception. When building on insights from critical analyses (including Chomsky’s), we should question any pretence of value-free knowledge or a science/politics binary which disguises normative assumptions. Likewise, we should question the pervasive expertise which depoliticises elite agendas and so forecloses societal futures – be it in the name of modernisation, science, neutral expertise or rationality. We should question the pervasive expertise which depoliticises elite agendas and so forecloses societal futures.

Second, capitalist expertise often appropriates ideas which were apparently impractical or even potentially anti-capitalist. When Wassily Leontief developed his ‘input-output economics’, which eventually served to manage capitalist economies, he drew on his earlier Marxist education, especially concepts in Capital, Volume 2. Many anti-capitalist perspectives have been recuperated and turned into legitimation strategies (see the critical book, The New Spirit of Capitalism). By analysing hegemonic concepts (e.g. the cognitive paradigm), we can better devise and sharpen critical ones that are less readily appropriated for elite agendas. 

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