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The latter day critics of Noam Chomsky

Has the evil US military corporate complex appropriated Chomsky, the man and his linguistics, without Chomsky in the know? Nothing is impossible, as Chomsky says, but many things are unlikely.

Noam Chomsky. Flickr/Andrew Rusk. Some rights reserved.

With a British Knight leading the charge, there is a whole new ragtag army on the offensive against Chomsky, armed with spurious arguments and feeble deceptions. While I have reviewed Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky in some detail, there is now a whole new industry to bolster Knight’s contentions, notably on his Scienceandrevolution website, and lately on openDemocracy, with contributors such as Knight himself and follow-up articles from Frederick J.Newmeyer, Randy Allen Harris, Les Levidow and David Golumbia. Here I will contend with Les Levidow’s argument.

In the first instance one would not expect a forum like openDemocracy to let loose on a venerable old man who has agitated much more for open democracy than any of the above contributors put together. While Chomsky is subject to critique like everyone else, one would expect a critique of Chomsky to be well founded and well argued. Reactionaries from the right of the political spectrum have always attacked Chomsky on an utterly groundless basis, and from all directions, be it personal, regarding his public personae, or his manifestation as a linguist. To lead the charge from the left field, as does Knight and his cohorts, is somewhat surprising, unless one unmasks these people as agent provocateurs. Their rhetoric is almost Shakespearian in endlessly reciting ‘Brutus/Chomksy is an honorable man but …’, lulling the unsuspecting reader into believing that the critique is well-intentioned and largely pro-Chomsky but ending up in a wild goose chase that reveals Brutus/Chomsky to be a traitor. As such Levidow begins his treatise, lauding Chomsky:

“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.” 

Then comes the old chestnut:

“… a gap between his ‘highly technical linguistic scholarship’ and his political writings: ‘The “Chomsky problem” is to explain how these two fit together.’” 

In my biography of Noam Chomsky (2006, Reaction Books, London) I begin with the very same alleged conundrum that turns out to be none at all. I feature the German romantic poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller who combines the very personae that Noam Chomsky has and claims: private, public and academic. While Schiller famously fused all three, Chomsky begs to differ. He wants these spheres of his life separated. So what is wrong with that? Even Harris and Newmayer concede that there is nothing wrong with that, while they find other misdeeds that focus on one of the spheres, mostly on the linguistic side. For Levidow this however is still the crux of the matter: there cannot be a separation between Chomsky the political activist and Chomsky the linguist/scientist, and if Chomsky maintains otherwise he must either be disingenuous or lying. Levidow then trots out Knight’s bizarre accusation that Chomsky felt so guilty about his collaboration with the Pentagon at MIT that he devised a linguistic theory so abstract it could not be used for ‘killing’ anyone. Levidow, a non-linguist, then repeats another bizarre myth, first advanced by Knight:

“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).” 

So which of Chomsky’s claims lack credibility? Where does Chomsky claim that ‘concepts like ‘book’ are fixed genetically? It is simple minded to equate language with words (the lexicon) and then deduce that if language is innate (as Chomsky claims) – all the words in the language must be innate too, i.e. we are born with the word ‘book’ in our brain. What utter nonsense! Of course there is the folklorist idea promoted by the Bible that ‘in the beginning was the word’ but as one sensible linguist has pointed out, as a joke, that if the first individual in the world uttered a ‘word’ as a speech act, nobody would have had the facility to understand it.

Levidow develops this idea into an even more bizarre accusation, namely that Chomsky spawned the ‘cognitive paradigm’ in which he ‘compared the human capacity for language with a digital machine conferring innate ideas and structures’. So now Chomsky is said to claim that ideas and concepts are innate as well, giving rise to possibly right-wing assertions that rabid capitalism (as advocated by the Rand Corporation) is an innate concept while a potential anti-capitalist concept is obviously not. Again, what utter nonsense!

The misunderstanding – if one allows it as such – is that language as an innate faculty of the brain (and not including actual words, but possibly categories of words) facilitates the language of thought (which is externalized via speech). Chomsky is not interested in how we use language and what for. He just wants to study language per se. Now, there are linguists and others who claim that this is not possible, i.e. language use determines the structure of language in the brain. By analogy we might claim that the respiratory system exists because we breathe, and not the other way round.

In any case, nobody would deny that we can study the respiratory system without paying too much attention to how we use it in everyday life. Chomsky never denied that we cannot study the use of language; indeed he says it is a legitimate field of study that can inform the study of language per se. Obviously, all biological systems have a function but it remains the domain of natural science to figure out how the system works in order to carry out its function. We all know the function of gravity but only through very recent experiments has Higg’s theory been verified. Some of Einstein’s theories still have not been verified experimentally.

It’s the same with Chomsky. His theories of language cannot be easily verified experimentally but then again no theory of language by anyone else has ever been verified either. It is my own contention that if there is a ‘paradox’ anywhere, it is the language paradox itself, i.e. while in all other natural sciences we have a meta-language (often highly abstracted in mathematical or other symbolic figures of speech) to explain a given natural system, we have none for language.

Chomsky’s theories have at least ‘explanatory adequacy’ while Levidow’s theory about Chomsky lacks any such merit, exactly because many of his assertions are manifestly wrong (like creationists claiming that evolution is fake news), for example in saying that Chomsky’s ‘theoretical abstractions contradict recent developments in linguistics, which has extensively researched how words and concepts are jointly shaped by communicative interchanges’.

Sure, there are functionalist theories that (as noted above) deny language as an innate faculty of the brain, locating language in some general cognitive domain whereby ‘communication’ accounts for the development of language (which by the way is the ‘cognitive paradigm’ Levidow so decries and falsely attributes to Chomsky). A lesser fundamentalist branch of linguistics, namely sociolinguistics, has always studied the social aspects of language use and many of these insights provided feedback into theories of language – but none ‘contradict’ Chomsky’s theoretical abstractions.

This is another bugbear of Levidovw’s: ‘ … his linguistics writings have been opaque to most general readers and even to many linguists’. There is a joke about Einstein’s paper on gravity, saying that only one or two people in the world could understand it – so why accuse Chomsky of being ‘opaque’? Maybe Levidow should study advanced mathematics as Chomsky did, and as Einstein certainly did to great effect. 

Politics-free science

So this brings us to Levidow’s other main theme: that there is no such thing as ‘politics-free science’, quoting Marx ‘one basis for life and another for science is a priori a lie’ and later Bourdieu ‘… symbolic domination which increasingly relies on the authority of science …’.

In the first instance Chomsky is not a Marxist, nor does he subscribe to French (de-)constructionists (as famously played out in his debate with Foucault). Chomsky describes himself politically as a syndicalist anarchist. Be that as it may, he certainly asserts that his linguistic studies are free of politics and ideology. In particular his theories are not designed to have any ‘use’ other than to illuminate the scientific question of what language is all about.

Did New Zealand-born Rutherford conceive of the atomic bomb when theorizing about the structure of the atom? Unlikely! And as the generals for sure soon saw a good use for it, can we accuse Rutherford of complicity? Einstein recommended the use of atomic bombs against Japan but regretted it after the event. Can we accuse Einstein of war crimes? If so, we can intone the Rolling Stones lyrics ‘who killed the Kennedys if it wasn’t you and me?’ What are Levidow, Knight, Harris and Newmayer doing to save the world? Accusing Chomsky of heinous crimes – complicity with the US war machine, aiding and abetting the capitalist system (even if unwittingly) and doing bad linguistics – will not do the trick.

It is woefully counterproductive. Chomsky is not a saint but neither is he an intellectual devil so pathetically portrayed by above agent provocateurs (but so masterfully portrayed in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita as the real thing). Sure, one can criticize Chomsky for having worked at MIT (he has some misgivings himself) but isn’t it strange that many of his critics also work at institutions that are not exactly blameless in terms of their military and corporate connections, take Knight’s UCL or Levidow’s Open University where they offer a course called ‘Introduction to Corporate Finance’ – surely a fine capitalist denouement!

Professor Harris, as Levidow defers to him, and Senior Fellow Knight earn good money just as Professor Chomsky does. I’ve just written a review of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs – a fine book. I ask, as a bit of a joke, whether Professor Graeber’s job at LSE might be bullshit too. I go on to say that all paid work is a sort of pitiful prostitution, mine doubly so as a lowly paid polytechnic teacher. So, please let Chomsky off the hook in this employment row. To defend the lumpen proletariat one doesn’t need to be one of them. Many of the great revolutionaries were from bourgeois classes and many had a skeleton in the closet. 

The last point in Levidow’s article also doesn’t withstand scrutiny, namely that Chomsky somehow was duped by capitalist expertise appropriating his ‘ideas that were apparently impractical or even potentially anti-capitalist’. Sure there are examples of cultural, social and ideological appropriation, some more awful than others. The Nazis appropriated ‘socialism’ as ‘national socialism’, which is a contradiction in terms. The capitalists appropriated Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand of the market’ when in fact (as Chomsky argues) Adam Smith advocated for common wealth for the common good. The perfume industry appropriated Zen and Opium as brand names. Disney appropriated the Grimm brothers. White culture appropriates black culture whenever it suits.

Orwell has identified the language features of these oppressive phenomena as ‘newspeak’. So, has the evil US military and corporate complex appropriated Chomsky, the man and his linguistics, without Chomsky in the know? Nothing is impossible, as Chomsky says, but many things are unlikely. In that sense let’s all jump on the anti-Chomsky bandwagon and claim that Chomsky is really an undercover agent working for the Pentagon and that his incomprehensible linguistics is just a front for his real work. It’s a great conspiracy theory fit for our age of Twitter & Trump. I should get millions of fake followers and soon emerge from my obscurity. QED.

About the author

Wolfgang B. Sperlich is a linguist, education activist and writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. He is the author of (2006) Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books, London and has published widely in linguistics and other fields of inquiry. His blog contains many of his shorter pieces of writing.


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