The Chomsky Problem

Somehow I’ve ended up reading books on linguistics.

It started years ago with my reading books by such thinkers as E. R. Dodds and Julian Jaynes. Their main focus was on language usage of the ancient world. For entirely different reasons, I ended up interested in Daniel L. Everett who became famous for his study of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with a unique culture and language. A major figure I have had an interest in for a long time, Noam Chomsky, is also in the linguistics field, but I had never previously been interested in his linguistic writings.

It turns out that Everett and Chomsky are on two sides of the central debate within linguistics. That debate has overshadowed all other issues in the field since what is known as the cognitive revolution. I was peripherally aware of this, but some recent books have forced me to try to make sense of it. Two books I read, though, come at the debate from an entirely different angle.

The first book I read isn’t one I’d recommend. It is The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. I’ve never looked at much of his writings, despite having seen his books around for decades. The only prior book I even opened was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a catchy title if there ever was one. Maybe he is getting old enough that he isn’t as great of a writer as he once was. I don’t know. This latest publication wasn’t that impressive, even as I think I understood and agreed with the central conclusion of his argument posed as a confused angry rant.

It’s possible that such a book might serve a purpose, if reading it led one to read better books on the topic. Tom Wolfe does have a journalistic flair about him that makes the debate seem entertaining to those who might otherwise find it boring — a melodramatic clashing of minds and ideas, sometimes a battle of wills with charisma winning the day. His portrayal of Chomsky definitely gets one thinking, but I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Fortunately, another book by an entirely different kind of author, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, takes on a similar understanding to Chomsky’s linguistics career and does so with more scholarly care.

Both books helped me put my finger on something that has been bothering me about Chomsky. Like Knight, I highly respect Chomsky’s political activism and his being a voice for truth and justice. Yet there was a disconnect I sensed. I remember being disappointed by a video I saw of him being asked by someone about what should be done and his response was that he couldn’t tell anyone what to do and that everyone had to figure it out for themself. The problem is that no one has ever figured out any major problem by themselves in all of human existence. Chomsky knows full well the challenges we face and still, when push comes to shove, the best he has to offer is to tell people to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate once again. That is plain depressing.

Knight gives one possible explanation for why that disconnection exists and why it matters. It’s not just a disconnection. After reading Knight’s book, I came to the conclusion that there is a dissociation involved, a near complete divide within Chomsky’s psyche. Because of his career and his activism, he felt compelled to split himself in two. He admits that this is what he has done and states that he has a remarkable talent in being able to do so, but he doesn’t seem grasp the potentially severe consequences. Knight shows that Chomsky should understand this, as it relates to key social problems Chomsky has written about involving the disconnect of the knowing mind — between what we know, what we think we know, what don’t know, and what we don’t know we know. It relates to what Knight discussion of Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem:

He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.

I’m not sure I fully understand what this division is and what the fundamental issue might be. I do sense how this goes far beyond Chomsky and linguistics. Knight points out that this kind of splitting is common in academia. I’d go further. It is common throughout our society.

Dissociation is not an unusual response, but when taken to extremes the results can be problematic. An even more extreme example than that of Chomsky, as used by Derrick Jensen, is the Nazi doctors who experimented on children and then went home to play with their own children. The two parts of their lives never crossed, neither in their experience nor in their minds. This is something most people learn to do, if never to such a demented degree. Our lives become splintered in endless ways, a near inevitability in such a large complex society as this. Our society maybe couldn’t operate without such dissociation, a possibility that concerns me.

This brings my mind back around to the more basic problem of linguistics itself. What is linguistics a study of and what is the purpose toward what end? That relates to a point Knight makes, arguing that Chomsky has split theory from meaning, science from humanity. Between the Pentagon-funded researcher and the anti-Pentagon anarchist, the twain shall never meet. Two people live in Chomsky’s mind and they are fundamentally opposed, according to Knight. Maybe there is something to this.

Considering the larger-than-life impact Chomsky has had on the linguistics field, what does this mean for our understanding of our own humanity? Why has the Pentagon backed Chomsky’s side and what do they get for their money?

14 thoughts on “The Chomsky Problem

  1. It is disappointing that so many figures that would otherwise be leaders have asked people to toe the official line.

    We can’t. Voting for Clinton would validate the use of cheating by the DNC and would allow them in the future to treat the left with contempt. They know that then that their “they have nowhere to go” would be true. They’d be able to abuse the left at will in the future.

    An even scarier conclusion that is that it is entirely possible that Trump is the lesser evil for the left. Scary, considering how bad he is.

    • Yeah, it is very disappointing. I find it even more disappointing for Chomsky because I otherwise respect him greatly. He is one of the harshest and most incisive critics of mainstream US politics. It’s beyond bizarre for him to regularly tell people to vote for mainstream presidential candidates in the US political system. By reading his books, one is forced to do the opposite of what he tells people to do.

      The disconnect isn’t just between Chomsky’s professional career as linguist and personal activism in politics. It’s also between his analytical political writings and his practical political advice. If such a brilliant and well-informed mind as his can fall into such a trap, it makes one appreciate the power of the system we exist in and how it messes with people’s minds. Chomsky should write a book about it, as I’m sure it would be insightful and well documented.

      I’ve grown emotionally numb to this presidential election. There is no way for me to care about either of the two most likely elected candidates. And there is no way to rationally think about choosing between them. Even the likes of Sanders and Stein are moderate compared to outside challengers earlier last century. As for Gary Johnson, many libertarians don’t see him as being all that libertarian, more of what used to be considered a Republican in the past. We simply don’t even hear from genuine radicals in this system. They are so excluded that it’s as if they don’t exist.

      I don’t know about Trump. He might be crazy or simply putting on a good show. Either way, I doubt he means anything he says or is likely to do anything he promises. He is a man of popularity, not a man of action. He is used to living the good life, not getting his hands dirty. The worry isn’t what he might do on his own accord but what his advisers might tell him to do or what others under him might do on his behalf. It’s sort of a George W. Bush situation where the president wouldn’t be the brains of the operation.

      Clinton scares me in a more direct way. We don’t have to imagine and speculate about the harm she will do. We know what harm will do.

    • The obvious fact is that lesser evil is a misnomer. We are facing two greater evils. And that isn’t an exaggeration.

      Under either presidency, the world would become a far worse place, more oppressive and dangerous, a further growth of the police state and military-industrial complex and corporatist fascism. Partly this is just a fact of the entire ruling elite, political establishment, and crony plutocracy — no matter who is president. But that is all the more reason we should fight against this greater evilism.

      Those who argue about voting out of fear are cynically declaring that they’ve given up all hope on positive change, even if they can’t yet admit it to themselves. If either of these two are elected, we are going down a road that can’t have a happy ending. We are either at the point of no return or already long past it.

  2. We are facing some problems with keeping the left unified.

    The challenge is that there is a large segment of even many Progressive voters who will go with Clinton. They may do so with their noses, but in the end, they will vote for Clinton. The Democratic Establishment has them so long as that is the case.

    In the long run the Democratic Establishment has the left where they want them unless the left drops them.

    • I’ve always had an oddly optimistic side of my personality. Despite my depression and skepticism, I’m a possibility thinker and I try to gain a larger perspective to see beyond whatever shittiness is going on in any given moment. It’s easy to be cynical, but that seems like a boring way to live if that is a knee-jerk reaction and thoughtless attitude.

      Yet the political left supporting someone so horrific as Clinton is snuffing out what hope I’ve held onto all these years. I’m shocked by how few people comprehend how far gone is our society. It’s long past the time of playing these kinds of games. I don’t want to give up on this country, but so many Americans have already given up by default of the choices they’re making. Fighting the good fight is seemingly ever more pointless as time goes on.

      I’m starting to think we’re just going to have to let the situation go beyond redemption and then rebuild out of the rubble. We will collectively take our problems seriously when there is no other choice left, after we’ve wasted all other opportunities and have backed ourselves into a corner. That is a sad conclusion to come to.

  3. Here is a piece by Chris Knight:

    It is a scathing critique of Noam Chomsky, although offered with respect and sympathy of the compromise that Chomsky apparently felt compelled to make. Knight uses strong evidence to show that Chomsky knew he was working for the Pentagon.

    According to Knight, maybe Chomsky resolved his inner conflict by sacrificing his science. He created a theory so abstract and detached from reality that it was utterly useless for the war machine. But in the process he set the linguistics field behind several generations.

    Elsewhere, Knight implies the sacrifice could be interpreted as having gone even further. In making such a severe compromise, the split in his mind and identity might have had psychological consequences. And one could argue, as I do in this post, that Chomsky was compromised in his ability to take a strong political stance.

    One thing is clear is that Chomsky downplayed and misled others about how involved he was with the US government’s military funding and research. If he didn’t think this compromised him, then why did he hide it?

  4. Chomsky did accept funding from the Defense Dept, but that was more than half a century ago. And his research had only indirect relevance to actual warfare. To my knowledge he has not received Defense funding since that time — in which case these accusations of hypocrisy strike me as strained. I could be wrong, though.

    • It was an extensive and formative period of his entire career. He might never have become well known if not for that period of time when he and his wife worked for the Pentagon, when the military funded the publishing of some of his books, and when he worked for a Pentagon-related defense corporation developing weapon systems.

      In reading the articles below, it is hard to not see how fully this compromised Chomsky in numerous areas of his life and work. This impact wasn’t limited to his early academic career. Compromise, when continued long enough, becomes a mindset and a habit. Consider Chomsky’s pushing for people to vote for neocon and neoliberal Democrats, something it would be hard to imagine the anarchist David Graeber doing.

      Furthermore, Chris Knight argues that this has led Chomsky into an intellectual dead end with his academic work. And he wonders if this wasn’t intentional for, if his theories ever proved true, they would be immensely important for military application. That is the whole reason the Pentagon funded his work.

      Yet that doesn’t explain why he never developed a more anarchist-leaning theory of linguistics that not only wouldn’t have contributed to the military-industrial complex but would have challenged it. It is strange that the linguists and anthropologists who criticize his work often do so from theoretical positions that are more friendly to anarchistic possibilities. But that is the point. Working at MIT, he never would have been allowed to develop a theory of anarchism in linguistics.

      Working at MIT came at immense cost. It’s not necessarily about him being hypocritical in a conscious sense. When we put ourselves into a compromised position, it creates the conditions for ever more compromise and this mostly happens on an unconscious level. We find reasons to justify what we’ve chosen and an entire system of thought can form to uphold those justifications.

    • This goes back to an old frustration of mine. Looking back at a post on the sense of urgency, I noticed that you were the only one to comment there. You shared my sense of urgency.

      Yet there is nothing about Chomsky’s life that indicates he has ever experienced any significant amount of urgency. His argument that ideas are separate from personal life and academia separate from the world, well that is something only a member of the comfortable class could argue. Take his stance on the Vietnam War. He only voiced his own protest against it in the late 1960s when even the elite had become divided over the issue and so it became a safer topic. Chomsky’s urgency about that war would have been greater if he or a close loved one had been in the military where his life was in danger. And at present, he might feel more urgency in not arguing lesser evil voting if the neoliberal and neocon policies directly harmed him and his family. But instead he has remained safe for decades within the protected walls of the Ivory tower, not to mention the wealthier area he has lived in.

      Now consider David Graeber, about whom I just wrote that post about anarchists and universities. He came from a working class background and didn’t fit in with the comfortable class found in the American academia. He felt too much urgency to separate parts of his life and politics in order to advance his career. On top of that, during the Yale fiasco, two of his family members got sick and he had to go back and forth between them as a caretaker. It was apparently too much for his wife who divorced him at the time. Then following that, he found that no US university would hire him. Refusing to toe the line as Chomsky was willing to do, Graeber’s career was destroyed within US academia.

      Neither Chomsky nor Graeber entirely made a choice. One either feels urgency or not. And then one acts accordingly. Chomsky would intellectually know what I mean by ‘urgency’, but I doubt on a gut level that it is fully and undeniably real to him. In that sense, it is almost irrelevant to speak of hypocrisy. The failure in our society goes to a much deeper moral and psychological level. Accusations of hypocrisy, even if true, simply don’t capture the profound existential crisis we face nor the dissociation some people escape into.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s