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 himself. 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 pushed 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.

I’m not sure I fully understand what the 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. 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?

6 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.

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