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 where he mentioned being asked 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 themselves (Ye slaves, find yer own ways). 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?