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Noam Chomsky on the Politics of the Essence of the Human Mind
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2008-03-31 09:31:43
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Noam Chomsky is considered one of the pivotal linguists of our time. He follows a long heritage on the nature of language which begins with the ancient Greeks and continues with Giambattista Vico in the 18th century. This heritage is convinced that language is the vehicle of thought and therefore it is there what we need to look for discovering the essence of the human mind. In other words, imagination and the poetical precedes rationality and it is a fallacy to dissociate one from the other or consider one superior to the other as the Enlightenment tended to do.

Chomsky’s seminal work published way back in 1957 is titled Syntactic Structures and defined the field for the rest of the century. In this book Chomsky puts forward the idea of “transformational grammar” in which each sentence in a language has a “deep structure” and a “surface structure.” The deep structure contains properties common to all languages which are mapped onto the surface structure via “transformations.” In 1965 it was followed by Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Language and Mind. Here Chomsky introduces a hierarchy which he calls “levels of adequacy” as a means of judging grammars and “metagrammars” (theories of grammar) according to their elegance and effectiveness.

Chomsky challenges the rationalistic empiricist tradition of Locke which asserts that at birth the mind is a blank slate (a “tabula rasa) on which experience writes. Chomsky, to the contrary asserts that the mind is constrained in its operations by certain innate structures. He observes language learning and the “syntactic structures” which underlie languages and notices that at a fundamental level they all share a universal structure, or grammar which is hardwired in our brains, rather than something learned through teaching and experience. He further observes that there are some 5,000 known varieties of human languages and notices that despite many surface differences they are all constrained by certain parameters and principles that are innate to the human mind.

Chomsky arrives at this conclusion via the “productivity argument.” He notices the speed with which grammatical ability develops in children around the age of two or three and finds confirmation for this in the field of experimental psycho-logism. This ability goes far beyond the slender input of the language that children have been exposed to up to that point. Which is to say, the child has a head-start: the grammatical rules do not need to be learned, they are hardwired in the mind and early exposure to language merely acts as a trigger which initiates a very fast paced linguistic competence. This notion transformed the understanding of language teaching which after Chomsky’s publications began placing less emphasis of teaching grammatical rules and more on a spontaneous natural way of learning and reproducing a foreign language.

Chomsky maintains that this hardwiring, like other cognitive faculties, is an aspect of our human nature. This aspect of human nature has even positive political consequences. How so? In the sense that rather than being the blank sheet of Locke’s empiricism, or the unconstrained free agent of Sartre’s existentialism, our nature prevents us from being overwhelmed by extreme and wayward forces. It is our very nature which determines that there are only certain possible political structures that can be tolerated. This has echoes of Plato’s Republic and partly confirms Whitehead’s dictum that the whole of Western philosophy is a footnote to Plato. Be that as it may, Chomsky declares that oppressive political systems, as in Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, cannot mould our mind, try as the dictators may try. Our thoughts are not, as the behavioral psychologists (usually steeped in materialism) suppose, merely conditioned responses to repeated stimuli.

This is to say, the concept of being a “free agent” is as hardwired into our nature as the constraints that act on our forms of speech. This is similar to Dostoyevsky’s insight in Notes from Underground, place Man in a wholly deterministic universe and he will blow it up simply to prove that he remains free. In conclusion, for Chomsky the nature of the human mind is revealed by the nature of language, and not only because language is a uniquely human activity, but because language is indeed the vehicle of thought and therefore it illuminates the very essence of the human mind, as Vico had indeed already pointed out way back in 1725 in his The New Science.

Out of this linguistic philosophy, schematically outlined above, issue Chomsky political writings. As a good philosopher of language and knowledge that he is, Chomsky seems to be acutely aware that practice without theory is blind. His political views are underpinned by his linguistic theory. This is a lesson that many current activists could well ponder and emulate before plunging first into liberation causes and then go searching for a plausible political theory for their activism. It was his linguistic theory which is the basis of Chomsky’s political critique. Indeed “praxis by itself is not light.” Here many politically active Hollywood celebrities come to mind.

On the basis of his linguistic theory Chomsky has remained a constant and consistent critic of US foreign policy: of the US involvement in Viet Nam, Cambodia, the Gulf Wars as well as an active supporter of radical social changes in the US and the global village in which we live. Asked to define his political views Chomsky has described them as “libertarian socialist,” that is to say, a blend of socialism and anarchism. However, his theory is far from confused and anarchic.

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Akli Hadid2008-03-31 13:39:51
Chomsky is a critic of the US foreign policy, and has other despicable views, including that of being an anti-Semite. And this time, prof. Paperella, please don't tell me that he is a Jew and therefore can't be an anti-Semite.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-31 16:53:58
Indeed if that is the case Chomsky's father who was a famous Hebrew scholar did not do a very good job in passing on his values and heritage to his son. On the other hand, why not let Chomsky hiself defend himself from the charge of anti-semitism. Here is a direct quote from Noam Chomsky:

"With regard to anti-Semitism, the distinguished Israeli statesman Abba Eban pointed out the main task of Israeli propaganda (they would call it exclamation [sic – this is obviously a transcription error for ‘explanation’], what’s called ‘propaganda’ when others do it) is to make it clear to the world there’s no difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. By anti-Zionism he meant criticisms of the current policies of the State of Israel. So there’s no difference between criticism of policies of the State of Israel and anti-Semitism, because if he can establish ‘that’ then he can undercut all criticism by invoking the Nazis and that will silence people. We should bear it in mind when there’s talk in the US about anti-Semitism." (Noam Chomsky)

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-31 17:04:58
P.S. One may indeed disagree with Chomsky's political views but one cannot cavalierly say that they are mindless as unfortunately are those of many busy activists nowaday deluding themselves that praxis is light and does not need a clear theory to underpinn it. As I have tried to point out in the above article, they are founded on solid scholarship on the nature of language and its nexus to the human mind.

Nunobark2008-03-31 20:21:20
Great article, in fact Noam Chomsky is one of the greatest thinkers of our time. I just have to disagree with the last sentence where you seem to say that anarchism is confusion: anarchy comes from the greek an(lack of)+arché(ruler or power). Anarchy doesn't have to be a confusion, democracy seems to me much more confusing really, at least in anarchy there would be no bureaucracy. Nevertheless I still enjoyed reading this article.

Nunobark2008-03-31 20:40:40
I agree with Emanuel Paparella when he says that praxis must be founded on theory. In fact we must think before we act or else we risk getting hurt by our own actions.
“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”-Leonardo da Vinci

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-31 21:24:12
Thanks for the dialogue and the insights Mr. Nunobark. I’m glad you found the article worth while. If I may continue the dialogue a bit, we seem to fully agree on the authenticity of Chomsky’s scholarship, the importance of language vis a vis thought, and the necessity of theory as underpinning of praxis, independent from Chomsky's controversial political views. Actually, the opposite is also true: theory without praxis is sterile. For me, that is what is admirable in Chomsky, whether one agrees with him or not, that coherent and lucic synthesis of theory with practice.

On anarchy, I am sorry if I was not clear enough and came across as implying that anarchy is the rule of the mob (as Dr. Siddiqui seems to imply in the article on Democracy of today). Libertarianism, which is indeed related to Anarchism, has a long and honorable tradition in the US even if control freaks, and thought police, and assorted rationalists and idealogues and demagogoes do not much like it. The uniqueness of Chomsky’s intellectual position lies in the fact that he is able to combine it with socialism which does not have as a good fame in the US as libertarianism does, and that is too bad, since true socialism is always democratic and egalitarian at its core and springs from the power of the people, and wishes more not less freedom for one’s neighbor; in fact, it goes back to man’s aspiration for justice and fairness and can be found in the Acts of the Apostles: they owned everything in common and they loved one another. That kind of near-Utopia is now derided by the cynics of our brave new world whose paradigm is a Machiavellian one of real-politik. It was certainly derided by the likes of Stalin and Mao and Castro which have unfortunately given Socialism and even Anarchy a bad reputation.

Nunobark2008-03-31 22:32:41
Thanks for your answer Mr.Emanuel Paparella. I also agree that theory without practice is sterile. Thought and action are interdependent, they are like the two sides of a coin. I believe that the real problem in politics is that politicians often say something and then they do something else in the opposite direction, their theory and their praxis are in self-contradiction. I believe that this usually happens because the theory that is shown to the general public isn't the theory that really guides their practice (it's just propaganda), or maybe the politicians themselves are so lost in self-deception that they honestly believe that their actions are correct and just. Most revolutions had very good principles and were driven by the desire to live better and have a more just society but all of them eventually fail in doing so. Maybe humankind is just driven to hierarchy like other social animals, but I certainly hope that we all can find in ourselves the strength to resist these urges of domination. Private property is not necessary if society is driven by love and respect (instead of accumulation of wealth). Maybe it is time for a new shift in the paradigm of life, I believe we should move away from capitalism into a an age where happiness is the real profit one can get from life. Indeed we live in a strange age ruled by technology and appearance and now I hope we can all deal with the challenges humankind faces (environmental degradation and economic inequality), we must all think and act together in order to avoid being crushed by the thoughtless acts of the past.

I'm sorry if my english is not the best but I really enjoy this kind of dialogue. I would like to hear more from your point of view.

Emanuel Paparella2008-04-01 06:04:05
Indeed, philosophy, or love of wisdom, is nothing more than a perennial convivial conversation. Unfortunately, at times it proves difficult to carry one such with our contemporaries and so one makes do with those great minds that are no longer with us. Personally I have been carrying such a conversation with Giambattista Vico for the last 40 years or so. He is the intellectual giant and heroic mind who will inspire anybody looking for some light and harmony in the confusion of goal of our overationalistic times. Should you have time see my weekly column on such a conversation in Global Spiral (titled Journey into the mind of Vico) at this site:


P.S. Feel free to call me Emanuel if you so wish.

Emanuel Paparella2008-04-01 09:05:34
P.S. By the way, your English is quite good and nothing to apologize for.

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