Chomsky responds to Chris Knight's book, 'Decoding Chomsky'

Chomsky responds to Chris Knight's book, 'Decoding Chomsky'

In a British Columbia university radio show, Chomsky has now responded to Chris Knight’s new book, 'Decoding Chomsky, science and revolutionary politics'.

Knight makes an assumption common to those who [are] unfamiliar with government science-technology policy and know nothing about institutions like MIT.

At the time, MIT was almost entirely funded by the military, including the music department, etc. The modern advanced economy was created substantially by government funding in one or another way, often by Pentagon funding of research universities. There was zero military work on campus. You can find the facts from the Pound Commission report on the topic in 1969. Nor did the military involve themselves in any way in what was going on. That of course included my work. Or, for example, the work of colleagues studying American Indian languages, translating work of Wilhelm von Humboldt, etc. Knight is also deeply confused about the work on linguistics that I and others are doing. I explained it to him in response to an email request from him, but he plainly doesn’t understand. Thus he opens with a profound confusion about “universal grammar,” the technical term used for the genetic component of the human language faculty. He thinks this has something to do with some kind of “universal language” that he believes the military were interested in. There was no interest of the sort, and if there had been, it would have had nothing at all to do with our studies of universal grammar. It goes on like that. The whole story is a wreck.

In fact, the Pentagon had so little concern with what we and others were doing that they paid no attention to the fact that our lab also happened to be one of the major academic centers of resistance to the Vietnam war from the early ‘60s, or the fact that I was brought to trial for these activities.

In brief, complete nonsense throughout.

Noam Chomsky, September 2016

(From ’Chomsky’s Carburetor’ – an interview with Chris Knight.)


Feb 7 2018 13:23

Chris Knight has responded to Chomsky’s statement[1]:

‘There was zero military work on campus’, Noam Chomsky claims in reference to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the 1960s. This statement is surprising, since it directly contradicts numerous statements that Chomsky has made in the past. Chomsky knows very well that for 70 years, the majority of scientific research at MIT has been directly involved in the development of military technology.[2]

Naturally, most of this military research was not done in classrooms but in specialised laboratories. This has enabled MIT’s managers to describe these labs as ‘off campus’, even though, as Chomsky himself has said, some of them were only ‘two inches off campus. The labs right next door were doing classified work and people were between [the campus and the labs] all the time.’[3]

The Pounds Commission report – that Chomsky refers to – says that a number of these labs were officially part of the MIT’s School of Engineering and that approximately 500 students worked at various ‘off campus’ military labs.[4]

These military laboratories were so much part of MIT’s campus life that Chomsky himself has said that in the 1960s, ‘there was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. There were laboratories at MIT that were involved, for example, in the development of the technology that’s used for ballistic missiles, and so on. In fact, a good deal of the missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.’[5]

Since the 1960s, most military research at MIT has been done ‘off campus’. However, in the 1980s, MIT’s ‘on campus’ military research still included work on missile guidance, army helicopters and radar for ‘Star Wars’ projects and, more recently, it seems to have included work on robots, drones and ‘battle suits’ for chemical and biological warfare.[6]

Of course, any research establishment that only did applied science would soon run out of new ideas. So the Pentagon knew it had to fund pure science at MIT and elsewhere if it was to remain the world’s No.1 military machine. One side effect of this was that Pentagon funded research has produced many scientific innovations that still have no military use; this includes Chomsky’s linguistics. But that doesn’t mean that the direction of this linguistics wasn’t affected – especially in its formative years – by the vast military funding of both his own laboratory and of MIT as a whole.

Unfortunately, in another response to my book in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Chomsky appears to dismiss this whole issue by saying that ‘there was precisely zero pressure [from the Pentagon].’[7] However, it is notable that anti-militarist students at MIT have looked at things rather differently. For example, in 2001, Michael Borucke wrote:

‘Overt demands on a university are not the only way to influence what can and can’t be done here. The very nature of funding sources themselves also limits the scope of research. It is not likely that the [Dept. of Defense] will fund research it can’t use for military purposes. Faculty must necessarily change the focus of their research if they want DoD contracts.’

In 1985, Rich Cowan was equally critical about ‘MIT's massive military research budget’. He wrote that ‘[university] military research focuses attention and manpower away from areas that do not have perceived military application.’ He then went on to point out that ‘military funding not only affects the size of academic departments, but also the biases [of] research areas explored.’[8]

Chomsky has been at MIT for 60 years, so perhaps it is not surprising that he finds it difficult to view his university with the critical eye shown by these students. But that is no reason for the rest of us not to confront the realities of MIT or, indeed, the realities of Chomsky’s career and its many contradictions. My book is probably the first to attempt this. I would ask anyone fascinated by Noam’s writings, as I am, to give my book a go – even if Noam does dismiss it as ‘complete nonsense’!

For more on this topic see:

Readings and photos from the student uprising at Chomsky’s university, MIT, 1967-1972

John Deutch - Chomsky's friend in the Pentagon and the CIA


1. ’Chomsky’s Carburetor’ – an interview with Chris Knight.

2. MIT Briefing Book, 2015, p52.

3. Science, 9/5/69 p653; ‘Interview with Noam Chomsky’, Works And Days 51-4: Vol. 26/27, 2008-09, p530.

4. MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, p59-69. This part of the report is co-signed by Chomsky.

5. C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics p216.

6. The Tech, Vol.109 no.6, 24/2/89, p5; MIT News 29/5/15 and 14/11/12 and 23/4/02.

7. ‘The Chomsky Puzzle’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 25/8/16.

8. The Tech, Vol.121. No.38, 29/8/01; Vol.105 no.17, 12/4/85, p5-6.

Nov 2 2016 15:48

The New York Times have asked Noam about Chris Knight's book in this article:

'Noam Chomsky and the Bicycle Theory'

May 13 2017 17:53

The Military Contributions of Chomsky's Lab

Chomsky has repeatedly claimed that at MIT 'there was zero military work on campus'. This claim is difficult to reconcile with the fact that his own workplace, the Research Laboratory of Electronics, was making significant contributions to the US military. The laboratory was situated right in the middle of the campus.

In 1971, the US Army's office of Research and Development published an article beginning with this sentence:

Enumeration of the many RLE research contributions that have had military applications necessarily must be limited to a few examples.

It went on to mention the following examples, stating that they were only a 'few' of the many contributions made:

A classic paper with a 'negative' result saved the military countless dollars by pointing out the limitations of 'super-gain' antennas.

Contributions to the theory of beam-shaping antennas and helical antennas have had important applications. Work on microwave filters examined the possibility of broadband impedance matching.

Pioneering work was done on such diverse topics as ionospheric communication, missile guidance, phased-array antennas, and atomic clocks.

Contributions to signal detection in the presence of noise have been acclaimed as exceedingly important in military and commercial applications.

Early work in communications included trans-Atlantic frequency-modulation tests. Results led to substantial improvements in FM receiver design, special-purpose analog and digital computers, work in tropospheric and ionospheric scatter techniques, and theory of sequential switching circuits.

Major contributions were reported in development of the statistical approach to communication theory, and in information and coding theory.

In [an] environment of active research on communications theory and advanced electronic instrumentation techniques, the stimulus provided by the late Norbert Wiener encouraged the initiation and growth of research related to living systems.

Work was done also on simple automata, possibilities of human sensor augmentation or replacement and measurement techniques were developed to study neuroelectric signals.
In each of these area, RLE made continuing contributions and has had a part in stimulating similar work in other laboratories.

(From: 'Tri-Services Honor MIT Achievements in Military Electronics R&D', Army Research and Development News Magazine, Vol.12 no.4, July-August 1971, p68.)

Oct 22 2017 20:14

For anyone interested, here are some reviews of Chris Knight's critique of Chomsky:

Daniel Everett on Decoding Chomsky

Review of Decoding Chomsky in the Times Literary Supplement

Review in the American Ethnologist

More reviews can be found HERE.

Feb 7 2018 13:19

We now have conclusive evidence that Chomsky was working for the military for a period in the early 1960s:

'The MITRE Corporation's project to use Chomsky's linguistics for their weapons systems'

Chomsky has certainly made up for this mistake since then by campaigning tirelessly against the Pentagon. But it is still an interesting story that helps us understand both Chomsky's anti-militarist activism and his linguistic theories.

Rob Ray
Feb 7 2018 16:51

So from what I can see here, Chomsky consulted (in some way or other) for an MIT spin-off defence tech project on language applications in computing during the summer of 1963. He started advocating against war in 1962 before going public via The New York Review of Books in 1967 and publishing his first political book in 1969.

What does this help us understand? That he wasn't very actively political or consistent when he was in his 30s but became progressively more radicalised by the Vietnam War?

Tbh it rather lends credence to the view they didn't care much about MIT's linguistics department that the main effort they made with its output was for one of their lads to have a brief (failed) go at using the basic ideas for a computer language.

Generally I don't get this whole beef you have with Chomsky circa 1960s/70s tbh, his modern political output has plenty to critique which is actually worth a crack at rather than running a 50 year old gossip column ...

Black Badger
Feb 8 2018 06:13

Something that bothers many radicals are the embarrassing antecedents of their peers, their previously better-less-remembered antics/projects/associations. Something that bothers many radicals is the failure of their peers to own up to those embarrassing antecedents. Chomsky, instead of saying more or less what Rob Ray is saying in a putative defense of the old man, would prefer to deny the military's interest in and support for his theories and their potential application to the US war machine. Seems to me that this denial/false history is what bugs Chomsky's critics rather than some imputed direct involvement of Chomsky with the US war machine.

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2018 17:12

I'm not defending him particularly, if you want embarrassing his politics on Obama and Corbyn are pretty much up there and you don't need to go back very far to find them.

I'm just a bit baffled as to why anyone would care enough to research what Chomsky was doing in the summer of 1963, or why it matters what the military thought about his research, or why it's particularly interesting or surprising that he'd prefer to believe that his life's work hasn't been co-opted into the war machine he's sent 50 years attacking, or what's to be gained by badgering him (and libcom) about it?

I mean I have no doubt that Bumping Back and Towards a Citizens Militia were read by a couple of cops to see what could be learned about counter-activism back in the day, co-option is what State (and market) forces do. Looking back on your life with the hope that your work was important and positive for the world is what old men do. So what?

Black Badger
Feb 8 2018 20:19
I mean I have no doubt that Bumping Back and Towards a Citizens Militia were read by a couple of cops

This is a false analogy, a deflection. It matters a lot what the military thought of his research back in 1963; otherwise they would not have partially funded it. It matters that Chomsky lies about it. It's of minor importance compared to the real damage he has constantly done to an authentic anarchist project with his actual social-democratic perspective and practice, but because he denies it in the face of the cold hard facts, it could also be seen as a starting point of this damage.

Rob Ray
Feb 8 2018 20:37

Calling an analogy you don't like a "deflection" as though I'm on some quest to rehabilitate Chomsky is exactly why people don't tend to engage with you — it's a bizarre assumption about my motivations based on nothing but your own preconceptions. Something you seem to do a lot.

To be clear, I think Chomsky's got some interesting things to say on the media, some more or less useful things to say about the construction of US political doctrine, a vaguely laudable openness to anarchist unions, and dogshit party political views. I pay him very little mind in and of himself, he's not all that important to current UK political activity. I'm only on this thread to note that it's a bit of a waste of time to lay into Chomsky's history, and tbh if you think his bad politics are causing much "real damage" you need to get out more. On which note, I guess I'll leave you to your rabbit hole.

Black Badger
Feb 9 2018 00:52

I have no interest in your motivations, and I certainly don't assume that you're

on some quest to rehabilitate Chomsky

The analogy you brought up is false because publishing a pamphlet from your own (or your organization's) funds is completely different from accepting funds from cops to publish it.

The damage Chomsky has done to anarchism has everything to do with his relentless promotion of electoralism in the name of anarchism.

Feb 9 2018 04:30
Black Badger wrote:
I have no interest in your motivations, and I certainly don't assume that you're
on some quest to rehabilitate Chomsky

The analogy you brought up is false because publishing a pamphlet from your own (or your organization's) funds is completely different from accepting funds from cops to publish it.

The damage Chomsky has done to anarchism has everything to do with his relentless promotion of electoralism in the name of anarchism.

I don't really understand what damage Chomsky has done to anarchism; to the contrary he's introduced a lot of people to anarchism, writing an introduction to Guerin's book and so on (also quoted quite extensively in the AFAQ). He's also quite a useful intellectual in how he distinguishes between right-wing libertarianism and actual anarchism. I mean he's not perfect but his contributions as a speaker and writer far outweigh his LEV and other stuff imo, which you can discard.

Feb 11 2018 20:22

Why do the details of Chomsky's early career, when he was working for the Pentagon, matter?

If the linguistic theories that Chomsky was being employed to develop had actually worked, the Pentagon would have used them to establish English 'as an operational language for command and control'. This would have made their computer systems easier to use as they inflicted death and destruction in Vietnam (and on an an even greater scale in any potential nuclear war).

Chomsky's highly conflicted situation as a consultant at the MITRE Corporation – which seems to have lasted until at least 1965 – appears to have had a lasting effect on his subsequent career choices. These were to throw himself into anti-militarist activism and to transform his linguistic theories in ever more abstract and philosophical directions – never again returning to the sort of science that so interested the Pentagon in the 1960s.

For those of us who love Chomsky's political writings, it is frustrating that the world's most famous left-wing intellectual still focuses on denouncing the crimes of US foreign policy to the exclusion of exploring revolutionary alternatives to capitalism. For anyone interested in the social origins of language and culture, it is also frustrating that such an influential thinker repeatedly insists that linguistics and politics have no connection to each other.

None of this makes Chomsky a bad person. But it is important to understand why the horizons of contemporary political and scientific thought are so limited in the present period. And, although Chomsky's interventions can be inspiring, his intellectual career is very much part of this wider problem.

Here's an advert from MIT's newspaper in the early 1960s which shows what MITRE were about: