Noam Chomsky: The new Galileo?

Noam Chomsky: The new Galileo?

Part of marxist anthropologist Chris Knight's long-running examination of Noam Chomsky. "Language is peculiar. No other species has anything remotely like it. If language is part of nature – a kind of organ or instinct, like stereoscopic vision – it’s puzzling. It’s unusual for a complex biological adaptation to be wholly confined to just one species."

Chomsky treats language as cognition, not communication. He says it enables us to think in unusually clear and powerful ways, planning ahead, comparing and evaluating our ideas and so on. But if so, wouldn’t we have expected other large-brained animals – elephants, whales, dolphins, chimpanzees – to have benefited from some such feature? Why just humans? According to Chomksy, no other species took even the smallest evolutionary step toward language. In his account, Homo sapiens just appears on the scene with fully-developed language. No other species gets anywhere at all.

When I was writing my previous book, I decided to postpone the problem of language because I didn’t understand it. I had absolutely no background in formal linguistics. In particular, I found Chomsky completely incomprehensible. I tried reading some of his stuff on syntax but quickly gave up. Only in the past few years have I come to realize that any subject you like can be made to look totally incomprehensible if you approach it in the wrong way.

In detail, Chomsky’s theories are incomprehensible. I used to draw a comparison with nuclear physics, which for most of us seems difficult – but necessarily so. I tended to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt, perhaps because I admired his moral courage in defending human rights, defying his own government during the Vietnam war and so on. I still admire Chomsky in those respects. But only slowly have I come to realise just how paradoxical and contradictory is the connection between his activism and his science.

Chomsky’s scientific work is incomprehensible because it doesn’t make sense. There is no valid comparison with nuclear physics or modern genetics. In those genuine natural sciences, no-one has to wait for the pronouncements of a single person before deciding in which direction their researches should turn. Instead, new developments are triggered as ordinary researchers put hypotheses to practical tests. Observations are made, results are tabulated, experiments are performed. Sometimes an elegant theory is destroyed by an anomalous result. From time to time, a whole new way of looking at the world emerges as previously isolated specialists discover that their different perspectives are beginning to converge. Then the whole landscape may be lit up for a while by a Darwin or an Einstein – someone who can pull it all together. The new and simplifying paradigm then takes over not because its inventor had any special authority but because people feel empowered by the new ideas.

Not absolutely everyone, of course – there will always be conflicts and disagreements. But the mark of a genuine scientific revolution is a whole new level of collective agreement. A new community emerges, more interdisciplinary and more representative than its predecessors. Perspectives converge because the new ideas are powerful – they evidently work. The new scientific community produces practical results. Its language – its distinctive terminology and concepts – proves, therefore, to be relatively stable. Fundamental axioms don’t keep getting changed all the time by a particular individual.

Chomsky has often been likened to such scientific revolutionaries as Galileo, Darwin or Einstein. The comparison with Galileo is one that he has drawn himself. I admit that history may arrive eventually at that verdict. Unfortunately, however, the prospects just now are not looking good. Since Chomsky published his Syntactic Structures in 1957, he has dominated linguistics in a somewhat unexpected way. Far from producing agreement across his discipline, he has produced terrible divisions – arguably the most bitter divisions in western intellectual history. Of course, Galileo produced divisions – all revolutionaries must do that. But the issue is: what kind of divisions? Galileo in his time was in a life-and-death struggle against ecclesiastical political authority. In a sense, then, the issue is whether Chomsky is our modern equivalent of Galileo. Or is he is today’s equivalent of the Pope? This second alternative sounds shocking, but I believe a case can be made.

The first thing to say, without question, is that Chomsky is no Galileo. He doesn’t make observations. He doesn’t test hypotheses. He doesn’t start with empirical facts. He doesn’t inspire the feeling that any big picture is beginning to emerge. His followers are not a stable intellectual community – on the contrary, they keep falling out. He doesn’t work with scientists in neighbouring fields. He doesn’t develop a theory and then stick with it, as Galileo did with his moving earth. Instead, Chomsky keeps changing his theories, and in absolutely fundamental ways. When he changes his mind, it is never in response to a new empirical observation or experimental finding. On the contrary, he explicitly states that he is against any such concept of science.

Nor does Chomsky challenge the fundamental philosophical premises of today’s dominant class. On the contrary, he is the most consistent, dogmatic and unreconstructed Cartesian since Descartes himself. Descartes proclaimed: ‘I think, therefore I am!’ No other writer can compete with Chomsky in celebrating and consolidating the premises of bourgeois individualism in philosophy and science. But whereas Descartes also contributed enormously to empirical research, Chomsky relies essentially on private intuition. It is no exaggeration to say that he is against empirical linguistic research. He dismisses it because, he says, it can only be relevant to external performance – which is of little interest to him. When studying language, therefore, he doesn’t recommend observing how people speak. Instead, he sets up a parallel universe. Everything of interest happens on that other plane.

By ‘language’, Chomsky doesn’t mean what you or I might mean by that term. He doesn’t mean French or Swahili and he certainly doesn’t mean people conversing or exchanging ideas. Instead, he means a natural object located in the head. Call it Universal Grammar. How are we supposed to elucidate the properties of this most peculiar object? We know by definition that it is uniquely human. Also, according to Chomsky, it could not have evolved by natural selection. Although real and objective, it is strangely immaterial – abstract rather than embodied. Another curious feature is that it is perfect – the kind of thing a ‘divine architect’ (Chomsky’s words) might have devised. Is it, then, something akin to the soul? That was certainly Descartes’ solution to the mystery. To work out its detailed specifications, Chomsky recommends intuition. Whose intuition? Not mine and not yours, since we are insufficiently qualified. As we navigate laboriously through the highly technical literature, we are given no choice but to rely on Chomsky’s own. There is no other source.

So is Chomsky more Pope than Galileo? I have come to that conclusion. I think Chomsky is doing religion, not science. But of course we are talking about a relatively new kind of religion, not the earlier feudal kind. Despite the recent resurgence of Christian and other fundamentalisms, the most effective and universalistic modern legitimating ideology is not patriarchal monotheism but bourgeois liberalism and individualism. In the modern world context, ‘science’ conceived within this individualistic framework – the framework established by Descartes – can be invoked as a source of authority and legitimacy very much as earlier generations might have invoked God. The science in question obviously cannot be Marxist. Neither can it accommodate Durkheim or any other tradition within social science. If natural science were sociological, it would question its own most fundamental assumptions – asking, for example, how scientific communities are formed, under what political pressures they select their research priorities and how they socially construct their shared knowledge. No religion can allow that kind of thing to occur.

This leaves natural science as the only alternative. It is for this reason that Chomsky has to define linguistics as a strictly natural science. Only this kind of science can be construed as above politics and transcendental in its objectivity – a ‘God’s-eye’ view of the world. The slightest sociological contamination might shatter that precious illusion. In order to leave no hostages to fortune, Chomsky redefines language completely. Communication, according to his new definition, is quite irrelevant. The object of linguistic theory is a component of the individual head. If some people use this component for talking to one another, so what? One of his clinching arguments is that you can use your hairstyle to make a point – but that doesn’t make communication intrinsically the function of hair.

As I have stressed already, little is to be gained from trying to make sense of such pronouncements. The technical literature is so obscure that angels dancing on pins come to mind. My view is that we must know how to tell science from scientism. Chomsky invokes science as a vertical source of authority, without submitting to the collectivism and accountability of genuinely self-organised science.

-- Chris Knight (21/03/2006)

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Dec 13 2011 10:34


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Chilli Sauce
Dec 13 2011 18:15

Has Chomsky responded to this?

Dec 13 2011 18:57

I'm not sure if he responded to this specifically. The only dialogue I'm aware of between him and Knight/RAG is in an interview he did with their journal a few years ago. I'll post it later.

Dec 14 2011 14:12

I thought this was really good (if not a little short), and would personally like to read the Chomo response

Dec 14 2011 15:26
Arbeiten wrote:
I thought this was really good (if not a little short), and would personally like to read the Chomo response

Knight goes into much more depth in his pamphlet 'Chomsky: Science or Politics?'

Dec 15 2011 15:40
Choccy wrote:
I'm not sure if he responded to this specifically. The only dialogue I'm aware of between him and Knight/RAG is in an interview he did with their journal a few years ago. I'll post it later.

Top stuff from the Chomster there. An interesting read.

Dec 15 2011 16:16

Do you think when Knight wrote this he was mocking Chomsky's rhetorical style. I have noticed when Chomsky doesn't like something (say Hegel, or Foucault), he just denigrates it by saying 'I don't understand it'. I notice Knight does this a lot with Chomsky. I'm not really a fan of that move...

Dec 15 2011 16:43

Chomsky does it a lot in his interview with RAG and does it a lot with postmodernism (here and here) - but I agree with him on postmodernism certainly; he qualifies his 'i don't understand it' by positing two possibilities:
A) he can't understand because he is stupid,
B) he can't understand because it is gibberish
He goes with B, and he's right, for reasons that Sokal & Bricmont covered in 'Fashionable Nonsense'.

But when it comes to language evolution, I do find Chomsky's unwillingness to engage a bit frustrating. In 'language and the brain' in the edited collection Essential Chomsky (p348) which is one of his fairly recent writings on language (2002 the orig article I think - EDIT, yeah 2002, from On Nature & Language) he states his recent position as

'language and higher mental faculties... belong to biology in principle... but we do not currently see how these parts of biology relate to one another, and suspect that fundamental insights may be missing altogether'

Ginger Campbell (Brain Science podcast) think he's too dismissive of speculative theories, although on my limited reading of his linguistics I'd say he has a healthy caution to just-so stories, and that may come across as harsh.

Jerry Fodor is likewise cautious with the runaway theories of 'brain science' and in The Mind Doesn't Work That Way says cognitive sciences have barely started, Lewontin in 'Evolution of Cognition' (in Osherson's Thinking: an invitation to cognitive science) reckons we wouldn't even really know what a cogntive science would look like and a few new books, Neuromania (Legrenzi, Umilta, and Anderson), and Tallis' Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity follow these cautious trends.

I'm not sure Knight's using it as a mocking device, I think he genuinely means he finds Chomsky's ideas contradictiory - he expands on that in 'Chomsky: politics or science?' and has said so when I saw him debate Milan Rai last year at the London bookfair. I have to say I don't know where I stand but I found Knight's frustration comical. A man in his 60s blustering on stage with bookmarks going 'LOOK IT'S RIGHT HERE ON PAGE 67!'.

Others who are less bothered about the disconnect between Chomsky's science and politics have made similar criticisms (see Christine Kenneally's 'The First Word' or Ginger Campbell's review of that on Brain Science podcast no.30) and even this week in New Scientist (paywall) there's an article on linguistics that holds to the view that Chomsky is much less fashionable in linguistics than he one was.

Dec 15 2011 16:53

laugh out loud Sokal affair is great. Although I consider it more of a warning about the flippant use of concepts across disciplinary boundaries rather than the final say on all the philosophers of the 1960s French scene. But Sokal and Brimcot are better than Chomsky on that account. They read it, and show how and why it is bullshit rather than just say that it is.

Yeah I made that post after reading the RAG interview, he does it about four times. I liked that article, but I still don't think it really challenges Knight's critique.

Dec 15 2011 17:06

I'm sympathetic to the cautious view, and Chomsky's does seem reasonable - in discussing it with people I usually come a to a similar conclusion. though it always strikes me a roadblock, and that's not satisfying to me. I sometimes think I'm pre-empting runaway daft speculation, or worse, about to have to defend against greedy reductionist theories. Maybe I should lighten-up and allow for silly but interesting speculation, I dunno.

But like, although it's not fashionable to say 'we don't really know' or 'it's a bit more complicated than that', I'm happy to play the grumpy cynic. If it's good enough for Chomsky and Lewontin, it's good enough for me.

Dec 15 2011 17:09

Actually, over christmas I'm going to write a piece about the debate between Chomsky & Lewontin in the late 70s at the Sociobiology Study Group (of Science for the People) and why Chomsky was never recruited into their ranks in the battle against socobiology (clue, it has a wee bit to do with Marx).
The episode is really interesting from a historical and political perspective.

Chilli Sauce
Dec 15 2011 18:54

How much of a nerd am I that your article sounds really exciting? I'll look forward to it.

Dec 15 2011 19:18

Ullica Segerstrale, a sociologist of science, in Defenders Of The Truth describes the encounter, really interesting. If I can be arsed I'll transcribe the relevant few pages for the library.

Dec 16 2011 03:03

Yeah, Chomsky is usually reasonable, but I think sometime he is (unreasonably) a pain in the friggin ass! But yes, running away with too much speculation is massively problematic also.

I don't know much about the anti-sociobiology debate, apart from the books by Gould. Would you put that in your paper?

Dec 16 2011 13:55
Arbeiten wrote:
I don't know much about the anti-sociobiology debate, apart from the books by Gould. Would you put that in your paper?

Stack of articles from critics in the library:
Psyching Out Evolutionary Psychology
Evolution of the Mind: 4 Fallacies of Psychology
Sex, Jealousy & Violence: A Skeptical Look at Evolutionary Psychology

Against "Sociobiology"
The Politics of Biological Determinism
Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism Debate
Darwinian Fundamentalism

And a bunch of books in the psychology reading list.

Dec 16 2011 19:31
Choccy wrote:
this week in New Scientist (paywall) there's an article on linguistics that holds to the view that Chomsky is much less fashionable in linguistics than he one was.

Here's a New Yorker article from a few years ago that profiles linguist Dan Everett, who was once a Chomskyian, but broke away after doing extensive fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazon. (I don't think Chomsky's ever done fieldwork, which is kind of strike one in my book.) It's mostly about linguistics, not politics, but a good read. Makes Noam sound like a jerk in person.

In the early nineties, Everett began to reread the work of linguists who had preceded Chomsky, including that of Edward Sapir, an influential Prussian-born scholar who died in 1939. A student of the anthropologist Franz Boas, Sapir had taught at Yale and studied the languages of dozens of tribes in the Americas. Sapir was fascinated by the role of culture in shaping languages, and although he anticipated Chomsky’s preoccupation with linguistic universals, he was more interested in the variations that made each language unique. In his 1921 book, “Language,” Sapir stated that language is an acquired skill, which “varies as all creative effort varies—not as consciously, perhaps, but nonetheless as truly as do the religions, the beliefs, the customs, and the arts of different peoples.” Chomsky, however, believed that culture played little role in the study of language, and that going to far-flung places to record the arcane babel of near-extinct tongues was a pointless exercise. Chomsky’s view had prevailed. Everett began to wonder if this was an entirely good thing.

It seems like the opposing view (cultures play a powerful role in shaping language) would actually be more in line with Chomsky's political philosophy (libertarian socialist, or whatever), because it acknowledges historical agency.

Dec 16 2011 23:27
knotwho wrote:
It seems like the opposing view (cultures play a powerful role in shaping language) would actually be more in line with Chomsky's political philosophy (libertarian socialist, or whatever), because it acknowledges historical agency.

And this is where he and Lewontin departed. For Chomsky, a conception of some sort of 'human nature' was important, as it was for early Marx. For Marx's alienation to make sense, we have to have something to be alienated from. For Chomsky, human nature, some sort of evolved history, is no more reactionary than a tabula rasa, which could be manipulated by totalitarian regimes.

Chomsky, however, believed that culture played little role in the study of language, and that going to far-flung places to record the arcane babel of near-extinct tongues was a pointless exercise. Chomsky’s view had prevailed.

This is also Ginger Campbell's view of Chomsky - she reckons he treats a lot of other research with disrespect and shows no evidence that he bothers to keep up current more empirically-inclined research.

I don't feel qualified enough to say whether it's true, though I'm certainly open to the possibility, and I'm interested enough to want to find out.

Dec 21 2011 20:59

I think that this, along with other texts that he has written, is a very effective marxist antidote to Chomsky's bourgeois individualism. I don't agree with Chris Knight's view on the "revolution" one hundred thousand years ago but I respect the materialist framework that he puts that idea into.
Maybe for some wild and waccy behaviour Chris Knight get something of a bum deal on here in my opinion, but this is one academic that has clearly stood up for communist principles and paid the price for it.

For me, and against Chomsky, the origins of language is primarily a social question and the use that the US war economy has made of his ideas is certainly suspicious for me.

I think that the expansion of the brain and particularly the pre-frontal cortex around 2 million years ago (directly arising from the use and fashioning of tools) saw the beginnings of symbolic communication directly linked to language today. The neuroscientist and evolutionary anthropologist Terrence Deacon puts it thus:
"The introduction of stone tools and the ecological adaption they indicate also marks the presence of a socio-ecological predicament that demands a symbolic solution. Stone tools and symbols must both, then, be the architects of the Australopithicus-Homo transition, and not its consequences. The large brains, stone tools, reductions in dentition, better opposability of the thumbs and fingers, and more complete bipedality found in post-australopithicus hominids are the physical echoes of a threshold already crossed" (Deacon, 1997).

Aug 12 2012 17:31

I found this discussion very interesting. I've uploaded my longer article, which I hope may prove helpful. Here's the link:

Chris Knight

Aug 12 2012 21:06

Nice one, I'd bought it from the RAG stall at bookfair a year or two ago and found it interesting, thought it still left me with a lot of questions that I guess only Chomsky could answer really.

Jan 24 2013 02:32

Chris ,you'd better just stick to flipping burgers or whatever.