The Problem of Chomsky

Anyone following the career of Noam Chomsky is soon confronted with a problem. In fact, it has become known as the “Chomsky problem”. Chomsky has achieved eminence in two very different fields, theoretical linguistics and political commentary. The “Chomsky problem” is that his approaches to these fields appear to contradict each other. In politics Chomsky is a radical, but in linguistics he takes positions that can easily be characterized as reactionary. He treats linguistics as a branch of biology. He traces language to a “Universal Grammar” resident in the physical brain. He believes that our linguistic nature is hard-wired into our genes. Because they diminish the influence of environment on human behaviour, such claims can be used to suggest that certain modes of social organization are natural and immutable. As a result, they have often been associated with conservative politics.

Chomsky himself professes to see no problem. He believes that linguistics is a natural science, and research in the natural sciences must be objective and based on the evidence alone. Indeed, part of the researcher’s job is to divest himself of his cultural and political prejudices before entering the laboratory. These methodological principles were established by the seventeenth-century scientific revolution of Newton and the Royal Society, which was in Chomsky’s view a progressive development and an immeasurable boon to humanity. He sees no reason why the methods of the natural sciences should not be applied to the study of the human mind.

His critics caution that empirical science is closely linked, certainly historically and perhaps conceptually, to capitalist political economy. These discourses both emerge in late seventeenth-century England, and they conquer the world together. Surely this suggests an affinity that ought to trouble those who advocate one but castigate the other? The interviews now published as The Science of Language and How the World Works show that this paradox is at least playing on Chomsky’s mind. The conversations range promiscuously, and although one book is largely concerned with linguistics while the other is mainly political, Chomsky seems happier than usual to discuss the mutual implications of his two fields of interest.

“How Noam Chomsky’s World Works,” by David Hawkes

I’ve been something on a William Blake kick since I’ve started reading his biography by Ackroyd. Hanging out with William Blake has been a pretty awesome experience, as he gives some of my anxieties and ideas more form. He’s what I like to consider a memetic ancestor, he’s the figure that stands at the crux of stuff that has affected my life. Without William Blake there would be no Allen Ginsberg, no William S. Burroughs, no Mage: the Ascension, no Doors, no nothing. When I ever get around to setting up that Voodoo Ancestor Altar, I may even set up a place for Memetic Ancestors like William Blake. I’m certain he’s somekind of Saint, and that if I were to contact him with spiritualist techniques he would respond.

Anyways, I bring up William Blake now because my reading of his biography has brought up some interesting aspects when met with the above article. I’m sure you all know about Noam Chomsky, who’s a local demagogue of linguistics and rallier against the Capitalist Man. As you can see there is a problem in his thinking that brings up a problem. Chomsky is a scientist, using scientific principles on the subject of language, and thus he is blind to the affect science has had in the creation of the system he now fights against. While he is a child of Newton, as the early post brings up, he fails to see that the mechanical nature of the Industrial-Scientific World has helped create the Rex Mundi that is capitalism.

Is it wrong to assume that Capital is an evil spirit? A Self-directing entity that has gained incredible control over our area of the universe? The idea dosen’t really seem so outrageous to me. I’m an aspiring magician, and as such I will have to deal with many things that I can’t actually perceive, at least not right now. This is a problem for the Newtonian Chomsky however.

This Chomsky cannot do. The logical conclusion of his political commentary is that capital acts as an independent agent, insinuating itself into the human mind and systematically perverting it. But this is incompatible with his scientific assumption that the mind is merely an “emergent property” of the physical brain. As Chomsky himself reminds us, the idea that human beings are purely physical entities, devoid of discarnate qualities such as mind, spirit or soul (or indeed ideas), has become plausible only over the past three centuries. Thomas Kuhn refers to this as a “paradigm shift”, but Chomsky rejects the concept because it implies that scientific truth is historically relative. For him, the Galilean revolution of the seventeenth century was simply an unprecedented, almost miraculous leap forward, and he sees it as his task to extend this revolution to areas, such as linguistics, in which its impact has been delayed. He does not attempt to explain why it occurred in the first place.

This ultimately leads to the problem that humans are objects, which is ironic since under this time money has become a spiritual entity. Money is without body, yet it affects us all. In some respects, pre-Enlightenment folks may have not been wrong in saying that the world will end. It already has. The Great Beast has taken it’s form as Capitol, and now has much more influence then any religious body.

The problem, as the article points out, is that we have become objects to be sold on the open market. We have forgotten that we have souls. It is time that we start to remember that we have them. Only when we take back our spirits from the machine of capitalism, or as Blake put it “these dark Satanic mills,” will we trulley be free.

Advertisements