Review: Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics. Chris Knight. Yale University Press. 2016.
“..we are nowhere near being able to understand what is ‘said’ in the brain. We have no idea how any specific concept, label, grammatical rule, colour impression, orientations strategy, or gender association is actually coded.”
Guy Deutscher. 2010. (1)
Chris Knight (Wikipedia) prefaces Decoding Chomsky with a literary alienation effect. “When I first came across Chomsky’s scientific work, my initial reactions resembled those of an anthropologist attempting to fathom the beliefs of a previously unknown tribe.” This will immediately echo with many who have endured seminars on Transformational Grammar, complete with charts. More persistent than the average person Knight is resolved to grapple with the mysteries at work. “The doctrines encountered may seem absurd, but there are always compelling reasons why those particular doctrines are the ones people adhere to.” (Page ix)
Knight’s intentions in this study, he announces, are to “serve justice on Chomsky without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.” (Page xii) Before plunging into this forensic critique of the career and concepts of one of the world’s most celebrated critics of US foreign policy, it should be made clear that author is a long-standing activist on the radical left. Chris is a founder of the leftwing socialist monthly Labour Briefing, the Radical Anthropology Group, and a contributor to the Weekly Worker, recently on humanity’s ‘communist’ pre-history (palaeoanthropology). His academic career has included studies of this aspect of ant, and has won him recognition far beyond these circles.
Decoding Chomsky challenges some of the fundamental assumptions of Chomsky’s ‘Linguistic Revolution’, the belief that linguistics is a “natural science” concerned with the underlying basis of all the world’s tongues. From a background in the sixties’ inspired radical movements that challenged academic authority, Knight remains sensitive to the inflated “scientism” of social ‘science’. Chomsky and his supporters’ claim that their linguistic “cognitive paradigm” has reached the status of a “natural science”, would appear, in this respect, to have gone beyond a claim to university power, to a degree of scientific Majesty that places it above studies of society.
This, not unexpectedly, has failed to impress Knight. As one of the very few people still promoting sixties radicalism against the Academy, his Decoding Chomsky challenges these claims. The voice of Authority, of the kind that the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “authorised language”, “ the kind you need when performing speech acts, such as declaring war, consecrating a church, naming a ship and so forth. “ (Page 164). Chomsky’s authority is a central target of the book’s critique. Knight traces it to a kind of evocation of ancestral power. In this respect one Bourdieu is an excellent frame of reference, from his analysis of symbolic power in the “discours d’importance”, “le discours magistral” founded on the “l’autorité universitaire et l’autorité politique” (2)
Questioning the ‘neutrality’ of ‘science’ remains an important radical objective. Recognising that he has no training in theoretical linguistics Knight considers that he is perfectly capable of studying “the Pentagon-funded war science community clustered around Chomsky in the formative period of his career” (Page ix) We might equally say that as language users, we are all qualified to offer some comment about one of the most fundamental aspects of our nature and existence.
A Political Critique from the Left.
The book brings together a numbers of these threads, in which Chomsky’s linguistic theories, and their critics play a significant part. But it would not be unfair to say that it is principally a political critique. Knight offers a sustained argument against the view that Chomsky’s work as a linguistic scientist can be separated (compartmentalised) from the military and state ties of the institution in which he worked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was not only competition for academic authority but also the political objectives of the latter that moulded, Knight argues, the way that Chomsky’s ‘linguistic revolution’ took on its most egregious ‘scientific’ aura.
Chomsky claims to separate rigorously his ‘scientific’ work from any political engagement. Knight puts this in the starkest terms. The campaigner against Imperial abuse built “a firewall between his science and his politics, keeping each compartment of his life autonomous with respect to the other. Being free to say what he liked meant ridding his linguistics of any evident social content or meaning, and by the same token purging his politics of any obvious connection with his science.” (Page 73)
Decoding Chomsky is not a critique of ‘scientific’ ‘Western’ rationality’ or science’s ‘grand narrative’ of the type we have become accustomed to since the days when postmodernism was popular. Knight, still echoing the earlier ‘radical’ critique of scientific neutrality popular in the English speaking world in the sixties and early seventies, is not concerned with the undermining the universalist pretensions of the episteme at work here, or uncovering how ‘power’ shaped the formal ‘rationality’ of Transformational Grammar.
Decoding Chomsky is about the institutional environment that Chomsky worked within. ”. It is impossible for one to say, “Science in one compartment, politics and life in another” when, we are informed bluntly, that, “Chomsky was working in a weapons research laboratory.” (Page 11)
Knight suggests that Chomsky the scientist, who cracked the basis of how languages work, were deeply implicated in the life of that experimental workroom, and conformed to the objectives the arms developers, the American war machine, set themselves. Generative Grammar (rules that predict, ‘generate’, an infinite number of sentences in a language and specify their structure) owed a debt to American information theorist and “scientific bureaucrat” Warren Weaver and his 1950s project, the construction of a Universal Language Machine.
This is a hard proposition to prove. Despite the fact that the linguist had no direct interest in the idea of ‘machine translation’ in which Weaver was involved in, Knight announces,
Chomsky’s Universal Grammar was a sophisticated refinement of the central idea behind Warren Weaver’s ‘New Tower of Babel’ project, which was designed to secure US state supremacy over ‘communism’ in the post-war world. (Page 104)
Decoding Chomsky offers a memorable parallel to this dream in the early Soviet visions of universal humanity, symbolised in the projected monument to the Third International, the Tatlin Tower. This, never built, construction, was to symbolise the unity of humankind. In an ambitious claim Knight links this to another, utopian, dream of linguistic unity, “restoring that pre-Babel language was a project not only permitted, but explicitly blessed by God. This idea exercised a profound influence on Russian shamanistic and mystical poetry – one that remained very much alive when, beginning with Russian and other Slavic tongues, the mystic Khlebnikov made it his mission to restore to all humanity its pre-Babel lost alphabet of sounds, unleashing enough mutual understanding to launch a revolution and establish heaven on Earth.”(Page 106)
There was a direct connection,
The suggestion that Khlebnikov was behind the startlingly beautiful Tatlin’s Tower seems likely on various grounds. Khlebnikov imagined himself ‘besieging’ immense ‘towers’, central among them the ‘tower of time’ Apart from the fact that Khlebnikov’s Moon–Earth–Sun motif was explicitly built into the ambitious project, we know that he himself was an intimate friend of the monument’s designer, the former sailor, Vladimir Tatlin. (Ibid)
For Knight, we takes an optimistic, not to say, romanticised view of the early years of the Russian Revolution, “Tatlin’s Tower, then, pointed to a future in which all had at last come together, science now inseparable from art, poetry from mathematics, music from engineering..” (Page 109)
Christ Knight remains enthusiastic about the Russian Revolution, a “seismic events”. But one might say that the awe such a vision inspires, a feeling of wonder at unlimited vistas, the “immensity” of the concept was never separate from the terror that went with this version of the revolutionary sublime.
Decoding Chomsky discovers ‘echoes’ from the Bolshevik Revolution, ‘sparks’ that lit the research programme that became Transformational Grammar. One linguist, who had direct connection to this period, and the ‘Formalists’ who studied the structures of “literariness”, and – thus (?), Futurist projects like the Tatlin Tower, was Roman Jakobson. Jakobson soon left the USSR, and eventually made his way to the United States just before the Second World War during which he was engaged in the fight against the Nazis. Jakobson, Knight observes, inspired Chomsky with his view that language was indeed a universal human property, but also logical and mathematical. But the artistic side of this heritage was submerged in more rigorously ‘scientific’ assumptions. Language was part of the human ‘digital machine’ – that is an object – or rather a rule generating apparatus – that could be studied with the methods of pure science. The Revolution was betrayed. The Chomyskan “Cartesian Paradigm” reflected a quite different agenda. Sponsored by the US military, it was one more top-down project to combat egalitarianism and communism, wrenching the mind from the body, divorcing heaven from Earth, and preventing that tower of Tatlin’s from ever reaching the sky. “(Page 209)
Knight even speculates that Chomsky was consciously promoted in the Cold War. Chomsky’s writings, from Syntactic Structures (1957) onwards, were part of a wider ideological campaign as the Cold War replaced the struggle against fascism. The military “supported” Chomsky’s campaign (Page 18). Chomsky was moblised against Marxism, against its unity of theory and practice,
“To destroy Marxism, therefore, it was necessary to strike at this point, shattering the all-important junction between theory and practice. Chomsky’s intellectual status, perceived moral integrity and impeccable left-wing credentials made him the perfect candidate for this job. “(Page 193) Science and life are distinct. ‘The search for theoretical understanding pursues its own paths, leading to a completely different picture of the world, which neither vindicates nor eliminates our ordinary ways of talking and thinking.” (Page 194)
Science and Language.
The picture in Decoding Chomsky of the Cold War genesis of Chomskyan linguistics, not to mention its role in efforts to destroy Marxism, is bound to be a controversial. Does Chomsky behave as he does, stridently defending the autonomy of ‘science’, because of his own past, and reluctance to confront the ties his professional work brought him? The claim will certainly be challenged. Less disputable is that Chomsky has separated ‘science’ from his directly political pronouncements.
Yet as vociferous as his claim to scientific rigour has been there is little sign of widespread acceptance of the principles he has developed. Chomsky’s ‘innate hypothesis’ of a mutation in human pre-history which gave us the “language organ”, equipped to generate meaningful speech is often seen as a leap of faith. We might doubt that even within its restricted field (ignoring that the implications of the theory strays into philosophy not to say, the ground of social theory), that a stable paradigm has ever been established. Knight early announces that Chomsky’s continuous revisions of Transformational Grammar, up to the Revised Extended standard theory, indicate deep-seated difficulties.
These ‘auxiliary hypothesis”, as the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called them, do not, critics allege, contain more empirical content, or predict novel facts. They make up an ever-expanding protective belt around an original set of assumptions. Above all Knight observes, “Chomsky’s interventions have immersed linguistics in tunnels of theoretical complexity, impenetrability and corresponding exasperation and interpersonal rancour without parallel in any other scientific field.” (Page 11) The new versions of the theory “have produced no sign of consensus or agreement, but instead unending controversy, uproar and incredulity at the implausibility of it all.”(Page 180) This, he argues, is hardly the sign of real “science”.
Those with an interest in recent literature for the wider public might think at this point might recall Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass. (2010) As cited in the epigraph to this review, the language machine, which Chomsky and his followers describe, remains a “Black Box”. As far as grasping how the brain works with language we can scan the mind, but the evidence is like seeing a big corporation from the windows of its headquarters.
“The sole evidence you had to go on would be in which rooms the lights went on at different times of the day.” We can see increased blood flow, and infer that neural activity is taking place. “But we are nowhere near being able to understand” what is happening. (3)
Language as a social relation.
At the heart of Decoding Chomsky are some alternative ideas. Knight uses his resources as an anthropologist to attack Chomsky’s view that language stems from a “limited repertoire of mental atoms (lexical concepts) in an infinite variety of possible ways.” In this respect it is a defence of the view that experience, social conditions, co-operation between people, is generative of meaning.) Language is bound up with social relations; it is a social product, with its own causal weight as a link between people.
An important aspect is that “Grammatical structures arise out of metaphor, grammatical markers being in fact metaphorical expressions which have been conventionalized and abbreviated through historical processes which are now well understood.” (Page 225) In other words grammar has a history. Those familiar with, say the story of Indo-European languages, know that change in declensions and conjugations, and other grammatical items (not to mention the emergence and extinction of whole grammatical forms) is aware that alterations cannot be explained as the result of universal principles: but, at present, can only be described. Nobody has offered a transformational grammar that explains and predicts the development over time of such basic phonetic and semantic units.
Knight offers his own special belief, that palaeoanthropology can inform the debate about how (pre-human) signals evolve from nature into language. In a talk reproduced in the Weekly Worker, he suggested that the basics might lie in the way these evolved into singing,
Turning now to human evolution, the articulatory apparatus for speech hardly needs to be explained. For millions of years, the basics were already in place among our ancestors, for the simple reason that possession of a flexible tongue, lips and so forth had long been essential for eating. Much more difficult was to establish something new – full volitional breath control and control over the larynx. The challenge was to develop the uniquely human ability to take a deep breath and make continuous vocal sounds, while breathing out and articulating at the same time. An intriguing theory now being widely debated is that our ancestors refined and developed these capacities by regularly resorting to choral singing. (4)
More broadly in the present work he notes, “the transition from a highly competitive, often despotic ape social system to a cooperative and egalitarian human one might have occurred. The establishment of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism was more than an evolutionary step – it was a revolutionary one that established a genuine kind of communism.”(Page 212) In other words the underlying idea is that symbolic culture emerged during a ‘major transition’ or ‘revolution’ (often termed the human revolution). We may leave it to the reader to judge the plausibility of these claims.
Three points may be added. Firstly, that it may be, on the evidence of skeletal remains and those of symbolic activity, that the non-human Neanderthals were capable of speech. So the issue of the ‘language mutation’s single origin remains open. (5) Next, the structures of language as a social product are also formal. The trace of speech in writing has a life of its own. This is sometimes very visible, as grammatical forms in a number of languages only really exist on the page, as in the French passé subjonctif, not to mention the special ‘literary’ forms in written traditions. Finally, one of the possible side-effects of a too Universalist conception of language leads one adrift faced with demands for language rights. This is a key political issue in many countries today, and underlies concerns about the death of speech communities, particularly in ‘tribal’ societies. (6) If we take an extreme Chomskyan view, this hardly matters: all languages are basically the ‘same’.
Chomsky’s protests against the Vietnam War, to opposition to powerful states and secret bureaucracies, and his laborious efforts to unravel the “manufacture of consent” to imperial and domestic pro-business policies, have one ‘scientific’ mooring. (7) Chris Knight suggests that a belief in a feature of human nature, a “creative urge” underpins his politics. But it remains bound within the “modular” programming of the innate linguistic facility that shunts to one side the role of social interaction.
If he believes that “force and fraud” constrain the free development of the inherent liberty of the human spirit, he puts his faith in this bedrock trait this as a natural limit on “authoritarian control” (Pages 114 – 115) His libertarian ‘anarchism’ notoriously extended to his ill-considered defence of the Vieille Taupe a publisher/bookshop originally on the French ultra-left that became a promoter of Holocaust deniers, such as Paul Rassinier. (8) Chomsky also defended the internationally better-known Robert Faurisson. But if Chris Knight is to be believed, in this thought-provoking and lucidly written critique, alongside an “instinct for freedom” there is a gaping hole where the social and individual conditions for meaningful co-operation should lie.
(1) Page 238. Through the Language Glass. Guy Deutscher. William Heinemann. 2010.
(2) Ce que parler veut dire. L’économie des échanges linguistics. Pierre Bourdieu 1982
(3) Guy Deutscher. Ibid.
(4) Origin of language lies in Song. Chris Knight. Weekly Worker 28.01.2016.
(5) Neanderthals could speak like modern humans, study suggests. BBC 2013.
(6) Endangered Languages Project.
(7) See Knowledge, Morality and Hope: The Social Thought of Noam Chomsky. Joshua Cohen Joel Rogers. New Left Review. First Series. No 187. 1991.
(8) Noam Chomsky and the Holocaust Deniers. Werner Cohen. The response: The Faurisson Affair. Noam Chomsky writes to Lawrence K. Kolodney.