Overweening Generalist

Monday, September 19, 2016

Decoding Chomsky, by Chris Knight

Noam Chomsky has often discussed "Plato's Problem," which he obviously finds fascinating. The problem is this: how can people know so much given a relative poverty of stimuli? Just today you found yourself talking to someone and the words just flowed out of you; you didn't have to think about them beforehand. You probably never uttered some of those sentences before, in the exact way. We all take this for granted, easily. Plato wondered about it and surmised that the reason we are able to know so much is because we already knew it in a previous life! You just talk to each other and knowledge sorta miraculously emerges via a quasi midwifery. Or rather: our forebears knew things and passed this ability to know (best example: apprehending our native language so easily) on to us. In a sense, we already "know" everything, but we need it drawn out by some...process. Today, people talk about genes. Chomsky takes Plato's "soul" and changes it to something like "biological language acquisition device," but you already knew that. (<----see what I did there?)

But this Plato Problem still seems iffy to me.

Chomsky has often written about "Orwell's Problem" too: how can people not know so many things that truly impact their lives, when the information is basically right in front of them? Noam has offered a solution to why this problem exists in books such as his famous one from 1988 (co-written with Edward Herman), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Very sophisticated propaganda tools have been developed during the 20th century, suffice to write, for now.

                                     Chris Knight, radical British anthropologist, studied
                                        Chomsky's works for over two decades

In the 1970s an intellectual proposed there's a "Chomsky Problem," which is this: how can one man write a massive body of work on linguistics, while never mentioning the social world or politics in those books, while at the same time issuing scads of books critical of his own country's foreign and domestic policies? In Chomsky's political books the mention of science, much less linguistics is basically zero. The writer who (as far as I know) coined the "Chomsky Problem" thought Noam's linguistic work was brilliant; his political writings were, IIRC, "naive." 

For at least 20 years I've wondered about the Chomsky Problem, but as I read more and more I came to the opposite conclusion: I thought Chomsky's linguistics were preposterous, while his criticism of the official lies of the State Department (and much much much more) were astonishingly acute.

I read books from the Right about Chomsky that were mostly ad hominem character assassinations. I've read far too many books by academics on his linguistics that see his grammar models as genius. Of course, the worldwide Left love his political books. There are at least five intellectuals who seem to have made their careers out of explaining, collecting, and championing Chomsky's oeuvre. 

George Lakoff is one cognitive neurolinguist whose work makes a hell of a lot of sense to me, and he seems to despise Chomsky. Chomsky seems to despise Lakoff. (See Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars on this, and I understand Harris has an update in the works!) Chomsky answers Lakoff's barbs by saying Lakoff doesn't "understand" his work. But Lakoff was one of the early bright followers of Chomsky's linguistics models, only to break with him - radically - when it became apparent Chomsky's linguistics would never be able to account for semantics (by which I mean meaning in language). And Lakoff (who has amassed quite a large body of scholarship himself) has barely had anything to say about Noam's politics. Lakoff is definitely a liberal of some sort...
So: Social Anthropologist Chris Knight (Wiki) has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I've been trying to solve it for 20 years; I now feel the euphoria that one of us has solved it. My many blogspews here as the "Overweening Generalist" on my own attempts to solve the Chomsky Problem now seem horribly unsophisticated. And so it goes...

 Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics, recently released, is an astonishingly well-written and researched volume that will probably be the most important work in the history of ideas, post World War II, that you'll read for quite some time, and I say this if only out of Chomsky's massive influence. Knight has made a stellar contribution to the sociology of knowledge, the sociology of intellectuals 1945-now, and has explicated lucidly a new and dynamite version of how the "cognitive revolution" arose. 

Knight has apparently spent the past 20 years researching this book and has managed to boil it all down to 240 pages, plus endnotes, a massive bibliography, and index. In an interview he mentioned that he'd finished a work in his field of Anthropology and hadn't really covered the origin of language in humans, because he felt he didn't know enough about the subject. Knowing Chomsky was Mr. Linguistics (having virtually single-handedly made it into a science and moving Linguistics from the Anthropology Department into the new Cognitive Science labs at your nearby Big University), he read Chomsky's linguistics in order to understand. And he ran into what I ran into: it's a cold, abstract to a painful degree, literally meaningless, an unworkable series of models that, - get this - by definition, has nothing to do with humans communicating with each other

Chris Knight says he admires Chomsky's political work, and there's no reason not to believe him; he clearly admires Chomsky's scholarship and courage in this regard. As do I. At times Knight's said there are a lot of conscientious academics and intellectuals who have criticized the US as imperial power, but no one really even comes close to Chomsky. That said...

                                    Noam Chomsky, whose linguistic models are 
                                   (finally!) seeming to be exposed as going nowhere

Anyone who has tried to follow Chomsky's many models of "Cartesian Linguistics" (AKA masochists) and thought to themselves, "Either I'm an idiot or this is a put-on, or possibly massive fraud" - that was me at one point - will know what I'm referring to: "Phrase Structure Rules," "Transformational Rules," "Grammar," "Deep Structure," the nature of the "language organ," "The Minimalist Program," "Universal Grammar," and "Merge"? All scientistic, all going nowhere, basically. (Knight runs all these down, pp. 173-179)

So, wait a minute: What? How can Noam write about lies and propaganda - which are by definition language and signs and symbols and social work among human beings - while his linguistics work has nothing to do with our social being? Because of an admitted "schizophrenic" life Chomsky admits he must lead, because, since the 1950s, he's worked in the very place that the Pentagon has funneled enormous sums of research money into: MIT. Perhaps because his quasi-kabbalistic linguistics allowed him that Ivory Tower opiate he needed to deal with the cognitive dissonance? If so, if this is anywheres near a close view of Chomsky, then it's dramatic and strange to the nth degree, no?

Chomsky once wrote an article on the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War. He greatly admired the anarchists. He had just turned 10 years old. He decided he'd rejected Trotskyism by age 12. This is an interesting fellow, eh? 

Noam had friends help him land the job at MIT, where he was able to work on the Pentagon's new idea: that computers and cybernetics and information theory would help make the world safe for capitalism after WWII. The idea that there's a language acquisition device - a very sophisticated computer - inside every human being's head? Very appealing to Pentagon folk. This was a computer whose source code must be cracked! And Chomsky's work looked like it was moving in exactly the direction they wanted. Maybe we can develop a computer that can translate any language into English; that should help in the Cold War effort against the Godless Commies. Let's let Chomsky lead a disembodied cognitive revolution. And he did. But: Noam didn't want to do any intellectual work that would help kill people in the name of Omnicorp.

Here's where adept conspiracy theorists can take this book and run with it: did Chomsky hijack linguistics and purposefully make it useless? Neither Knight nor I believe this to be true: Chomsky seems to genuinely have ideas - which seem bizarre and fruitless to me - about a sort of purity of work in "science." There's one of William James's lectures on pragmatism from the early 20th century, in which James talks about two vastly different temperaments among thinkers: the "tough-minded" and the "tender-minded." Somehow, Chomsky is the apex of "tough-minded" when doing his political work, while his Linguistics is the very apogee of the "tender-minded."

His persona as a man of conscience and political integrity seems to have been a perfect match for the Pentagon: see? The top man in Cognitive Science is free to write his books, give talks criticizing the Pentagon all over the world. Because we're a free society! 

But how does Chomsky manage this cognitive dissonance? Does he feel it? What have been the unintended consequences of Chomsky's total oeuvre? Knight answers these questions to my satisfaction. To those of you who've heard or read that Chomsky defended a Holocaust Denier named Robert Faurisson, was/is friends with former CIA director John Deutsch, and went against virtually the entire faculty and student body at MIT in defending Walt Rostow in getting his job back at MIT, even though Rostow has been nailed overwhelmingly in Chomsky's books on Vietnam? Knight satisfactorily answers these queries, too. 

As an Anthropologist, Knight treats the heavily-funded-by-Pentagon cognitive scientists as a "tribe." Why did this particular form of nonsense catch on so wildly in postwar Unistat? Knight gives a fascinating answer. If the only other superpower seemed to run on ideas based in matter (Dialectical Materialism), then what if we do away with matter? And, to a large extent, they did. Information/data is weightless, travels at the speed of light: matter is secondary. So is the Body...

Along the way, you'll learn about the deep roots of Sociobiology (and a form of scientific feminism that needs to come back from being beaten down by anti-science Leftists in academia), how a Russian Futurist/surrealist from the first two decades of the 20th century influenced Chomsky without Chomsky seeming to know about it, and much more.

If you had to ask me, what was the overall value of Chomsky's linguistic work at MIT? I'd say it was  "Don't study language using this approach! Language is and has no doubt always been a deeply social thing!"

If you're interested in politics, philosophy, and the idea of "science" being an open and public - and possibly ultimately unified thing?: Decoding Chomsky is for you. If you're already a seasoned reader of Chomsky, I feel safe to say you'll learn a few new things from this book. For me, the book spoke to my interests in the origin of language (of which Chomsky's work is literally laughable) and the fallout from the new and wonderfully interdisciplinary "cognitive sciences." Knight let me on to some reasons I hadn't even considered about why my valuation of being a "generalist" has taken such a beating since the 1950s. Not long ago I wrote a piece about why I thought Alfred Korzybski's work had waned, and Knight fills in a lot of gaps there, too. I'm interested in the history of Structuralism, the academy, "PR", mass stupidity, intellectuals, embodied knowledge, Descartes, Plato, Newton, Galileo and Bertrand Russell, the possible synthesizing of all knowledge, why many people have the idea that "science" isn't for them, the idea of theory and practice going hand in hand, and the timeless notion that ideas have consequences and one clue to this is looking at the time and place and social situation in which ideas blast off and catch on. 

So, I loved this book. My intellectual friends have already heard WAY too much about my problems with Chomsky, and I'm only so lathered up over Noam because I love him, although I know it doesn't seem like it. Ya just hafta take my word. - OG

Chris Knight's website for further ideas about Chomsky and MIT

Here's an interview with Chris Knight in the journal Radical Anthropology from five or so years ago that gives a lot of the gist and pith of Decoding Chomsky. It was this interview, sent to me by Sue Howard, that felt like a revelation: "Here's a guy who seems to have maybe solved the Chomsky Problem!" 

If you have been taken by Chomsky's ideas about language and want to remediate, some suggestions:

-The Major Transitions of Evolution, by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary
-Adam's Tongue, by Derek Bickerton
-Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, by Michael Tomasello
-Philosophy In The Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
-From Molecule to Metaphor, by Jerome Feldman
-Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, by Sarah Hrdy
-The Way We Think, by Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier

Here's something many of us are looking forward to: 7000 Universes: How the Languages We Speak Shape the Way We Think, by the stellar Lera Boroditsky. Gotta wait till 2018, though...

If you're way too busy and don't think you can get to reading Decoding Chomsky soon, HERE is a pretty damned good podcast interview of Chris Knight about Chomsky, by the thoughtful and erudite publisher and science fiction writer Douglas Lain.

Post scriptum: After writing about the Two Chomskys in light of William James's ideas of the "tough-minded" and "tender-minded" I remembered I blogged on it four years ago.

                                         Psychedelische Grafik von Bob Campbell


Sue Howard said...

Fascinating read. I can't wait to get hold of the book, and I'm amazed you've already read and digested it. Wasn't it published, like, yesterday?

It sounds like a "two distinct Chomskys" thing. Wasn't there a unifying thread, though? I think Lakoff wrote that both NC's linguistics & politics stemmed from his Cartesian philosophy. Another unifying link between the two Noams seems to be his response to criticism. I see (from the audio you linked to) that Chris Knight has already been on the receiving end of Chomsky's dismissive denunciations. Knight says Chomsky "doesn't really debate with anybody - he legislates", and he sort of compares him to Napoleon in this respect.

This seems so consistent, whether the criticism is of his politics or his linguistics. His treatment of critics generally seems pretty appalling. This goes back to the early days (see his 1973 NYR response to Lakoff: "Lakoff seems to have virtually no comprehension of the work he is discussing"). Perhaps this tendency should be taken seriously by his political followers also. If someone doesn't really respond to critical feedback, how can they be said to be "meticulous" (which is how Knight characterises NC's political work)? How would they even know if they'd got things wrong?

You may have already seen this youtube video of a 1.5hr talk by Prof Knight about the book. Sound quality not great, but worth a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-Xn6dZkS2k

Thanks again for an excellent post.

Eric Wagner said...

Interesting post. I remember learning a little about Chomsky in a math class called Formal Language Theory around 1982.

Eric Wagner said...

I think Richard Bandler found Chomsky's work on grammar of some practical use in NLP which certainly has had real world success.

michael said...

@Sue Howard: Yea, I got word Yale Press was putting out the book, and pre-ordered it from my local indie bookstore, which I never do, due to chronic impecuniousness. I thought it wasn't due out in Unistat until 27 Sept, but it arrived a few days later, and I felt like a 5 yr old boy on xmas morning driving down to pick it up. You were the one to alert me to Knight, so I thank you.

I had a hard time putting it down. I've basically already read it twice: first: all the way through, taking massive notes (it's a minor miracle my "review" isn't more of a shamble), then once again through, going over the many salient and fascinating details.

Knight doesn't touch on your note about how Noam takes criticism, from either the "scientists" or the guardians of the Ruling Class, but I agree with you. In the podcast, at the beginning, Knight says Chomsky never really debates. One of the main themes in Knight's book is the schizoid Chomsky, and what that must be like to live with: working for MIT, right in the epicenter of research on weapons of mass destruction, coupled with his anarchism. In a sense, he can't really discuss these issues, because one Chomsky might have to speak to the other Chomsky when answering, and no one has ever gotten very far trying to get him to address this disparity and/or cognitive dissonance. Knight seems to me sufficiently sensitive and empathetic to this bizarre, 60 yr situation Noam has lived with.

Speaking of arrogance, Knight points out Chomsky thinks one must have something like a science-generating device in your brain, or you're screwed if you want to be a good scientist. Luckily Chomsky has it.

He lives in a very strange world. I consider him a genuine genius, but his failings are the most fascinating thing to me. He's very dry yet very passionate. He's "right" about everything, but isn't, and acts so humble sometime it doesn't seem like a conscious "acting" bit he's doing.

There's a point, around 1972, when he seems to realize that his linguistics work will not yield up any semantics in the way he somehow got himself to believe it might (or did he never care about semantics at all?); at this point he should have adopted a radically new model, keeping his weird work in syntax and all that going, while admitting there's some sort of divorce between syntax and semantics, and developing his semantics in some other way that competed with Chas. Fillmore and Lakoff...but he didn't.

I consider Chomsky's body of work about propaganda techniques to fit in well with what General Semantics has drifted toward: Media Ecology. According to the Media Ecologists - Cory Anton, Lance Strate, Rushkoff, many others - GS is "metalinguistics." Analysis of PR and propaganda techniques fits in well with that, but I bet the room would get plenty unpleasant if you asked Noam if his work on media was a form of metalinguistics or worse: General Semantics or even "pragmatics."

To me, one of the dumbest aspects of Chomsky's bifurcated mind is his quick dismissal of practically all of social sciences. Which makes it doubly sweet that another political radical - IN THE SOCIAL SCIENCES - has cracked the Chomsky Problem. For Noam, social sciences equals brainwashing, it's all Skinnerian behaviorism, and he's even skewered "empiricism" as a form of behaviorism, which to me is just stooopid.

I'm a tad embarrassed by my effusive veneration for Knight's work, but I think this book deserves it.

michael said...


I think Grinder had studied one of Chomsky's models and cited it in The Structure of Magic, but I see no evidence of it in the book itself. To me, it's almost as if they're playing off the aura of Chomsky the Great Scientist in order to - ironically? - hypnotize the readers.

Please show me where I'm wrong here.

Roman Tsivkin said...

Though most of this stuff is beyond my intellectual grasp, I do try to keep up with things in this field. I used to watch oodles of Chomsky YouTube vids -- mostly not the political stuff (though that, too), but his linguistics and science/philosophy talks. It became evident to me that Chomsky does not say anything--anything--without some serious thought behind it. His genius was clear as day, though if you'd ask me to reconstruct any of his arguments, I'd fall flat on my face. But while I was listening/watching (and rewinding...lots and lots of rewinding), it all made sense, deep sense (worth noting that I majored in philosophy and have kept doing "philosophical investigations" over the past two+ decades, so I know a thing or two myself. OK, maybe just a thing). My point, if I have one at all, is that Chomsky is goddamn smarter that most if not all of us, and that his intellectual output is worth our attention. He's like the Penn & Teller of ideas, while most of us--or those who bother with these topics--are either Penn OR Teller, never both. (Hmm, I like this analogy...maybe his political stuff is Penn--loud, in-your-face--while his philosophical/linguistic stuff is Teller--the real deal, the engine behind the magic.) Anyway, to hone in on my point (still not sure I have one, but...), it seems that those who try to dismantle Chomsky's hold on linguistics seem to miss subtle things here and there, which, as their arguments grow from the nexus of those little misinterpretations, balloon to major misunderstandings. Perhaps this is why Noam gets so irritated with his critics--they miss vital but subtle points, then run with the misinterpretations, and he simply has no time or patience for that shit. I'll look into Knight's book, but not being that smart, I'm not sure that I'll catch the little misinterpretations/errors that I suspect will pop up here and there. (Case in point re that Scientific American article: https://medium.com/@dan.milway/dont-believe-the-rumours-universal-grammar-is-alive-and-well-58c1fbc5608b#.dflepsl9w).
Final point: Chomsky's intellectual integrity seems to be exceptionally solid to me, so I think that if he truly saw some chink in his thinking, he'd acknowledge it. Having said that, his grounding in Cartesian dualism / scientific materialism seems to be a blindspot--maybe THE blindspot of this amazing thinker. So yes, there's some room for criticism there, but not on logical/scientific grounds (what other grounds, you may ask...fuck if I know).

michael said...


No one who follows this stuff thinks Noam is stupid. I think he's a genius. The reputation of his work on linguistics seems wildly oversized compared to what those (very many) models spell out. This may be because his assumptions about how his project "ought" to work out were just wrong. Personally, I think his assumptions are fatally flawed. If you can point out to me something about his work that's been wildly successful, please do.

Often people say, "He demolished Skinner and proved that, due to poverty of stimulus, children are born with a language organ that helps them pick up the grammar of their native land in a way that's like growing 5 fingers or going through puberty....and he was right!"

While I think we have neural circuitry that enables us to pick up language in the critical period, the details about how this happens is QUITE a departure from Chomsky's models.

Please read Knight's book. I think you'll really enjoy it. And then I'd truly love to hear your impressions.

Thanks for your comments, which are thoughtful and considered without fail.

Eric Wagner said...

I really respect Richard Bandler. He frequently urged people to read the books in the bibliography of The Structure of Magic Part I which included some Chomsky. Googling "Chomsky Richard Bandler" I didn't find the specific passages I wanted. I vaguely remember reading about this, say, fifteen years ago. Alas, I do not remember the specifics.