Chris Knight, the Origins of Culture & Chomsky

I didn’t know anything about the British anthropologist Chris Knight, until I came across an interview with him on ReadySteadyBook, Mark Thwaite’s excellent blog. I haven’t yet gotten to Knight’s book, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture, but intend to do so as soon as possible. Reading the interview I was struck by his analysis of Naom Chomsky — not sure I totally agree, and I may generally have queries about the Marxist presuppositions (though that spectre needs indeed to be revisited) but it is a refreshing take, to say the least. Fo the full view go to the ReadySteadyBook blog, it’s worth the trip.

RSB: You have said that Noam Chomsky, as linguist, is a genius who needs to be overthrown. Why is he a genius? And why should he be overthrown?

CK: Why is Chomsky a genius? Just about every theoretical linguist I know says that Chomsky is a genius. Even those who disagree with him seem to agree on this point. The entire modern discipline of theoretical linguistics stems very largely from Chomsky’s pioneering work. I don’t really understand the details, but my problem is that I am not a theoretical linguist. I don’t necessarily feel qualified to judge. If a bunch of nuclear physicists were to tell me that someone in their field was a genius, I would just have to take their word for it.

As for overthrowing him, the problem is this. Chomsky occupies a very peculiar institutional position in the United States and in western society more generally. Both in science and in the arts, he is the most frequently cited intellectual. The anarchist/libertarian left look up to him with enormous respect. Chomsky tells them that his linguistic science is of no special interest to activists. He explains that science and politics are completely different, mutually autonomous kinds of activity. No form of political action can be justified by science, just as no scientific theory can be justified by politics. His personal practice reflects this: his political writings contain no science, just as his scientific writings contain no politics. Or so it seems. Of course, no single figure can be held responsible for legitimizing the chasm between the scientific community and the community of political activists. But if we had to pick on a single figure, it would have to be Noam Chomsky.

The problem is that Chomsky’s separation of science and politics is a myth. His own science – his linguistics – is political through and through. Chomsky defines language as not social. He defines it as an object inside the individual head. He says it doesn’t have any special communicative function – mostly, we use language just for privately thinking to ourselves. He says that the meanings of words are not socially negotiated but wired into the brain in advance as features of the human genome. In my view, to say all this is pure nonsense – stark, raving nonsense. But it is not politically neutral nonsense. To argue for such far-fetched positions is is to adopt an ideological stance – that of the liberal bourgeoisie. Chomsky is the most virulent imaginable opponent of social science in general and of Marxism in particular. Since the late 1950s, bourgeois hostility towards Marxism in western intellectual life has found its most extreme and articulate champion in Noam Chomsky.

Conversely, it is a myth to say that Chomsky’s political activism is unconnected with his science. The connection is intimate. Today’s most imaginative and effective political activists are constantly engaged with the findings of environmental scientists, earth scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians and others. Could we even imagine today’s environmentalist movement without the brilliant environmental science which lies behind it? Against this background, it is positively uncanny to find how little science appears in Chomsky’s writings as a political critic. We find no economic analyses, no sociological analyses, no application of theories or findings from any part of the social sciences or humanities. All we find are quotes from newspapers or reports of various kinds, telling a journalistic story. I personally tend to find Chomsky’s stories accurate – more accurate than most. I admire his political integrity and courage. But I am suspicious about Chomsky’s overall role. My view is that the ruling class are perfectly happy to have Chomsky writing this kind of thing. It doesn’t frighten them in the least because it doesn’t threaten them – Chomsky goes out of his way to construct and represent himself as a lone voice. In particular, when wearing his activist hat, he ostentatiously removes his scientific one. What would upset the ruling class would be the reverse strategy. What would upset them would be for the world community of scientists to become active while the activists became scientific. Our two communities might then hope to converge on a shared language of self-emancipation and revolutionary change. Chomsky has devoted his life to obstructing any such development. This is why I think he should be overthrown.

(Visited 96 times, 1 visits today)

You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. Paul Hotvedt says:

    thanks for entering into the visual
    … Paul

  2. Al Cohen says:

    I have to say that Chomsky’s project has been to change the field of Linguistics from a soft to a hard sciene. Knight is completely wrong to say to Chomsky’s project has been to say that “the meanings of words are not socially negotiated but wired into the brain.” Chomsky never makes claims about the lexical semantics of a language, but rather of its syntax and grammar. No responsible linguist can state that lexical semantics can represent universal truths about onotological objects. Syntax however, cuts to the very essence of how language is processed cognitively in a universal scope. The universal usage of noun phrase predicated on verb phrase, nominal and verbal morphology etc., that the way we use language almost always makes sense in its context, is what Chomsky drives at in his notion of Universal Grammar. Most of Chomsky’s detractors argue that his theoretical paradigms are anglo-centric, not that they don’t represent actual cognitive processes. Of course, the research and application is a mixed bag: on one hand it supports his arguments, on the other it points to the wide range of phenomena not accounted for by his findings. Language remains at the end of the research, an enigma.

    Chomsky is to be admired for never letting hsi two interest bleed. The importance of his work in linguistics and psychology are comparable to Eintstein’s work in physics, and no one, to my knowledge, is really interested in Einstein’s politics, or how they affected his science. As workers of the word, we tend to dismiss the science of language. That anything pertaining to language belongs to us, to our domain of criticism. But the actual picture is much broader, and Chomsky’s methodology has scientific integrity. The most relevant way that Chomsky’s study of language affects his politcs, to me, has been the realization of universalism as evinced directly by patterns of human language. In an interview with William F. Buckley in the late sixties, Chomsky talks directly about the impact on endangered languages that the war on Viet-nam was to have.

  3. Lecky333 says:

    What a rediculous criticism of Chomsky! Knight clearly doesn’t understand Chomsky’s positions on Politics or Linguistics but somehow feels qualified to berate Chomsky for separating the two.

    Knight says, “I don’t really understand the details,” then goes on to say, “to say all this is pure nonsense – stark, raving nonsense. But it is not politically neutral nonsense.”

    But wait! it gets worse! “it is positively uncanny to find how little science appears in Chomsky’s writings as a political critic. We find no economic analyses, no sociological analyses, no application of theories or findings from any part of the social sciences or humanities.” What Chomsky books is this guy reading?!? Probably none! Manufacturing Consent and Deterring Democracy are two Chomsky books that deal directly with economy and sociology respectively.

  4. Richard S. says:

    If Noam Chomsky is such a virulent opponent of Marxism, it is peculiar that for so many years he has praised the ideas of Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Korsch and Anton Pannekoek. Pannekoek is a particularly interesting example. He was famous for his work as an astronomer and believed strongly in the connections between science and politics. This is not surprising since he became a Marxist while deeply involved in the study of natural science.

    There is an interview with Chomsky included in the introduction to a recent (AK Press) edition of Pannekoek’s famous book Workers Councils. There are things that Chomsky says here that don’t at all fit with the idea that “He explains that science and politics are completely different, mutually autonomous kinds of activity.” Here are some brief excerpts:

    Chomsky:…This is discussed in technical literature, including work by outstanding economists like Robert Solow and others, who point out that the United States does not provide the technical training and the skill training…. A friend of mine who has worked on the free school movement…has pointed out that the technical schools are often much more imaginative and free in the way that education proceeds than are the universities, because they just have to train people to do things. The sciences are like that as well; you train people, they work with you, and that is the way people learn.

    RB [interviewer]: Pannekoek describes this very issue of worker management of production and interests in ways that follow this model employed in the sciences.

    Chomsky: Pannekoek, of course, was a well-known astronomer. Sciences have to work like that, and they have for a long time. Those ideas come straight out of the Enlightenment, actually, notably Rousseau, Humboldt, and back even further. It gets picked up in the left-Marxist traditions, and the independent working class traditions….

  5. DespairToWhere says:

    Al Cohen: I have to say that Chomsky’s project has been to change the field
    of linguistics from a soft to a hard science.

    Chris Knight: Yes, as everyone knows, this has always been Chomsky’s stated
    project. By ‘hard science’, Chomsky means ‘natural science’. By contrast, any
    kind of social science is deemed ‘soft’. This is my point. It is precisely
    his acceptance of this institutional/disciplinary divide that compels Chomsky
    to be so ruthless in defining language as a natural object. The slightest
    concession on this score would lead to the implication that linguistics could
    be scientific while also being ‘soft’. Chomsky wants linguistics to be
    completely ‘hard’. This compels him to redefine language as completely
    ‘natural’, with the logical corollary (logical in Chomsky’s mind) that it is
    neither ‘social’ nor ‘cultural’. Once this novel definition has been
    established, it can be ruled legitimate to exclude all social science
    perspectives. This is precisely what Chomsky does.

    Al Cohen: Knight is completely wrong to say that Chomsky’s project has been to
    say that ‘the meanings of words are not socially negotiated but wired into
    the brain.’ Chomsky never makes claims about the lexical semantics of a
    language, but rather of its syntax and grammar.

    Chris Knight: I am afraid this comment is not well informed. Chomsky makes no
    such distinction between syntax/grammar on the one hand, semantics on the
    other. Instead he conflates the two. I agree that this is very strange. But
    although it is strange, it is nevertheless true.

    Rather than argue in a vacuum about whether it is or isn’t true, I think it
    best to accept Chomsky’s own word on such matters. Recourse to Chomsky is a
    valid procedure because our dispute just now is over what Chomsky does or
    doesn’t say. So here, just for the record, is Chomsky himself:

    ‘In my view, most of what’s called semantics is syntax. I just call it
    syntax; other people call the same thing semantics. Syntactic Structures, in
    my view, is pure syntax, but the questions dealt with there are what other
    people call semantics. I was interested in the question, “Why does ‘John is
    easy to please’ have a different meaning from ‘John is eager to please’?” I
    wanted to find a theory of language structure that would explain that fact.
    Most people call that semantics; I call it syntax because I think it has to
    do with mental representations. Take a point we discussed earlier: the word
    house, the concept “house,” and the use of the word house in real situations
    to refer to things. There are two relations there, and I don’t think you can
    turn them into one as is commonly done. The common idea is that there’s one
    relation, the relation of reference, and I don’t believe that. I think
    there’s a relation that holds between the word house and a very rich concept
    that doesn’t only hold of house but of all sorts of other things. That
    relation most people would call semantics. I call it syntax because it has to
    do with mental representations and the structure of mental representations.’1

    As for whether Chomsky says that ‘the meanings of words are not socially
    negotiated but wired into the brain’, I am again perplexed. Can anyone
    familiar with Chomsky’s writings possibly doubt this? Chomsky himself makes
    his position abundantly clear. The lexical concept ‘house’, he explains, is
    wired into the brain. Here is Chomsky in his own words:

    ‘There’s a fixed and quite rich structure of understanding associated with the
    concept “house” and that’s going to be cross-linguistic and it’s going to
    arise independently of any evidence because it’s just part of our nature.’ 2

    Of course, Chomsky is not stupid. He knows perfectly well that there are
    different kinds of houses – mud huts, country mansions, men’s houses, public
    houses etc. etc. – and that for this and other reasons people in different
    cultural situations will be using the word ‘house’ (in whatever language) in
    different ways, for different literal and/or metaphorical purposes and so on.
    But he is not interested in all this. For him, such matters concern
    linguistic usage, not the nature of language as such. As we have just seen,
    Chomsky treats semantics as syntax. Lexical concepts can be used in various
    ways, he says, but in themselves they are fixed features of the human
    Language Faculty, in this respect no different from syntactic features. His
    fundamental point is that variations in semantic usage are superficial.
    Beneath all such variation, he asserts, the lexical concept ‘house’ – a
    component of the human language faculty – is universal and hard-wired. It is
    a pre-installed internal feature of the ‘semantic component’ of the
    distinctively human ‘language organ’.

    Al Cohen: No responsible linguist can state that lexical semantics can
    represent universal truths about onotological objects.

    Chris Knight: I did not say that. I am well aware that for Chomsky, the whole
    of language including ‘the semantic component’ is ‘internal’ to the Language
    Faculty rather than ‘external’ in the sense of accurately mirroring the

    Having said that, Chomsky’s position is very strange. Why should the lexical
    concept ‘house’ be part of the human genome? Are we sure that palaeolithic
    hunter-gatherers had houses? In the recent ethnographic record, most
    Aboriginal Australians didn’t really have houses. Very often, they slept in
    the open around a camp-fire. But even assuming our paleolithic ancestors did
    have houses, it still doesn’t solve the wider problem of where lexical
    concepts can have come from.

    It seems extremely unlikely that the lexical concept ‘carburetor’ could have
    become installed during the evolutionary emergence of Homo sapiens. So what
    about this concept? Is it an exception? Do we adjudicate that certain
    concepts (such as ‘house’) are part of the genome while others (such as
    ‘carburettor’) are just socially or culturally determined? As a scientific
    theory, that would look a bit messy and inconsistent.

    In a sense to his credit, Chomsky opts for consistency. To this end, he
    decides that even in the case of ‘bureaucrat’ and ‘carburettor’, the concepts
    are hard-wired. Our stone age ancestors already had these concepts, even
    though as yet they didn’t need to use them.

    Yes, I agree, this is strange. I fully appreciate that few supporters of
    Chomsky are likely to believe me unless I quote Chomsky himself. So let me
    quote Chomsky himself.

    After defending his idea in a general way, Chomsky elaborates:

    ‘Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument is at least
    in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburettor and
    bureaucrat, which, in fact, pose the familiar problem of poverty of stimulus
    if we attend carefully to the enormous gap between what we know and the
    evidence on the basis of which we know it. The same is often true of
    technical terms of science and mathematics, and it surely appears to be the
    case for the terms of ordinary discourse. However surprising the conclusion
    may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that
    the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to
    leave open few other possibilities.’3

    ‘Thus Aristotle had the concept of an airplane in his brain, and also the
    concept of a bicycle – he just never had occasion to use them!’, comments Dan
    Dennett, adding that he and his colleagues find it hard not to burst out
    laughing at this point.4

    So there we have it. Chomsky views word meanings –
    the concepts to which
    words are attached – as mental representations drawn from an ‘innate stock’
    of such representations provided by ‘nature’. The child who acquires a
    particular language, according to Chomsky, doesn’t have to learn the concept.
    The task is simply to rummage through its innate stock of concepts and then
    discover the relevant label.

    This is what I said in the first place. I very much thank Al Cohen for giving
    me this opportunity to explain. I trust I have made myself clear.


    1. Gary A Olson and Lester Faigley, 1991. Politics and composition: a
    conversation with Noam Chomsky. In Journal of Advanced Composition 11.1, pp.
    2. The same.
    3. N. Chomsky (2000) New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind
    (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 64-66.
    4. D. Dennett (1991) Consciousness Explained (London, Penguin), pp.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *