Ian H. Birchall Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Ian H. Birchall

Chomsky’s Humanism

(July 1972)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.52, July-September 1972, pp.42-43.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Problems of Knowledge and Freedom
by Noam Chomsky
Barrie & Jenkins, £1.50

The two lectures printed in this volume were delivered last June as the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at Cambridge. Chomsky, quite correctly, sees himself as following in Russell’s footsteps. Chomsky’s work in linguistics, like Russell’s in mathematical philosophy, represents a substantial contribution to human knowledge within a limited field; Chomsky, like Russell, has taken a firm and courageous stand in opposing particular crimes of capitalism (for both men the Vietnam war was a key issue); and like Russell, Chomsky sees only tenuous links between the two activities – if they are joined at all, it is by a rather vague notion of ‘humanism’.

The aim of Chomsky’s work in linguistics is to show that there are certain basic structures underlying all human languages. Why is it necessary to suppose this? Take, for example, the two sentences: ‘John appealed to Bill to like himself’ and ‘John appeared to Bill to like himself.’ In appearance they differ by only one letter; yet the ‘himself’ means Bill in one case, John in the other. Or again, try to lay down the rules for forming sentences, especially complex ones, into questions. Any mechanical rule, which treats a sentence just as a string of words, will not work in all cases. The structural rules Chomsky proposes not only work, but appear to be similar in all known languages.

The implications for the specialised study of languages are enormous. But Chomsky has also been concerned to draw some more general conclusions. Fundamental to his work is the point that human language is ‘creative’; that is, all of us can produce sentences which have never previously been uttered, and yet these sentences can be understood by anyone else who speaks the same language. There is, quite literally, no limit to the number of sentences in any given language.

This means, first of all, that no language is ‘better’ than any other; all languages have the same unlimited potential Various racialist notions of the ‘primitive’ can thus be discarded. It also disproves the myth, common on the left, that human beings can be imprisoned by their language – the myth embodied in Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ in 1984, where men cannot challenge the system because the language they speak does not allow them to phrase such a challenge. Chomsky’s findings seem to be incompatible with the fashionable but basically reactionary ideas of Basil Bernstein, who argues that working class children suffer from the limitations of the language available to them – the working class thus cannot liberate itself, but must be liberated by benevolent middle-class school-teachers.

Further, if Chomsky’s view of how we learn languages is correct, then it is quite incompatible with behaviourism, the psychological school which sees man as being an input-output device, a machine which gives certain responses to certain stimuli. Behaviourism is, of course, a psychology ideally suited to a social system which treats human beings like machines, and wherever possible replaces men with machines. The ability to produce, not just a set of sounds, but a language which is infinitely variable, is one of the important distinctions between men and all other animals, and Chomsky’s humanism gives us good reason to believe men can never be totally dehumanised.

So far, so good. Chomsky rejects empiricism – the philosophical doctrine which says that everything inside our heads got there through our senses. But for him the only alternative this leaves is the old notion of innate ideas – we are born with certain ideas, or at least structures, inside our heads.

As long as we remain within the framework of studying man as an individual, then these are the only choices available. But the ability to use language is not the only thing that distinguishes man from the beasts. Man is also a producing animan, and human history is the history of the social organisation of production and the social struggles resulting therefrom.

In an interview with New Left Review in 1969, Chomsky tried to draw the connections between his linguistics and his politics.

‘... My own feeling is that the fundamental human capacity is the capacity and the need for creative self-expression, for free control of all aspects of one’s life and needs. One particularly crucial realisation of this capacity is the creative use of language as a free instrument of thought and expression ... one might actually develop a social science in which a concept of social organisation is related to a concept of human nature which is empirically well-founded and which in some fashion leads even to value judgements about what form society should take, how it should change and how it should be reconstructed.’

In short, we can derive a social programme from a study of the needs of the individual. What is missing is any account of how the various forms of repression that exist came into being in the first place.

Chomsky describes his own politics as ‘libertarian’ – a word which indicates some indeterminate area between liberalism and anarchism. The paradox of these two lectures is that the first, dealing with linguistics, is exciting, thought-provoking and relevant even where it is wrong; the second, dealing directly with political questions, is just plain boring. Chomsky bewails the prostitution of American academic life. For example, while hundreds of sociologists are exploring every facet of the society of Thailand, a vital strategic base for US imperialism in the Far East, not one has ventured to do a frank study of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, an institution which concentrates colossal economic and political power in its hands.

But all this is nothing new; the real question is what do we do about it. Chomsky sees little hope except in the student movement, and at the end of his second lecture comments:

‘It is the problem of survival, not revolution, that has obsessed us ... It is proper and necessary that this should be so.’

The struggle for survival is the struggle for revolution. A view of the world, like Chomsky’s, which sees political issues as only loosely linked to philosophical questions, which sees the individual as the agent of historical change, cannot perceive this. But the fault is not wholly Chomsky’s – the real tragedy is the absence of a credible revolutionary force which could enable isolated intellectuals to go beyond the politics of moral gesture.

Ian H. Birchall   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 20.3.2008