Understanding the Labyrinth:
Noam Chomsky’s Science and Politics

On July 25 the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival screened Requiem for the American Dream, a documentary film built around an interview with Noam Chomsky, with the great man himself present for a Q&A afterward. Expecting a crowd, my wife and I arrived early at the Tabernacle, a wonderful open-air wrought-iron building in Oak Bluffs. We put our things on chairs just behind the sixty seats front and center, which were reserved for those who had paid a premium for the opportunity to chat with Chomsky at a wine-and-cheese soirée under a tent outside. Each reserved seat had been thoughtfully provided with a woven cane fan.

Martha’s Vineyard is a showcase for disparities of wealth and privilege. Belying its reputation, it has been accounted the poorest county in the state. In the summer, visitors are almost seven times more numerous than year-round residents, few of whom have time or money for such events; and in the winter, almost half of the housing stock is vacant, while homeless people camp here and there in the woods. And yet it remains a haven of genuine community, an essential aspect of human nature that draws people summer after summer.

We wandered over to chat with our friend and neighbor Brian Ditchfield, who, with Thomas Bena, created and directs the Festival. When I mentioned that I had corresponded with Noam, he said, “Oh, would you like to meet him? Thomas is bringing him this way.” No, I said, I don’t think he will be interested in talking with me. But there he was, reflecting the warm glow of adulation, and we were duly introduced. There was no reason he should have remembered me in that context, nor was there any point in reminding him. This event was about politics, and our correspondence had been about linguistics.

The utter sundering of these two domains in Chomsky’s mind and in his practice is a major theme of Decoding Chomsky.1 The author, Chris Knight, is a British activist and radical anthropologist who has made influential contributions to research into the evolutionary origins of language and culture.2 In contrast to Chomsky, his political activism cost him his academic post.3 “I was struck by the disconnect,” writes Knight,

between Chomsky’s politics—which seemed passionate and courageous—and his concept of science, which seemed the reverse on every count. It soon became clear to me that the scientist in Chomsky excluded social topics with the same scrupulous rigour that the activist in him excluded any reliance on science. This disastrous way of fragmenting human knowledge made no sense to me at all (xi).

He attributes this “disconnect” to Chomsky’s feelings of guilt that virtually all of his income from MIT derives from military funding, which, by his own account, is aimed at the domination of the peoples of the world by subversive and destructive means. At least one correspondent, as I write this, dismisses the guilt hypothesis, saying it was simple arrogance that he could trick the merchants of death into paying him for theories that are of absolutely no use to them, a notion that is not in the least contradicted by the tone of books and papers produced by Chomsky’s students during and after the Vietnam War—with their flippant titles and politically sneering example sentences, in sharp contrast to the contractually required footnotes crediting grants from the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). And as to military or any other usefulness, a search on “practical applications of generative linguistics” is strongly suggestive that there still are none. Siri, Google Translate, Dragon, and their military kin have other pedigrees.

Knight says his “subversive intention” is “to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America” (xiii). Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I). Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in—more than that, has participated in and abetted—a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.

Science had previously been understood to be intrinsically revolutionary. The applications of “humanity’s only universal, international, unifying form of knowledge” (195) necessarily have social and political consequences for which scientists must take responsibility. But after the defeat of European fascism, the all-out “war on Communism” made social activism a hazard to a career in science. The social sciences, anthropology and sociology, were directly affected. Their roots are in the work of Karl Marx, the first to think of society as a system. Although the long-accepted truism that anthropology was the handmaiden of colonialism may be questioned,4 there can be no doubt of its deliberate conscription in service of neocolonialism.

In 1956, the Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare, the section of the U.S. army responsible for all aspects of unconventional warfare, set up the Special Operations Research Office (SORO) [...] to provide the army with ‘scientific bases for decision and action’ in the battle for ‘hearts and minds’ (187).

Federal funding poured in to the social sciences. Princeton sociologist Harry Eckstein identified the goal as “knowledge of the causes of revolutionary ferment in order to be able to repress it at its source, or for that matter to induce it at the source” (189). According to a briefing in 1962, rather than “200 monographs on the 200 tribes of Nigeria” the military needed “basic concepts involved in Nigeria or any place in the world because everywhere there are human beings” (188). Ratified by Chomsky’s claims about universal grammar, social scientists plunged into the quest for what is universal in human nature, abstracted from realities of cultures and communities.

Chomsky had to distance himself from them in order to reconcile his ideology with continued employment at MIT. In his view, the social sciences are a fraud (8) and natural science is a realm of arid logical abstraction that has no relevance to effecting social change. “Naturalistic inquiry is a particular human enterprise that seeks a special kind of understanding, attainable for humans in some few domains when problems can be simplified enough,” writes Chomsky. “Meanwhile, we live our lives, facing as best we can problems of radically different kinds” (193).5

There is a larger enabling context. Knight ably summarizes the historical literature showing how a confluence of interests in the post-war military-industrial-security complex birthed and fostered the Siamese-twin fields of cognitive psychology and generative linguistics. From the turn of the century, psychologists had promised “prediction and control of behavior.” Now, the ever-increasing speed, scale, and complexity of operations demanded prediction and control not just of the behavior but also of the mental states of the all-too-human cogs in the machinery of war and commerce, subject to fatigue, distraction, and other “defects.” But behaviorist dogma had dismissed mental states and cognitive processes as unscientific fantasy because only outward behavioral actions could be directly observed. Furthermore, the inherently coercive methods of behaviorism are problematic. (A typical “enabling condition” for an experiment in which the “reward” is food is to maintain the subject animals in a starving condition at 85% of their normal body weight.) Human beings find ways to meet their own authentic preferences while satisfying the letter of the requirement, in the manner of the Good Soldier Švejk, or of a jaded employee whose youthful idealism has been exploited.6

The “cognitive revolution” is rooted in the metaphor which says the brain is a computer. ENIAC was announced at the University of Pennsylvania as the first “giant electronic brain” in 1946, followed by further developments of computer technology cascading exponentially year after year. The generals’ shining vision was called C3—communication, command, and control. They wanted to say, “Computer, report!” and get an answer, in English, as in Star Trek. For Knight, the establishment of the computer metaphor exemplifies a generalization by Karl Marx:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant relationships grasped as ideas (191).

If the brain is a computer, then we can program people’s brains, and so “prediction and control of behavior” is still on offer to those who wish to pay for it. The academics got their career-making revolution without upsetting any important applecarts. Not coincidentally, in both the Cognitive revolution and the Generative linguistics revolution Marxist materialism was equated with empiricism (or logical positivism), and,

Chomsky uses the terms ‘behaviorism’ and ‘empiricism’ more or less interchangeably. For him, ‘behaviorism’ has always served as a sweeping catch-all which included not just Pavlov and Skinner, but also Durkheim, Foucault, and vast swathes of materialist philosophy and social theory (199).

In the computer metaphor, the stuff of mental states is information, and cognition reduces to information processing in the “human biocomputer.” Warren Weaver’s “information theory” (a.k.a. communication theory) had imparted magical fundraising powers to such words. Never mind that George Miller, a founding father of cognitive psychology, said in 1982: “How computers work seems to have no real relevance to how the mind works, any more than a wheel shows how people walk. I think artificial intelligence will develop along its own lines and leave psychology alone entirely.”7 And never mind that virtually all neuroscientists have now rejected computationalism8 in favor of dynamical and connectionist models. The computational metaphor has pervaded our culture and shaped public discourse, and it continues to provide life-support to Chomsky’s ever-more abstract proposals and counter-proposals. Chomsky even applies it to himself:

According to his own account, one modular component of his brain—‘the science-forming capacity’—functions autonomously as a computational device. Chomsky the activist is not responsible for the science, which comes from a different region of his brain. ‘The one talent that I have which I know many other friends don’t seem to have,’ Chomsky explains, ‘is I’ve got some quirk in my brain which makes it work like separate buffers in a computer’ (135).

Knight, accepting the hagiographies by Barsky9 and others, calls Chomsky possibly the greatest scientist of the 20th century, the genius who made linguistics a science. The nature of the invisible clothing here is that Chomsky is not a scientist, he is a philosopher who says, “I hate experiments” (171), as though the experimental method were not the very heart and soul of doing science. The overriding responsibility of the scientist who proposes a hypothesis or theory is to subject it to every imaginable experimental test that might disprove it, and if an idea cannot be tested, it has no more worth than the claims in an advertisement for toothpaste. Knight reviews how Chomsky’s proposals are notoriously inaccessible to empirical test and have become more so with each successive revision. It is a disgrace to the field that there still exists no broad-coverage generative grammar of any language.

Knight reports the growing consensus among historiographers that Chomsky’s revolution was political in nature, a “palace coup” (170); and he delineates the progressive leaching of substance from Chomsky’s theories, now approaching utter vacuity (176), which is why it cannot seriously be considered a scientific revolution. But concerning the actual science of language from which all of this sprang, and which Chomsky’s mentor and benefactor continued developing in parallel to it, Knight knows only the partisan view promulgated in the “eclipsing stance” of the Generativists.10 For linguistics was already a science before Chomsky diverted it into philosophy of mind subserving cognitive psychology.

ENIAC, c. 1947 – 55. Photo: U.S. Army / Public Domain.

In that year of ENIAC, 1946, the University of Pennsylvania formalized Zellig Harris’s program in linguistic analysis as the first Department of Linguistics in the U.S. A year later, Chomsky was a freshman taking courses in logic and philosophy and attending Harris’s seminars. It is rarely noted that Harris, then thirty-five years old, was a family friend who had been Chomsky’s mentor and protector since the age of eight or nine.11 Over the next six years,12 taking the systematization of logic as a model, Chomsky tried to reformulate Harris’s methods of linguistic analysis as “discovery procedures,” what today we would call an algorithm that might be programmed in a computer so that one could input a phonetic transcription of an unknown language and it would output a grammar of the language. He later maintained that this was what Harris was trying to do, though Harris explicitly denied it.13 By his own account,14 Chomsky was not able to understand what Harris was doing and why. Harris regarded the methods of linguistics as tools, exploratory means of finding out what the essential properties of language are, so that eventually a theory could be formulated. That turned out to take about forty years. Chomsky was impatient, not a little ambitious, and needed to individuate and establish himself. Intellectual disagreement is insufficient to account for Chomsky’s self-contradictions (141 – 42) about his debt to Harris, much less his inexplicable anger at him as expressed in his correspondence with students and colleagues.15

Chomsky is a master of logical argumentation, and appears to believe that the path to truth is by winning arguments. Logic is an essential and powerful tool, but if even one premise of the most impeccably logical argument is false then its conclusion might be true, or it might be false; no one can say. Ben Franklin’s amusing story about his youthful lapse from vegetarianism ends with a wry acknowledgement of the prevalent use of reason to rationalize: “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”16 And of course arguments are often won by rhetorical rather than logical means.

If a computer algorithm cannot discover the grammar of a language, then Chomsky’s logic compels him to accept that the computer in the brain of a child must necessarily be pre-programmed with that grammar, whence an innate “language organ” and universal grammar. But Chomsky’s conception of grammar is wrong (was avowedly wrong when he came to that conclusion in 1953), and the assumption that the human brain is a programmable, information-processing device like a digital computer has been rejected by most neuroscientists. This is not the place to describe an empirically sound alternative to the computationalism of cognitive psychology,17 nor to summarize Harris’s science of language18 and how Chomsky diverged from it to ever more complex and abstract logical inferences from faulty premises.19 Suffice to say, Harris showed that grammar is not abstract and is not so complex, and that what must be learned involves dependencies and equivalences among perceptions, socially standardized in use.

As a researcher into the evolutionary origins of language, Knight is particularly exercised by Chomsky’s absurd claim that a biologically innate “language organ” did not evolve but appeared suddenly due to a single mutation in a single individual, perhaps caused by a “strange cosmic ray shower” (150 – 51), conferring a uniquely human capacity for recursion. (Recursion is a property of symbolic rules when a symbol in the input to a rule also occurs in its output, so that it can re-apply to its own output. This is relevant for a theory of language that employs symbol-manipulating rules.) According to this tale, this lone super-hominid was thereby endowed with rule-governed symbolic information-processing that other animals did not enjoy. It could “think” or “talk to itself” mentally. Obviously there were no others to talk to, but according to Chomsky it wouldn’t have conversed even if there were, because although the superior capacity of its brain to manipulate abstract concepts conferred reproductive advantage and was inherited by its descendants, two- or three-thousand generations of such super-hominids used this private “mentalese” only to engage in interior monologues, thinking to themselves, until, perhaps some 50,000 years later, for unspecified reasons that are of no interest to Chomsky, the social use of language for communication emerged.

Interior monologue, for Chomsky, is the essence of universal human nature. The “words” of this innate mentalese are universal “concepts,” the same in everyone’s brain but materialized as superficially different words in the various languages of the world. The logic of Chomsky’s secular Neoplatonism (which he calls Realism) compels him to claim not only that the abstract concepts that were appropriate to the world of proto-humans were innate, but so also every concept that we now have and may possibly have in future. “Carburetor” and “bureaucrat,” for instance, were innate in the brain of that first super-hominid and lay latent in the brains of all his or her descendants for all the millennia down to our recent generations who have at last found social use for these concepts. Chomsky is driven to this bizarre conclusion not by any evidence but rather by “conceptual necessity”—meaning that without it the entire biolinguistic edifice would collapse, and meaning that since so far as he can tell no other explanation is possible it must therefore be true, Q.E.D. This recalls the great physicist Niels Bohr, who “never trusted a purely formal or mathematical argument. ‘No, no’ he would say, ‘You are not thinking, you are just being logical.’”20

In contrast to what Chomsky sometimes has admitted is a fairy tale (150), Harris’s account of the origin of language21 accords well with neo-Darwinian theory and with the proposals made by Knight and other serious researchers into the evolution of language. He shows how language is a self-organizing system that plausibly arose from a social process of useful institutionalization, which is “by no means unique, being widely known—for better or for worse—in culture and in social organization.”22

But Chomsky cannot countenance a theory of language that is grounded in social processes. If Knight’s analysis is correct, Chomsky’s split into two personae is an unusual response to the economic incentives and political coercion that disrupted the social sciences and gave preferential support to computer “science” and cognitive psychology, bearing up with them his trademarked generative linguistics, which he has repeatedly changed and made yet more abstract as soon as anyone with a claim to understand it began asking awkward questions. But its lack of utility could be overlooked. Chomsky’s high-profile activism has redeeming social value, because it demonstrates that MIT upholds high standards of academic freedom. “Chomsky’s position on academic freedom uncannily resembled the MIT management line on these issues. You can research what you like—provided you don’t actually do anything about it” (38). So contorted is his defense of this ideal that, “at a time of mounting antiwar unrest, Chomsky seriously proposed that he could lead MIT’s most radical students in a campaign to defend the right of someone he regarded as a ‘war criminal’ to rejoin the university community” (39). Questioned about this alliance with Walt Rostow, “one of the great war contractors and intellectual makers of the [Vietnam] war,” he said, “The logic of that argument is that Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied in the British Museum.” “Somehow,” Knight observes,

He manages to draw a favourable comparison between himself as a full-time salaried employee in one of the most advanced weapons research laboratories in the world and an impoverished Marx, taking notes for revolutionary purposes in a public library—the reading room of the British Museum (112).

With the old Cartesian mind-body dualism reframed in terms of mental “information,” the particular circumstances of political and social life are immaterial for his conception of science, much as software is independent of this or that particular computer hardware in which it may be installed. Indeed, Chomsky has dismissed matter itself (162). But real science is not an abstract creature of the ivory tower. Its effects on political and social life cannot be denied. Nor the converse. The sciences seem especially embattled by political and economic pressures today. Under political pressure, government funding agencies mimic industry in treating science like engineering, demanding specifications of what will be delivered before granting support and expecting delivery on schedule, neglectful that science is essentially exploratory in nature, and that a great proportion of significant findings have not been predicted in advance. Even the frequent public invocation of science as an authority is a social burden that can inhibit its open-endedness and the inherent uncertainty of doing science. Many people do not realize that science proves nothing, and that proof is possible only for logic and mathematics.

Knight describes how Chomsky selects data that fit into an intellectually satisfying explanatory system, and sets aside data that don’t fit, claiming that this is in fact how science works (171 – 72). This keeps him safe from what the evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley called “the great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis with an ugly fact.” Perhaps the most important function of scientific method and of peer review is to counteract bias, especially confirmation bias, seeing what you expect to see.23 However, it is many years since Chomsky’s writings in linguistics have been subject to formal peer review prior to publication, and he derides scientific methodology as data-bound empiricism.

Chomsky’s stance undercuts the responsibility of scientists to speak out as public intellectuals against dishonest invocation of pretended science in behalf of commercial and political interests. If a scientist incurs any personal risk by defending tobacco, dismissing epidemiological effects of environmental toxins, or denying the human role in climate change, such risks are mitigated by teams of lawyers defending corporate ownership of intellectual property and “trade secrets,” but let them become whistleblowers and they are isolated and on their own, under attack from those same phalanxes of lawyers. Needless to say the withholding of information and the adversarial use of patents erodes the necessarily communal character of science.

“Central to Marxism is the unity of theory and practice” (193), but for Chomsky, science is apolitical, and political activism cannot be informed by science, resulting in what Knight calls “mindless activism and tongue-tied science.”

At any given moment […] you are either a scientist or an activist; you cannot play both roles at the same time. A climate scientist, for example, will be respected for reporting worrying findings, but condemned for resorting to direct actions to avert the consequences. Those who do confuse roles in this way risk being accused of betraying their vocation (197).

Severing theory from practice quarantines science and redefines scientific objectivity and professionalism, reducing them from essentially social values in the community of scientists to arid legalisms that might be spelled out by a Human Resources Department. Knight reviews work by David Golumbia24 showing how this estrangement of science and society from each other was essential to the creation of neoliberalism, admirably suiting the purposes of those who control the purse-strings (196). And it allowed Chomsky’s radical ideology to cohabit with his employment at MIT, albeit in different compartments of his brain and personality. For Chomsky, “Development of weapons of mass destruction […] was perfectly acceptable, provided it was kept separate from subsequent deployment of such weapons” (197). In the words of Tom Lehrer’s 1965 song,

Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Chomsky’s friend, the late Howard Zinn, author of the monumental A People’s History of the United States and no stranger to the effects of modern armaments, said that:

the call to disinterested scholarship is one of the greatest deceptions of our time, because scholarship may be disinterested but no one else around us is disinterested. And when you have a disinterested academy operating in a very interested world, you have disaster (197).

This emerges in an odd way in the film, Requiem for the American Dream that my wife and I saw in Oak Bluffs. Chomsky benefits from an editing process that has segmented the interview into topics that could have been selected from Robert Reich’s recent survey of the ailments of capitalism,25 each punchily introduced by animations in the manner of The Story of Stuff and spiced with atmospheric television clips from the 1950s. These topics should be familiar to a literate and engaged public, including obviously the causes of the prevalent great disparities of wealth and privilege. Among factors not mentioned is the erosion of the countervailing bottom-up influence of special-interest groups, the “American pluralism” that was celebrated26 in the 1950s and 1960s for its success in offsetting the anti-democratic influence of business interests. In the panicked retrenchment by the right wing after 1968,27 and their assiduous social engineering (such as they claim to oppose), “special-interest group” has become a pejorative phrase, and not coincidentally a “nation of joiners” has been atomized to a population of harried, economically insecure individuals with no time to talk to their neighbors, much less to be literate and engaged. This organization of the film under headings called “principles” suggests some kind of theory of social change. But as we have seen such a theory is impossible for Chomsky, who says, “There is no relationship at all between what is humanly interesting and what is intellectually interesting” (193).

Knight mentions (239) Zellig Harris’s only book on politics. The manuscript Directing social change28 was published posthumously in 1997, five years after his death, as The Transformation of Capitalist Society.29 As with all of Harris’s writings, the reader sees the succinct conclusions with only illustrative extracts from the huge amount of data and analysis supporting them, investigations over many years beginning in the late 1940s with a collective of likeminded scientists in diverse fields. He also read widely, not wanting to redo what had already been done. In this book, he asks: “Whether, in spite of its success, the capitalist system will end or change substantially in the foreseeable future. If so, what are the possibilities that the change will foster more equitable socio-economic conditions?”30 Recognizing the obvious failings of top-down revolutions and how they simply replace old elites with new ones, he offers considered guidance for recognizing and fostering seed-points of successor arrangements in neglected backwaters of capitalism where people can gain experience living and working together without exploitation, for example in businesses that are entirely owned by employees. Social experience changes people’s understandings, and confidence in the expectations and capabilities that develop in the experience of mutual aid can then spread to other domains from the bottom up—much as capitalism unexpectably supplanted feudalism in the 15th to 17th centuries.31

A “celebration” of the book’s publication was organized at the University of Pennsylvania in November 1997. Over the misgivings of some of the organizers, but because he would draw a crowd, Chomsky was invited to speak. He spoke at great length about East Timor, which was then his particular focus, with a few sentences about Harris in the middle, and referred to the book not at all. As the first to the microphone in the Q&A I asked if he had any constructive suggestions such as those advanced in the book, recognizing, of course, the problems of capitalism. “Problems!” he said, “Capitalism is a disaster!” and was off and running. (A student later went to the microphone to ask the same question, also in vain.) Chomsky’s righteous concern is with what’s wrong, and he does a very good and worthy job pointing it out. As to what to do about it, beyond a generic “organize” he has little to say.

I mentioned some correspondence. Its context is the coup in linguistics, an attack32 on what is still its fundamental methodology, the investigation of what can occur with what (termed “taxonomic linguistics”). This has been generally understood as Chomsky’s repudiation of Harris in particular. Twenty years later, in 1995, I sent Chomsky a paper33 in which I showed that, while he may have characterized the views of some linguists of the 1940s and 1950s, none of his criticisms applied to Harris’s work. We exchanged several polite letters, at which point he said there was no point in continuing unless I agreed to some unspecified “ground rules,” to which I replied:

You close your letter with a request for agreement on some ground rules. I can promise to write with honesty and forthrightness, to adhere to valid forms of argumentation, and to accept correction when shown that I have not done so. […] I cannot promise to accept premises with which I disagree. I can help to identify and clarify terms of disagreement so that they can be set aside so as not to make the discussion unproductive, and so that they can either be worked on separately or be accepted for the nonce under an agreement to disagree. What do you have in mind?

He never replied. Two years later, I joined a klatch of admirers after his speech at the “celebration” of The Transformation of Capitalist Society and mentioned that he had not replied to my last letter, “Oh, I always reply. Send me a note to remind me.” I did, and two months later he wrote:

When we met, I was surprised to hear from you that I had not responded to a letter of yours, since I try to be scrupulous about either responding to letters, or else explaining why I am not responding. On reviewing the material you sent me, I see that the latter was the case. Your response made it clear that we were not going to be able to agree on ground rules. The new material simply makes that more clear. Accordingly, it seems there is little point in wasting your time or mine.

Indeed. The word decoding in the title of Knight’s book suggests that Chomsky is an encrypted puzzle. Knight says (xiii) that he has tried to be cautious in his approach to Chomsky’s linguistic theorizing, duly advised by Rudolph Botha’s characterization34 of

Chomsky as a skilled fighter at the center of a vast intellectual labyrinth whose forks and hidden pitfalls are used aggressively to defeat anyone foolish enough to intrude. Nobody ever wins in a battle with ‘the Lord of the Labyrinth,’ because the Master makes sure that each contest will take place on terrain which he himself has landscaped and designed (12).

In his political discourse as well, Chomsky chooses peculiarly unassailable ground: “So far is he to the left of, say, Lenin or Trotsky that such figures appear to him little different from fascists” (199). From this point of view, practically everyone (except for him) has been taken in by propaganda. Because of Chomsky the “scientist” divorcing science from social action and promoting an abstract characterization of universal human nature, Chomsky the activist has become inexorably trapped in a peculiar fatalism in which “ordinary people faced with the need to explain poverty and injustice will continue to blame human nature. It is widely held—often on supposedly scientific grounds—that poverty, sexism, inequality and war will always be with us, just as humans will continue to be born with five digits on each hand” (241).

Chomsky’s maze would ensnare us all. He says that “not even the germs of new institutions exist, let alone the moral and political consciousness that could lead to a basic modification in social life.”35 Here, Knight is wrong to attribute the same views to Harris, who calls for us to recognize and nurture the seeds (“germs”) of a successor to capitalism. But Knight’s main brief is with Chomsky for insisting “that mass political consciousness must change first,” inverting Marx’s insight that “experience counts for more than abstract ideas.” As is well known,

Under capitalism, people tend to feel competitive and isolated. This leads to deep feelings of fragmentation and helplessness—which are a logical response under the circumstances. Newspaper and other mass media proprietors will then find a ready market for individualistic, racist, sexist and other divisive ideas. If that is true, it cannot be propaganda that is the root cause of the low level of consciousness—as Chomsky argues in his influential article, ‘Manufacturing Consent.’ Rather, it is the lack of community, solidarity, and activism which gives rise to a profitable market in reactionary ideas (240, footnote suppressed).

As a way out of learned helplessness, Knight points to research into the social matrix of the “human revolution” in which our remote ancestors created language and culture. A paramount value in egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities is respect for one another and for the resources upon which they depend. The revolution in “human nature” was in the establishment of trustworthiness, a social achievement that is beyond the merely Machiavellian capabilities of non-human primates (211) which is a prerequisite for communication with language, and made possible “the rule of law” (224). The social learnings which are possible to us in niches neglected by capitalism, which Harris indicates as a way forward to a successor of capitalism, are re-learnings of the ancestral wisdom that made us human in the first place, but this time with computer-enabled, world-wide human communication and interconnectedness. Communal song and dance, the stuff of ritual, are now thought to have been the nursery of language and culture in the small hunter-gatherer communities of our remote ancestors. Today, Eric Whiteside can conduct a choir comprising thousands of voices scattered across scores of countries.36 “To end on an optimistic note in these bleak times—when revolution has been written off even by the left—the conclusion must surely be that having won the revolution once, we can do it again” (242). Such optimism, the youthful optimism of Occupy37 grounded in science that is unbiased by mercenary motives,38 is inaccessible to Chomsky’s “tongue-tied science and mindless activism.”


  1. Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary politics (Yale University Press, 2016).
  2. C. Knight, Blood relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (Yale University Press, 1991); C. Knight, R. Dunbar, C. Knight, & C. Power, eds., The Evolution of Culture (Rutgers University Press, 1999); C. Knight, D. Dor, &d J. Lewis, eds., The Social Origins of Language (Oxford University Press, 2014).
  3. G20 protest professor suspended, BBC (March 26, 2009). [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/7967096.stm].
  4. H. Lewis, In Defense of Anthropology: An Investigation of the Critique of Anthropology (Transaction Publishers, 2013).
  5. Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 115.
  6. Or the Simple sabotage field manual prepared by the OSS in 1944 for the resistance.
  7. Tom Ferrell, “Pioneering Cognitive Psychologist has Everyone’s Mind on His,” The New York Times (October 12, 1982).
  8. For a cogent lay presentation, see R. Epstein’s essay “The Empty Brain.” [https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer].
  9. R. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 2007); The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower (MIT Press, 1997).
  10. D. Hymes & J. Fought, American Structuralism (Mouton, 1975).
  11. Personal communication of Naomi Sager, Harris’s widow.
  12. N. Chomsky, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, 25 – 33.
  13. “These procedures […] do not constitute a necessary laboratory schedule in the sense that each procedure should be completed before the next is entered upon. […] [Their] chief usefulness […] is […] as a reminder in the course of the original research, and as a form for checking or presenting the results, where it may be desirable to make sure that all the information called for in these procedures has been validly obtained.” Z. Harris, Methods in Structural Linguistics (University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1 – 2.
  14. He has suggested this in numerous places in print, and has explicitly said as much in personal correspondence, first in September 1995 regarding something I had written, and several years later when I invited him, and he declined, to contribute “anything, on any subject, at any length” to two volumes presenting research related to Harris’s work, The legacy of Zellig Harris, CILT 128 & 129 (John Benjamins, 2002).
  15. Reported to me by a former student who had been tasked with organizing his correspondence. The word he used was “rage.”
  16. B. Franklin, Autobiography (Knopf/Everyman), 43.
  17. W. Powers, Behavior: the control of perception, 1973;Aldine de Gruyter; P. Runkel, People as living things: the psychology of perceptual control (LCS Publishing, 2003); W. Mansell & A. Powers (eds.) Living control systems IV: the world according to PCT (Benchmark, forthcoming).
  18. Z. Harris, A grammar of English on mathematical principles, 1982; Wiley; Z. Harris, Language and Information (Columbia University Press, 1988); Z. Harris, A theory of language and information: a mathematical approach (Oxford University Press, 1991).
  19. B. Nevin, Noam and Zellig, in D. Kibbee (ed.) Chomskyan ®evolutions (John Benjamins, 2010), 103 – 168.
  20. H. Margolis (1993), Paradigms and Barriers (University of Chicago Press, 1993), 201.
  21. Z. Harris, (1988) Chapter 4, (1991) Chapter 12.
  22. Z. Harris, Language and Information (Columbia University Press, 1988), 111.
  23. R. Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2.2, 1998: 175 – 220.
  24. D. Golumbia, The Cultural Logic of Computation, (Harvard University Press, 2009).
  25. R. Reich, Saving Capitalism (For the Many, Not for the Few), (Knopf, 2015).
  26. R. Reich, Saving Capitalism, Chapter 18.
  27. L. Lapham, “Tentacles of rage: The Republican propaganda mill, a brief history,” Harper’s Magazine September 2004; Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday, 2016).
  28. For the manuscript, see [http://zelligharris.org/The.Dir.of.Social.Change.draft.pdf].
  29. Z. Harris (1997) The Transformation of Capitalist Society, Rowman & Littlefield. (rev at [http://zelligharris.org/rev-TCS-bn.html]).
  30. Z. Harris, The Transformation of Capitalist Society, 2.
  31. F. Braudel, Civilization and capitalism 15th – 18th Century (vol. 1: The structures of everyday life; vol. 2: The wheels of commerce; vol. 3: The perspective of the world), tr. by Siân Reynolds, (Harper Collins, 1985).
  32. In several revisions beginning in 1959 and culminating in N. Chomsky (1964), Current issues in linguistic theory, Mouton.
  33. B. Nevin, “Harris the Revolutionary: Phonemic Theory,” in K. Jankowsky (ed.) History of Linguistics 1993 (John Benjamins, 1993), 349 – 358; uncut version at http://zelligharris.org/Contrasts.pdf.
  34. R. Botha, Challenging Chomsky: The generative garden game (Blackwell, 1989).
  35. N. Chomsky (2002 [1969]) American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon Books, 2002 [1969]), 17 – 18, quoted on 240.
  36. There are many video recordings, such as [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2NENlXsW4pM] and [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7o7BrlbaDs].
  37. M. White, The end of protest: a new playbook for revolution (Knopf, 2016).
  38. In addition to references cited in fn. 1 above, see e.g. K. A. McClelland, Social Structure and Control: Perceptual Control Theory and the Science of Sociology, forthcoming in W. Mansell & A. Powers (eds.) Living Control Systems IV, Benchmark, forthcoming 2017).


Bruce Nevin

BRUCE NEVIN is a linguist who has worked closely with the Pit River tribe in northeastern California since 1970, preserving their language and supporting language revitalization. He is currently completing a database of their language under a grant from the NSF/NEH Documenting Endangered Languages Program. From 1982 until 2011 he was employed as a manager and information architect, first for Bolt Beranek & Newman until 1994, and then for Cisco Systems. Since 1991 a particular focus, in collaboration with researchers from diverse fields in the Control Systems Group, has been integration of the empirical linguistics of Zellig Harris with Perceptual Control Theory, showing how the constraints on word dependencies that constitute the objective information in language are an ongoing product of collective control. He lives with his family in his ancestral home on Martha’s Vineyard.