Committed to the Flames
The first and only time I met Noam Chomsky was in the Fall of 2011 at a panel he was on at New York University. The topic was Palestine, a staple for the activist-academic. Most of the crowd was a mix of ages, all listening to him with rapt attention. But I was less interested in the subject matter than I was in meeting an academic that, as a left-wing graduate student, I had long admired. We began a small correspondence after a close friend of mine told me that he was responsive to email, and he seemed to enjoy exchanging thoughts and ideas. My initial fawning “Thank you, Professor Chomsky” soon transpired into a nearly a year-long conversation about varieties of Marxism. What became apparent to me was how much credence he was apt to give the European Enlightenment in support of his own anarcho-syndicalism. In broadening the tradition of thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and so on, Chomsky was able to give a nuanced, if not radical, account of classical liberalism.
In retrospect, the nineties marked a low point in the American political scene. There were discussions of such things as how to balance the budget and healthcare reform, issues which seem garden-variety. It was also a decade in which mass culture was still being disseminated through the mediums of TV, radio, and printed magazines and journals. Although the general mood was saccharine, it nonetheless thrived on a particular substrate of insipid American triumphalism over the implosion and collapse of the USSR. Official culture was drunk on slogans like Thatcher’s “There Is No Alternative” and Fukuyama’s “End of History.” Chomsky seemed to have lost his drink ticket in the post-Soviet, post-communist hangover. For him, there were still issues to be discussed, networks of socio-economic power to be mapped. The MIT linguistics professor did so with a matter-of-fact tone and intellectual tenacity, which confounded and irked his opponents and detractors.
Chomsky’s politics are not, after all, the fussy, liberal kind, ensconced within the acceptable framework of American identity and national discourse. In contrast, he espoused the full-throated message of the Enlightenment, the aspects of which had been excised by a particular ideological scalpel and summarily tossed aside from the acceptable narrative. The Adam Smith. Although he is philosophically associated with seventeenth-century Rationalism—a major philosophical statement was Cartesian Linguistics (1966)many of his insights align with the ruthless empiricism of David Hume, whom Chomsky is fond of quoting.
Why is Noam Chomsky, a man who is close to claiming the tenuous mantle of centenarian, still relevant today? Chomsky, whose methods might seem too analog for today’s digitally-oriented audiences, has a distinctly twentieth-century appeal. Rarely do we glean from any of his prodigious output of books, essays, letters, and media appearances any of the moral handwringing we are now growing accustomed to from the left. He remains, not obsequiously, at the margins of American political life. Chomsky’s importance lies in more than his frank mannerisms or location in the public eye. For one thing, he is genuinely concerned with issues of freedom of speech. In Manufacturing Consent, a documentary film by Michael Albert, Chomsky receives blowback from a letter signed in defense of the late French historian Robert Faurisson, who lost his teaching job for denying the Holocaust. Another characteristic of his method: in his litanies of corporate crimes and elitist plundering, Chomsky meticulously sifts through enormous amounts of sources to make his points as plainly and in as detail-oriented a way as possible. But what is perhaps most remarkable is his lack of deference towards the fashionable theoretical obscurantism that metastasized through the social sciences and humanities as the twentieth century ended. What distinguishes Chomsky’s politics from those of many leftist commentators today is his appeal to people’s innate ability to reason.
While Chomsky claims that his own professional work in linguistics and philosophy is of little consequence to his political activism, there are at least a few strands of thought which meaningfully connect the two. The most important are his critique of Empiricism (despite his admiration for Hume), and his ideas about language acquisition. Empiricism as a philosophy—with John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume as major figures—can be summed up as a belief that our knowledge is primarily gleaned from our sense-experiences. Perhaps it is David Hume who best represents their defiance of abstraction without an evidential basis:
f we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain an abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.1
Anglo-Saxon empiricism rose to intellectual prominence in the early 18th century, a period which saw rapid development of the natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, as well as of philosophy, literature, and various sorts of religious expression. The empiricists rejected earlier modes of thought that had produced a multitude of abstract theories. In particular, Locke and other empiricists opposed the notion that human beings are born with a certain knowledge base, as had been argued as early as Plato’s Meno. On the contrary, Locke argued, each of us is born with a mind which is a blank slate—a tabula rasa. It is through our sensory encounters in the world that we begin to accrue knowledge at progressively higher levels. As the scientific revolution began to deepen its foundation in English universities, so did a certain predilection towards favoring lines of thought which could claim to be based on observable phenomena.
While Chomsky doesn’t reject all of the philosophical concerns of the empiricists, he certainly opposes the idea of the mind as a tabula rasa. Citing the English mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, he asks, “How comes it that human beings, whose contacts with the world are brief and personal and limited, are nevertheless able to know as much as they do know?”2 For Chomsky, the notion of tabula rasa is a poor theoretical construct to understand the acquisition of knowledge and the ability of humans to develop ideas shared with other individuals. Chomsky reasons that, “if the mind were, literally, to strike out from the start, there would be no reason to expect more than fortuitous similarities in judgment ...”3 Given this, Chomsky reasons, isn’t it more accurate to conclude that human knowledge is less the result of a constant starting-over by each individual than the attribute of a species, part of our biological endowment? It is in the area of language that Chomsky developed these ideas, building on the seventeenth-century concept of “universal grammar” as a way to grasp how infants are genetically programmed to acquire grammatical knowledge from their linguistic environment.
One possible conclusion from Chomsky’s critique of empiricism, which he often expresses in speaking as an activist, is that humans are innately equipped with the ability to understand the world around them. It is for its efforts to neutralize this ability that he criticizes the mass media, which, according to Chomsky, deploy a variety of propaganda models against free thought and radical critique. In a well-known scene from Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky compares people’s store of information about sports trivia to their failure to think about the inequalities they experience in everyday life. In a rare moment of philosophical solidarity Chomsky agrees with Hume’s opinion that “Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” The basic function of the mass media is to support the ruling opinions, by so marginalizing critical debates that any suggestions to the contrary of accepted ideas appear bizarre, if not the thoughts of a raving lunatic.
It was during the same period in which he co-authored (with Edward Herman) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) that post-structuralism was beginning to gestate in its academic womb. Today we see this hybrid of older Marxist analysis and the (also aging) ideology of political identity drive a wedge between the old far left and today’s radicals. It was coming into being in the 1960s, when Chomsky met in a televised debate in Amsterdam with the post-modern luminary Michel Foucault. In this encounter between two intellectuals Chomsky attempted to provide concise and accurate definitions and ideas to counter Foucault’s etymological goal-post shifting. As Chomsky’s own frustration became more and more palpable, it became clear that the basis for a conversation between these two was exceedingly fragile, if not impossible. Chomsky did not quote Hume, but his insistence on clear ideas accessible to any rational being was basic to his position.
We continue to need intellectuals like Chomsky, who will not only answer all thirty-three of your emails without demanding a speaker’s fee, but also push back against the theoretical obscurantism which appears to be bursting at the seams in American universities. He insists on a basic human capacity both for rational thought and moral action. It is through his debating style, his clear-cut manner of speaking, that Chomsky has fought against obscurantist academic trends as well as state-sanctioned butchers. But he does so, not by avoiding them, but arguing that they are wrong in a detailed manner. We who care about issues like democracy and justice need to be ready to consign unjustifiable doctrines to the flames, as long as intellectual and physical crimes pile up all around us.
- David Hume, "3. Of the First Principles of Government" in David Hume on Morals, Politics, and Society, edited by Angela Coventry and Andrew Valls (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) pp. 147-150.
Noam Chomsky, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (New York: The New Press, 1971) p3.