Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics.

Author:Seyferth, Peter
Position:Book review

Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky. Science and Revolutionary Politics

New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016; 285pp; ISBN 9780300221466

Noam Chomsky is a famous anarchist and scientist, but he is not an anarchist scientist. In his latest book, What Kind of Creatures Are We? (2016), there are no links between the political (and indeed quite anarchist) chapter 'What Is the Common Good?' and the linguistic and epistemological rest of the book. This separation of spheres of thinking is odd--and typical of Chomsky. It is also understandable and his most serious mistake, claims Chris Knight in his sharp book Decoding Chomsky. It is a straightforward, clear, and fast read. It focuses on all the major phases of Chomsky's linguistic theory, their institutional preconditions, and their ideological and political ramifications. And it is absolutely devastating. Knight picks all versions of Chomsky's theory to pieces until they appear as an inaccessible private fantasy about a thing we virtually cannot know anything about: 'language', a thing that has nothing to do with people talking with each other. This 'language' and any science of it is utterly useless for all practical purposes--here, Chomsky and Knight agree.

It is one of Knight's main points that the purposeful uselessness of Chomsky's theories is the result of an intellectual split in Chomsky himself. On the one hand, there is the political activist who attacks the Pentagon. On the other hand, there is the scientist whose research and career are mainly financed by the Pentagon. To be able to look in the mirror without shame, the MIT professor Chomsky had to sever any links between his politics and his science. Although his activism against the Vietnam War was a real nuisance and his linguistics proved, in the end, to be void of any practical use, the US war machine still supported its strange dissident. Why? Knight draws a bigger picture of scientific revolutions and their uses. Chomsky was the Platonic and quasi-Cartesian champion of the 'cognitive revolution', a revolution very useful for those that wanted to defeat Marxism. While Marxism united science and politics, Chomsky's rejection of materialism in favour of mentalism divided them. For him, science is something that happens in the minds of singular scientists, while politics cannot be treated in any scientific way at all. Thus, for Knight (who is a Marxist), Chomsky is one of the main culprits for the demise of the left because he...

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