Published Spring 2007
An Interview with Noam Chomsky
With his 1957 Syntactic Structures (Mouton), Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics. He introduced the concepts of "transformational grammar," "generative grammar," and "universal grammar," postulating that the structure of language is innate and that variations in individual languages are modifications within a restricted universal framework. Since then, Chomsky has continued to shape the direction of linguistics. In the late 1970s he modified his position to consider "principles and parameters," grounding the principles of grammar in the brain and arguing that parameter settings, like on and off switches, determine the shape of a particular language. This founded the cognitivist approach in linguistics, and since the 1990s he has opened new questions for investigation in what he calls "the minimalist approach." It aims for simplicity and is oriented toward a deeper level of explanation, trying to find the ways in which complex linguistic phenomena might be explained by a few simple principles of universal grammar and parameters.
Alongside his prodigious influence on linguistics, Chomsky has also been a leading public intellectual of our time. He launched onto an international stage in the 1960s with his opposition to the war in Vietnam and his criticism of American intellectuals, notably in books such as American Power and the New Mandarins (Pantheon, 1969) and For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973), as well as in his activism and myriad speeches and interviews. His critiques frequently center on the hypocrisy of US foreign policy and the violence it has wrought, and more recently have targeted neoliberal globalization and the "war on terror." While brought up in a Jewish family, he has also criticized the devastating effects of the "special relationship" between the US and Israel for Palestinians, and he has persistently called attention to seemingly distant political injustice, notably to the US-backed virtual genocide in East Timor. At home, he has diagnosed the way in which policy debate in the US is obscured by misinformation or "flak," which deceptively creates consent, in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with Edward S. Herman; Pantheon, 1988). While often portrayed in mainstream media as a fringe figure of the far left, he has carried out the American tradition of dissent, unrelentingly held up standards of truth and justice, and consistently maintained Enlightenment values of reason and evidence in public debate.
For five decades, Chomsky has been tireless in writing, lecturing, and giving interviews on language and on politics. His books on linguistics include Syntactic Structures, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (MIT P, 1965), Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (Harper, 1966), Language and Mind (Pantheon, 1968; enl. Harcourt, 1972), Reflections on Language (Pantheon, 1975), Rules and Representations (Columbia UP, 1980), Lectures on Government and Binding (Mouton, 1981), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (Praeger, 1986), Language and Problems of Knowledge (MIT P, 1988), and The Minimalist Program (MIT P, 1995), among many others. His books on politics, in addition to those noted above, include Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood (Pantheon, 1974), the two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights (with Edward Herman; South End, 1979), Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There (Pantheon, 1982), The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (South End, 1983), Turning the Tide: Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (South End, 1985), Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (South End, 1989), 9-11 (Seven Stories, 2001), Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (Metropolitan, 2003), and Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (Metropolitan, 2006). The Chomsky Reader, ed. James Peck (Pantheon, 1987), collects many important essays, including the still-unsurpassed "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." There is a great deal of commentary on Chomsky, including John Lyons' Chomsky (3rd ed., Collins, 1991), Alexander George's (ed.) Reflections on Chomsky (Blackwell, 1989), Carlos Otero's (ed.) Noam Chomsky: Critical Assessments (4 vols.; Routledge, 1994), Robert F. Barsky's Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT P, 1998), James McGilvray's Chomsky: Language, Mind, and Politics (Polity, 1999), and Neil Smith's Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals (2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2004). Chomsky is also a central character in Norman Mailer's "nonfiction novel," Armies of the Night (1968), and the film Manufacturing Consent (dir. Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, 1992).
Avram Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) was born and raised in Philadelphia. His father, who emigrated from Russia in 1913, was a Hebrew scholar. Chomsky earned his BA (1949), MA (1951), and PhD (1955) from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with linguist Zelig Harris and wrote his master's thesis on "Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew." From 1951 to 1955 he was a Junior Fellow at Harvard University's Society of Fellows, during which time he completed his dissertation. In 1955, Chomsky began a long career at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now Department of Linguistics and Philosophy), where he quickly ascended the professorial ranks and still teaches as an Institute Professor (emeritus).
This interview took place on 6 October 2006 in Noam Chomsky's office at MIT. It was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Heather Steffen, managing editor of minnesota review while a PhD student in the Literary and Cultural Studies program at Carnegie Mellon University.
Steffen: Could you give the basic layout of your linguistics for a general cultural studies audience who might not be familiar with it?
Chomsky: The most basic concept is to develop a way of looking at language as being in effect something like an organ of the body—what we would call a cognitive organ on a par with the capacities for reasoning, moral judgment, perception, and so on, but in every respect simply as much an organ of the body as the visual system or the immune system or any other subcomponent of this complex organism. Humans unquestionably have a capacity for language, which is common to the species. There is virtually no variation that anyone can detect, except with real pathology, so it's a species property. It's also plainly unique to the species; no other species has anything remotely like it. If my granddaughter and her pet kitten or songbird or chimp get the exact same experience, she will reflexively identify or extract out of that data material which she unconsciously regards as language-related. They don't extract anything, it's just noise. And she will, again reflexively, develop a mental capacity—the kind that you and I are now using—without training, without teaching, just by exposure, very rapidly, very uniformly. Everyone does it pretty much the same way, so it behaves very much like other biological capacities. However, it happens to be unique to humans.
It probably has aspects that are undoubtedly drawn from earlier species, maybe some homologous characteristics somewhere—songbirds have something somewhat similar, and you can find computational capacities in other organisms, and so on. But it's organized in such a way that it's quite unique and apparently has quite unique properties. So that sets a task: what's the nature of this object? How is it put to use in thinking, in external interaction, communication, in perception? How is it acquired? What's the common basis that all humans have from which the apparent variety of languages stems? It can't be very much of a variety—it's picked up too fast. How did it evolve? Just the ordinary questions you'd ask about the visual system, for example.
Steffen: Do you think of it as an actual physical structure in the brain?
Chomsky: It has to be. There's nothing else in the brain but physical structures. In fact, the concept "physical structure" doesn't really mean anything, it's just a name for what there is. To call it physical doesn't add anything. It did four centuries ago, but not today. It was understood by the late eighteenth century that the capacities that we call mental are properties of organic structures of the brain of some kind. There's nothing more to debate about that.
Steffen: Your linguistics seems to have had several phases, from your early work in the 50s, to talking about principles and parameters in the 70s, and then more recently about minimalism. I was wondering if you could walk me through those.
Chomsky: Well, there are antecedents in traditional grammar, going back thousands of years. And there are some, though fewer, antecedents in the structuralist tradition that was more recent. Many of the questions that began to be asked about fifty years ago had never really been asked before, so if you look at traditional grammars or structuralist grammars, they tacitly took for granted that the reader of the grammar already knows language. For example, if you look at a dictionary, say the Oxford English Dictionary, you may think you're getting the definition of words, but you're not. You're just getting hints that somehow enable you, the reader, to identify whatever rich concept you have in your mind with those sounds, but what you're adding to it is not studied, and it turns out to be very rich.
Steffen: So something more than Saussure's concept of correlation of signifiers and signifieds?
Chomsky: Well, that's just vacuous. What are the things that are being correlated? What is the meaning, for example? What is the sound, for that matter? Of course there's a correlation. It goes back to Aristotle: language, as Aristotle put it, is sound with a meaning. That turns out not to be quite right, but something like that is right, and Saussure said it in a different way. But we have to ask, what is the meaning? How do you know? First of all, we have to describe it, and as soon as you start looking at it you find out you don't know how to describe it. It's a hard problem—trying to find out the way people understand the word "river" or "tree" or "person" or "stone" turns out to be very intricate. In fact, we are barely beginning to comprehend it. What about expressions, sentences? How do we understand them? How do we know what I mean if I say, "Mary saw the man walking to the store?" It's actually ambiguous in three ways and takes a little time to figure out. On the other hand, if I question "the store" and say, "Which store did Mary see the man walking to?" it's unambiguous. How do we know that? And on and on with any other thousands of cases.
Few of these questions are studied in traditional grammar. They were not even raised in structuralist grammar. They were just taken for granted. If you look at a grammar book, say you want to learn Spanish, it doesn't give you the rules for Spanish for a very simple reason—nobody knows them. Trying to discover the rules for Spanish is like trying to discover the rules by which the visual system operates. That's a hard scientific question. What the grammar book gives you is hints. First of all, it gives you information about things that are idiosyncrasies, that can't be known, like what are the inflections, what are the choices of sounds, and so on. It does not give you the principles that explain what the words mean or how the sentences are understood, and it can't do that because it's not known. Bits and pieces are known, but certainly not enough. It doesn't matter from the point of view of language teaching, because you, the reader, already know them, because you're a human being and it's in your head. So if you teach somebody to swim, you teach them sort of tricks, but you don't teach them the basic physiology. They already have that because they're human beings, so you modify it a little and they use their physiology a little better. That's sort of what language teaching is like.
If you look at the concerns of traditional grammar and the concerns of this kind of linguistics, they're virtually complementary. This is an effort to discover what is presupposed by traditional linguistics and traditional dictionaries. So what's presupposed by the Oxford English Dictionary and presupposed by any ten-volume grammar you find, that's what we want to discover. We want to discover not the idiosyncrasies, but the real principles. There have been many attempts over the years and some improvements.
Steffen: That's the question that generative grammar is looking to answer, then?
Chomsky: It's trying to answer several questions. One question is simply to find the true theory of what's in your head, the true theory of your language, which is extremely hard. But you can make progress in it. The goal would be the true generative grammar that's inside your head that determines how you use and interpret expressions and what your capacity to do so is. The next problem is to do it for every possible language and to find out how it is that every speaker attains this capacity, which must be something common to every language, some genetic endowment, which is rich enough so that given just scattered data, each individual quickly and without instruction converges on one of these particular systems.
Then a further problem is to ask, why does language have these principles and not some other principles? Can you show that some of these principles, or maybe a lot of them, can be accounted for in terms of laws of nature? So, for example, you can ask, why is the brain for every organism at the end of the organism and not in the middle of the organism? You can describe organisms, you can show the genetics that leads to it, but why is it true? Probably that has to do with computational principles, with how to pack neurons most efficiently, or so it's believed. That would be a real explanation of why the principles are there, and you can ask the same kinds of questions about the principles that are unearthed in the study of language.
Actually, most of my work in the last ten or fifteen years is interested in these why questions. Can you, given a fair grasp of what the principles of language may be—not a perfect one, but a reasonable guess—reduce them to general, natural law, to principles of efficient computation and so on? There's this whole range of questions. There's the what question: what is a language? There's the how question: how does anybody acquire it, which is back to what's the genetic component? And then the why questions: namely, why is it that way and not some other way? And these don't go in sequence; they all contribute to each other. You make guesses about the why questions when you're studying the what questions. It's just like any other scientific activity.
Steffen: It's sort of a cliché to ask about the connection between your linguistics and your politics, but I've been wondering what you think about being one in a long philosophical tradition of defining species boundaries between humans and other animals. What is the political responsibility or implication of setting such a barrier?
Chomsky: It's like the political implications of deciding that the earth goes around the sun—if it's true, it's true. There are no political implications to the truth. In this case, it's not only true, but it's a truism. Again, my granddaughter learned to speak, her pets didn't, so it's a truism. Unless it was a miracle, then yes, there's some barrier between her and the others. Suppose that one of her pets is a pet bee, let's say, and the pet bee acquired a capacity to navigate that humans can't acquire, so there's a species barrier—we can't navigate as well as bees. Organisms are just different. They all have species properties, otherwise we wouldn't identify them informally as species.
One of the crucial species properties for humans happens to be the language faculty. In fact, if you look at the evolutionary record, which is thin but we have some, you can make a pretty fair guess as to what happened. There were anatomically modern humans in the fossil record hundreds of thousands of years ago, but behaviorally modern humans are much more recent. There's a burst of creativity, sometimes called "the great leap forward," somewhere within a very small window, in which suddenly one particular hominid, one of the many branches, developed some kind of creative capacity—symbolic representation, representation of natural events, symbolic art, complex social structures—and that particular branch, not long after, left Africa and spread all over the world. There was a tiny breeding group, maybe a couple hundred people in east Africa, who developed this, and they started spreading all over the world. You can trace the spread pretty well, roughly fifty thousand years ago, which is nothing in evolutionary time, and they very quickly were everywhere. They were in Papua New Guinea about ten thousand years later, up in northeast Asia not long after, down in southern Chile, and finally in Europe thirty or forty thousand years ago. You can add plus or minus tens of thousands of years, but that's roughly the window. Apparently there was an explosion of brain size around a hundred thousand years ago. It's almost universally assumed by paleo-anthropologists that the emergence of language must have been at the core of it; it's hard to imagine any of these activities without language. So presumably something happened in this small group in which language suddenly emerged, and it led to these other capacities, and then you've got humans, a unique species.
Steffen: In the opening to Hegemony or Survival you mention this long evolutionary view of the species and question whether or not it's good to be selected for being smart. When you say smart there, is that based on developing linguistic, creative potential?
Chomsky: Well, I was actually quoting the most distinguished contemporary biologist, Ernst Mayr, who raised the question, as he put it, whether it's better to be smart or stupid. He pointed out that, just from a biological point of view, it's better to be stupid. The organisms that are biologically successful, proliferate and are preserved over huge periods, are either organisms that mutate very rapidly, like bacteria, or that are very well-adapted to a very specific environmental niche, like various kinds of beetles. And he says as you move up the level of what we call intelligence, whatever you want to call it, you find that survival is reduced and fewer entities are preserved as long. He adds the ominous comment that the average survival length for a species is about a hundred thousand years, which is roughly what we're reaching, and he drops it, but you can go on to suggest, not implausibly, that our capacities, whatever these capacities are, are in fact going to destroy the species, and maybe very quickly. So in that sense it would be proof that it's better to be stupid than smart. If we destroy the species, the beetles will survive, bacteria will survive, maybe the mammals won't.
Steffen: To take a bit of a jump, I want to ask about your support of anarcho-syndicalism and how you see a vision of a future society. I think one of the things many people are drawn to Marxism for is its focus on utopias. What do you see as the difference between the utopian thinking in Marxism and the vision of a future society that can be produced through an anarcho-syndicalist frame of thought?
Chomsky: I don't regard either of these things as utopian—whether they're attainable or not, we don't know. But if you look at left Marxism, it's very close to anarcho-syndicalism both in action, like direct participation, and in ideas. When people talk about Marxism, they usually mean Marxist-Leninism, but that was kind of a right-wing deviation in the Marxist tradition. It's not Marx. In fact, Marx in his later years spent a lot of his work on peasant societies in Russia and their communal structures and whether they could be the basis for social change. Most of that work was suppressed. The Leninist wing didn't like it, and the social democratic wing didn't like it either—they were urban intellectuals, they didn't want to hear anything about peasant society. In fact, they wanted to rule and drive this impoverished peasant society to industrialization. You can't associate that with Marx's view; that's Marxist-Leninism, a special strain, in my view a right-wing strain, which had very little to do with socialism. In fact, it was anti-socialism. Marxist-Leninism, I think, was harmful in many respects. One was a reactionary tendency which undermined socialist currents in Russia and everywhere it spread. Another was that it gave a powerful weapon to state capitalist propaganda—they said, well, we've got to avoid that, so let's have our own form of tyranny.
On the other hand, the much more mainstream Marxists, who aren't known any more because they didn't have guns, so they disappeared, but who were regarded then as leading Marxist intellectuals, like Anton Pannekoek, the Dutch royal astronomer, were pretty close to anarcho-syndicalism. He wrote about workers' councils as a form of social organization and other notions, which are similar to those of anarcho-syndicalists. In fact, when the Spanish Revolution took place, which was the first real effort to develop something like anarcho-syndicalist ideas, the left Marxists were quite interested. Karl Korsch and others were sympathetic—had some criticisms, but were sympathetic to the enterprise. The same with communitarian anarchism of the Kropotkin style. There's a family similarity, resemblances to conceptions of community control and some of the more libertarian Marxist traditions.
So I don't think one can really talk about "Marxism." It's a very broad range of ideas, quite apart from Marx's conceptions of social organization and from the conception of production as being based on consumption, which is a standard market idea, instead of being based on profit, which is a Marxist idea. As for anarcho-syndicalist ideas, or what in Europe was just called libertarian socialism, I think they're a plausible framework for a future society, though I don't think you can sketch it out in any detail. Here I disagree with some of my friends, who do think you can sketch it out in great detail and in fact do a lot of work on it.
Steffen: If you were to sketch it out a bit, what's the vision it's hoping for?
Chomsky: It would mean that there's community control over communities and federalism of regions, workers' control over institutions, whether it's institutions of production, colleges, whatever it may be, and integration of those natural groups, community-based and production-based, in assemblies federating with larger ones, special groups based on other kinds of association, like women's groups or cultural associations or whatever they happen to be, and trying to weld them into some healthy community. Plenty of difficulties would arise, but you try to overcome them. Some framework, some means of planning, and you can go on to describe these to the extent that you like. Many people think you should describe them in detail; I think they have to come out of experiment. I don't think we understand enough about human societies to plan them in detail, but these are just leading ideas that can be pursued, and they're very natural ones.
If you look at the history of working-class literature, they just keep coming up over and over again. In nineteenth-century America, probably the most free period in the country in some respects—markets, freest press certainly—these ideas are all over the place. Working people took it for granted that wage labor isn't very different from slavery and that you have to overcome it. Maybe it's a temporary expedient, but it's an attack on your dignity and freedom to rent yourself to someone. They took it for granted that those who work in the mills should own them. That's the standard slogan of working-class literature. It comes up in the major social philosophers. Take John Dewey—no particular radical—who believed that what he called industrial feudalism, that is our system, has to be replaced by industrial democracy, meaning democratic control over industrial institutions by their participants, if there's going to be any hope for a democratic politics. Now it's considered radical, but in his time it was considered a mainstream idea. I don't think these ideas are very far below the surface, and I think they can be revived. There are bits and pieces of structures like this scattered throughout the society, and if they can continue to develop, I think it's a reasonable direction for society to proceed in.
Steffen: You mentioned Dewey. Are there other philosophers that you point to as your antecedents or favorites?
Chomsky: I mentioned Dewey but I also mentioned nineteenth-century working-class literature, which is just as much an antecedent. Bertrand Russell is someone who I have a lot of admiration for. He was not particularly sympathetic to these ideas, though not antipathetic to them either. He wrote quite interestingly about the humanistic conception of life and humans in education, in politics and so on, going back to Enlightenment traditions and early Romanticism. I gave the memorial lectures at Trinity College after Russell's death and they were partly about these topics.
Steffen: I want to ask about your career. You tell the story, in the documentary Manufacturing Consent, about having political arguments at the newsstand when you were growing up, but after that, you were at Harvard in the 50s. What was it like there?
Chomsky: First of all, the 1950s were a very quiescent period. There wasn't much activism going on. I had been very much involved in activism in the 40s, but it kind of quieted down in the 50s, and I was concentrating very much on academics, though not entirely. In fact, we actually went to live in a kibbutz in Israel and almost stayed there because I liked the collective. There were bits and pieces of antiwar activities I was part of, but there wasn't much. As things picked up again in the 60s, I just became more active. There became new options and possibilities.
Steffen: What was your cohort like at the time? The literary critics Paul de Man and Edward Said were both at Harvard around then.
Chomsky: Said was later. I knew de Man. He was a nice fellow. We were both in the Society of Fellows, and he was kind of an apolitical social democrat. So we agreed about a lot of things, but he was not an activist of any kind. There were a few scattered around—you'd be surprised at some of them. One friend of mine, who was pretty radical when I was at Harvard in the early 50s, we were both off-campus students, and you didn't have any television sets in those days, but there was a television set at Harvard in one house for off-campus students, and we used to go there in the afternoon and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings. We were cheering for McCarthy and everybody else was against McCarthy. We weren't cheering for McCarthy because we liked him—he was an obvious thug—but because he was being shafted. For one thing, he wasn't responsible for what was called McCarthyism; it came out of the liberal Democrats but he carried it to an extreme, and they let him get away with it as long as he was attacking people who couldn't defend themselves. When he tried to go after somebody who was too big, a bigger thug than he was, then they crushed him. And that's what the Army-McCarthy hearings were, and we didn't like to see a little thug being crushed by a big thug. That was my cohort then, and we were pretty radical, but it was isolated, just scattered people.
The change in the country in the last 40 years has been phenomenal. It was a very quiescent—I mean, there was a big labor movement at that time, and it had won major rights, which is why there was a sort of social democratic structure developing in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but by the 1950s it had become, especially in places like Cambridge, very quiet. So much so that if you read the published literature at the end of the 50s, it's all about how it was the end of ideology—all problems have been solved, we know exactly how to run a society, the economist Paul Samuelson and others saying, "it's all understood, you can have a constant three percent growth rate even if you're asleep, and with a little bit of tinkering you can get three and a half percent." Daniel Bell was writing End of Ideology—no more controversies, just technocratic manipulation; John Kenneth Galbraith's proposals about a technocratic elite who run things and basically understand things, and problems like affluence and poverty we can tinker with. No serious issues were seen, but there were plenty of them. For example, there was plenty of aggression and violence in the 50s, but very little reaction to it. In fact, most people wouldn't even know until later, as the civil rights movement began to take off, the antiwar movement, later on the women's movement, the environmental movement. Now, the country is a far more civilized place than it was in the 1950s.
Steffen: How do you mean?
Chomsky: Things that are taken for granted today were considered incredibly controversial then. Just take a walk down the halls of MIT, and it'll be the same at Carnegie Mellon. If you'd walked down those same halls in 1960, you'd have seen well-dressed white males, deferential to authority, maybe a tiny scattering of women, tiny scattering of minorities, accepting every ideological constraint you can think of, in fact accepting them to such an extent that to this day almost nobody is aware that John F. Kennedy attacked South Vietnam in 1962 and initiated a major aggression, was carrying out a major terrorist war against Cuba, and was initiating programs that led to an incredible plague of terror around Latin America. A couple of us knew it but nobody cared any more than they cared about the nature of their society. You take a walk down the halls today and it's totally different—half women, a third minorities, informal dress, casual relations, political meetings all over the place, concerns that weren't even on the radar screen at that time. That's more civilization.
Steffen: There are some calls now from people like Walter Benn Michaels for a return to ideology and more extremism. Do you think that's a way to go to avoid becoming quiescent again?
Chomsky: What's extremism? It seems to me that the mainstream ideology of this country is very extremist. Take, say, this comedy with Hugo Chavez at the United Nations. He was bitterly condemned for his controversial and extremist views, but are they really controversial and extremist? If they're controversial and extremist, how come he was getting prolonged applause at the General Assembly, whereas George Bush wasn't? So who's extremist? If you look at what's being said, we're the ones who are extremist. Not the people, but the political leadership certainly is. If you look at US public opinion and US public policy, you find an enormous gap. In fact, I find myself pretty much in tune with public opinion on many important issues, and very much opposed to policy. So who's extremist?