If Noam Chomsky’s linguistics are problematic, can his politics be far behind?
May 21, 2011 - 12:55 am
Far more importantly — and the point of my reconnaissance — is that the mind that is at work postulating a theory of generative grammar is the same mind that is busy expounding an ideological program of anti-capitalist, anti-American, and anti-Israeli doctrine, that excuses the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan and is sympathetic to totalitarian North Korea, that supports Latin American and Islamic autocrats, that can defend a mass murderer like Pol Pot, a Holocaust denier like Robert Faurisson, and a terrorist like Hassan Nasrallah, and that can argue that George Bush’s “crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.” And it can do so because it is not bound by the rules of testability.
Thus, Chomsky’s linguistic theories violate Karl Popper’s famous rule that a scientific proposition — or in the present instance, categorical statements pretending to be scientific propositions — must be susceptible to falsifiability. The genuine scientist or researcher accepts this axiom as incontestable, but Chomsky does not. He is always right. Similarly, Chomsky gives us a thematic system of political denunciation of his chosen black sheep, rooted tree-like in his private mental processes and passed off as structurally well-founded, but devoid of rules, and certainly of the inclination, for testing its validity.
True, sociopolitics is not psycholinguistics in so far as “experimentation” is clearly possible in the former. No matter. The upshot is the same. The experiment that would be required to justify his political assertions is either not conducted or its results are pre-cooked. Chomsky is guilty of a variant of that intellectual defect Aristotle in the Metaphysics called apaideusis, the failure “to distinguish between that which requires demonstration or proof and that which does not” — i.e., from Chomsky’s perspective.
This is, so to speak, the nature of Chomsky’s “mentalese,” which does not explain anything in the real world but merely describes what Chomsky is already convinced must be the case, as if, in Robert Wargas’s pungent simile, his depositions are “like pulling the lever on a rigged slot machine.” Cloning his psycholinguistic procedures, what is “explained” is not the social, political, and economic world but Chomsky’s own fabulations, his “bizarro-world, fun-house, mirror version of reality,” as John Hawkins puts it. In short, the explanation is nothing but a description. Admittedly, the description is powerful and is obviously capable of “generating” assent. Yet this does not make it anything more than a portrayal of an apparently systematic way of observing language or the world, a vast tautology devoid of verifiable evidence to substantiate its presumably objective claims.
As Zachary Hughes writes in CAMERA, “Chomsky has used the influence granted him as a prominent linguist to support militant organizations and murderous dictatorships…while implicating those he perpetually paints as the guilty parties — the United States and Israel.” In doing so, Chomsky diverts us with a richly colored map but without the slightest proof that it corresponds to anything in the topography of the real world. It corresponds only to the template in Chomsky’s head. His “philosophy” can be tersely summarized as ipse dixit.
I would suggest, then, that his dogmatic approach to psycholinguistics is mirrored both in his tendency to issue “authoritative” political proclamations and in his defense of dictatorial personalities and regimes. Like to like. In other words, the thought process that underlies his political books and lectures derives from his theoretical writing, and both from a consistent habit of mind. It’s the same old Chomsky.
Reputable linguists Paul Postal and Robert Levine, contributors to The Anti-Chomsky Reader, take the same view. “[T]he two strands of Chomsky’s work manifest exactly the same key properties,” including “a deep disregard of, and contempt for, the truth, a monumental disdain for standards of inquiry, a relentless strain of self-promotion,” and a penchant for abusing others. Chomsky is an absolutist in his analytical specialty and naturally gravitates towards absolutists in the geopolitical world. Truth is what he determines it to be. Contradictory facts are inadmissible in whatever court he sees himself as presiding over. Evidence either does not count or may be tampered with if it serves his purposes. As Randy Harris, oddly enough a great admirer of Chomsky, writes in a review of Robert Barsky’s hagiographic Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, “But there’s this problem. Noam Chomsky lies.”
In conclusion, it is only fair to admit that Chomsky is, in his own warped fashion, undeniably brilliant — it takes brains to invent a complex and reticulated discipline and mesmerize generations of scholars. But brilliance alone, though necessary, is not sufficient to create a truly viable and enduring account of reality; other qualities, such as honesty, humility, self-doubt, an eye for error, and a fastidious attention to the smallest details, are obligatory. That is why Freud and Marx are no longer considered as oracles, but Einstein is. Chomsky may be a “great wit,” but we recall those famous lines from John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel: “Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide.” Sadly, as often as not, the partitions come down and the “great wit” finds himself on the other side of the cognitive meridian. In Chomsky’s case, the diagnosis is inescapable. The man is seriously meshuggah.
Ultimately, there can be no rebutting that Chomsky, for all his weird, unanchored giftedness, is not only an intellectual tyrant; he is an intellectual charlatan, however compelling. He is, to go back to Hitchens, the Mother Teresa of the secular domain. And those who hang upon his words have sacrificed both their integrity and their understanding.