Image by Andrew Rusk
Noam Chomsky is perhaps the most famous (or infamous) academic who is also a prominent public intellectual. Chomsky is known first and foremost for his decades of activism on the political left: opposing American imperialism, advocating for egalitarian and democratic social policies and engaging in feuds with prominent right-wing intellectuals. Now in his 90s, Chomsky continues to pursue a dizzyingly busy schedule focusing on political activism, including an interview with yours truly, which will be livestreamed on 16 April. Love him or hate him, Chomsky’s energy is impressive.
Sadly, the general public is far less versed in the academic work that originally made Chomsky’s name. In 1957, Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, which transformed the field of linguistics and has been widely influential in philosophy, psychology, computer science and many other fields. The book was controversial because it challenged the then dominant empirical approach to language, and rejuvenated Cartesian–Kantian rationalism as an approach to linguistics and the mind. Many of the technical details of Chomsky’s program have changed over the decades, both in response to criticism and as the result of experiments and research. However, his position has remained remarkably consistent. It is part of a broader theory of human nature that carries forward the Enlightenment legacy of describing human beings as fundamentally rational, creative individuals.
What Kind of Creatures Are We?
In brief, if we are biological organisms, not angels, much of what we seek to understand might lie beyond our cognitive limits—maybe a true understanding of anything as Galileo concluded, and Newton in a certain sense demonstrated. That cognitive reach has limits is not only a truism but also a fortunate one; if there were no limits to human intelligence, it would lack internal structure and would therefore have no scope: we could achieve nothing by inquiry … We might think of the natural sciences as a kind of chance convergence between our cognitive capacities and what is more or less true of the natural world. There is no reason to believe that humans can solve every problem they pose or even that they can formulate the right questions; they may simply lack the conceptual tools, just as rats cannot deal with a prime number maze.—Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We?
Chomsky’s innovation was to revive the broadly rationalist outlook on human nature that had been criticised by empiricists for decades. As Chomsky understands it, rationalism is an Enlightenment philosophy that holds that there is an inherent structure to the human mind, which shapes our experience of the empirical world. Philosopher–mathematician Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking, and so glean certainty about the nature of cognition through the application of pure reason to the products of human cognition. In the eighteenth century, Kant refined—and in some senses went beyond—this Cartesian outlook to argue that we can obtain a degree of certainty about empirical knowledge. His argument is complex, but, put simply, he argues that the universal structure of each human mind perceives the empirical world in more or less the same way. All human beings see the world in terms of space and time: compared to this fundamental philosophical truth, the cultural distinctions between us—though vast from an anthropological standpoint—pale in significance. Since each human mind perceives the empirical world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, Kant argues, this boon comes at a price. While we can have empirical knowledge of the world, since each of our minds is structured and perceives reality in the same way, this does not mean that a human being can know reality “in and of itself.” All we ever apprehend is the appearance of the world in itself—which Kant calls the phenomenal world. It is possible that the world of actual things coincides with the phenomena we experience, but it is also possible that it does not. For Kant, this limitation is inherent to human nature and can never be fully overcome—at least not within the realm of pure reason.
Chomsky updates this position by giving it a linguistic spin. He contends that many empirical arguments for language acquisition view the human being as rather like John Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate). In this view, the human mind is initially empty and it can only learn something like a language through the experience of being taught. For figures like behaviourist B. F. Skinner, this position had a lot of appeal, since it depicted science as an exclusively empirical discipline. Any effort to talk about the internal structure of the mind, which was inaccessible to empirical study but shaped our experience of the world, seemed a regression to pre-scientific metaphysics. Chomsky contended that, if we accept the blank slate premise, it leads to the ridiculous conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. We each have a language faculty or even a linguistic organ, which develops in the brain and constitutes an inborn endowment, enabling us to learn and use a human language. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, which follow the same structural rules at a syntactic level. While the pragmatics of language use differ between cultures and peoples, the universal grammar underpinning this use follows the same rules.
As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other—a challenging task, since the pragmatics of language use vary significantly across cultures and history. But, Chomsky points out, this task is less challenging than one might expect since human beings perceive the world in very similar ways, and their languages share the same a priori structure. Consider a scenario like the one in the film Arrival, in which extraterrestrials try to communicate with us. Chomsky says that alien beings may well have such a different language and perception of the world that any such effort would be exceptionally challenging or impossible. He sometimes compares this to the human efforts to understand quantum theory, which often confounds our common sense interpretation of the universe. If we were to encounter aliens, any communication with them that involved translating their languages into ours would probably involve the very slow, counterintuitive task of trying to reframe our understanding of the world through abstraction and imagination. This brings us to the downside of Chomsky’s account of human nature: the limitations of our language may indicate deeper limitations to our ability to understand the world. Since our mind is fundamentally structured to speak about the world in a certain way, it may be next to impossible to frame certain fundamental questions about reality that go beyond what we human beings are programmed to think and talk about. It may be that we simply haven’t formulated the right questions yet, but it may also be that such questions will forever be denied to us as limited biological entities.
Chomsky on Creativity
However, the limitations imposed upon us also enable us to make gains and be creative. If our minds had no in-built structural limitations, we would be unable to communicate with one another and ask the kinds of questions that are relevant to our species. The fact that our use of words is rule governed allows us to establish the conditions necessary for us to understand one another. It also enables us to establish other forms of rule-governed activity—including activities that stretch the limits of human cognitive capacity—which allow us to express our creativity and challenge ourselves. Take chess. In his book Reflections on Language, Chomsky argues that creativity and intelligence in chess are dependent on following the rules of the game rigorously. It is these rules that allow players to outthink one another in cunning and strategic ways. Someone who simply decided to break the rules in order to win would not be displaying any creativity or smarts:
Consider problems that lie at the borderline of cognitive capacity. These will provide opportunity for intriguing intellectual play. Chess, for example, is not so remote from cognitive capacity as to be merely a source of insoluble puzzle, but it is at the same time sufficiently beyond our natural abilities that it is challenging and intriguing. Here we would expect to find that the slight differences between individuals are magnified to striking divergence of aptitude. The study of challenging intellectual tasks might give some insight into human intelligence at the borders of cognitive capacity, just as the ability to run a four-minute mile may give useful information about human physiology.
The emphasis on creativity and cognitive capacity is important to Chomsky. He does not deny that some individuals are probably smarter than others, though, when positioned against the magnitude of potential problems we may be unable to solve, these differences can shrink substantially. But he has always been admirably willing to stress that each individual possesses an enormous capacity for creativity, which is undervalued by those who fixate on ranking human beings according to their cognitive differences. The most obvious example of such creativity is language use itself. Chomsky famously drew on developments in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mathematics, to pioneer a theory of linguistic novelty. Put simply, he claims that most sentences—with the exception of colloquialisms—written or expressed by human beings have never been said before. They are entirely new creations, generated by individuals who use the finite resources of their languages to create a potentially infinite number of new utterances. Invoking early linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, Chomsky describes language use as the “infinite use of finite means.” This is a remarkable cognitive achievement, especially when we consider that our interlocutors seem able to understand our novel sentences so easily that they rarely have to puzzle over their meanings.
Chomsky has always insisted that there are few connections between his philosophical and scientific work and his politics. However, he allows that there is a family resemblance between the two, since they both emphasize the creative potential of human beings, while criticizing those who would try to put a lid on human capacity by establishing social hierarchies that reduce billions of people’s capacity to use their creativity to attempt to resolve age-old problems and to promote human flourishing. For Chomsky, the only way to end this calamity and unleash the full potential of our species is to eliminate irrational hierarchies of power that only benefit some, and replace them with more democratic and equal systems, which make full use of everyone’s creative cognitive abilities. Far from regarding human nature as irrational and wicked, Chomsky has faith that a more just world of human flourishing is possible if we cease hypocritically exploiting others and cooperate in the service of the common good. In this respect, Chomsky is very much a descendent of the Enlightenment, many of whose luminaries also saw themselves as speaking truth to power on behalf of the human species.