The Ideas of Chomsky (1977)
Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology transformed the nature of linguistics before he was 40. In this program …
Noam Chomsky has made two international reputations
in unrelated, or apparently unrelated, fields.
The widest is as one of the national leaders
of American resistance to the Vietnam War.
The deepest is as a professor of linguistics
who, before he was 40 years old, had transformed
the nature of his subject. He's something
of a joker in the pack as far as philosophy
is concerned. Many professional philosophers
would insist, quite sincerely, that he isn't
a philosopher at all. That linguistics is
simply a different discipline, albeit a neighboring
one. Well I'm not going to argue about that.
It's little more than a question of definition
anyway. The fact is, he was trained as a philosopher.
His work has enormous implications for philosophy.
And in the writings of philosophers today,
I should say his name probably occurs as often
as that of any living person.
The central point, really, is this– if one
problem, more than another, has dominated
much of 20th century philosophy it's that
of the relationship between the language of
the world. Wittgenstein, to give no more than
a single instance, wasn't enthralled to this
problem throughout his life. Well now, along
comes the linguist Chomsky and argues but
the way we actually acquire the use of language,
and therefore its relationship to experience,
and therefore its relationship to the world,
are radically different from the Anglo-Saxon
tradition in philosophy has always maintained.
He first put his ideas forward in the late
1950s as part of a critique of behavioral
psychology. It's not too unfair to say that
the behavioral psychologists had tended to
talk as if the human individual came into
the world as a differentiated lump of malleable
stuff which was then molded and shaped by
its environment through processes of stimulus
and response, they said, penalty and reward,
the reinforcement of rewarding responses,
and the association of ideas the individual
developed and learned, including the learning
of language. Now Chomsky argued this could
not possibly explain how virtually all human
beings, regardless of their intelligence,
do something as fantastically difficult as
master the use of a language even when they're
not deliberately taught it, as most people
probably aren't. And they do this at such
an extraordinarily young age and in such an
extraordinarily short space of time. He argued
that for this to happen the at all we must
be genetically preprogrammed do it. And therefore
that all human languages must have in common
a basic structure that corresponds to this
Now, this also has some very important negative
implications. The chief of these is there
anything that can't be accommodated to the
structure, anything, so to speak, that can't
be caught in the mesh of this particular network,
is linguistically inexpressible and unintelligible
to us. So the general principles common to
all languages set vital limits to our capacity
to understand the world and communicate with
each other. Put like that, it sounds like
a translation into linguistic terms of some
of the basic ideas of the Immanuel Kant, and
I must say that's always how it's looked to
me. But even if so, it's Chomsky who's carried
out and no one else. And it's proved an enormously
stimulating and fruitful thing to do.
Now Professor Chomsky, one of the difficulties
about discussing your ideas is that in an
obvious sense they're hybrid. In part, they're
linguistics, in part they're philosophy. And
in part, they're biology. And in fact, you
yourself first put them forward in what was
really a dispute with biologists, with behavioral
psychologists. How did you come to start at
that starting point.
Well the reason was that this picture of the
nature of language, and the way in which language
was acquired, was of such enormous prevalence
over quite a wide spectrum of thought including
not simply psychology but philosophy and linguistics
as well. The view that was dominant, say,
at the time when I was a student– 25, 30
years ago, the dominant picture of language
was that it is essentially a system of habits,
or skills, or dispositions to act, and that
is acquired through extensive training, overtraining,
through repetition, perhaps through procedures
of induction, or generalization, or association.
And that one's knowledge– the system of habits
that one develops simply grows through accretion,
incrementally, as experience is subjected
to these processes of generalization and analogy.
And, in fact this picture, which plainly is
a factual assumption, was presented as if
it were virtually an a priori truth which
it certainly is not. I mean, it's obviously
not necessary that language is a system of
that sort or that it's required in anything
like that way.
One thing that you pointed out, which is in
fact very obvious once it's pointed out, is
that most people probably aren't actually
taught language at all. That is to say that
most parents don't give any systematic instruction
of any kind to their children. Yet the children
Well I would want to even go beyond that.
I think it's certainly the case the language
is, in only the most marginal sense, taught
and the teaching is in no sense essential
to the acquisition of language. But in a certain
sense, I think we might even go on to say
that language isn't even learned– at least
if by learning, we mean any process that has
those characteristics that are generally associated
with learning. For example, the characteristics
that I mentioned.
It seems to me that if want a reasonable metaphor,
we should talk about growth. Language seems
to me to grow in the mind. Rather in the way
that familiar physical systems of the body
grow. We begin our interchange with the world
with our mind in a certain genetically determined
state. And through an interaction with experience
with an environment this state changes until
it reaches a mature state which we call a
state of knowledge of language.
This sequence of changes, from the genetically-determined
initial state to the final state in which
we really have a quite complex system of mental
computations, this series of changes seems
to me very much analogous to growth of organs.
And in fact, I think it's not inappropriate
regard the mind as a system of mental organs,
the language faculty being one, each of a
structure determined by our biological endowment,
with interactions also generally determined
by the nature of our biological endowment,
growing through the triggering of active experience
which shapes and articulate the organs as
they develop an individual through the relevant
period of his life. So, as I said, it seems
to me the that not only is it wrong to think
of language is being taught but it's at least
very misleading to think of it as being learned.
If we carry with the notion of learning the
associations that generally go along with
In other words, we are preprogrammed to learn
a language in the same as we're preprogrammed
to grow arms and legs, and reach puberty in
our early teens, and all sorts of other sometimes
delayed processes of growth.
Yes and reaching puberty is a good example,
since that's a case of biological development,
of ontogenetic development that's plainly
preprogrammed, in its essence, that takes
place after birth. And in fact we might say
that something– that even death, for that
matter, is genetically determined. That is,
we are biologically constructed so that, at
a certain time, our life processes stop. And
in fact, the fact that some development takes
place after the organism has begun an independent
existence in the world tells us nothing about
whether it's a genetically-determined development
Now one thing that follows from your view
is that if we set out, as you have done in
the course of your professional life, to investigate
the language faculty of human beings then
what you are investigating is as much a bio-physical
system– I mean, something that actually exists
in matter, in stuff, in human tissue as would
be the case if you were investigating human
vision, or human digestion, or the circulation
of the blood.
Well I think that's certainly true. At least
we believe to be true in principle. We are
not at a stage, now, in the study of the neural
basis for higher cognitive processes where
it's possible to identify the physical structures
that are involved in these operations. Correspondingly,
the actual study of this organ remains at
an abstract level. That is, we can try to
investigate principles by which it functions,
but there's very little to say right now about
the ways in which these principles are physically
realized in the structures of the brain.
Quite correspondingly, one might study the
visual system, let say, as was done for very
long period, knowing, say, nothing about how
the principles that we are led to attribute
to the system, the, let's say, analyzing mechanisms
that we are led to attribute to the system,
knowing nothing about how these maybe physically
realized in our neural structures. And I think
it's quite appropriate to think of the contemporary
study of language as being analogous to a
study of a vision at a period when it's remained
impossible, technically or through the limitations
of understanding, technique and so on, it
was impossible to determine the actual physical
elements that entered into these systems which
could be studied only in an abstract fashion.
There seems to be a special difficulty here.
I mean, we accept the fact that I can't by
introspection however hard I try, observe
the workings of my own liver. I can't observe
it in the act of secreting bile or whatever
it does. And similarly, presumably, I can't
observe these language formation faculties
of mine at work. But nevertheless, there's
an important difference because if we want
to investigate the workings of the liver we
can observe other people's. I mean, you can–
bits of live people's all the whole of dead
people's or animals' livers because you can
experiment with different inputs, and see
what difference they make to the output and
so on and so forth. But we can't do that with
animals as far as the language-using faculty
is concerned because they haven't got language-using
faculties. Now doesn't that shut off from
us what is, in fact, the chief mode of investigation
with all the other biological faculties the
It does, very definitely, stop a very natural
mode of investigation. That is we are not,
for ethical reasons, we do not conduct intrusive
experiments with human beings. So, for example,
there are very natural modes of investigations
that suggest themselves at once.
Suppose, for example, I propose that language
has some general property, and that every
human language must have this properties matter
of biological necessity. If we were dealing
with a defenseless organism that we were allowed
to study, say, the way we study monkeys or
cats, what we would do is employ the method
of uncommon variation. That is that we would
design an artificial environment, let's say,
in which these principle was violated and
ask whether the system develops in a normal
way under those conditions, to take one case.
Well that we can't do in the case of humans.
We can't design artificial, contrived environments
and see what happens to an infant in them
just as we don't conduct [INAUDIBLE] experiments
with humans. And it's important to recognize
that this limitation imposes raises no philosophical
issue. What it means is that we have to be
clever in the kind of work we do because a
number of modes of inquiry are simply excluded.
There being, as far as we know, nothing analogous
to the language faculty in the case of other
But that doesn't mean that we can't study
the problem. We have to study more indirectly.
We often can't directly move to the experiments
that would give us clear and precise answers
to questions that we raise. But if you think
about model that I put forth, that is, the
model of an organ beginning in a genetically-determined
initial state and growing to a mature state
of knowledge then it's obvious that mature
state of knowledge will be determined by two
factors. One the initial genetic endowment,
and secondly, the impinging experience.
So as far as the final state of knowledge
is concerned– what's called the grammar of
the language, the system of rules and principles
that determine what is a sentence and what
it means and so on. That's, as far as that
system is concerned, we really can get tremendous
amounts of evidence. In fact, every utterance
that's produced is an experiment, if you like,
every reaction of a person to an utterance
is an experiment. So there's no shortage of
information concerning the mature state of
knowledge achieved. If we can then discern,
in the mature state of knowledge, principles
and properties which are in no way presented
in the experience that is available, it's
very possible to propose those as properties
attributable to the initial state.
The main thing I want to in this discussion,
Professor Chomsky, is go into the implications
of your work for philosophy. I don't want
to pursue you into the nature of the work
itself because that's highly technical, obviously.
And it's not really feasible to discuss it
in a television program of this kind. Let
us now, at it were, assume the truth of your
theories and start looking at the wider implications
of them. Because this, I'm sure, as what will
interest our audience most.
One consequence of your theories is that we
are, as human beings, very, very rigidly preprogrammed.
There are certain things we can understand,
certain things we can communicate, and anything
that falls outside that we simply can't. Is
That's certainly correct.
I mean, in a way, this is a rather alarming
doctrine. I mean it certainly contravenes
the way we want to feel about ourselves.
Well, that may be an immediate reaction, but
I think it's not the correct reaction. In
fact, while it's true that our genetic program
rigidly constrains us, I think the more important
point is that the existence of that rigid
constraint is what provides the basis for
our freedom and creativity. And the reason–
What you mean, it's only because we are preprogrammed
that we can do all the things we can do.
Exactly, the point is that if we really were
plastic organisms without an extensive preprogramming,
then the state that our mind achieves would,
in fact, be a reflection of the environment,
which means it would be extraordinarily impoverished.
Fortunately for us, we are rigidly preprogrammed
with extremely rich systems that are part
of our biological endowment. Correspondingly,
only a small amount of rather degenerate experience
allows a kind of a great leap into a rich
cognitive system. Essentially uniform in a
community. And, in fact, roughly uniform for
Which would've developed over a countless
evolutionary ages. Through the biological–
Well, the basic system–
Right, the basic system itself developed over
long periods of evolutionary development.
We don't know how, really. But, for the individual,
it's present. As a result, the individual
is capable of– with a very small amount of
evidence– of constructing an extremely rich
system which allows him to act in the free
and creative fashion which, in fact, is normal
for humans. We can say anything that we want
to over an infinite range. Other people will
understand us though they've heard nothing
like that before. We're able to do that precisely
because of that rigid programming. Short of
that, we would not be able to at all.
What account are you able to give of creativity.
If we are preprogrammed in the way you say,
then how is creativity a possibility for us?
Well here, I think one has to be fairly careful.
I think we can say a good deal about the nature
of the system that is acquired, the state
of knowledge that is obtained. We can say
a fair amount about the biological basis,
the basis in the initial state of mind for
the acquisition of this system.
But when we turn to a third question, namely,
how is the system used? How are we able to
act creatively? How can we decide to say things
that are new but not random, that are appropriate
to occasions but not under the control of
stimuli? When we ask these questions we really
enter into a realm of mystery where human
science, at least so far, and maybe, in principle,
does not reach.
We can say a fair amount about the principles
that make it possible for us to behave in
our normal creative fashion. But as soon as
questions of will, or decision, or reason,
or choice of action– when those questions
arise human science is at a loss. It has nothing
to say about them. As far as I can see, these
questions remain in the obscurity in which
they were in classical antiquity.
Would you also accept this or not– that,
having arrived at our present situation across
millions of years of evolution, we must have
been going through a continual process of
innovation, and new adaption, and development
of new abilities, dispositions, organs, et
cetera. Might we not still be, as it were,
plastic at the edges. Might we not still be
and changing– genuinely evolving if only
on the margin.
Well, I think one has to be, again, very cautious
here. Because while it's true, in a very vague
sense, to say– it's correct to say that the
systems that we now have have developed through
evolution, through natural selection, it's
important to recognize how little we are saying
when we say that. For example, it is certainly
not necessarily the case that every particular
that we trait we have is the result of specific
selection. That is, that we were selected
for having that trait. In fact, there are
striking examples to the contrary, or, at
least apparent examples to the contrary.
Say, take, for example, our capacity to deal
with abstract properties of the number system.
Now that's a distinctive human capacity–
as distinctive as the capacity for language.
Any normal human, in fact down to pathological
levels, can comprehend the properties of number
system and can move very far in understanding
their deep properties. But it's extremely
difficult to believe that this capacity was
the result of specific selection. That is,
it's hard to believe that people who are a
little better at proving theorems of number
theory had more children, let's say. That
didn't happen. In fact, through most of human
evolution– in fact, essentially all of human
evolution– it would've been impossible to
know that this capacity even existed. The
contingencies that allowed it to be exercised
Nevertheless, the trait is there. The capacity
is there. The mental organ, if you like, has
developed. Presumably it has developed as
a concomitant of some other properties of
the brain which may have been selected.
For example, we can speculate, say, that increase
in brain size was a factor in differential
reproduction, hence in evolution. And it may
be that, because of physical laws that we
presently we don't know, that an increase
in brain size under the specific conditions
of human evolution simply leads, necessarily,
to a system which has the capacity to deal
with properties of the number system. Well
then, that's a matter physics, ultimately.
And then, the mind that evolves, the brain
that evolves will have this capacity. But
not because it was achieved through selection.
Now, I think it's at least likely that something
of this sort is true of human language. I
mean, surely, if it were dysfunctional it
wouldn't have been maintained. It's obviously
functional. But it's a long leap to claim
that the specific structures of language are
themselves the result of specific selection,
and it's a leap that I don't think is particularly
What you say, though, about the limitations
that this imposes on us prompts, in me, the
following thought. We are all very used, I
think, to the idea that in social life each
one of us, as individuals, tends to construct
a picture of the world around his own experience.
And indeed, it's difficult to see how we could
do anything else. We're bound to do that.
We've got no alternative.
But it does mean that each one of us forms
a systematically distorted view of the world
because it's in it because it's all built
up on what accidentally happens to be the
particular, and really rather narrow, experience
of the individual who does it. Now, do you
think that's something of that kind applies
to man as a whole because of the reasons implicit
in your theory? That is to say, that's the
whole picture that mankind has formed of the
cosmos, of the universe, of the world must
be systematically distorted, and what's more,
drastically limited by the nature of the particular
apparatus for understanding that he happens
Well, I think that is undoubtedly the case.
But again, I would question the use of the
word limited which carries unfortunate suggestions.
That is, I assume it one of our faculties,
one of our mental organs, if you like, is,
let's call it a science-forming capacity,
a capacity to create intelligible, explanatory
theories in some domain. And if we look at
the history of science, we discover that,
time after time, when particular questions
were posed at a particular level of understanding
it was possible to make very innovative leaps
of the imagination to rich explanatory theories
that I presented an intelligible picture of
that sub-domain of the universe– often wrong
theories, as we later discovered, but there's
a course that's follow.
And this could have been the case only because
we do have, and we in fact share across the
species, a kind of a science-forming capacity
that limits us, as you say, but, by the same
token, provides the possibility of creating
explanatory theories that extend so vastly
far beyond any evidence that's available.
I mean, it's very important to realize that–
it should be obvious, say– but it's worth
saying that when a new theory is created–
and I don't necessarily mean Newton, I mean
even a small theory– what the scientist is
typically doing– first of all, he has very
limited evidence, the theory goes far, far
beyond the evidence. Secondly, much of the
evidence that's available is typically disregarded.
That is, it's put to the side in the hope
somebody else will take care of it some day,
and we can forget about it.
So at every stage in the history of science
there's, even normal science, not Kuhnian
revolutions, there is a high degree of idealization
that goes on. So there's selection of evidence,
distortion of evidence, creation of new theory,
confirmation, or refutation, or modification
of that theory, further idealization. These
are all very curious steps. And we're capable
of, nevertheless, we can often make them and
make them in a way which is intelligible to
others. It doesn't look like some random act
of the imagination. And where that's possible,
we can develop intelligible theories. We can
gain some comprehension of the nature of this
aspect of the world.
Now this is possible only because we are rigidly
preprogrammed, again. Because we have, somehow,
developed, through evolution or however, the
specific faculty of forming very particular
theories. Of course, it follows a once or
at least it's reasonable to assume that this
very faculty which enables us to construct
extremely rich and successful theories in
some domain may lead has very far astray in
some other domain.
For example, a martian scientist looking at
us and observing our successes and errors
from a higher intelligence, let's say, might
be bemused to discover that, whereas in some
domains we seem to be able to make scientific
progress, in other domains we always seem
to be running up against a blank wall because
our minds are so constructed that we just
can't make the intellectually leap that's
required. We can't formulate the concepts.
We don't have the categories that are required
to gain insight into that domain.
Do you think if our study of our language-forming
capacity and, hence, our cognitive capacities,
as you call them– our abilities to know,
and understand, and learn– if these studies
that you're pioneering result in an enormous
amount of increased knowledgeable of all these
human faculties, do you think it's at all
likely that that increased knowledge will
enable us to change, and indeed expand, the
That, I think, is extremely unlikely because
I think the faculties or a biological given.
We may study the structure of the heart, but
we don't do so because we think it's possible
to replace the heart but another kind of pump,
let's say, which might be more efficient.
Similarly here, I think, if we ever did gain
a real comprehension of the mental organs
that might help us in cases of pathology,
marginal cases, in other words, but I wouldn't
see how that could give any way at least with
out present science, or plausible science,
of modifying these capacities.
What we might do, however, is gain– I mean,
at least it's, in theory, imaginable that
we might discover something about the limits
of our science-forming abilities. We might
discover, for example, that some kinds of
questions simply fall beyond the area where
we are capable of constructing explanatory
theories. And I think we even, maybe, now
have some glimmerings of insight into where
this delineation might be between intelligible
theories that fall within our comprehension
and areas where no such theory is possible.
Well, the case that we discussed before may
be one. Take the question of– well if you
go back to the early history of science, early
origins of science, speculation. And people
were raising questions about the heavenly
bodies and about the sources of human action.
Well, we're asking exactly the same questions
now about the sources of human action. There's
been no progress we have no idea how to approach
this question within the framework of science.
We can write novels about it, but we can't
construct even false scientific theories it.
We simply have nothing to say when we ask
the question how does a person make a decision
in a certain manner, and not some other matter,
when it's a free decision. We just have no
way of dealing with that issue. On the other
hand, the history of physics, let's say, has
had substantial advances. And it's very likely,
I think, that that massive difference in progress
in one domain and an absolute blank wall in
another reflects the specific properties of
our science-forming capacities. We might even
be able to show that someday, if it's true.
So far, we've been rather talking in this
discussion as if all organized thinking is
done in language. But, of course, that in
fact isn't so, is it. I mean, one can take
all kinds of examples. Music is one that appeals
to me very much. If you get a composer like
Stravinsky composing a fantastically complicated,
and original, and indeed revolutionary score,
like that of the Rite of Spring, for an enormous
orchestra, then he's cerebrating at an original,
and complicated, and very sophisticated level.
And he's probably cerebrating in as elaborate
a way as anybody else is who's doing anything.
And what's more, he's creating a structure
which is publicly articulated and so on. And
yet words don't come into this process at
any point, as far as one can gather. Does
that fact, and other facts like it, pose any
threat to your theories?
Well, not really, in fact, quite the contrary.
My assumption is that the mind is not a uniform
system. That it's a highly differentiated
system, in fact, like the body, it's essentially
a system of faculties or organs, and language
is simply one of them. We don't have to go
to the level of Stravinsky to find examples
of thinking without language. I'm sure that
everyone who introspects, who thinks about
what he himself is doing will know, at once,
that much of his thinking does not involve
language. Or, say, well the thinking of a
cat, let's say, plainly doesn't involve language.
There are other modes of thought. There are
other faculties, and I think that the musical
faculty is one. One which is particularly
interesting, I think, because it's extremely
likely– in fact, here's an area, in a sense
like physics, that is, where very rapid and
rich development took place in a way which
was over a long period of, say, Western history
in a way which was very intelligible to others.
I mean, not immediately, but after a short
period. And strikingly– well there is a striking
feature of the 20th century in this respect
that is that the musical creation of the 20th
century, I think, is qualitatively different
from that of the 18th century in that it lacks
that immediate access, or short-term access,
that was true of the past.
One would have to do an experiment to prove
it, but I have no doubt that if we took two
children of today, two groups, and taught
one of them, say, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven,
and taught the other one Schoenberg and post-Schoenbergian
music that there would be a very substantial
difference in their capacity to comprehend
it and deal with it. And that may reflect,
in fact, if that's correct, it would reflect
something about our innate musical capacities.
Points of this nature have been discussed
for some time. I remember Paul Hindemith,
about 25 years ago, I think, in lectures argued
that to violate the tonal principle in music
would be something like an effort to violate
the principle of gravitation. I take it he
meant by that that it was an innate– we might
say, an innate property.
I don't want to pursue the musical analogy
to far because I was using that, really, only
as an illustration. What it illustrates is
the fact that you think we are preprogrammed,
in fact, to a whole lot of things. I mean,
no doubt to use gesture, or recognize faces–
— or develop a common-sense view of the world,
and so on.
Well, every area of human existence that's
even worth studying is worth studying because
rich and complex structures are developed
in uniform way. Otherwise it's not worth studying.
And those are precisely the cases where we
expect to discover preprogramming that makes
possible these great achievements.
So, in other words, you think that everything
that we do makes manifest our preprogramming–
games, institutions, the way we dress, the
way we eat, everything. Well here, again,
I think some caution is necessary. For example,
take games. I'm speculating, obviously, but
it seems to be reasonable to suppose that
games are designed so as to be, in a sense,
at the outer limits of our cognitive capacities.
We don't make up games in which we are as
skilled as we are using words, let's say.
That wouldn't be an interesting game. Everybody
can do too much. What we do– we make up games
like chess, which is an extraordinarily simple
game, that is, its rule system is utterly
trivial. But nevertheless, we're just not
very good at it. In the case of using language,
we're all extraordinarily good and we're essentially
undifferentiable, one from another. But when
we get to something like chess which, I assume,
is at the borders of our cognitive capacity,
then individuals of very similar intellectual
makeup will nevertheless diverge very significantly
in their ability to deal with these exotic
problems. That's what makes it an interesting
And in fact, I think there are also tasks
that can be constructed that are really outside
our cognitive capacities. And, in fact, I
think there's even a field that's devoted
to the developing such tasks. It's called
psychology. Much of modern psychology has
been concerned to discover tasks which would
yield species-uniform laws, that is laws that
essentially hold across a number of species,
or to construct good experiments, that is,
experiments that have slow learning curves
with regular increments, and so on, and so
And there are such tasks, say maze-running,
in which rats are about as good as humans,
and both are quite terrible. And these, I
think, are, in fact precisely, tasks that
lie outside of our cognitive capacity. So
we do proceed by trial and error, by induction,
and so on.
But centrally, your whole approach represents
a rejection of the empirical tradition in
philosophy, doesn't it? Because the very fact
that you think that the empiricists are wrong
about how we learn, must mean that they're
wrong about knowledge and the nature of knowledge.
And the nature of knowledge has being the
central problem in whole empirical tradition
Well, the classical empiricist tradition,
which, I think, was the tradition that's represented,
let's say, perhaps in its highest form by
Hume, seems to me to be a tradition of extreme
importance. In that a particular theory of
the origins of knowledge, in fact, of the
science of human nature, in Hume's phrase,
was put forth. An empirical theory, and, I
think, Hume, for example, would've regarded
it as an empirical theory– did regard it.
When we investigate it, I think, we discover
that it's just completely false. That is,
that the mechanisms that he discussed are
not the mechanisms by which the mind reaches
states of knowledge. That the states of knowledge
attained are radically different than the
kinds that he discussed. For example, for
Hume, the mind was, in his image, a kind of
a theater in which ideas paraded across the
stage. And it therefore followed, necessarily,
that we could introspect completely into the
contents of our mind. If an idea is not on
the stage, it's not in my mind. And the ideas
maybe connected, and associated. And in fact,
he went on to say there isn't even any theatre,
there's just the ideas. In that respect, the
image of is misleading.
Well, that's a theory. And, in fact, it's
a theory that has had an enormous group on
the imagination throughout most of, to my
knowledge, most of the history of Western
thought. For example, that same image dominates
the rationalist tradition as well, where it
was assumed that one could exhaust the contents
of the mind by careful attention. You know,
you could really develop those clear and distinct
ideas, and their consequences, and so on.
And in fact, even if you move to someone,
let's say, like Freud, with his evocation
of the unconscious, still I think that a careful
reading suggests that he regarded the unconscious
as, in principle, accessible. That is, we
could really perceive that theater, and stage,
and the things on it carefully if only the
barriers of repression and so on could be
overcome. Well if what I've been suggesting
is correct, that's just radically wrong, I
mean, even wrong as a point of departure.
There's no reason all that I can see for believing
that the principles of metal computation that
enter so intimately into our action or our
interaction or our speech– to believe that
those principles are all accessible to introspection
anymore than the analyzing mechanisms of our
visual system, or, for that matter, the nature
of liver is accessible to introspection.
It seems to me that over and over again you
come back to the same point. That is to say
that many of the particular problems discussed
and theories put forward by philosophers,
in the main, but also psychologists, and you've
just mentioned Freud, and in your writings
you mention many others, are in fact theories
about physical processes. They are therefore
open to checking by investigation. And when
you check by investigation, you find out that
the theories are wrong. And therefore you
are, as it were, radically subversive of lot
of a very well-established theories in our
tradition. It seems to me that what you put
forward in this place, over and over again,
in fact does parallel the rationalist tradition.
I said in my introduction to this program
that's what I'm always reminded of by your
work is the theories of Kant. You seem to
me to be almost re-doing, in terms of modern
linguistics, what Kant was doing. Do you accept
any truth in that?
Well I not only accept truth in it, but I've
tried to bring it out in a certain way. However,
I haven't, myself, specifically referred to
Kant but rather, primarily, to the 17th century
tradition of the Continental Cartesians and
the British neo-Platonists, who developed
many of the ideas that are now much more familiar
in the writings of Kant. For example, the
idea of experience conforming to our mode
of cognition or the– well, particularly in
the British Platonists, Cudworth, for example,
there, I believe, is a rich mine of insight
into the organizing principles of the mind
by which experience is structured. In fact,
I think that's some of the richest sources
of psychological insights that I know.
And it's this tradition that, I think, can
be fleshed out and make more explicit by the
kinds of empirical inquiry that are now possible.
Of course, I think we also have to diverge
from that tradition in a number of respects.
I've mentioned one, namely the belief that
the contents of the mind are open to introspection.
Similarly, there's certainly no reason to
accept the metaphysics of that tradition.
To believe that there's a dualism of mind
and body. I mean, you can see why the Cartesians
were led to that. It was a rational move on
their part. But it's not a move that we have
follow. We have other ways of approaching
Another thing that I mentioned in my introduction
was the fact that you made two international
reputations. The other one, besides linguistics,
being as a political activist. And it does
seem to me that there's a connection between
these two careers of your. And I want to put
this to you in the form of a question. Liberalism
grew up, in the history of European thought,
in very close relationship to empirical philosophy
and scientific method.
The battle cry, really, in all three was–
don't accept anything on the say-so of established
authority. Look at the facts, and judge for
yourself. And this was revolutionary in politics,
science, and philosophy. And because of this,
liberalism has always been regarded, in the
Western tradition, as the main anti-authoritarian
political creed. But just as you've rejected
empiricism, you've also rejected liberalism.
And you now say in your writings that, whatever
may have been true in the past, liberalism
has now become the ally of authority. Would
you accept that there is this underlying connection
between your work in linguistics and, to put
it dramatically, your opposition to the Vietnam
Well, this raises quite a welter of questions.
Let me begin by saying something about liberalism,
which is a very complicated concept, I think.
It's correct, surely, that liberalism grew
up in the intellectual environment of empiricism,
and the rejection of authority, and trust
in the evidence of the sciences, and so on.
However, liberalism has undergone a very complex
evolution as a social philosophy over the
If we go back to me classics, or at least,
what I regard as the classics, say, for example,
Humboldt's limits of state action which inspired
Mill and is a true libertarian, liberal classic,
if you'd like. The world that Humboldt was
considering, which was partially an imaginary
world, but the world for which he was developing
this political philosophy was a post-feudal
but pre-capitalist world. That is, it was
a world in which there was no great divergence
among individuals in the kind of power that
they have, and what they command, let's say.
But there was a tremendous disparity between
individuals, on one hand, and the state on
the other. Consequently, it was the task of
a liberalism that was concerned with human
rights, and the quality of individuals, and
so on– it was the task of liberalism to dissolve
the enormous power of state, which was such
an authoritarian threat to individual liberties.
And from that, you develop a classical liberal
theory in, say, Humboldt's or Mill's sense.
Well, of course, that is pre-capitalist. He
couldn't conceive of an era in which a corporation
would be regarded as an individual, let's
say. Or in which enormous disparities in control
over resources and production would distinguish
between individuals in a massive fashion.
Now, in that kind of society, to take the
Humboldtian view is a very superficial liberalism.
Because while opposition to state power in
an era of such divergence conforms to Humboldt's
conclusions, it doesn't do so for his reasons.
That is, his reasons lead to very different
conclusions in that case namely, I think,
his reasons lead to the conclusion that we
must dissolve the authoritarian control over
production resources which leads to such divergence
as among individuals. In fact, I think, one
might draw a direct line between classical
liberalism and a kind of libertarian socialism
which, I think, can be regarded as a kind
of adapting of the basic reasoning of classical
liberalism to a very different social era.
Now if we come to the modern period, here
liberalism has taken on a very strange sense,
if you think of its history. Now liberalism
is essentially the theory of state capitalism.
Of state intervention in a capitalist economy.
Well, there's very little relation to classical
liberalism. In fact, classical liberalism
is what's now called conservatism, I suppose.
But this new view, I think, really is, in
my view at least, a highly authoritarian position.
That is, it's one which accepts a number of
centers of authority and control– the state
on one hand, agglomerations of private power
on the other hand, all interacting with individuals
as malleable cogs in this highly constrained
machine, which may be called democratic. But
given the actual distribution of powers, very
far from being meaningfully democratic and
cannot be so.
So my own feeling has always been that to
achieve the classical liberal ideals– for
the reasons that led to them being put forth–
in a society so different, we must be led
in a very different direction. It's superficial
and erroneous to accept the conclusions which
were reached for different society and not
to consider the reasoning that led to those
conclusions. The reasoning, I think, is very
substantial. I'm a classical liberal in this
sense. But I think it leads me to be kind
of an anarchist, an anarchist socialist.
Well I'd love to pursue you down that road,
Professor Chomsky, but that would be a new
discussion, and a new program. So I think
we just, alas, end there. Thank you very much.