Updated: November 3, 2009 09:49 IST

A perspective on Chomsky

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Chomsky has inspired millions with his incisive analyses of the abuse of power by the powerful.

Noam Chomsky has been called the world’s most important public intellectual, and Robert Barsky has written a very accessible book about him, a remarkable thinker and person. Chomsky has inspired millions around the world with his impassioned and incisive, yet meticulously sourced, analyses of the abuse of power by the powerful, generally — but not exclusively — those who act for and on behalf of the United States. There has been a price to pay. He has bee n all but obliterated from the corporate mainstream media in the U.S., but he has never wavered, even in the face of death threats. He draws huge audiences and is always accurate and civil in responding to often gross vilification.

As Chomsky is most widely known, probably, for his political writings and activities, it is easy to forget that his commitments are based on a form of anarchism derived from the work of mighty philosophers, particularly David Hume and Adam Smith; the latter, who greatly feared the unrestrained market, made a great impression on James Madison, who was deeply troubled about what the then-inchoate capitalism would do to the American constitution. He, however, combines classical liberalism with a particular reading of René Descartes, whose conclusion in the Meditations, sum res cogitans, provided certainty in the face of catastrophic doubt and was far removed from the embarrassment the spirit was to mechanists such as Newton, who to their dismay could not do without it.

On Chomsky’s reading of Descartes, human actions are coherent and appropriate but uncaused, and the faculty of language is innate and common to all human beings. Therefore law, authority, and power are legitimate only if they are created and limited by freely reasoning assent and nothing else.

That partly accounts for Chomsky’s respect for constitutionality and law, including international law, and his hatred of the abuse of power. It also means that constitutions and laws which do not meet these higher criteria for legitimacy must be resisted. Here Barsky, interestingly, also identifies elements in Chomsky which are derived from Aristotle, in particular a sense of politics as the development of phronesis or practical wisdom with the prerequisite of a broad equality of material condition.

Key elements

Barsky traces other key elements in Chomsky’s background, such as the thinking of Wilhelm von Humboldt, Rudolph Rocker, and Chomsky’s own tutor at the University of Pennsylvania, Zellig Harris, as well as Mikhail Bakunin, who greatly admired the Russian village traditions of solidarity and mutual aid. While specialist readers might want more on why Chomsky considers Humboldt, Rousseau and even Kant Cartesians, what emerges here is the range of possibilities in libertarian socialism, which has been all but destroyed by capitalism and Marxism-Leninism. For example, Chomsky’s interest in Spanish anarcho-socialism is in keeping with the way he himself teaches and responds to his interlocutors. Indefatigably attentive and responsive, he answers every question in detail, and says, with Bertrand Russell, that the goal of education is to elicit and fortify the creative impulse. Educational institutions therefore face a contradiction between inducing obedience and subordination and encouraging exploration and creativity. Chomsky, for his part, inspires engagement above all, in and through free argument and evidence. Unsurprisingly, even some rock groups are his followers.

Linguistic work

It would be impossible to discuss Chomsky without examining his revolutionary work in linguistics, and Barsky provides a remarkably clear account thereof. He graduated in philosophy and linguistics, and his first major published work, Syntactic Structures, appears to have had not one but two main effects. The first was in linguistics itself, though eminent researchers have since moved to other areas, such as lexical functional grammar. The second was in computer programming. Chomsky’s conception of the mind as a generator of a potentially infinite number of sentences from a finite, abstract, set of rules and a computational mechanism or process has proved invaluable in computer languages; transformational grammar and other features of Chomsky’s work are now compulsory in computation courses.

Barsky, whose precision and lightness of touch show his own depth of knowledge, then moves on to Chomsky’s relation to postmodernist literary criticism. His short exposition of postmodernism is exceptionally clear and provides an unusual perspective on Chomsky.

As to controversy, even one of the many in which Chomsky has been involved shows what his principled positions can require. Chomsky’s 1980 foreword to Robert Faurisson’s Holocaust-denying book led to his being attacked by major French intellectuals, but he resolutely defended Faurisson’s right to express himself. In this Chomsky has an equally illustrious predecessor; in 1819, Georg Hegel, despite his own detestation of the early Fascists, criticised those who praised Karl Sand for murdering the reactionary poet August von Kotzebue. Chomsky himself will continue to inspire, and Barsky has done his subject and his readers a notable service with this book.

THE CHOMSKY EFFECT — A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower: Robert F Barsky; Orient BlackSwan, 3-6-752 Himayatnagar, Hyderabad-500029. Rs. 495.

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