Noam Chomsky (1928- ), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Noam Chomsky (1928- ), A Perspective

Who was he? He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the son of a famous Hebrew scholar. There’s also a story that his father had a newspaper joint and he used to work with him. Well, if this were true, it didn’t stop his father from being a man with great knowledge of Hebrew language.

Chomsky is without doubt among the very well known philosophers of our time. His writings have been fundamental in the development of linguistics in the 20th century. It is said that he wrote more than 600 books. I have no idea about the number of his books now. I have a feeling he has written more than that. I recently saw him on T.V and he looked very old.

Another figure by the name of Ibn Arabi was a Spanish Muslim Arab (1126?-98), who was a Sufi (Muslim mystic) and a philosopher. Apparently he wrote about 1000 books of which more than 800 are left today.

Chomsky was a professor at MIT. I believe he is retired now. However, his writings in the field of language carry on from a very distinct controversial philosophical viewpoint with a long heritage. He is also very famous for his social and political commentaries, which somewhat are influenced by the same philosophical assumptions. After he was persuaded by professor of Linguistics  Zellig Harris not to drop out of his University studies, Chomsky began to write his important work ‘Syntactic Structures’, which was published in 1957. This work practically described exactly this field for the rest of the 20th century. Ever since , he has improved and modified his ideas in a number significant writings, especially in his ‘Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Language and Mind, and recently’ The Manifest Program’. Among his political works the most influential are ‘American power and the New Mandarins’, Human Rights and American Foreign Policy and Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians’.

He keeps on writing in both linguistics and politics. He was very active through his writings and a voice during the revolution in Iran, which ended by Shah being deposed, who was supported by the United States of America till he fled the country with the members of his family in 1979. What is interesting is the fact that his philosophy is not limited to only one subject that is linguistics. In other words, he also deals with ethical and political issues of our time. But what a difference there’s between him and Heidegger, his contemporary thinker?

His writing in linguistics is based on a rational theory of mind. He defied the empiricist camp, which had generated and started from John Locke (1632-1704), the English philosopher. The latter had argued that the mind was a blank tablet or ‘tabula rasa’ at birth meaning our knowledge is not innate but is based on what we experience in this world. This was the philosophy of our country for a long time as a colony of the British Empire to the extent that even Thomas Jefferson was influenced by him in his ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness originally ‘property’ by Locke’ and women’s rights to vote denied going back to Aristotle. Women were not allowed to vote in America till the beginning of the 20th century. That is embarrassing , to put it mildly. Chomsky completely rejected this philosophy of Locke. He maintained that ‘The mind is very far from being a blank slate at birth’. The mind is rather restrained in its functions through certain innate structures. We’re reminded of Plato’s position and his belief in reincarnation.  It was Aristotle who went against Plato, his teacher and rejected the innate ideas all together. Locke being influenced by Aristotle’s thoughts followed him all the way on this subject and others.

Let us not forget that Immanuel Kant also believed in the mind structured through his categories.

Not too far away and prior to Chomsky’s work John Locke was criticized for his empiricism when it came to knowledge.

Music notes also remind us of what language is all about? Chomsky was concerned about language. There must be certain innate structures in music too. Who interprets a composition matters in the whole project of a symphony. As I was driving home, I heard one of Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the British composer’s works being played by a cellist as a virtuoso. I could tell after a while that the cellist was not the late Catherine Dupre’, who had interpreted Elgar’s composition better than any other cello players of her time and even today. She was British and one of a few best in the world. She had this innate knowledge to be able to connect to Elgar’s music, which other cello players lacked. She played cello as if she was Elgar himself. However, even Elgar could have interpreted his own work in a different way. Although Chomsky believed in general that there’re structures in our mind, which are innate, perhaps he didn’t not realize that he had to go beyond Kant to Plato, which apparently he did eventually. What Catherine did, I think, reminds me of what Beethoven, the German composer had said regarding music that it is able to lift us up from this world to a higher Reality (not exact quote) I think our language whether music or otherwise can play such a role. To make sure I let my car run till I hear the station identification. I finally entered my house and before the classical music ended I had a chance to know who the cellist was. My guess was correct to find out he was not Catherine Dupre’. She, I believe, had reached that virtue Aristotle was talking about and even higher to be on Plato’s level. The subject matters, as Wittgenstein, I believe found out at the end in his language game.

Is Chomsky going in the same direction as later Wittgenstein, we’ll find out soon?

Chomsky’s focus was on language learning and the ‘syntactic structure’ underlying various languages. This is exactly where Chomsky seems to have Plato’s philosophy of ‘Forms’ in mind. There must be a perfect language in that realm. All other languages are reflections of this universal Reality. The story of the tower of Babylon could help us understand what happens when we try to have one language in our world. Of course, that is not the reason why the tower collapsed. After the Ultimate Reality was challenged, the monument was destroyed and people ended up with languages they had never heard of. This is the place of ‘many’ or ‘multiplicity’ and beyond it is the domain of ‘Oneness’. It sounds like when Chomsky speaks of language learning and the ‘syntactic structure’, he is pointing to the Plato’s Form. You could be a top journalist and anchor woman on T.V and someday having worked at her job for number of years she has to step back due to the financial difficulties and crash of the stock market in her company. You could also be a top journalist and when it comes to deal with plurality you would say there is two of you in the room rather than you should  there are two of you in the room. Who is perfect here? The fun part is that no one corrects them either.

You could be Catherine Dupre’ and still suffer from MS at the pick of your success. As a humble lover of classical music I was able to detect the difference between how Catherine played the cello in Elgar’s music and another person though a wonderful cello player and yet he was not to top her. Laurence (Kerr) Oliver (1907-89), the British stage, movie actor and director was once playing the role of Hamlet on the stage and suddenly he stopped and ran to his makeup room. Apparently he was shivering and sweating. When he was asked what happened, he responded by saying that for a moment he thought he was Hamlet himself. Has anyone so far been able to go beyond Beethoven, not yet? May be in the future an individual will appear on the stage of the classical music which will surprise everybody in the world in the way he or she plays the cello. Not everyone becomes virtuoso in a concert. Aristotle talked of virtue as excellence both in music and human character. However, no matter how hard we try to be the best, there’s always someone else who is better than us. In the old West a top shooter was told to be careful, because there’s always another sharp shooter who could draw faster and you be gone before you know it. You could be former prime minister of Japan Shinzo Abe and be assassinated as happened yesterday July 7th, 2022.

According to Chomsky, all languages share, at a basic level, a universal structure, or grammar, and this archetypal Reality is ‘hardwired’ in our brains, rather than something which is learnt by teaching and experience.

The idea of a universal grammar is relatively simple. There’re close to 5000 known different human languages around the world.

By the way, I just heard Beethoven’s work on Prometheus. In this Greek myth he stole fire from Heaven to help the people of this world.  He was killed as a result of this act. You just cannot bring the realm of transcendence into this world of multiplicity or many. Moses never brought the fire coming out of the bush into the world while his followers were waiting for him at the bottom of the mountain.

Kant’s categories seem to have been hardwired in us before we were born. He didn’t like to call them innate. He was also reluctant to attach himself to Plato’s Forms.

As Chomsky said there’re many variety of languages in the world. However, in spite their many exterior differences; they’re all confined by certain “constant with variable values” (Webster’s) or parameters and principles which are innate, and unique, to our mind.

There’s an important argument, which is based on what some have named it as ‘productivity’ argument. Experimental psychologists will oftentimes witness to the speed at which grammatical skill develops in children about the age of two or three. This skill goes far beyond the poor input of language they have been disclosed to.  As a result, it would be seemingly true to suppose the child has a head-start. The grammatical rules don’t have to be learnt, because they’re hardwired in the mind: early opening to language simply acts as a trigger, and then the child develops his or her linguistic ability at a speedy rate.

This fits in with Kant’s position on knowledge. Our knowledge doesn’t come from experience but it begins with it. Once the child is triggered or I like to call is induced, he or she develops the linguistic capability very fast. In other words, the knowledge of language starts with experience but it doesn’t come from it.

 This hardwiring is, as other cognitive faculties, a part of human nature. According to Chomsky this whole project indicates positive political action. Instead of being the blank slate of Lockean empiricism or the unrestrained free persons of existentialist, our very nature stops us from being overpowered by extreme and obstinate forces. It sounds like Chomsky thought of Locke’s ‘tabula rasa’ as being passive reflecting the world. It is, however, interesting to see why Locke fled the country and was back when King James had already abdicated his throne. Locke’s political act proves Chomsky point of view here. Therefore, it seems Locke is contradicting himself at one point. This is very much like what Kant told us that the mind used to be similar to a mirror reflecting the world. Kant through his Copernican revolution turned the whole thing around by letting the world be the mirror reflecting the mind’s categories.

Our nature decides that there’re only certain possible political structures we’re able to endure. As in Orwell’s ‘1984’ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, cruel political systems are unable to totally shape our minds. Behavioral psychologists of the early part of the 20th century like B (urrhus) F (rederic) Skinner (1904-90), argued that our thoughts are simply conditioned responses to repeated stimuli. To respond to Skinner, we’re different from dogs, which are used to illustrate our behaviors. After all even Hitler had a dog and I’m sure this dog was very loyal to him, who finally was killed along with his woman perhaps before he killed himself. Did his dog know who Hitler was? They’re wonderful animals and have many good qualities but they’re not humans even though some humans are even lower than animals.

The idea of constrained free individual is hardwired into our nature as the constraints that perform on our forms of speech.

This manifests a further development of Chomsky’s linguistic theory. To Chomsky the nature of man’s mind is unveiled through the nature of language. Not only because language is an exceptionally human activity, but it is also due to the fact that language ‘is the vehicle of thought’ and thus singularly put to enlighten the reality of human mind.

Even physiologically human brain develops, because of the use of language.  Meditation also causes human brain to morph too.

By ‘mind’ Chomsky means the cognitive principles and processes that grounds human behavior. He also believes and continues to maintain the ‘innatist’ theory, which reminds us of Leibniz and others. Based on this theory the human mind is enriched and ‘hardwired’ with certain innate properties constraining what we’re like  and what we can know.

As we have discussed before, Chomsky is very well known for his works in linguistic as well as   his writings on the current political matters. He has been actively involved with the political issues not only in the United State of America but other countries by advocating   justice and fairness. He has been continually criticizing US foreign policy and America’s involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, gulf Wars and Iran’s revolution of 1979. He is still advocating radical social change in the US, while writing on linguistic matters. He is a theoretical philosopher but is unlike those who are in the ivory towers without knowing what is going on the main street. He explains his political idea as ‘libertarian socialist’, which is a combination and mixture of socialism and anarchism, other than that he is a remarkable thinker and a linguist, who has been a great voice for those who are brushed aside in the society. He is truly a wonderful human being.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers by Philip Stokes)