Why I Choose Optimism Over Despair: An Interview With Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

“We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen,” says Noam Chomsky. “Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place.” (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Noam Chomsky explores the possibilities for a better human society in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, a collection of lectures bringing together his areas of expertise from language and mind to society and politics. This book serves as both a concise summation of Chomsky’s linguistic theories and a demonstration of how that work connects to his political philosophy. Order your copy by making a tax-deductible donation today!

One of philosophy’s central and most perplexing questions is, “Who are we?” Indeed, virtually all essential questions about human civilization, power, authority and governance follow from the question of what kind of creatures we are.

But is there really something distinct about us as a species? Or, to put the question in a more traditional philosophical context, is there such a thing as human nature? Classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought so, and so did most philosophers that form part of the modern tradition, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and going all the way up to Nietzsche. Of course, scientists have also probed human nature, and continue to do so down to this day, with the question being of particular interest to linguists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists.

“There is good reason why study of language has always been a central part of philosophical discourse and analysis.”

Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s most influential linguists (the same prolific scholar known around the world for his trenchant critiques of US foreign policy and critical analyses on a wide range of social and political issues), has also been preoccupied for much of his life with the perennial question of what kind of creatures we are. His pathbreaking contributions to the field of linguistics have considerably advanced our understanding of the human mind, which has in turn influenced a diverse area of studies, ranging from cognitive science and computer science to philosophy and psychology.

Chomsky’s latest book, just released by Columbia University Press, is fittingly titled, What Kind of Creatures Are We? The book is a collection of lectures delivered by Chomsky at Columbia University in December 2013, delving into areas like cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy and political theory. I talked with Chomsky about the book, his scientific explorations of language and the mind, and his views on society and politics in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, your latest book brings together your investigation into language and the mind and long-held views of yours on society and politics. Let me start by asking you as to whether you feel that the biolingustic approach to language that you have developed in the course of the past 50 years or so is still open to further exploration and, if so, what sort of questions remain unanswered about the acquisition of language.

Noam Chomsky: Not just me, by any means. Quite a few people. One of the real pioneers was the late Eric Lenneberg, a close friend from the early 1950s when these ideas were brewing. His book, Biological Foundations of Language, is an enduring classic.

The program is very much open to further exploration. There are unanswered questions right at the borders of inquiry, the kinds that are crucial for advancing what Tom Kuhn called “normal science.” And questions that lie beyond are traditional and tantalizing.

One topic that is beginning to be open to serious investigation is the realization of the capacity for language and its use in the brain. That’s very hard to study. Similar questions are extremely difficult even in the case of insects, and for humans, they are incomparably harder, not only because of the vastly greater complexity of the brain. We know a good deal about the human visual system, but that is because it is much the same as the visual systems of cats and monkeys, and (rightly or not) we permit invasive experimentation with these animals. That is impossible for humans because the human language capacity is so isolated biologically. There are no relevant analogues elsewhere in the biological world – a fascinating topic in itself.

Nevertheless, new noninvasive technologies are beginning to provide important evidence, which sometimes even is beginning to bear on open questions about the nature of language in interesting ways. These are among the topics at the borders of inquiry, along with a huge and challenging mass of problems about the properties of language and the principles that explain them. Lying far, far beyond – maybe even beyond human reach – are the kinds of questions that animated traditional thought (and wonder) about the nature of language, including such great figures as Galileo, Descartes, von Humboldt and others: primary among them, what has been called “the creative aspect of language use,” the ability of every human to construct in the mind and comprehend an unbounded number of new expressions expressing their thoughts, and to use them in ways appropriate to but not caused by circumstances, a crucial distinction.

We are “incited and inclined” but not “compelled,” in Cartesian terminology. These are not matters restricted to language, by any means. The issue is put graphically by two leading neuroscientists who study voluntary motion, Emilio Bizzi and Robert Ajemian. Reviewing the current state of the art, they observe that we are beginning to understand something about the puppet and the strings, but the puppeteer remains a total mystery. Because of its centrality to our lives, and its critical role in constructing, expressing and interpreting thought, the normal use of language illustrates these mysterious capacities in a particularly dramatic and compelling way. That is why normal language use, for Descartes, was a primary distinction between humans and any animal or machine, and a basis for his mind-body dualism – which, contrary to what is often believed, was a legitimate and sensible scientific hypothesis in his day, with an interesting fate.

What would you say is the philosophical relevance of language?

The comments above begin to deal with that question. It has been traditionally recognized that human language is a species property, common to humans apart from severe pathology and unique to humans in essentials. One of Lenneberg’s contributions was to begin to ground this radical discontinuity in sound modern biology, and the conclusion has only been strengthened by subsequent work (a matter that is hotly contested, but mistakenly so, I believe). Furthermore, work that Lenneberg also initiated reveals that the human language capacity appears to be dissociated quite sharply from other cognitive capacities. It is, furthermore, not only the vehicle of thought, but also probably the generative source of substantial parts of our thinking.

The close study of language also provides much insight into classical philosophical problems about the nature of concepts and their relation to mind-external entities, a matter much more intricate than often assumed. And more generally, it suggests ways to investigate the nature of human knowledge and judgment. In another domain, important recent work by John Mikhail and others has provided substantial support for some neglected ideas of John Rawls on relations of our intuitive moral theories to language structure. And much more. There is good reason why study of language has always been a central part of philosophical discourse and analysis, and new discoveries and insights, I think, bear directly on many of the traditional concerns.

The well-known University College London linguist Neil Smith argued in his book, Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals (Cambridge University Press, 1999), that you put to rest the mind-body problematic not by showing that we have a limited understanding of the mind but that we cannot define what the body is. What can he possibly mean by this?

I wasn’t the person who put it to rest. Far from it. Isaac Newton did. Early modern science, from Galileo and his contemporaries, was based on the principle that the world is a machine, a much more complex version of the remarkable automata then being constructed by skilled craftsmen, which excited the scientific imagination of the day, much as computers and information processing do today. The great scientists of the time, including Newton, accepted this “mechanical philosophy” (meaning the science of mechanics) as the foundation of their enterprise. Descartes believed he had pretty much established the mechanical philosophy, including all the phenomena of body, though he recognized that some phenomena lay beyond its reach, including, crucially, the “creative aspect of language use” described above. He therefore, plausibly, postulated a new principle – in the metaphysics of the day, a new substance, res cogitans, thinking substance, mind. His followers devised experimental techniques to try to determine whether other creatures had this property, and like Descartes, were concerned to discover how the two substances interacted.

Newton demolished the picture. He demonstrated that the Cartesian account of body was incorrect, and furthermore, that there could be no mechanical account of the physical world: The world is not a machine. Newton regarded this conclusion as so “absurd” that no one of sound scientific understanding could possibly entertain it – though it was true. Accordingly, Newton demolished the concept of body (material, physical etc.), in the form that it was then understood, and there really is nothing to replace it, beyond “whatever we more or less understand.” The Cartesian concept of mind remained unaffected. It has become conventional to say that we have rid ourselves of the mysticism of “the ghost in the machine.” Quite the contrary: Newton exorcised the machine while leaving the ghost intact, a consequence understood very well by the great philosophers of the period, like John Locke.

Locke went on to speculate (in the accepted theological idiom) that just as God had added to matter properties of attraction and repulsion that are inconceivable to us (as demonstrated by “the judicious Mr. Newton”), so he might have “superadded” to matter the capacity of thought. The suggestion (known as “Locke’s suggestion” in the history of philosophy) was pursued extensively in the 18th century, particularly by philosopher [and] chemist Joseph Priestley, adopted by Darwin, and rediscovered (apparently without awareness of the earlier origins) in contemporary neuroscience and philosophy.

There is much more to say about these matters, but that, in essence, is what Smith was referring to. Newton eliminated the mind-body problem in its classic Cartesian form (it is not clear that there is any other coherent version), by eliminating body, leaving mind intact. And in doing so, as David Hume concluded, “While Newton seemed to draw the veil from some of the mysteries of nature, he showed at the same time the imperfections of the mechanical philosophy … and thereby restored [nature’s] ultimate secrets to that obscurity, in which they ever did and ever will remain.”

When you made your breakthrough into the study of linguistics, B.F. Skinner’s verbal behavior approach dominated the field and was widely employed in the field of marketing and promotions. Your critique of Skinner’s approach not only overthrew the prevailing paradigm at the time, but also established a new approach to linguistics. Yet, it seems that behavioralism still dominates the public realm when it comes to marketing and consumer behavior. Your explanation for this apparent antinomy?

Behavioral methods (though not exactly Skinner’s) may work reasonably well in shaping and controlling thought and attitudes, hence some behavior, at least at the superficial level of marketing and inducing consumerism. The need to control thought is a leading doctrine of the huge PR industry, which developed in the freest countries in the world, Britain and the US, motivated by the recognition that people had won too many rights to be controlled by force, so it was necessary to turn to other means: what one of the founders of the industry, Edward Bernays, called “the engineering of consent.”

In his book Propaganda, a founding document of the industry, Bernays explained that engineering consent and “regimentation” were necessary in democratic societies so as to ensure that the “intelligent minority” will be able to act (of course, for the benefit of all) without the interference of the annoying public, who must be kept passive, obedient and diverted; passionate consumerism is the obvious device, based on “creating wants” by various means.

As explained by his contemporary and fellow liberal intellectual Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual of the day, the “ignorant meddlesome outsiders” – the general public – must be “put in their place” as “spectators,” not “participants,” while “the responsible men” must be protected from “the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd.” This is an essential principle of prevailing democratic theory. Marketing to engineer consent by control of thought, attitudes and behavior is a crucial lever to achieve these ends – and (incidentally) to keep profits flowing.

Many maintain the view that, as humans, we have a propensity for aggression and violence, which in actuality explains the rise of oppressive and repressive institutions that have defined much of human civilization throughout the world. How do you respond to this dark view of human nature?

Since oppression and repression exist, they are reflections of human nature. The same is true of sympathy, solidarity, kindness and concern for others – and for some great figures, like Adam Smith, these were the essential properties of humans. The task for social policy is to design the ways we live and the institutional and cultural structure of our lives so as to favor the benign and to suppress the harsh and destructive aspects of our fundamental nature.

While it is true that humans are social beings and thus our behavior depends on the social and political arrangements in our lives, is there such a thing as a common good for all human beings that goes beyond basic aspirations like the need for food, shelter and protection from external threats?

These are what Marx once called our “animal needs,” which, he hoped, would be provided by realization of communism, freeing us to turn productively to our “human needs,” which far transcend these in significance – though we cannot forget Brecht’s admonition: “first, feed the face.”

All in all, how would you define human nature – or, alternatively, what kind of creatures are we?

I open the book by saying that “I am not deluded enough to think I can provide a satisfactory answer” to this question – going on to say that “it seems reasonable to believe that in some domains at least, particularly with regard to our cognitive nature, there are insights of some interest and significance, some new, and that it should be possible to clear away some of the obstacles that hamper further inquiry, including some widely accepted doctrines with foundations that are much less stable than often assumed.” I haven’t become less deluded since.

You have defined your political philosophy as libertarian socialism/anarchism, but refuse to accept the view that anarchism as a vision of social order flows naturally from your views on language. Is the link then purely coincidental?

It’s more than coincidental, but much less than deductive. At a sufficient level of abstraction, there is a common element – which was sometimes recognized, or at least glimpsed, in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. In both domains, we can perceive, or at least hope, that at the core of human nature is what [Russian anarchist Mikhail] Bakunin called “an instinct for freedom,” which reveals itself both in the creative aspect of normal language use and in the recognition that no form of domination, authority, hierarchy is self-justifying: Each must justify itself, and if it cannot, which is usually the case, then it should be dismantled in favor of greater freedom and justice. That seems to me the core idea of anarchism, deriving from its classical liberal roots and deeper perceptions – or beliefs, or hopes – about essential human nature. Libertarian socialism moves further to bring in ideas about sympathy, solidarity, mutual aid, also with Enlightenment roots and conceptions of human nature.

Both the anarchist and the Marxist vision have failed to gain ground in our own time, and in fact it could be argued that the prospects for the historical overcoming of capitalism appear to have been brighter in the past than they do today. If you do agree with this assessment, what factors can explain the frustrating setback for the realization of an alternative social order, i.e., one beyond capitalism and exploitation?

Prevailing systems are particular forms of state capitalism. In the past generation, these have been distorted by neoliberal doctrines into an assault on human dignity and even the “animal needs” of ordinary human life. More ominously, unless reversed, implementation of these doctrines will destroy the possibility of decent human existence, and not in the distant future. But there is no reason to suppose that these dangerous tendencies are graven in stone. They are the product of particular circumstances and specific human decisions that have been well studied elsewhere and that I cannot review here. These can be reversed, and there is ample evidence of resistance to them, which can grow, and indeed must grow to a powerful force if there is to be hope for our species and the world that it largely rules.

While economic inequality, lack of growth and new jobs, and declining standards of living have become key features of contemporary advanced societies, the climate change challenge appears to pose a real threat to the planet on the whole. Are you optimistic that we can find the right formula to address economic problems while averting an environmental catastrophe?

There are two grim shadows that loom over everything that we consider: environmental catastrophe and nuclear war, the latter threat much underestimated, in my view. In the case of nuclear weapons, we at least know the answer: get rid of them, like smallpox, with adequate measures, which are technically feasible, to ensure that this curse does not arise again. In the case of environmental catastrophe, there still appears to be time to avert the worst consequences, but that will require measures well beyond those being undertaken now, and there are serious impediments to overcome, not least in the most powerful state in the world, the one power with a claim to be hegemonic.

In the extensive reporting of the recent Paris conference on the climate, the most important sentences were those pointing out that the binding treaty that negotiators hoped to achieve was off the agenda, because it would be “dead on arrival” when it reached the Republican-controlled US Congress. It is a shocking fact that every Republican presidential contender is either an outright climate denier or a skeptic who opposes government action. Congress celebrated the Paris conference by cutting back [President] Obama’s limited efforts to avert disaster.

The Republican majority (with a minority of the popular vote) proudly announced funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency – one of the few brakes on destruction – in order to rein in what House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers called an “unnecessary, job-killing regulatory agenda” – or in plain English, one of the few brakes on destruction. It should be borne in mind that in contemporary newspeak, the word “jobs” is a euphemism for the unpronounceable seven-letter word “pr—ts.”

Are you overall optimistic about the future of humanity given the kind of creatures we are?

We have two choices. We can be pessimistic, give up and help ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can be optimistic, grasp the opportunities that surely exist and maybe help make the world a better place. Not much of a choice.

C.J. Polychroniou

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