Friday, July 14, 2017

Reply to Chomsky by Chris Knight

Letters, LRB 13 July 2017

Much as I  admire Noam Chomsky’s politics, I have to take him to task for trying to dragoon sympathizers like myself into accepting his linguistics as ‘science’ ( Letters, 15 June). I can’t accept that the biological capacity underlying language didn’t gradually evolve, that it had no precursors but instead sprang up, perfectly formed, via a single mutation, or that it wasn’t designed for communication but remained inactive in speechless individuals for millennia following its installation. These notions are so asocial, apolitical and devoid of practical application that I can only assume Chomsky favored them to keep his conscience clear: he needed them to ensure that his militarily funded linguistics couldn’t possibly have any military use.

That is the argument of my book: not that Chomsky colluded with his military sponsors but that, given his situation at MIT, he had to move mountains to avoid collusion. In his letter, Chomsky claims that I sidestep his central role in resisting the US war effort in Vietnam. In fact his courageous resistance to the US war machine is my central theme. Had these not been his politics, he wouldn’t have needed to make his work under military funding so utterly useless.

Chomsky says that if my argument were true, it would have been logical for him to have switched between one approach to language and another as military funding waxed and waned. But  his entire intellectual milieu was shaped by military preoccupations, the dream of accurate machine translation among them. Chomsky’s concept of language as

I accept that Einstein’s theory of relativity would have been just as scientifically credible whether funded by the church, the military or no one at all,. But when something doesn’t work as science, makes no sense, has no practical application and essentially no connection to the rest of science? Then we have to seek a different explanation for its prevalence.

London SE22

1 comment:

  1. I read Chris Knight's book but I had much difficulty excerpting any brief summary of his thesis. Fortunately, Mr. Knight's letter in reply to Chomsky, who himself was replying to an equally dense review of Mr. Knights book in the Review, does the job well enough.

    NO one can doubt Noam's Chomsy's courage in resisting the US war machine,; the time and energy he puts into it. Whether that resistance was ever very effective, or adhered to a reasonable standard of historical scholarship is a question I do not propose to take up at this time. My undefended opinion is that it wasn't and didn't. And he probably didn't fool the military all that much with his theory of language.