Is the world's top public intellectual a brilliant expositor of linguistics and the US's duplicitous foreign policy? Or a reflexive anti-American, cavalier with his sources?by Robin Blackburn / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Robin Blackburn celebrates a courageous truth-teller to power
The huge vote for Noam Chomsky as the world’s leading “public intellectual” should be no surprise at all. Who could match him for sheer intellectual achievement and political courage?
Very few transform an entire field of enquiry, as Chomsky has done in linguistics. Chomsky’s scientific work is still controversial, but his immense achievement is not in question, as may be easily confirmed by consulting the recent Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. He didn’t only transform linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s; he has remained in the forefront of controversy and research.
The huge admiration for Chomsky evident in Prospect’s poll is obviously not only, or even mainly, a response to intellectual achievement. Rather it goes to a brilliant thinker who is willing to step outside his study and devote himself to exposing the high crimes and misdemeanours of the most powerful country in the world and its complicity with venal and brutal rulers across four continents over half a century or more.
Some believe—as Paul Robinson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, once put it—that there is a “Chomsky problem.” On the one hand, he is the author of profound, though forbiddingly technical, contributions to linguistics. On the other, his political pronouncements are often “maddeningly simple-minded.”
In fact, it is not difficult to spot connections between the intellectual strategies Chomsky has adopted in science and in politics. Chomsky’s approach to syntax stressed the economy of explanation that could be achieved if similarities in the structure of human languages were seen as stemming from biologically rooted, innate capacities of the human mind, above all the recursive ability to generate an infinite number of statements from a finite set of words and symbols. Many modern critics of the radical academy are apt to bemoan its disregard for scientific method and evidence. This is not a reproach that can be aimed at Chomsky, who has pursued a naturalistic and reductionist standpoint in what he calls, in the title of his 1995 volume, The Minimalist Programme.