Explaining Chomsky’s strange science: a reply to Randy Allen Harris

Protesters demonstrate outside one of MIT's nuclear missile laboratories, November 1969. Courtesy of MIT Museum. All rights reserved.

In my previous articles, ‘Chomsky’s
Choice’ and ‘Why
Chomsky felt “guilty most of the time”’, I described the linguist’s
double-edged relationship with the US military. Chomsky’s research at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology was sponsored by the US Defense Department,
who had ambitious military applications in mind. On the other hand, Chomsky loathed
the American military and all its works, and needed to know that no ideas he
came up with could possibly be of military use. His political conscience
led him to adopt a lofty, unprecedentedly other-worldly approach
to language, treating grammar as if it were a mathematical object and, at every
stage, renouncing messy reality in favour of the most extreme theoretical
abstraction.

My aim has been to show how Chomsky’s twin
intellectual outputs – abstract theory for the military, concrete activism against
the military – are best viewed together as a unitary strategic response to what
must have been genuine dilemmas. Only a grasp of Chomsky’s conflict-ridden institutional
situation can explain why he needed to adopt such extreme positions on each side.
Language, he has always argued, is neither social nor communicative but simply
a computational object performing its unconscious operations silently in the individual
mind/brain. His commitment to such a peculiarly individualistic, dehumanised and
unrealistic philosophical approach has embroiled him in countless theoretical difficulties
over the years. One major advantage, however, was that it allowed him to disconnect
his socially aware activism from an allegedly value-free, politically
neutral version of linguistics emanating under military sponsorhip from MIT. Once
this disconnect had been achieved, his activism could proceed free of
interference from his science, and conversely his
science free of interference from his activism.

In his commentary on my two articles, the intellectual
historian Randy
Allen Harris claims that my whole argument is based on nothing more than ‘speculative
psychobiography’. My error, he
says, is to assume a significant and interesting connection between the two
sides of Chomsky’s life. Perhaps, suggests Harris, the
uselessness of Chomsky’s linguistics is no more than a personal foible, like
his ‘fondness for cable-knit sweaters’ or the fact that he ‘prefers his jeans rolled up.’ Maybe, he says, ‘these
are just some things that are true about Noam Chomsky, sort of like his
linguistics is pretty unusable, and he loathes the American military.’ So my
attempt to makes sense of such things is basically a
waste of time. Why not accept that people’s various likes and dislikes are mostly
a jumbled mess, with Chomsky in this respect no different from anyone else?

Yet Professor Harris
agrees with me on these fundamental points:

1. The American military
did indeed ‘lust after’ Chomsky’s linguistics, throwing handfuls of money at it
in the hope of command-and-control military applications.

2. Chomsky loathed the
American military.

3. Over time, his picture
of language morphed from a system of highly specific rules to successively
revised models which were increasingly impractical if not totally useless.

Harris recognizes these facts, but challenges
my claim to discern any interesting connection between them.

So how does Harris explain what he
describes as ‘the apparently decreasing usefulness of Chomsky’s work over the
decades’? Dismissing the possibility that the anti-militarist Chomsky might
have been quite happy to disappoint his military sponsors in this way, he claims
that better reasons are to be found in the history of science. For
reasons which are unclear to me, Harris treats ‘the history of science’ not as
a field rich with insights into how
individual scientists come to personify larger social
and institutional
forces, but as a collection of entertaining tales about the idiosyncrasies
of individuals.

Harris describes Chomsky as one of those
brilliant innovators throughout history whose pioneering theories, although
seemingly full of promise, just happened not to work. Failure in science, he
reminds us, always leads to instability – to false starts, re-analyses,
disputes and endless change. Harris is perhaps the No. 1 expert in documenting
the labyrinthine twists and turns taken by Chomsky and his critics during the
second half of the twentieth century, and the final section of his commentary
makes interesting reading for that reason. But despite the complexities, Harris’
basis for rejecting my argument is simple. Since Chomsky’s models were useless
from the start, my efforts to explain their increasing impracticality are
simply not required.

While I enjoyed Professor Harris’
thoughtful response to my article, I am still puzzled by his claim that I rely for
my argument on ‘speculative psychobiography’. He suggests, for example, that I
‘connect the dots’, linking Chomsky’s linguistic theories with his passionate
anti-militarism by ‘drawing a line to childhood trauma or adolescent
disappointment’. But nowhere do I indulge in psychological guesswork of that
kind.

Compartmentalisation

Yes, I set out from Chomsky’s own explicit
claim that his mind is unusually compartmentalised, such that his linguistics
gets produced in one modular region (the ‘science-forming capacity’) whereas
his political thought emanates from a quite different part of his brain. But to
explain this, I point not to childhood or adolescent traumas but to events in
Chomsky’s adult life which we can know about because they are on public record.

Far from seeking to explain a key moment in
western intellectual history as a consequence of one person’s psychology, my
arguments are sociological, political and institutional throughout. Chomsky was
working for the US military while on moral grounds detesting that same military
and all its works. My point is that anyone in such a situation, irrespective of
their childhood or personal psychology, would feel conflicted as their paid
employment tugged them in one direction even as their political conscience
pulled the other way.

My interest goes well beyond Harris’ focus
on Chomsky as an interesting individual. I am attempting to explain Chomsky’s part
in the postwar overthrow of behaviourism and the dramatic triumph of the
so-called ‘cognitive revolution’. Chomsky was a key player in this momentous paradigm
change which placed mind over matter in a completely new way, while giving
massive weight to the idea that science is a non-political endeavour, its
theoretical accomplishments wholly disconnected from social or political
concerns.

Contrary to legend, Chomsky did not singlehandedly
accomplish the overthrow of behaviourism. This profound intellectual
development – as I explain in my book, Decoding Chomsky – had deep
social and political roots. Yet with his anti-militarist credentials, Chomsky
played a crucial role, providing – as no one else could – the necessary
appearance of political neutrality and legitimacy to the new scientific paradigm.

According to Harris, I attribute Chomsky’s turn
to public anti-militarist activism to ‘a revelation of some kind’. But the
explanation I offer is not a psychological revelation but the nature of the
work he was increasingly being expected to do. Here is a little-known fact. Between
1963 and 1965, Chomsky found himself acting as a consultant for the MITRE
Corporation on a project to apply his linguistic insights to something quite unpleasantly
practical – the development of computer programs for purposes of weapons
command-and-control. In my openDemocracy
article, by way of evidence, I provide actual student recollections, some taken
from e-mails written to me just a few months ago. These are corroborated by official
MITRE documents which confirm that Chomsky was a named consultant on this Air
Force-sponsored military research project.

How do we know that Chomsky felt uneasy
about what he was doing? Far from indulging in ‘speculative psychobiography’, I
have gone to some lengths to provide compelling evidence. From the mid-1960s Chomsky
gave serious consideration to ‘resigning
from MIT’ on conscientious grounds. Although he was throwing himself into
anti-militarist activism at this time, he was still far from happy with his
response to the Vietnam War, insisting
that: ‘No one who involved himself in anti-war activities as late as 1965,
as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction’, and that: ‘I feel
rather guilty for having waited this long’. In 1968, he admitted to the New York Times that he felt  ‘guilty most
of the time’, later repeatedly
stating that he became involved in anti-war activism because ‘I
couldn’t look at myself in the mirror anymore’. And then, when asked by a
friend if he had any regrets about his life as an activist, he could only
reply: ‘I didn’t
do nearly enough’ .

Now, it could be argued that these quotes
merely show that Chomsky felt guilty about being a US citizen during the
Vietnam War, not that he felt any unease about working directly on a military
project at MITRE. But, as I also show, in 1959 when his wife Carol began
working on an Air Force project to communicate with computers in English,
Chomsky made clear that he felt ‘very
nervous’ about the morality of any such work. He asked the project leader for
reassurance that his wife would not end up working on voice-activated command
and control systems for the military. Since the US Air Force-sponsored MITRE
project for which he was later a consultant had similar motivations, I don’t
think further evidence is required.

As an intellectual historian, Harris specializes
in providing detailed descriptions of personalities, ideas and events. I
respect that approach, but would argue that sometimes we can reach beyond
descriptive adequacy in favour of a more intellectually satisfying goal –
explanatory adequacy. Like other historians who take inspiration from Marx, I
prefer that approach.

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