How I learned to love  (and hate) Noam Chomsky


Rupert ReadUniversity of East Anglia




One can perhaps imagine these words secretly scrawled by a goodly number of philosophers, brain scientists, psychologists, and even though criminal linguists in their lower moments, in secret, out of sight, out of range of public surveillance, beyond the intrusive gazes of fellow academics.[1] The ‘hatred’ might be for his brilliance and power and influence; it would of course be in part envious, irrational and wrong.

          But it could also be something else: genuine frustration, annoyance, even anger at this power and influence being not fully intellectually-deserved. Anger at Chomsky’s dubious philosophical assumptions having come to have wide currency. And anger at Chomskian philosophical linguistics having become hegemonic to the extent that many even in parts of Linguistics now feel its influence to be a baneful one, and restrictive of further research. It could be distress over the extent to which Cognitive Science as a field has been founded, perhaps desperately tenuously, on the back of Chomsky’s success, even in despite of what is arguably its lack of empirical justification or philosophical coherence. It could be repugnance at Chomsky’s disastrous effect on much philosophical thinking, his methods and conclusions being mechanically applied in many instances, with his approval, to eliminate a need for real thinking.[2]

          This essay is an allegory of my own coming to be really frustrated and annoyed by the influence of this Chomsky – and to love (the influence of) another Noam Chomsky. And it is an attempt to explain how it can make sense that the two co-exist in the same personage. I write this ‘allegory’ so as to free people of the need that I have sometimes noticed in others (and, until recently, also in myself) to think that if they love one of these Chomskys, they need to learn to love the other; or indeed that if they don’t love one of these Chomskys, they need to learn also to dislike the other.

          I take this ‘allegory’ to be a practical exercise in applying the thought of Wittgenstein to human affairs – to language, to politics. I shall lay out as we go reasons for thinking that a successful approach to these matters cannot consist in the construction of theories or the pronouncement of theses. An effective (Wittgensteinian) ‘political philosophy’ is going to have to look very different from almost any political philosophy that we are used to. For starters, it will avoid theorising by working always with ‘examples’ of the actual use of language in context(s). We must look at human affairs, and then we will see.


Section I

Why I ‘hate’ Chomsky  (as theoretical linguist / philosopher of mind)


          Firstly, a disclaimer. Of course, I don’t really hate Noam Chomsky  in the slightest. If there’s anything that I am deeply troubled by, and frustrated by – that in black moods I almost ‘hate’ – around him, it’s only certain views, assumptions, and programs that he has played a leading role in putting forward and fomenting.

          And I am of course not the first to have reacted badly against these, only possibly the first to have used a provocative word: “hatred”. There is, in fact, a most distinguished ‘tradition’ of (what might just slightly tendentiously be called) ‘Chomskyphobes’ in this area. The names of Quine, N.Goodman, H.Dreyfus, Rosch, Lakoff, McCawley, Ross, Robinson, R.Harris, R.Botha, H.Nielsen, J.Hunter, Hacker, R. Burling, D. Hatch, Sharrock, Coulter and Guetti are among those which, in their different ways, might come to mind. (It will easily be noted that many of those thinkers would be rightly classified as in one way or another would-be followers of or kindred spirits to Wittgenstein.)

          So, given the distinguished critiques which already exist from the likes of these, I am going to review only very briefly the many troubling aspects of Chomsky’s program in Linguistics, from what have been argued to be its smuggled-in philosophical assumptions and unwillingness to distinguish conceptual from empirical claims,[3] through its massive and sometimes apparently ad hoc alterations over the years, to its continuing lack of empirical and cross-cultural confirmation  (I will make I think only one substantively original claim regarding this philosophical Linguistics -- a point about the logic of the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument).



          The child is generally conceptualized, in Chomskian as in Empiricist speculation (including Quinean speculation – an interesting and, as we will see later, an instructive irony, he and Chomsky sharing this postulate) about language-acquisition, as a theorist,[4] as essentially in the same position as...a field linguist. There are a number of reasons to be seriously worried about this notion of the child not as learning language and world together in a process of interaction and growth but rather as modelled on an adult intellectual, reasons which again have been well-rehearsed elsewhere and which I won’t go into here. Among the consequences of this peculiar conceptualization of the child is its enabling Chomsky to make a ‘sensational’ claim, once he has shown the inadequacy of Empiricist claims about language-acquisition: the claim is that language is actually not learnt, that (depending on whether one is reading the early or the more recent Chomsky) one is born with the ‘theory’ which is ‘knowledge of language’ already ‘in mind’, or one is born with extremely powerful built-in constraints which condition the way that language is ‘acquired’ – or ‘grows’ – so strongly that one cannot be truly said to learn it.[5]

          Now, as Button, Coulter et al have argued, drawing on Wittgensteinian (and Ethnomethodological) thinking:


        We would normally speak of what the growing infant does as ‘learning its first language’ and would take it entirely for granted that the child learns that first language from other people in its environment... . Hence, to deny that children learn language sounds like a challenge to the above commonplace suppositions. In fact, though, it is nothing of the sort, for, of course, the inclination of children progressively to master their native tongue in accordance with their progressive exposure to its use is both patent and uncontroversial…

        Chomsky’s arguments do not, in fact, comprise a straightforward challenge to talk of children learning language, [but] only to a certain philosophical construal of what ‘learning language’ is. If one supposes that learning a language is like figuring out a theory, then Chomsky’s argument is: it is not possible to learn such a theory from others [6]

Chomsky is using the word “language-learning”, we find, in a quite ‘technical’ sense: he understands by it only a distorted (incoherent) ‘Empiricist’ account of what language-learning ‘ought’ to be.

          What the above case suggests, among other things, is that there may be something troubling about the respects in which, in the hands of Chomsky and of his followers, terms of our ordinary language become terms of art, technical terms, while appearing nevertheless to retain their former significances or roles.[7]  Such is, for instance, the fate of words such as “language” or “grammar” in Chomskian theorizing.

          Let us turn for a moment to an example of this that is perhaps even more telling. That is, Chomsky’s peculiar use of the word “creative”:

[I]n the context in which I have been speaking about creativity, it’s a normal human act. // I’m speaking of the kind of creativity that any child demonstrates when he’s able to come to grips with a new situation: to describe it properly, react to it properly, tell one something about it, think about it in a new fashion for him, and so on. I think it’s appropriate to call those acts creative.[8]

The fundamental question here is: Why? (And by what right? For we do not normally regard such acts as properly “creative”.[9] We will need to be be on our guard against Chomsky’s ‘creative’ use of the term misleading us, as a result...) Is this use of the term “creativity” its serving as a genuine scientific technical term? Well, but in that case why not just coin an entirely new term? The point appears to be persuasive: to get one to think in a different way about a human phenomenon with which we are all familiar and which we have perfectly good ways already of dealing with in discussion etc.; and again to get one to think that something not only new and dramatic but also scientifically demonstrable is being said here (by Chomsky). But if something dramatic is in fact being said, it will surely not have the quality of a true new scientific theory, but at most of what Wittgenstein refers to as “a fertile new point of view”.[10] If Chomsky is managing to do anything at all, successfully, in the passage quoted, it is surely the kind of thing that someone like Freud did: not giving us a new demonstrable scientific result (nor even a scientific claim), but giving us a fragment of what can perhaps, if used judiciously and self-consciously, be a handy and thought-provoking new way of talking. So, for instance, Richard Rorty has said that Freud  – among other things – democratized Nietzsche by turning us all into great ‘creators’ through the fantastic drama he found in our daily lives, in our linguistic slips, and our dreams, etc. etc. .[11] Might one similarly claim that Chomsky is similarly democratizing linguistic creativity by suggesting that it is not the exclusive preserve of the poet, let alone of the scientific inventor? This is, I think, the best that can be claimed for Chomsky’s claim here, and would turn Chomsky into a bit of a fertile strong poet or fashioner of a new vocabulary (in Rorty’s sense of these phrases). Unfortunately, this thought is mostly vitiated by:

(1) its misleading scientistic presentation in Chomsky ;

(2) its lack of originality -- for if we are to understand the term “creative” as Chomsky suggests we ought, then not only poets and linguists but also most ordinary people have clearly long been aware of and taken huge pleasure in the possibility of being continually ‘creative’ with and by means of language;  [admittedly, it has been at times suggested that both points (1) and (2) also apply to Freud!] 


(3) its contradiction with Chomsky’s general claim elsewhere that ‘really this stuff is just recollection; it’s all innate’ -- thus Chomsky finds himself in the awkward position of wanting to assert literally both “Everyone is continually creative all the time” [12]  and “Creativity does not exist”![13] Such an incoherent want is a useful signal that we are here dealing with a (desire for) metaphysics, with a mythology (but one not presented as such).

          And in any case, I think we can confidently predict that Chomsky would be even less willing than Freud was to begin to acknowledge that what he has created is at best a new mythology... Even were one to try to suggest to Chomsky that a ‘mythology’ in this sense is not all bad, that ‘fertile’ mythologies in fact can be very fine things...


                All this is worrying chiefly because Chomsky’s style and method, as I think we can now see, will usually signally mislead the layman or the casual reader, and may even seriously mislead the initiate. For anyone could be excused for associating in their mind a term they are used to with its ordinary meaning, as opposed to some hi-falutin technical/secondary meaning. Why use a term like “language” or “learning” or “creative” in an ‘authoritative’ scientific-sounding manner if what you evidently mean by it is something quite different from what folks ordinarily mean by it? (A possible answer would be: as a piece of rhetoric, to pull the wool over people’s eyes, to get them to agree with you as to something actually and for good reason very counter-intuitive; or (extremely charitably): to provoke them intellectually.).


          Back then to ‘the child theorist’. For we ought to be concerned that even the most central and famous of Chomsky’s arguments might be drastically affected by the kinds of considerations adduced above. Specifically, is the crucial ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument – the argument that the ‘stimulus’ the child is exposed to is too ‘poor’ to be able to ‘generate’ ‘knowledge of language’, such that we must attribute compensatory ‘innate knowledge’ to the child – is this argument a valid scientifically-operationalisable piece of theorizing ... or an empty metaphysiiscal shibboleth, mere rhetoric dressed up as science?

          Well, it is important to go slowly here. Let us ask first what would be a stimulus that wasn’t poor  (Incidentally, doesn’t “stimulus” strike one as an ‘interesting’ – a surprising – word for an anti-Behavourist to use?! – see below). Presumably, if Chomsky’s claim is contentful rather than being mere empty metaphysics, a dressing up of our ordinary understanding of these matters in non-existent clothes, then we will be able to say at least what a stimulus that wasn’t poor would look like, even if one is never actually encountered in the world.

          ‘A rich stimulus’ would perhaps be one that would make errors in linguistic competence impossible? But that would require not only linguistic omniscience, but also an infallible and universally guaranteed connection between ‘evidence’ on the one hand and ‘output’ of the lingustic competence module of the mind on the other. No ‘finite’ ‘stimulus’ could be of this nature.

          Would it be enough for a ‘stimulus’ to be rich for it to logically exclude logically possible mistakes from being made which in fact humans make, though hardly ever? But there is no principled criterion for differentiating between a stimulus that would do this and the ‘infinite’ (and thus all-too-assuredly ‘rich’) stimulus just ‘imagined’. No ‘finite stimulus’ could in principle do the work of logically ruling out the kinds of errors that humans never or rarely make.

          And of course, this was really to be expected. For all the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument is is a mangled and misleadingly-presented application of the quite general philosophical points concerning under determination of theory by data made by Logical Positivism and followed up by Quine, and in a different fashion by Nelson Goodman.[14] Thus all it rules out is an incoherent (not false) ‘view’ which perhaps a very few confused Empiricists (and, ‘ironically’, one strand in the early Chomsky?[15]) may at some moments have held – the ‘view’ that language could be learnt – and ‘inductively proven’ (whatever that would mean...) to have a certain structure – by means of hypothesis-formation. This view, clearly-recognised as a non-starter in the quotation earlier from Coulter et al, being in fact incoherent for various reasons; for starters, because you’d need a language in which to frame the hypotheses.[16]

          What I have shown here, I think, is that the logic of the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument turns out on close inspection to be no logic at all. It does not actually make sense to call the stimulus “poor”, because there is no coherent version of the world in which one could have a “rich” stimulus, by the standards of the discussion.[17] (One at best gets a “rich” stimulus by appealing to God, or to infinity – it’s the same difference here, as usual.[18])  The ‘poverty of the stimulus’ looked like the basis of a possible scientific – empirical – support for Chomsky’s theory; but in fact it is only making – and misleadingly at that – a simple and unarguable philosophical point. A thesis which there is again no point in putting forward as a dramatic claim – because no-one could disagree with it.

          Meanwhile, the word “stimulus” (not to mention the word “poverty”) is misused – for it turns out that Chomsky’s real point can only be that it is simply inappropriate to talk the talk of “stimulus” here! This latter is a point that anyone not already a dupe of scientism would have been able to see for themselves anyway. For we are not dealing with a situation which is correctly and unmisleadingly characterisable as involving anything like the construction of a theory.[19] (Though that is just what Chomsky refuses to admit...)

          It is important not to misunderstand the moral of the above discussion. Chomsky presents an argument that purports to have empirical relevance and consequences, but which turns out to embody at best a trivial conceptual point. That no ‘stimulus’ could ever be rich enough to ‘generate’ language from within literally a blank slate, from nothing, is not an interesting empirically-relevant conclusion but is – even if charitably-interpreted – still more no more than a banally-obvious truism  (If ‘a piece of blank slate’ could be gotten to speak, we would not understand it; or it would not be a piece of blank slate.). The ‘poverty of the stimulus’ argument, far from being the basis for an existence-proof of Cognitive Science, proves exactly nothing about real human beings and their speech.


          The fundamental problem that I have raised (and rehearsed) thus far in the present paper is this: that important work in theoretical linguistics is rather thoroughly shot-through with philosophical etc. assumptions of (in many cases) a most troubling kind. How are these to be tackled, to be reconceived? Arguably, what is most urgently required is for some of the terms of art that this theoretical linguistics uses to be brought back to their everyday senses, their everyday uses. The trouble with Chomsky’s lLinguistics is that it gives at best ‘a metaphysical sense’ to various of its key terms – terms that either are, or are functionally related to, words of a completely everyday and non-scientific nature – while pretending that it is only doing/being science. As shown above, it is metaphysics, to ‘deduce’, for instance, that “Really, language is not learnt; it only grows in certain organisms”, from a set of arguments that contain substantive and questionable philosophical premises and only gain their plausibility from the risible nature of their historical ‘opposition’ within philosophy, i.e. from sometime Empiricist nonsense about tabula rasas,  etc. .[20]

          Chomsky does not look at the practice of language. Indeed, on the contrary, his work has made it harder than ever for us to see how we do language, and how we live mind.

          Is that obscure? If so, then perhaps what I am getting at can better be illustrated via the following quote from Wittgenstein: “What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (‘Philosophical Investigations’ para. 116)

          It is this that Chomsky patently does not do – that he does the reverse of. It is this Chomsky, who is a metaphysician in scientist’s clothing, who takes words away from their everyday use and puts them in fact only to a mythico-scientistic – ‘metaphysical’ – use, who one might have just intellectual cause to want to radically recontextualize, to bring down to size, even to ‘hate’.





Section II :

Why I love Chomsky (as political writer and responsible intellectual)


          There is another – a different – Noam Chomsky to the Chomsky of the MIT Linguistics and Philosophy Department, and this one I really do deeply admire; his works and influence I largely love.

          How has Chomsky managed to add his second – political – reputation to the first? What are the clues to his fame and success as a public intellectual?

          We might start by noting that he is a foe of intellectual elitism in matters of political theory and practice, and deeply suspicious of those who would be (in policy-making or in providing the kind of background of academic respectability that policy-makers like and eventually need) quasi-scientific ‘experts’ re. political and historical matters. He mocks the need for grand theories in the political and historical sphere, suspecting that all such theories and models are rackets for the obscuring of truths which are quite within the grasp of any moderately well-informed citizen.[21]

          Instead, he simply describes what is happening / has happened, and endeavours to systematically debunk and unmask those who would give false or misleading descriptions, either directly in their own interests or in the interests of those with power over them or (more commonly) simply as part of their job, as part of an in-place and functioning system (but a system which we may adjudge overall to be ‘dysfunctional’ and/or unjust). He is especially concerned at the forms this takes in recent times, where, as he suggests (in the tradition of Orwell), it takes the form among other things of a hypostatisation of language into a less direct character, into manners of speaking which are less ‘uncomfortable’ and challenging.

          But these remarks are not intended to be evocative of a grand Chomskian political theory – there is none such, only pragmatic common-sense and vision,[22]  and a lot of information (and a smattering of humanistic Anarchist ethical and political principle[23]). The way to understand Chomsky’s politics is inevitably in concrete cases. Most notably, perhaps, in the way he attempts to unmask the corruption of the very language we speak, corruption which often seems functionally to occur in order to render it harder than it would otherwise be for ordinary people to grasp what is happening to them or to others.

          What do I mean by “corruption” here? Let us look, again only briefly, at some examples.  One of Chomsky’s methods is simply to take a bit of contemporary news-speak, present us with it, and re-contextualize it to the point that we realize how bizarre it truly is. His paper on “Problems of Population Control” in a major collection of his articles, ‘Deterring Democracy’, yields some of many possible exemplifications of this.[24] The paper begins by citing the Wall Street Journal’s headline at the time when there was first talk of a post-Cold-War ‘peace dividend’ – the Journal decided that in fact what we were now seeing arrive was the “Unsettling specter of Peace”. Chomsky simply allows us to notice how this figuration of peace, as the spectre now haunting Europe and America, can only make sense if one is pursuing the interests of a narrowly-defined set of groups (e.g. weapons producers, some economic planners) who do not have the obvious attitude to superpower peace – that of sighing with relief. Chomsky goes on to argue that the approach of this ‘spectre’ renders it advisable for these particular groups to look for an alternative method of channelling the population’s aspirations and fears, now that the threat of the Communists is no longer plausible or relevant. He finds that this alternative has been found in part in ‘the Drug War’, and goes on to suggest some of the manners in which this diversion of attention is fostered, by means for instance of focussing on the threat to Third World ‘democracies’ purportedly posed by drug-trafficking (and by the supposed complicity of leftist guerillas with narco-traffickers), though not, supposedly, by certain other factors (e.g. by the actions of the American and British governments):


        The naive might ask why we fail to exercise [our/America’s] right of intervention in South Korea, Indonesia... There is no inconsistency, however. These countries are committed to “democracy” in the operative [ – among the relevant elites –] meaning of the term: unchallenged rule by elite elements...that generally respect the interests of U.S. investors, with appropriate forms for occasional ratifications by segments of the public. When these conditions are not satisfied, intervention is legitimate to restore democracy.


        To take the fashionable case of the 1980s, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was a “totalitarian society” (Sec. of State James Baker) ...where we must intervene massively to assure that elites responsive to U.S. interests prevail as elsewhere in the region. Colombia, in contrast, is a democracy with a “level playing field”, in current jargon, since these elements rule with no political challenge. A closer look at Colombia...provides further insight into what counts as “democracy”. In Colombia, the New York Times informs us, courageous people threatened by “violence from cocaine gangs” are struggling “to preserve democratic normalcy”. The reference [to ‘courageous people’] is not to peasants, union leaders, or advocates of social justice and human rights who face the violence of the military and the oligarchy. And crucially, democratic normalcy has never been threatened by the fact that the two parties that share political power are “two horses [with] the same owner” (former President A.L.Michaelsen) – not exactly a circumstance unfamiliar to us. Nor does a problem arise from the actual conditions of this “democratic normalcy”. Death squads have killed about 1000 members of the one party not owned by the oligarchy (the Patriotic Union, UP) since its founding in 1985, leaving the unions and popular organisations with no meaningful political representation.

These death squads dedicated to extermination of “subversives” are in league with the security forces (Amnesty International). An official government inquiry made public in 1983 found that over a third of members of paramilitary groups engaged in political killings and other terror were active-duty officers, a pattern that continues up to the present, along with alliances with drug dealers, according to human rights inquirers...[25]

          America’s historic purpose” – and its “yearning for democracy” [26]  – are, so we are told, not threatened by these humdrum and myriad violations of what would and do appear to a competent user of the languaauge to be the most basic features of ... democracy. The misuse of the English language (in its popular and uncorrupted sense) that is being practised upon us – that is evident in for instance the nested New York Times quote – is part of the context of the violations of decency and humanity that are obvious in much U.S. policy toward Latin America, etc. .  Chomsky is in the business of sarcastically deconstructing and unmasking the kind of linguistic corruption that is in play when words are thus abused. He is attempting to lead his readers to see the nonsense latent in theoretical-propagandistic discourses that have been presented to us as obvious truths (or unquestionable frameworks).


          Another of Chomsky’s deservedly-effectual rhetorical strategies, besides exposing the dubious and ‘technical’ uses of words operative in the media (and in parts of the academy) etc., is to call features of (e.g.) the American polity by names which are usually reserved for what ‘America’ is fighting against, in order to highlight the ‘technical’ – aberrant, extraordinary –nature of these names’ use by the media, government, etc. . Thus, in “Problems of Population Control”, he speaks of “the Washington Connection” [27]  (cf. ‘the French Connection’) – of the trafficking in illegal drugs to raise money for illegal covert operations (and also of the facilitation of the (legal) export of chemicals that the government has overwhelming evidence to believe will be used to make illegal drugs); and he speaks more generally of the “huge narcotrafficking operation” [28] run by the American government (by virtue, under the banner of ‘free trade’, of its forcing foreign countries to accept its tobacco exports, even when they  have laws which would forbid this)!

          These methods of Chomsky’s are summed up perhaps most effectively in his short and deliberately-populist tract, ‘What Uncle Sam really wants’:



                    The terms of political discourse typically have two meanings. One is the dictionary meaning, and the other is a meaning that is useful for serving power – the doctrinal meaning...

        [T]ake “free enterprise”, a term that refers, in practice, to a system of public subsidy and private profit, with massive governmental intervention in the economy to maintain a welfare state for the rich. In fact, in acceptable usage, just about any phrase containing the word “free” is likely to mean something like the opposite of its actual meaning...

        [Or take] “special interest”... The well-oiled Republican PR systems of the 1980s regularly accused the Democrats of being the party of the special interests: women, labour, the elderly, the young, farmers – in short, the general population… . The Democrats plaintively retorted that they were not the party of the special interests: they served the national interest too. That was correct, but their problem has been that they lack the single-minded class consciousness of their Republican opponents. The latter are not confused about their role as representatives of the owners and managers of society...

To make sense of political discourse, it’s necessary to give a running translation into English, decoding the doublespeak of the media, academic social scientists and the secular priesthood generally. Its function is not obscure: the effect is to make it impossible to find words to talk about matters of human significance in a coherent way. We can then be sure that little will be understood about how our society works and what is happening in the world – a major contribution to democracy, in the PC sense of the word.  [29]

            To make sense of political discourse, it’s necessary to give a running translation into English, decoding the doublespeak of the media, academic social scientists and the secular priesthood generally. Its function is not obscure: the effect is to make it impossible to find words to talk about matters of human significance in a coherent way. We can then be sure that little will be understood about how our society works and what is happening in the world – a major contribution to democracy, in the PC sense of the word.


At best, all that one will be able to trust, in this process of trying to look and see how one’s society is, behind the smoke and mirrors of politically ‘metaphysical uses’ – i.e. propagandistic abuses – of language, is one’s own linguistic competence/performance (one’s being a master of a language-in-use).[30] These ought always to be the starting points for any proposed extensions of the use of terms for particular purposes.[31] (Chomsky appeals to nothing else – not, for instance, to empirical fieldwork or to arcane political theory.)

          Any technical terms being used in (for instance) what academics call ‘political science’, Chomsky’s position makes clear, need to be justified. Otherwise they stand vulnerable to the charge of not reflecting the self-understandings of the people upon whom the technical terms are being deployed. Of substituting instead a superstructure of uses of terms and established presumptions and maxims which will tend, for political and practical reasons, in general only to serve the interests of career-builders in political science, in government planning, etc. . And of serving the illusion that our systems of governance and polity in the contemporary West / North are pretty open, free, and democratic – while ensuring that these systems remain in practice astonishingly closed and tipped toward the support of corporate and elite power and profits.

          And so: Chomsky shows us how we need to and can resist the transformation of our language into a something it ought not to be. In his highly-practical and non-theoretical political and historical work, he resists the turning of our ordinary language into a replacement for it both technical and  emotive. And he resists especially the obscuring  of this turning -- the obscurantist failure to admit that the use, for instance, of the binary opposition “special interest” vs. “public interest” in the U.S. media today is a technical use not reflecting our ordinary or common-sense understanding of these terms, and a use furthermore evidently intended (to judge by its ‘judicious’ use on the political Right) to have an emotive effect (i.e. to get us to like tanks rather than people, etc. ... ).

          It would be no exaggeration to say that the picture we find in the language of the modern media etc.  is one that tends to hold us captive, and that fosters an inchoate set of assumptions that are hard to resist because they are so repeatedly implied and ‘gently’ drummed into one, such that they become the ‘received wisdom’ not only of our pundits and journalists and politicians and think-tanks and academics, but of all of us, unless we are very vigilant. I use the word “inchoate” in the above sentence deliberately, because, rather than being false, many of these assumptions are literally absurd or nonsensical. How could it be, for instance, that “the public interest” had hardly anything to do with the actual interests (as perceived and comprehended in their guts and in the daily realities of their lives) of the public?? Many of the ‘technical’ usages of terms in media/academic political discourse have become so perverted that they simply are metaphysical/nonsensical, as they stand.

          It seems to me, then, that it is true (applied political) philosophy to do what Chomsky does: to look at the illusions (not simple falsehoods) that are perpetrated upon us (and that we perpetrate upon ourselves and others) when language goes (or is sent) on holiday to war.


          In Section II of this paper, as in Section I, I have aimed mostly just to provide an account of half of Chomsky’s work, not to effect a very substantively new appraisal of it. I hope however that the reader recognizes a part of what I have been doing that is novel in this account – namely, my implicitly likening Chomsky’s methodology in his political writing on language etc. to Wittgenstein’s methods in his thinking about language, about how everyday language is actually used, contrary to ‘the received wisdom’ of philosophers and linguists. Chomsky helps us to see how our (political) discourse actually works. He points beyond the bankrupt ‘thinking’ of most political philosophers and pundits alike -- with their ‘theories’ of (say) political obligation, or capitalism, or what have you.

           I hope that this may be of some use in re-orienting one’s understanding of this half of Chomsky’s work. I am suggesting that Chomsky’s writings on politics are centred around some important, striking and efficacious reflections on language, but reflections of a completely different nature to those we find in Chomsky’s philosophical linguistics. The Chomsky I love is the Chomsky who, in his political and historical work, brings words like “American” and “national interest” and “Communist” and “conservative” [32] and “victory” and “freedom fighter” and “truth” back from their metaphysical to their everyday uses.[33]


Section III

Conclusion: When to Bring Words Back to Their Everyday Uses


          Chomsky’s politics and his linguistics can be kept quite separate. But those who would deduce things about one from the other are not entirely mistaken. Chomsky’s general Humanist Universalist Enlightenment attitude can indeed be seen behind some of his politics, as well as (vaguely) behind his linguistics in its species-centred bio-psychological presumptions. He would countenance to some degree an innate psychological basis for the preference for free institutions and for freedom from various kinds of controls, and thus for his opposition to political philosophies of generalized ‘human plasticity’, such as Behaviourism and some historically-strong strands in ‘Marxism’.

          However, the vital (if indirect) link that I have endeavoured thus far in the present paper to intimate is different, perhaps more salient – and, I think, more solidly argued for. It is this:  Chomsky believes that any endeavour which can be genuinely pursued using more or less exclusively methods modelled on those of the natural sciences need not pay any dues to or take any notice of our ordinary language, of what normally (and therefore, I would suggest, ultimately) makes sense to say. Barring not-unreasonable concerns about the existence in the first place of a genuinely identifiable scientific method, which are beyond the scope of the present paper, one can hardly disagree deeply with his belief. What I have tried to suggest is that Chomsky errs crucially in wrongly identifying Linguistics (and certain other disciplines/areas such as ‘Cognitive Science’ etc.) unreservedly as having in fact been successfully so modelled by him and his followers.[34] Wrongly, because these areas in fact have from seen a great deal of problematic philosophising and popularizing, etc., more-or-less inextricably mixed in with their actual scientific content. And ‘wrongly’ also because Chomsky thus neglects the huge and vital sense in which people can, without any technical training, attain linguistic competence about language, can master how to speak of language learning etc.; and can learn to recognise the abuse of everyday language which Generative Grammar etc. tries to foist upon us. (Of course, there is a ‘lovely’ irony here – that Chomsky, the great champion of linguistic competence, should fail to recognise and accept this specific respect in which we are quite competent linguistically prior to any ‘scientific’ learning...)

          Thus Chomsky thinks – wrongly – that he can do Linguistics in a way that ignores precisely the effective aspects of how he does Politics, that is, by means of careful and critical attention to (its) language. The argument of this paper denies him the almost absolute differentiation between ‘(Philosophical) Linguistics’ and ‘Political Science’ that he normally presupposes. Both are ‘human sciences’, human studies, studies of beings who always already have the capacity, the competence, to understand and describe themselves.[35] If there is a crude line to be drawn here, it should be drawn rather between the natural sciences (chemistry, molecular biology etc.) and the human ‘sciences’ (linguistics, psychology, politics, etc.).

          This is not, as I stressed in Section I, to say that one can get nothing out of pursuing Linguistics as if it were a natural science. But it is to say that what one thus gets will be limited, and in serious and continual need of respecification, of clarification and unconfusion. If one fails to call words – words used reflexively, of human beings’ linguistic and non-linguistic actions – back to their everyday uses, then one mostly falsifies one’s subject-matter. If one wants to get the characterisation of (e.g.) our linguistic abilities right, one had better take strongly into account at some point our ‘self-aware’ and inter-subjective mastery of those abilities, the normativity inherent in that mastery, and so forth.[36] 

          It is arguably essential in soundly doing human science / social studies to take seriously the language which people actually use, the rules which they follow, their own mastery of their practices. For amplification and justification of this claim, which would take us too far afield in the present context, see Peter Winch’s work, and the entire area of (Wittgenstein-influenced) Ethnomethodology.[37] But for a concrete illustration at least, let us take a moment to look at a particularly relevant moment from the work of probably the leading contemporary ethnomethodologist of science, Mike Lynch, stating the methodology he recommends for the study of any scientific endeavour:


        “Use a “normal science” methodology. This [term, in the present context,] derives from an offhand remark made by Noam Chomsky in a debate with a sociologist. Chomsky presented a critical argument about the way the “mainstream” U.S. press covers international events and conflicts. In his talk he made a number of cross-national and historical comparisons, and afterward a sociologist commentator questioned whether his account followed appropriate “methodological” canons for the selection of comparable cases. Chomsky claimed in his rejoinder that no special knowledge of sociology or of its methodology was necessary for his purposes; rather, he asserted that he practised “normal science” when he presented and documented his argument. By this, I take it that he meant “nothing fancy”, that his method was one of juxtaposing (arguably) comparable cases, citing testimonies and reports, drawing out common themes, noting relevant discrepancies and trends, and appealing to common intuitions and judgements. // “Normal science” in this sense uses ordinary modes of observing, describing, comparing, reading, and questioning, and its constituent activities are expressed in vernacular terms. From the standpoint of an idealized scientific observer, this may be a disappointing methodology... . Although normal science offers no foundation for a scientific sociology, it serves very well for the kind of investigation I have in mind, because a more “technical” approach might dazzle us, thus distracting our attention from the primitive...phenomena that first must be understood in their “natural” settings.” [38]

          I hope that by now it is clear what kind of lessons and parallels I would draw from this very interesting and useful passage. Why indeed think that there should or could be anything “fancy” or ‘dazzling’ to a useful social studies or political studies approach, anything that outran the resources of those making up the society or polity in question to come to grips with? Why think, even, that there could usefully be a “scientific sociology” or a “scientific political ‘science’”, equipped with ‘technical’ resources etc.? If we could not through our everyday language come to understand ourselves, our everyday language, how could a technical replacement for it help? [39]


          The upshot of my argument then – and this is the crux of the matter – is this: it is essential in soundly doing ‘social/human science’ to recognise the language which participants actually use, to get clear about how they are using words, to understand the world as they ‘construct’ it (for instance, using words like “public interest” and “terrorist” to mean what they actually do mean) and not as it is constructed ‘for’ them (by academics and other theorists, or by pundits, politicians, etc.). In particular, it is essential in avoiding error or imperialism vis-a-vis language itself to do the same in Linguistics. [40] And sadly, Chomsky has made an immense academic career – in Linguistics – out of doing the very reverse.

          He has tried, instead, to (re)-construct for us the world of our grasp of our own language, to foist a set of alien terms upon us or to persuasively redefine the terms we already have and can use perfectly well, while pretending that he is simply and neutrally describing and explaining how things really are in this domain...

          If one looks at the tone with which Chomsky addresses his critics on the the theory of language, one will soon see instances of the kind of thing I mean. The way that Chomsky tends to simply and derisively dismiss – as grossly false, as dismal and out-dated non-starters – deep and serious criticisms of his line,[41] criticisms which do not assume his ‘technical’ senses of words like those discussed and problematised in Section I of this paper – the way I suspect most of those reading this paper who think of themselves as Linguists or Cognitive Scientists or even Philosophers of Language will simply dismiss most of my argument without following it through carefully and looking at it in the context it would choose for itself, as opposed to in the context of the received (Chomskian) ‘wisdom’ – is so very (sadly) reminiscent of the way in which the Chomskian line on politics is routinely dismissed by ‘mainstream’ intellectuals and commentators, by the William F. Buckleys and Andrew Marrs of this world...[42]


          I would advocate bringing words back to their everyday uses whenever possible, except when some clear function (e.g creating literary effects; or speaking of something for which we otherwise lack any requisite terms (as is often necessary in the genuine (i.e. natural) sciences); or harmlessly abbreviating) is served by doing otherwise. I love Chomsky when he brings words back from their metaphysical (the property of a deceiving or self-deceived elite) back to their everyday (known to any competent speaker) use  [See Section II above]. I don’t love him when he doesn’t  [See Section I above]. I ‘love’ and ‘hate’ him, then, for the very same reason: that I think what we ought usually to be doing, all we ‘human scientists’ and intellectuals, is bringing back words to their ordinary uses, and pointing out remorselessly those who fail to do so – or who, in fact, do the opposite.

          Thus I can argue that it is because Chomsky on politics brings words back to their everyday and proper uses, rather than accentuating the opposite process (as his practice in his Linguistic theorizing encourages), that we don’t have the problem in his political thought of reconciling how what he does can be both populistically/popularly available and correct, a telling of the truth and of the facts of the matter. While in the Linguistics, there is a massive and irresolvable tension between the elements and broadly-brushed implications of the work which are supposed to be popularly accessible and the elements of the work which are highly technical/scientific in nature and content.

          A Wittgensteinian political philosophy must be non-Theoretical, and must place a premium on ‘the Ordinary’, on everyday uses of words, as opposed to metaphysical theorisations of words. Chomsky’s political writings at their best clearly satisfy those desiderata. They might even be qualified to join the (in my view) extremely select band of late twentieth century writings on politics and political philosophy which can be accurately said obviously to exemplify a genuinely Wittgensteinian sensibility.[43] But the very things that he condemns in the New York Times are practiced by Chomsky himself in, say, Cartesian Linguistics, with no sense on his part that there is anything amiss.

          Thus the presence in Chomsky of a more or less Wittgensteinian political sensibility manifests a deep irony (an irony the underlying reasons for which I have endeavoured to explain in this ‘Conclusion’), if I am right in thinking that Chomsky’s philosophy more generally – as we saw in Part I of this essay, on language and mind – is about as anti-Wittgensteinian as you can get.



Many thanks to Richard Hamilton, for thorough comments and discussion, and for some fine original ideas and words which have also left their mark in and on my paper -- some of my formuations are owed directly to him. Thanks also to Wes Sharrock, Mike Lynch, John Street, Jeff Coulter, David Houghton, Ellen Klein, Brian Bamford, Nigel Pleasants and to a couple of anonymous referees, for thoughtful readings. Thanks finally to Noam Chomsky, for taking the time to write a long set of highly acerbic, virtually derisive comments on an earlier version of this paper -- his comments, ‘ironically’, have only convinced me the stronger that this paper needed to be written and published.




[1] Of course, even within Linguistics not all of the ‘hatred’ for Chomsky (and incidentally, Chomskians generally give at least as ‘good’ as they get) is hidden. See David Berreby, “Figures of Speech: The rise and fall and rise of Chomsky’s linguistics” [a review of R.A.Harris’s The Linguistics Wars], The Sciences (Jan./Feb. 1994).  It’s interesting to note also the super-Kuhnian political metaphors used by Chomsky’s professional opponents to describe the nature of his ‘victory’ and ‘revolution’ within Linguistics. “Palace coup” is even a term used more than once. For references, see F.Newmeyer’s “Has there been a ‘Chomskyan revolution’ in Linguistics?” (Language 62 (1986), 1-18).

[2] I am thinking for example of the formulaic ‘methodology’ (and of the arguably-utterly-incoherent notion of ‘cognitive closure’ lying at its root) of Colin McGinn’s Problems in Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993). When one compares the excellence of some of McGinn’s earlier work, and notes the huge acknowledgement given to Chomsky in Problems in Philosophy, one can’t help but worry.

[3] See for instance pp.326-335 of Jeff Coulter’s “Is ‘the new sentence problem’  a genuine problem?”, in Theory and Psychology 1:3 (1991), and also Section III, below. Dichotomies integral to the presentation of Chomskian results in Linguistics (e.g. the ‘syntax’ vs. ‘semantics’ dichotomy) have been powerfully argued by Coulter and others to be of deeply dubious standing.

[4] Here is Chomsky: “Note that we [use] the term “theory” with a systematic ambiguity, to refer both to the child’s innate predisposition to learn a language of a certain type and to the linguist’s account of this” (“Methodological Preliminaries” in Jacobovits and Miron (eds.), Readings in the psychology of language (NY: Prentice Hall, 1967)). The systematic ambiguity being unproblematic -- in fact, useful --Chomsky thinks, because the parallels between the two cases are, he thinks, so thorough. For a compelling more detailed account of the nature (and pitfalls) of Chomsky’s rendition of the child as theorist, consult p.211ff. of Button, Coulter, Lee, & Sharrock: Computers, Minds and Conduct (Oxford: Polity, 1994).

[5] One of the more bizarre results of Chomsky’s attempt to be consistent while conceptualizing the child as if it were a scientist (or as if it contained one, the homuncularistic aspect of Chomsky’s theory being one of its more troubling aspects) is that Chomsky has been led at times rather desperately to speculate that the scientist is in fact in possession of a deep ‘grammar’...of science! “[O]ne might suppose that the following general lines of an explanation are accurate: it is as if, as humans beings of a particular biologically given organisation, we have in our heads, to start with, a certain set of possible intellectual structures, possible sciences... . This set of principles...defines for us what is a possible intellectual structure, a possible deep-science, if you like.” (Chomsky, “Human Nature: Justice versus power”, pp.158, 167 of Elders (ed.), Reflexive Waters (London: Souvenir, 1974)). This is what comes, arguably, of taking ‘to its logical conclusion’ the view that “[a] rational [being must] conclude that the structure of the knowledge that is acquired in the case of [natural human language acquisition] is basically internal to the human mind; whereas the structure of physics is not, in so direct a way, internal to the human mind” (ibid., p.155, italics added). For a devastating discussion of the basic issue about language-acquisition, see H.A.Nielsen’s “How language exists: a question to Chomsky’s theory” (Philosophical Investigations 5 (1982)), in which Chomsky’s theory is philosophically satirized through the construction of a symmetrical theory to explain how it’s possible for people to acquire the iterative and ‘creative’ skills needed to work in factories. One might ask: Do we also, according to Chomsky’s logic, actually need to postulate a ‘deep physics’ to explain how people physically manoeuvre themselves around the world?! (Do animals share this ‘deep physics’?!) Is it this deep physics which physical scientists are essentially trying to ‘recollect’?!  (But in truth what we should ask is: Is our ‘knowledge of language’ in fact anything like our knowledge of physics?)

[6] Button et al (op.cit.), p.212.

[7] I have explained my fundamental distrust of ‘metaphysics’ (of words being used ‘without opposition’) and have analyzed in more general terms the kind of philosophic error involved in such manipulation of technical terms in my “On the eliminability of technical terms from philosophical enquiries” (unpublished paper, given to the Human Sciences Seminar, Manchester Metro. U., Oct. 31 1996, ; and to the Philosophy Seminar, Humanities, Exeter University, Dec. 4 1998), and in my "Wittgenstein and Marx on ordinary and philosophical language", in Essays in Philosophy 1:2 (Summer 2000); on-line journal:

[8]  Chomsky from Elders (ed.), op.cit. , p.151. For a critical (though ultimately rather sympathetic) account of Chomsky on creativity, see Geoffrey Sampson’s The form of language (London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1984), espec. pp.53-57.

[9] See Sampson (ibid.), p.54: “In a common sense of ‘creative’...a creative activity is one whose future products will typically fail to fall under a definition constructed to account for past instances [e.g. as in art]. By treating human languages as well-defined sets of strings, Chomsky implies...that the use of language is not in this sense a creative activity.”

[10] Culture and Value (posthumous -- ed. von Wright, transl. Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980)), p.18.

[11] In this, Rorty follows Philip Rieff, in his Freud: The mind of the moralist (New York: Harper and Row, 1966; especially p.36).

[12] Cf. this bizarre remark of Chomsky’s: “This creative use of language is quite incompatible with the idea that language is a habit-structure. Whatever a habit-structure is, it’s clear that you can’t innovate by habit, and the characteristic use of language, both by a speaker and a hearer, is innovative.” (Quoted on p.18 of Transformational Grammar, by A.Radford (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1986)  So if I habitually go for a walk at tea-time, I must take the exact same route -- and indeed make the exact same bodily movements -- every single time??! (See also Sampson (op.cit., pp.55-56), who usefully points out that while in one sense Chomsky allows too much creativity to language, in another sense he allows too little: “[T]here is no limit on the ways we can analogize between phenomena. ...If a sequence of words acquires a use only by virtue of a ‘creative’ act, as Wittgenstein suggests [in his discussions of family-resemblance and of finding/inventing contexts in which apparently nonsensical strings can make sense], then the notion of a grammar with predictive consequences seems to be a mirage; and if no grammars, then no Chomskyan theory of language.” Rorty and Davidson have argued similarly on metaphor, more recently.)

[13] Chomsky might be defended here on the grounds that the contradiction between these two moments is merely apparent: He is speaking of creativity existing within a framework. All well and good, but this is not enough to resolve the contradiction: For insofar as we regard the human being as a ‘language-machine’, it cannot properly be said to be creative at all (see also note 9, above). No more than can, for example, a simple digital computer that has been programmed to ‘translate’ sentences from one human language to another. (Chomsky doesn’t understand that he is doing philosophy unawarely. If he were aware, and tuned into Wittgensteinian philosophical ‘methods’, he could then legitimately suggest that the apparently-contradictory remarks just given are in fact ‘grammatical remarks’, uttered on particular occasions as part of a therapeutic project. This claim would be interesting to assess; however, we do not need to assess it, because Chomsky’s lack of reflexive / philosophic understanding makes the claim unavailable to him.)

[14] See p.213 of Button, Coulter et al, op cit. (Again, we have here the irony of noting what Chomsky shares with his supposed nemeses, i.e. with famous Empiricists such as Quine. A Wittgensteinian perspective hereabouts is about as far from Quine as Quine is far from (and near to) Chomsky. This is arguably  in large part because, as D. Hatch notes (pp.32-33 of his “Chomskian Linguistics: God’s truth or Hocus Pocus”, Ethnographic Studies 4 (Oct. 99), 27-49), the poverty of the stimulus argument is only relevant to ‘Skinnerian’ views -- views which Quine and (at a deep level) Chomsky share.)

[15] What Chomsky more recently cashes in terms of ‘triggering’ and the like used to be put in terms explicitly of hypothesis-formation. One might even say that the poverty of the stimulus argument only works fully in the very special context of the early Chomsky’s own views! See n.16, below.

[16] As they write on pp.212-3 of their (op.cit.): “If one supposes that learning a language is like figuring out a theory, then Chomsky’s argument is: it is not possible to learn such a theory from others. Note, however, that the argument already incorporates one of Chomsky’s own philosophical premises, that knowledge of a language is akin to knowledge of a theory. Note also that the idea of learning as a matter of hypothesizing is part of this (philosophical) apparatus. If hypothesizing is something which is done in a language, then ... as far as Chomsky is must therefore be the case that [children] are in possession of a language before they can speak, or give any other manifestation of possessing a language.” This last absurd conclusion, embraced famously in the work of Jerry Fodor, is itself exploded by Button, Coulter et al on pp.54ff. of their book.

[17] Chomskians might still insist on asking, “Why do we develop one grammar rather than another, then? What’s your account of why this grammar rather than that is arrived upon in humans’ linguistic development?” This is strictly quite beyond the scope of the present paper, but two brief points:   

   (i) ‘Grammar’ in this sense is their term, not mine. It’s just begging the question to ask “Explain to us, why this grammar rather than that one?”!

   (ii) More important, this kind of question is arguably just empty, too. For if one talks ‘the generative grammar talk’, then there are always further possibilities logically compatible with any evidence; such as the (in any case quite paltry) evidence which the generative grammarians have assembled.

[18] For a powerful amplification of my claims here concerning Chomsky’s use of “infinity”, see Coulter’s “Is the ‘New Sentence Problem’ a Genuine Problem?” (op.cit.). Note that it is not enough for Chomskians to resist my argument here by claiming that we can say what the so-called ‘data’ -- the misleadingly-termed ‘stimulus’  -- would need to be in order for Empiricist mechanisms to prove adequate to guarantee language-acquisition. For how rich the ‘data’ would need to be in order to do this has never even, to my knowledge, been explicitly asserted, let alone argued for. And more importantly, the reason for this is probably that the Empiricist ‘mechanisms’ that have occasionally been proposed make no sense for the case of a language-less child  (I in fact think that mostly the right way, and certainly the charitable way, to read Goodman et al is as providing roughly  the same kind of philosophical reminders as I am giving here -- not as proposing an alternative mechanism(s) to those proposed by Rationalistic Linguists; compare p.80f. of Chomsky’s Language and Mind (enlarged edition; New York: Harcourt, 1972)). Chomsky puts up the Empiricists as opponents whose theories are false -- but the latter aren’t usefully described as ‘theories’, still less (if theories) usefully dignified with the descriptor, “false”. If you argue for the falsity of an incoherent/non-existent ‘view’, your own ‘view’ will almost certainly be incoherent too. I am suggesting that we have good grounds for taking Chomskian Linguistics to be, at the level of its self-description, incoherent metaphysics.

               On the related, subsidiary, question of the supposed counterbalancing of the diversity of languages (and the threat that this presents to the claims of Generative Grammar) by the Chomksian argument that in fact the differences between languages are superficial, and that at the level of Deep Structure all languages are fundamentally the same and thus accountable for by the postulation of Universal Grammar, much the same mode of response should be employed. As Quine has implied but perhaps not fully brought out, being possibly too inclined to argue with Chomsky full-bloodedly as a would-be ‘scientific’ opponent (rather than as confused, and misleading), the argument here is a merely metaphysical one. The relevant quasi-Quinian/Davidsonian deflationary question is: How could it not appear/be, when one engages in the translation of another language, that it possesses a structure relevantly mappable onto the structure of one’s own??

[19] As implied on p,213 of Button, Coulter et al, and above, it is of course then moot as to whether Chomsky’s analogising of the child to the linguist can be anything other than nonsensical (as even Chomsky latterly seems to have partially recognised). See Nielsen, op.cit. .

[20] My use of “metaphysics” as a term of criticism is intended to be tied to Wittgenstein’s similar use of the term, and of the term “nonsense”. For exposition, see James Conant’s paper, “Frege and Wittgenstein on elucidation and nonsense”, in Crary and Read (eds.), The New Wittgenstein (London: Routledge, 2000).

[21] See for instance the citations and remarks on pp.201-5 of Raphael Salkie’s usefully hagiographic The Chomsky Update: Linguistics and Politics (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990). (Salkie presupposes what I wish in the present paper to object to: the claim that linguistics, unlike politics, is properly a “specialised technical field” (p.201).)

[22] The unexpected affinity of Chomskian politics with Pragmatism (see for instance the close of his “Nature, Nurture and the struggle for Freedom” (Red Pepper 51 (Aug. ‘98), pp.14-16) would be deserving of a paper to itself; I concentrate here on the unexpected affinity with Wittgenstein.

[23] See e.g. his Radical Priorities (ed. C. Otero (Montreal: Black Rose, 1981)).

[24] Pp. 107-137 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992). The paper’s title interestingly confounds our expectations: it turns out not to refer to the containment of the growth of population, but simply to the containment in the sense of ‘crowd control’ of Western populations. See n.26, below.

[25] Ibid., pp.109-110.

[26] Ibid.: “In the Reagan years a “yearning for democracy” was added to the battery of population control measures”.

[27] Ibid.,p.119.

[28] Ibid., p.121.

[29] Pp.86-91 (Berkeley: Odonian Press, 1991).

[30] Supplemented, where necessary, by Austinian-cum-Sacksian study of the actual social use of terms  (See John Lee, “Language and culture: the linguistic analysis of culture”, in Button (ed.), Ethnomethodology and the human sciences (Cambridge: CUP, 1991)). Clearly, such study and its data must and can be accessible to -- available to -- people without mastery of a theory, in a way which is not true of Chomskian Linguistics, but only of its popularizations. Popularizations which, I have argued in Section I of this paper, can be understood -- without mastery of any theory -- to offer only travesties of our language.

[31] Compare and contrast the discussion of Chomsky’s double-speakish use of the term “cognize” on pp.343-5 of G.P. Baker and P.M.S. Hacker’s Language, Sense and Nonsense (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984).

[32] On the word “conservative”, see Chomsky’s “Rollback II”, Z Magazine February 1995 (p.20f.).

[33] It will be objected, of course, that for some people, such as some Fascists and some leaderwriters, using a word or phrase like (e.g.) “freedom fighters” to connote what most of us would understand better by a phrase like “murderous butchers” is an everyday use. But the same is true, of course, in the case of the words of metaphysics -- some philosophers on an everyday basis use a word like (e.g.) “name” to connote what most of us would understand better by a word like “demonstrative”, and deny that proper names are ‘actually’ names at all (!), etc. . The importance of this is at least twofold: The Chomskian method in political thought, and the -- arguably -- concomitant Wittgensteinian method in philosophical thought must be 

(1) ‘therapeutically persuasive’ in intent -- we must always hold out hope that the other will themselves recognise that in some sense they meant to be using the terms in the sense in which we suggest they are generally/properly used, all along; and 

(2) only rarely if ever fully ethical neutral in intent and nature -- the task of returning someone to the ordinary uses of their words is arguably just not a non-moral a non-political one.  For the philosophical background to these claims, see e.g. S.Cavell’s Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome (Chicago: U.Chicago, 1990), Wittgenstein’s own remarks about the spirit of his work and the importance of people changing the way they talk and live, and also Naomi Scheman’s recent work (e.g. her “Forms of life: mapping the rough ground”, in The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein (eds. Sluga and Stern; Cambridge: C.U.P., 1996)).

[34] Is it not obvious how, for political-Chomsky-type reasons, one might have serious worries about the mystification liable to be involved if one abandons one’s concern with the everyday use of language as soon as one hits Linguistics, and focusses on finding hidden laws and ‘only-comprehensible-to-the-initiated’ truths there -- just as so many political scientists, economists, historians et al claim, most dubiously, to do?  (For more on the dangers inherent in the latter, see for instance Chomsky’s “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship” (in The Chomsky reader; New York: Pantheon, 1987; pp.83-120).)  How can it be right to take ‘Political Science’ in one way and ‘Linguistic Science’ in an utterly different and opposed way?

[35] The classic source for defending the claim I make here is Harvey Sacks, “Sociological description” (Berkeley Journal of Sociology 8 (1963), pp.1-16).

[36] For detailing of these points, see (e.g.) Baker and Hacker (op.cit.).

[37] In a forthcoming paper to be written jointly with Dave Randall I hope to take on the interesting and rather huge question of whether and how not just the work of Giddens and other ‘modern social science greats’ but also some Ethnomethodological work has itself been beset be an unfortunate tendency to scientise and jargonise. We argue that there is no room in the end for technical language as a basis for the pursuit of ‘social/human science’. (Similarly: the problem with Chomsky’s Linguistics in the end is not that his theory is bad -- the problem is that he engages in foundational and continuous theoretical discourse at all. It is a bad idea to suppose, as Chomsky does, that Linguistics (and/or Sociology) is science, while Politics is nothing fancy, is simply simpler ‘human affairs’. If we are forced to use this dichotomy at all, then it would be better to say that both are ‘human affairs’.)

[38] Scientific practice and ordinary action: Ethnomethodology and social studies of science (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), pp.304-5. (See also pp.11-12). Lynch notes in a footnote to p.304 that he “would not want to equate Chomsky’s remark at the conference with a proposal for a research program”, and that he doubts “whether he would have it cover his linguistics research.”  The question I am now asking is:  Does Chomsky have good grounds for treating the two cases so differently?

[39] Cf. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, para. 120.

[40] At least insofar as what one is doing is anything other than the generation of entirely logico-mathematical formalisms; or arriving at genuine results either through this means or through experimental means (hard as it may be to envisage how this could possibly happen). It is worth saying that there can be no quarrel with any practice in any science just so long as the range and nature of its claims are appropriately restricted. And Wittgensteinians et al err, if they think they can rule any results of Chomskian Linguistics out of court by exposing deleterious philosophical assumptions, etc. . A respecification of Linguistics, even one that raises deep and serious questions about (e.g.) the basic dichotomy of syntax vs. semantics -- or of these vs. pragmatics -- ought not to be confused with a simple all-out philosophical polemic against contemporary Lingustics, which is unlikely to help anyone terribly much.

[41] The difficulty of engaging with Chomsky’s thought,  and (more so) of getting Chomsky to engage, is intelligently explored in Geoffrey Galt Harpham’sChomsky and the rest of us”, in Salmagundi no.s 121-2 (Winter-Spring 1999), pp.211-237. Chomsky is always combative; but in his ‘philosophical linguistics’ this combativeness is flavoured with the very kind of elitism that in his politics he hopes to combat.

[42] The latter is shown graphically in the full-length film made by Barsamian et al on Chomsky’s life and work, Manufacturing Consent.

[43] In my view, this band is virtually exhausted by the following listing: some of the work of Gavin Kitching on Marx and Wittgenstein; the recent work of Nigel Pleasants; Naomi Scheman’s “Forms of life” (op.cit.); and Alice Crary’s “Wittgenstein’s relation to political thought” (in Read and Crary’s (op.cit.)), which systematically and efficaciously excoriates virtually every other preceding reading of Wittgenstein in this area.