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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight

A review of DECODING CHOMSKY (2016) by Chris Knight (Yale University Press)


Chris Knight sent me his Decoding Chomsky Ms., unsolicited, presumably in the knowledge that I am one of the great defenders of Chomsky. I replied, having read the preface, with a brief message of what I thought was wrong with it, mentioning that I might do a proper review on my blog and/or submit it to Biolinguistics. He replied saying that it would be a good idea. In the event I did this longer review and sent him a copy for the right of reply. He never did. Recently I also got an unsolicited message from Philip Lieberman who encouraged me to read his articles refuting Chomsky, again presumably because I might react, which I do in the article below as well (as opposed to Chomsky himself who has no time to engage at length in such negative enterprise1).


One of the best German grammars, in my humble opinion at least, is the (1981) Grundzüge einer deutschen Grammatik by Heidolph et al., published by the Akademie Verlag, Berlin, DDR  (the former GDR). In their foreword the authors make the following point (my translation):

The system of language should not appear to be an isolated description. It is therefore important, based on a Marxist-Leninist concept of human language, to at least point to a language-theoretic framework.

Chris Knight would approve while detractors can point out that above assertion was only mentioned once or twice (but not even in the ‘index’) in the 1,000 page compendium, adding insult to injury by perhaps being jocular, like in the TV ad, ‘they would have to say that, wouldn’t they’.

Personally, I too think it’s a nice idea that good science is done by good people, the definition of good being something like ‘socialist’ or ‘syndicalist-anarchist’, something that the political activist Chomsky espouses, something that Chris Knight approves of. Chris Knight however seems intent to prove the point that a good man like Chomsky can do bad science by claiming that the study of language is ‘value-free’, when according to Knight, language evolved from humans being social and egalitarian. What other permutations are there? Bad people doing bad science like in Nazi-Germany, like Mengele? Can you have bad people being good scientists? What about all the Nazi rocket scientist that were taken to the USA to make major contributions to NASA, like Wernher von Braun? What about all the great Soviet scientists who like our German friends above always credited Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism as their main inspiration? Chomsky who is no friend of Soviet-style totalitarianism, at least in the vein of Orwell’s Animal Farm, after all coined the term ‘intellectual commissars’ but of course given universal application inasmuch it also applies to servile American intellectuals like Alan Dershowitz.

Chris Knight is however doing more than just accusing Chomsky of bad science: he is accusing Chomsky of doing bad science that in turn supports the class-enemy, namely the American military industrial complex. His contention is that Chomsky willingly and knowingly accepted the ‘bad-mad’ science idea promulgated by the likes of  Warren Weaver, i.e. coming up with a universal language that would allow the implementation of a translation machine – with American English as the ‘universal’ language of course, being able to get into the heads of all American enemies and defeat them before they can put their bad thoughts into action. That MIT at the time was in part funded by the Pentagon is no secret and Chomsky knew as much as anybody else. So did Chomsky sell his soul for a fat salary package? Did the powers-to-be allow Chomsky to operate a sideline as political activist highly critical of the powers-to-be because he was useful in concocting a linguistic science that served them well?

Let’s briefly consider the evidence for this proposition. Machine translation has certainly made much progress but certainly not based on the Chomsky paradigm. But what about the wider implication of Chomsky’s perceived ‘value-free’ linguistics that allowed successive American governments (and their great allies in the UK) to operate without any limitations? Did the Chomskyian concept of a ‘universal grammar (UG)’ aid an abet American capitalism and imperialism? When Chomsky famously critiqued Skinner’s behaviourist model of human language as a potentially ‘fascist’ enterprise, he did save linguistics from bad science but obviously failed to stop behaviourism to take centre-stage in the ‘social’ sciences of education, marketing (advertising) and business in general, to this very day. Note that Chomsky never attacked Skinner ad hominem, he just disagreed with his bad science, perhaps giving some credence to the proposition that even good men can do bad science. Obviously Chomsky never doubted his own brand of linguistics but, as Chris Knight points out, Chomsky on occasion did have doubts about the whole academic enterprise in which he was immersed. Chris Knight seems to have a particular measure in this regard: you must get yourself arrested in order to prove you have made the transition from value-less scientist to scientist with a social conscience, à la James Hansen and of course according to Chris Knight himself who was fired from his East London university for being a political activist (and later having been arrested as well). Knight should therefore not forget that Chomsky was arrested several times and at one stage was facing a long prison sentence, and then landed on Nixon’s notorious list of enemies of the state. Knight also singles out Charles Hockett and Marshal Sahlins as ‘champions of unified science’, both academics in the mold of Noam Chomsky (but were, as far as I know, never arrested for anything, the former not notable for any political activism while the latter is indeed one of the good guys). So, Chomsky wins on that count alone. Obviously one must admire political dissidents who risk jail if not their life to stand up for their beliefs. Contemporary whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden even receive praise in the mainstream media (cf. The Guardian). Should Chomsky have taken up arms and joined the Black Panthers? Should Chris Knight leave the Labour Party and join a South-American revolutionary cadre like Regis Debray did (or at least teach social anthropology at a university in Cuba)? Should we all be brave like Orwell and rush off to the next civil war in Spain or Syria?

How come former American academics like Barack Obama and Samantha Powers achieve high political office? Is it, was it Chomsky’s fault? Sure, there is a lot of tokenism one can criticize even though Chomsky never actively engaged in it. Yes, he accepted many academic honours from prestigious (and some not so) universities but he never sought or in the slightest wanted the kind of celebrity status that would launch him into the world of political and corporate elites (à la famous linguist Steven Pinker and the aforementioned Dershowitz, both of whom got much more than they bargained for, cf. Bryant 2015). He could have easily attained high office at MIT or elsewhere, seek admission to influential think-tanks or seek political office. Chomsky, after all, as an ordinary ordained academic, was called upon to speak before the UN where it is normally de rigueur to have high political connections.

What does Chris Knight want from him? That he dress in rags and live in a hovel like the oppressed masses in the shanty towns of our global village? Should he, like Tolstoy, take to wearing peasants’ clothes to show his solidarity? Above all, what should Chomsky do to live up to Chris Knight’s idea of a good scientist? Is it just to adopt a new paradigm that fits the one Chris Knight adheres to?

There is simply no evidence at all that Chomsky’s linguistics have somehow contributed to or collaborated with the political, military and corporate establishment of the USA. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Popperian obsession of wanting to falsify Chomsky’s scientific theories (Chomsky after all came to prominence critiquing Skinner), there is everything wrong with the obsession to falsify his theories on account of a misconstrued political motivation, which in Chris Knight’s case is doubly hard to understand as he actually supports Chomsky’s politics. Maybe – and I’m only joking -  Chris Knight is a double agent, an agent-provocateur who follows the long line of infiltrators who keep up the illusion that the worst enemy of the left is the factional left.

It is much easier to understand how reactionary linguists malign Chomsky in order to diminish his political impact, for if they can only falsify Chomsky’s theories, can they bury the political animal as well. In fact, these are the ‘scientists’ Chris Knight should attack: they are subservient to the establishment first and foremost, and secondly their science may also be bad: they are the intellectual commissars Chomsky speaks about.

Chris Knight the social anthropologist – who admits to having no technical knowledge of linguistics – nevertheless makes a big deal in his book about Chomsky’s take on the evolution of language, which even if it was wrong, would not amount to much in his overall work on linguistics. Chomsky, as all other evo-devo writers, Knight included, have no empirical evidence of what language evolution is based on, so educated guesswork (called theory by some) must suffice. Chomsky (and his co-author Berwick in their most recent work on this subject – which I did review in Biolinguistics, causing much consternation amongst certain Chomsky critics, cf. Sperlich 2016) defend the theory that human language ‘evolved’ from some sort of genetic mutation in the brain that allowed language to develop, possibly in a short time, say from 80,000 BC, based on what Chomsky famously calls MERGE, i.e. the ability to merge two language tokens (like words) and conceive of them as a new category (like a phrase or a component of a phrase) and iterate up the ladder of complexity until we arrive at what language constitutes today: a finite system to creates infinite output, allowing a Shakespeare to use some 23,000 different words in his opus. Chris Knight thinks this a lot of nonsense and somehow part of the Pentagon conspiracy to reverse the Tower of Babel scenario: Chomskyan ‘universal grammar’ being the main ingredient. I am not sure why Knight dwells so much on this Tower of Babel myth even though it was a pet idea of Warren Weaver. Knight actually comes close to believing the myth himself, which is strange for a self-confessed socialist who should not believe in proverbial old-wives tales that make up the Bible. The Tower of Babel is a utterly pointless story when considering possible scenarios for the evolution of language. On the more scientific side Chris Knight, as the social anthropologist does of course favour the theory that language evolved from human social interaction, noting that the hunter gatherer period of human evolution would make for a good starting point because hunter gatherers were a band of egalitarian comrades that depended on cooperation to survive. It’s a nice idea popularized by the likes of EP Thompson and other Marxist writers like Engels2 with a view on the origins of human language. As an anthropological linguist myself (and having been arrested once too in the concrete jungles of London), I sympathize with the view that egalitarian, social interaction should condition language that in turn reinforces egalitarian, social interaction in a progressive feed-back loop but, alas, I have seen little evidence of this in the remote islands of Vanuatu where I did my fieldwork. Language, unfortunately appears to be a neutral tool, used in every which way, from quasi-religious rituals to progressive action. Language as an organ does not determine our thoughts and actions any more or less than our digestive system: the biological limitations are what they are. Even our ever increasing knowledge about such biological systems does not enable us to change the system (in medical terminology such advanced knowledge does not seem to help much to maintain such systems in good working order for the common good). We interpret the world through language but we seem unable to change it for the better even within that narrow range of what is humanly possible. Different languages do not give rise to different world views either, as some deluded linguists claim. I also studied the language of Niue which is typologically ergative, meaning roughly it is the reverse of an accusative language where typically the actor is the subject and the object the ‘patient’, in other words, an ergative language is somewhat similar to the passive voice of accusative languages (‘The cat chased the mouse’ versus ‘The mouse was chased by the cat’). The language relativist might suggest that Niueans are much nicer people than the English because their language seems to empathize with the ‘patient’, more than with the ‘actor’. That is of course total nonsense. What struck me most working as an anthropological linguist – acting somewhat reluctantly in the tradition of the Western anthropological tradition that investigates cultures that are not as much advanced as the West (now politically incorrect to say ‘primitive’) – was that all the people I have come across (and I have travelled all around the globe as well) are all the same, analogous to the language diversity conundrum that Chomsky solved by saying that if a Martian came to earth he/she/it would immediately figure out that all the human languages only differ on the surface, i.e. have a common baseline (called ‘universal grammar’). In other words the diversity of cultures and races is only a surface feature however much such notions are abused by racists and cultural supremacists. Chris Knight’s nice idea of the hunter gatherers being a nice bunch of people who developed language and the concept of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ also seems to be contradicted by some recent scholarly (sic) research, sensationally entitled ‘natural born killers: humans predisposed to, study suggests’ as published in The  Guardian:

“From the empirical figure of 2% of deaths by lethal violence in primitive hunter-gatherers, different historical times have had different levels of lethal violence,” said Gómez.

Note that the 2% is supposed to be some sort of historical average. Note also the terminology of ‘primitive’. It seems OK to use the term historically but not synchronically – perhaps Chris Knight can write a rebuttal to remind Dr Gómez above that if anyone is ‘primitive’ it must be modern man who has apparently evolved to practice mutually assured destruction – MAD, i.e. one cannot but help to point to contemporary, extreme ‘lethal violence’ perpetrated in places like Syria and the use of ‘lethal force’ by terrorist states (which includes the USA, according to Chomsky, and no doubt in accord with Chris Knight). What has language (as a biological system) to do with all that? Nothing much as far as I can see, quite apart from what Chomsky calls ‘language performance’, namely the use and abuse of language to serve the interests of the intellectual commissars, as so well described by George Orwell in his 1984.

When medical experts study the respiratory system they are subject (hopefully so) to research ethics that precludes butchering people, just like when linguistics experts study language. We cannot drill holes into the brain to find out where language resides. We can speculate that mirror neurons enable us to match real world objects with linguistic labels, as much as the cooperative ‘heave-ho’ is some sort of mirror image of the actual physical work done. We can do all sorts of advanced brain scans to see what areas of the brain ‘light up’ with electrical nervous energy when we say ‘good morning’ or ‘stop that insane violence in Syria’. In fact another detractor of Chomsky, one Philip Lieberman (2015), introduces his article as follows:

Language evolved over millions of years by Darwinian processes, and its primary role is communication. Speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others. The communicative role of language is apparent in that the neural structures that code a word’s meaning in the brain are activated by the sound pattern of its name.

In the first instance it may be worth pointing out to Lieberman’s ‘speech is default mode’ that sign is as readily available as speech and that sign languages are even developed by deaf communities without linguistic input, indicating that language is modality-independent with regard to externalization (Chomsky, pers. comm.). I certainly concur with the notion that ‘speech is the default mode by which we share our thoughts with others’ but notice what it is we share: ‘thoughts’. If we equate thought with language (as I do) or at least in Chomsky’s sense of ‘the language of thought’, it becomes a logical thought (excuse the pun) that thought precedes speech. Even more to the point is that by introspection alone, I can claim, sadly perhaps, that many if not most of my thoughts never get put into speech (or writing) and thus communicated to others. Sure, communicating thoughts to others can confer an evolutionary advantage (however, in present times this communicative ‘performance’ as practiced by the likes of Clinton and Trump in American politics seems more of  a evolutionary disadvantage if not outright disaster), as also noted by Chomsky. Lieberman’s second point that neural structures light up when words match meaning, is nothing but a truism. Sections of the brain also light up when we think (and not speak). There is plenty of evidence that we can even influence or even direct our physiology by thought alone. Maybe it is time for neuro-linguists to determine if neural structures need to be activated to produce thoughts before further neural motor action is put in place to translate thought into speech. In any case it seems to me that detractors like Lieberman and Knight provide plenty of evidence that defeats their own theories (see also Note 1).

Still nobody, Chomsky included, has the slightest idea how the mind arises from the brain – if there is such a thing. In the same vein nobody has the slightest idea how language competence is embedded in our brains, how it is acquired and how it has evolved. Chomsky and many other linguists have devised interesting theories that seem to match the rules and ways we generate language but as Chomsky says, linguists now are only at the stage of Galilean physics, and by way of another analogy: scientists (linguists included) are like the drunks who look for the lost car keys under the lamp post because that’s where the light is. To accuse Chomsky – in this light – of a corrupt science, as does Chris Knight, is nothing short of insulting. It is more so because Chris Knight is, by all accounts, a progressive thinker in his political domain. I would not sink so low and accuse Chris Knight of practicing his version of a corrupt science just because I disagree with his scientific point of view, and based on an unwarranted suspicion that as an established academic he willingly derives his income from questionable sources. Chris Knight’s current employer being UCL, which has ties to the British military complex via its Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering – sounds a bit like MIT – what with various departmental academics attending a nefarious London conference entitled Military Radar (2016).


1            Knight in his ‘acknowledgements’ does make the point that he had sent Chomsky his Ms and that Chomsky had briefly replied which Knight summarized (which according to Chomsky is stretching the truth, pers. comm.) with commentary as follows:

I sent Noam Chomsky the uncorrected proofs, mentioning that I was concerned lest my criticisms of his linguistic ideas might provide ammunition for the political right. Chomsky reassured me that having read through my book, he couldn’t detect any criticisms of his linguistic ideas! Chomsky always situates himself to the left of his critics, and so is not used to criticism from that quarter. Following his usual political instincts, he described my misunderstanding of the relation of the Pentagon to MIT, and to advanced research in general, as a mistake common in mainstream ideology and in right-wing economics. Secondly, he insisted that there wasn’t even a remote connection between his notion of Universal Grammar and fantasies about a universal language, thus confirming my impression of a modular mind.

Not sure if Knight fully appreciated the presumed Chomsky riposte of ‘not detecting any criticisms of his linguistic ideas’ – apart from adding an exclamation mark! That’s really quite hilarious! It’s like Knight replying to my review, saying he did not detect any criticisms of him and his book!

2            Engels’ famous quote ‘Comparison with animals proves that this explanation of the origin of language from and in the process of labour is the only correct one’.


Bryant, N. (2015) Flight Logs Put Clinton, Dershowitz on Pedophile Billionaire’s Sex Jet.

Lieberman, P. (2015) Language Did Not Spring Forth 100,000 Years Ago. PLOS Biology, February 13, 2015

Sperlich W. (2016) A plea for Why Only Us? (Berwick & Chomsky 2016).

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