Linguistics

Beyond the Surface: A Close Look at Noam Chomsky’s Ideas with Robert Barsky

Noam Chomsky is a renowned scholar, philosopher, and political activist who has made significant contributions to the fields of linguistics, cognitive psychology, and political science. Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Chomsky earned his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to become one of the most influential figures in the field. He is perhaps best known for his theory of generative grammar, which revolutionized the study of language and provided new insights into the workings of the human mind. Chomsky is also a prolific writer and has authored over 100 books on topics ranging from language and cognition to politics and social justice. A committed anarchist and anti-war activist, Chomsky has been a vocal critic of American foreign policy and has used his platform to advocate for human rights and the principles of freedom and democracy.

Robert Barsky is a prominent scholar, writer, and professor of literature and law at Vanderbilt University. He is recognized for his expertise in the fields of language and literature, as well as his contributions to political science and philosophy. Barsky has published numerous books and articles on a diverse range of subjects, including the works of Noam Chomsky, critical theory, immigration, and refugee studies. He is also known for his research on the ethical and legal implications of language use, particularly in the context of legal trials and political discourse. Barsky’s interdisciplinary approach to scholarship has earned him widespread recognition and has influenced the work of many scholars in his field.


Simply Charly: How did you first learn about Noam Chomsky’s works?

Robert Barsky: I was first introduced to Noam Chomsky during my undergraduate studies in Boston. I was captivated by his approach, and fascinated by the wide-ranging interviews compiled in collections like Language and Responsibility and Radical Priorities, and by his in-depth studies of language and politics. As my engagement with his corpus grew I amassed an array of questions, which ultimately led me to write him a letter. Knowing something about his many engagements within and beyond the university, I wasn’t expecting a response, so when he did reply I felt a sense of elation. I continued to correspond with him, and he responded with fascinating details and kind encouragement. His letters were thoughtful and showed a genuine interest in engaging with me on various subjects, including language studies, teaching, learning, refugees, resistance, and the history of radicalism in the US and beyond.

SC: Can you provide an example of how his work impacted your own approach to the world?

RB: My undergraduate studies focused on the History of Ideas and literature, but after graduation, I was eager to pursue a long-held passion for skiing, and a dream of living in Europe. After a year of skiing and working in Switzerland, I returned home to pursue a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, at McGill University. To make ends meet, I landed a job with a private company that was bidding on a contract to transcribe Convention refugee hearings for the Government of Canada. The harrowing testimony I heard during this time, coupled with newly-proposed laws aimed at limiting refugee entry, left me shocked and disheartened. It was during my research on the subject that I once again turned to Chomsky’s work. His insights on imperialism and power helped me contextualize the struggles of persecuted people, and his views on the violence imposed by borders shed important light on the arbitrary exercise of power against refugees and asylum seekers.

Fueled by youthful enthusiasm, and outraged by misinformation being presented to Canadians about the refugee adjudication process, I contacted Canadian public radio (CBC) with details of why I believed that the government’s case for new restrictions was flawed. My report became the basis for a significant news story, and after some challenging moments, the government ultimately backed down, closed private transcription companies, and pursued a more open path to refugee admission. This reinforced the sense of personal agency that I’d learned from Chomsky, and it led me to redirect my studies towards the realm of vulnerable migrants.

SC: What led you to write the biography of Chomsky?

RB: During my graduate studies, a fellow student and I had two children. Thankfully, we had access to the university daycare, which allowed us to continue our studies while balancing the demands of parenthood. During our lunchtime conversations with other parents, I came to be friendly with a linguistics professor who had done graduate work with Chomsky at MIT. She told me about a well-known biographer named Jay Parini, who had written an article on Chomsky’s work called “Noam is an Island”. He had been invited to expand upon it for a biography, but declined the offer. Knowing of my interest in Chomsky’s work, and our correspondence, the professor suggested me instead.

Despite never having considered writing about his life, I nervously wrote to Chomsky and described the invitation, and my plan for the book. While he did not encourage or discourage me, he offered to provide information if I decided to pursue the project. Taking this as an affirmation, I immersed myself in research first in Canada, and then in Europe where a postdoctoral fellowship provided ample time for my young family and this significant undertaking.

SC: How did you approach such a daunting subject as Noam Chomsky?

RB: My admiration for Chomsky and his ideas had two distinct effects on my work: First, I believed that his extensive corpus of work and interviews were the best sources of information about his ideas, so I decided to focus on how his approach to the world was influenced by earlier milieus and communities. I found his connections to philosophers, political theorists, historical linguists, and early activists fascinating, and I wanted to make evident how these communities of people and systems of ideas inspired his approach. In other words, Chomsky was not an “island,” as Parini had suggested, but was rather connected to important traditions of intellectual work that are outside of the mainstream.

And second, I was interested in Chomsky’s ideas, and his approach to the world, and not his personal life. So what I wrote was not a biography in the traditional sense of the term, but rather an engagement with his work in regards to earlier milieus. It was a really fascinating project, and from 1993 to 1996, I immersed myself in researching and writing about Chomsky’s work, which culminated with the publication of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, the first and still the only biography of his life and work. I enjoyed the process of delving into Chomsky’s approach, and exploring details about him and his many contemporary and historical milieus.

As someone who grew up in Montréal, this project also provided me with insights into an America that I found compelling. I loved Chomsky’s irreverence towards arbitrary and illegitimate power, his willingness to shun preconceptions in favor of discovery, and his radicalism, and for me, they were all hallmarks of a strand of American life that I strongly admire. So my book was not a typical “biography”, but rather an engagement with the many fascinating early milieus that had impacted Chomsky’s approach to the world, and an exploration of ideas that I consider crucial.

SC: What insights did you gain about Chomsky’s milieus based on the response to your work?

RB: Researching the ideas and milieus of Noam Chomsky was a massive learning experience. Writing about him also allowed me to engage with a very broad audience in the US, and the many translations of my work opened up new audiences and conversations about the power of Chomsky’s ideas, the debates he contributed to, and the strong emotions he elicits within and beyond my adopted home.

As a result, I was swept into an international conversation that explored Chomsky’s views on various topics, including the power of radicalism, debates in the field of linguistics, and the value of his work for contemporary concerns. I received hundreds of letters from fans and detractors, and dozens of invitations to write or speak about his work. Throughout it all, I maintained an ongoing correspondence with Chomsky. Thanks to MIT Press and enthusiastic Chomsky fans, I was also fortunate to give talks in a wide array of settings, at home and abroad.

Inspired by these experiences, I embarked on writing two new books. The first explores the Chomsky EFFECT, which I had observed firsthand, and the second, on his recommendation, examines his teacher, Zellig Harris.

To engage the many intellectual realms with which Chomsky has dealt is a stimulating and humbling experience. Chomsky’s kindness and generosity along the way have provided me with a model for creative interaction, and he has set a high standard for intellectual work, teaching, and friendships.

SC: In your book Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, you describe Chomsky as a prominent figure in the fields of linguistics and political activism. How do these two areas intersect in Chomsky’s work?

RB: Chomsky has always insisted that his language studies and his politics are separate, but I find that we can trace some overlap in his general approach to both realms. In his political work, and in his study of language, he fearlessly engages with the materials at hand. At the same time, he also mines ideas that have been forgotten, or have fallen out of fashion. So you’ll notice that Chomsky’s work sometimes leads us back to historical works, such as the writings of Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, and Voltaire, or to others whose work is less well-known, such as Wilhelm von Humboldt or Rudolph Rocker. He is considered to be the father of modern linguistics, but he insists that his approach to the field harkens back to the so-called Cartesian linguists. And he is described as a political gadfly, but he invokes work from classical liberalism and anarcho-syndicalism that defy simple classification.

Chomsky’s work in language and politics is also connected to his belief that we need to challenge illegitimate and arbitrary authority in both domains, rather than relying on so-called “experts”, or authorities. He loves to question prevailing views, and to promote open discussion that sticks to the issues rather than to sources of personal gain. To put it another way, he invites the ‘riff-raff’ to meddle in affairs that instances of power wish to control, rather than deferring to authority.

SC: Can you say something about Chomsky’s approach to conducting research?

RB: Chomsky is known for his rigorous approach to research, whether he’s studying the complexities of human language or the economic organization of society. He prioritizes examining the facts rather than relying on doctrine or dogma, and he seeks out sources that are often overlooked. Examples abound in his early work on American foreign policy and the Vietnam War. Despite the government’s claims that the murderous bombing campaigns were necessary to combat communism, Chomsky’s research, supported by our own government documents, and by local communities, revealed that other imperialist and expansionist motivations were at play. This wasn’t rocket science, this was him seeking out knowledge that went beyond what politicians were saying, and so-called “experts” were reinforcing.

In his work as a linguist, Chomsky questioned dominant paradigms in the field by working assiduously on grammars and syntax. His findings conflicted with prevailing orthodoxies, including the ideas of his thesis director and other prominent figures, such as Jean Piaget and B. F. Skinner. By questioning established doctrines, Chomsky was able to focus on fundamental questions about language acquisition that led him to explore biological processes rooted in species-specific mental capacity rather than behaviorist-inspired ideas about learning through punishment and reward. The key takeaway is that by abandoning preconceived notions, we can open up entirely new avenues of inquiry and discovery.

SC: Chomsky is known for his critiques of U.S. foreign policy and media manipulation. What inspired him to become involved in political activism, and how has his activism evolved over the course of his career?

RB: Chomsky’s passion for engaging in foreign policy began early on in his life, as evidenced by an editorial about the Spanish Civil War that he wrote for a school newspaper at the age of 10. He thereby began a lifelong engagement with complex global issues, bringing to bear his extraordinary curiosity, his remarkable memory, and his astonishing capacity to synthesize vast amounts of information.

SC: Can you provide an example of how Chomsky’s approach inspires you in your own work?

RB: A small but telling example of Chomsky’s approach is how he connects with people, both in person and in correspondence. When I first thought about writing to him, I hesitated, feeling intimidated. I remember asking myself: Is it okay for me to bother Noam Chomsky? And if so, how should I begin a letter to him? Should I address him as Dr., Professor, or Named Chair? I settled on Professor, and I was excited when he replied (within days) to my very first letter, regarding my work with Michael Holquist on philosopher Mikhaïl Bakhtin. I had been convinced that, like many academics I’ve come to know over the years, he would be unlikely to even acknowledge my letter, never mind reply. Instead, he wrote back with kindness and generosity: “Many thanks for sending me the fascinating issue on Bakhtin, about whom I know far too little.” Humble, generous, and kind.

Years later, when I completed my Ph.D. and sent him the news, he wrote: “Dear Mr. Barsky (Dr. now, I see; but titles are a pain, please drop mine).” This was like a lightning bolt. A named chair at the famed MIT writing back saying to drop his title, when most academics insist upon their students addressing them as Professor—or even Doctor? What does this mean?

In retrospect, this blunt comment was my introduction to a crucial motif in Chomsky’s approach, one that insists upon the seriousness of the work rather than the prestige of its author. In the current populist moment, there’s lots of discussion about anti-elitism and the rejection of knowledge from prestigious sources. This can lead to the vitriolic rejection of facts in favor of conspiracies and pseudo-scientific conjecture. Chomsky, by contrast, focuses on the facts instead of relying on belief, blind faith in prestigious institutions, deference to authority, or the quest for wealth.

In short, Chomsky’s irreverence in the face of powerful people and institutions, his challenges to arbitrary authority, his resolute conviction that people are born with an instinct for freedom and the powers imbued by common sense, and his extraordinary generosity in regard to the sharing of ideas were and have remained beacons in a world often filled with unthinking obedience to illegitimate authority.

SC: Chomsky has been a vocal critic of capitalism and has advocated for alternative economic systems. Can you discuss his views on these issues and how they have been received by the broader public?

RB: Chomsky addresses complex questions rather than limiting himself to a single field, so his work both draws from and contributes to the many realms that we need to engage in order to talk about a realm as complex as competing economic systems. So when we read for example his critique of capitalism, we don’t dwell solely in the realm of political science, but rather find ourselves immersed in language studies, biology, philosophy, political theory, history, anthropology, and cognitive studies. At the same time, though, he eschews unnecessary complexity, and he writes in a way that renders his ideas accessible to a broad audience. The clarity of his prose connects him, in my view, to writers like Charles Dickens, or George Orwell, who were also invested in challenging sources of repression and violence.

When it comes to thinking about alternative economic systems, most people feel powerless, disconnected from decisions that affect their lives, and crushed by figures of authority. Chomsky encourages people to explore alternative economic systems that align with their own interests and experiences, rather than accepting approaches that favor only the elite. When asked about a roadmap for the future of such work, however, Chomsky refuses to dictate what economic system is best for people’s interests. Instead, he seeks to promote research, questioning, investigations, discussions, and community engagement, empowering people against oppression and repression.

SC: Chomsky has been involved in various social and political movements throughout his life. Can you discuss some of the most significant causes he has supported and his role in these movements?

RB: Noam Chomsky emphasizes the importance of focusing on issues within our own communities rather than simply pointing fingers at external sources of wrongdoing. He warns us that criticizing other countries or leaders rather than looking in our own backyards can deflect us away from effecting change in areas where we can make a difference. He also celebrates community action and heralds the many unrecognized activists who tirelessly push for progress in areas that may not receive public recognition.

As such, Chomsky’s approach extends beyond, say, Democratic vs Republican politics, and calls instead for radical changes that exceed this dichotomy. So while he would support measures such as wealth redistribution, higher taxes on the rich, and affordable healthcare, he sees them as provisional solutions to much larger systemic problems. To achieve a truly equitable society, we must think more radically and engage with such areas as worker self-management, resource sharing, and environmental policies that promote sustainability rather than extinction.

SC: Chomsky often speaks of progress that has been made over the years, even in spite of the rise of populism and the election of figures such as Donald Trump. How is this possible?

RB: Chomsky cites local activism, community engagement, and rapid mobilization of resistance to oppression as sources of optimism. This is not to say that Biden’s victory over Trump, Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro, or Macron’s victory over Marie Le Pen weren’t cause for some relief. But they hardly represent panaceas. A significant political victory would be to raise awareness of social injustice and to shift attitudes towards a sustained and sustainable society.

So Chomsky’s focus is not solely on defeating the GOP in the next election, even though this would be a positive development. His views of elections help to clarify his approach: “There is a left perspective on this, which apparently has been long forgotten: you don’t vote for people, you vote against people. If you’re a left activist, politics doesn’t mean concentrating laser lights on elections. Elections are an event, they take place, they should take 15 minutes of your time, away from real politics, which is constant activism. You take the 15 minutes, decide if there’s someone so rotten that you wish to protect the world against him. If there is, then you vote against him, which technically means voting for the opposition.”

SC: Chomsky has been a controversial and sometimes polarizing figure. Can you discuss some of the criticisms that have been leveled against Chomsky and his responses to these criticisms?

RB: Chomsky supports for free and open inquiry, and he refuses to turn a blind eye when governments, notably his own, defy human rights norms or engage in unlawful activity. This has come at a price. Over the years he has been accused of being unpatriotic on account of his criticisms of US foreign policy, anti-Jewish for condemning Israeli violations of international law, and insincere for disparaging intellectuals despite his revered place in the Academy. Some have even claimed that his lifestyle is incompatible with unwavering support for the downtrodden. All of this is par for the course of a dissenter, and it would be surprising if powerful lobbyists suddenly came around to his point of view! Critics may dismiss his observations as conspiratorial, but powerful people acting in their own self-interest is not a conspiracy. As long as the current system remains in place, there isn’t much incentive for the ruling elites to undermine the prevailing framework.

SC: Chomsky has had a long and influential career, with many of his ideas continuing to be relevant today. Can you discuss the lasting impact of his work and how it has shaped contemporary thought in linguistics and political activism?

RB: One enduring impact of Noam’s approach is his ability to inspire young people to get involved with issues that matter. He often remarks that kids are naturally curious, eager for insight, and anxious to make a difference in the world, but that this curiosity can be driven out of them as they confront the authoritarian structures at school. As a teacher, I’ve learned from Chomsky’s pedagogical approach, and I’ve been inspired by his ideas about how people learn. Education should be a catalyst towards free inquiry, rather than an edifice erected on rote learning, punishment-reward systems, or obedience to arbitrary authority.

We need to inspire and reward creativity and questioning, rather than faith and obedience. I think about this as I drive by some of the crazy billboards that dot American highways with such messages as “Discover the bread of life or you’re toast,” “Turn or burn,” “Stop, drop, and roll doesn’t work in hell,” “There’s no air conditioning in hell,” “Are you against Jesus? There will be hell to pay,” and “If you think it’s hot in the summer, imagine hell”! The message is always, the same: obey, or else!

Chomsky often speaks about his own early education at a Deweyite progressive school which prioritized personal initiative, cooperation, and creativity instead of obedience, testing, and deference to authority. He contrasts this to his experience in high school, which was much more normative, and encouraged competition with other students, a quest for high grades, and social conformity. Real breakthroughs are the result of creative exploration and serious questioning, not abiding by prevailing rules.

SC: How does Chomsky’s engagement with the study of language relate to current debates in Artificial Intelligence, a field for which he is credited as a progenitor?

RB: With respect to linguistics, Noam Chomsky’s accomplishments remain significant and continue to inspire intellectual inquiry. His approach to language and the mind are complicated, but they come into focus in his discussions on big data, artificial intelligence, robotics, and bots. For him, these technologies are engaged in high-tech plagiarism, akin to autofill functions found in word processors and email programs. AI systems scan vast amounts of information to find statistical regularities that may indicate a likely next word or phrase, which is a far cry from the actual work of translating from one natural language to another. He notes that AI lacks intelligence and sentience and does not meet even the minimum requirements of an actual theory of language or cognitive system. In one memorable comparison, he notes that asking if AI is like human intelligence is akin to asking if a plane knows how to fly, or if a submarine knows how to swim.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times on March 9th, Chomsky, together with Ian Roberts and Jeffrey Watumull, drew a fascinating comparison between a child’s language acquisition and an operating system in a machine learning program: “For instance, a young child acquiring a language is developing—unconsciously, automatically and speedily from minuscule data—a grammar, a stupendously sophisticated system of logical principles and parameters. This grammar can be understood as an expression of the innate, genetically installed “operating system” that endows humans with the capacity to generate complex sentences and long trains of thought. When linguists seek to develop a theory for why a given language works as it does (“Why are these—but not those—sentences considered grammatical?”), they are building consciously and laboriously an explicit version of the grammar that the child builds instinctively and with minimal exposure to information. The child’s operating system is completely different from that of a machine learning program.”

SC: In your book, you detail Chomsky’s personal life, including his family and relationships. Can you discuss how these aspects of his life have influenced his work and worldview?

RB: As previously noted, I only included elements of Chomsky’s personal life that I believed had relevance to his ideas. For instance, we can see from his personal history various instances of how he learned through engagement, such as when he talked about language grammars with his father, discussed Jewish cultural affairs with his mother, or debated current events with an uncle who owned a newspaper stand in New York. He possessed a natural inclination for intellectual inquiry, a talent for locating useful information, and a passion for meticulous philological investigations, which he attributes to his study of Hebrew texts.

In his personal life, we can see many examples of Chomsky’s courage and determination. As a young professor at MIT, he actively opposed the Vietnam War, knowing that in so doing he might face jail time, criticism from influential people, and ostracization from powerful institutions. I think that one effect of his work as a public intellectual was to raise the stakes of his work. His methods of inquiry, including his vast correspondence and attention to what’s happening on the ground, demonstrate his dedication to the issues at hand, and his uncompromising adherence to fundamental principles.

Chomsky’s approach incorporates insights from scientific investigations of the mind, and careful assessments of the way that consent is manufactured, and power is amassed. His vast body of work examines obstacles to liberation, and advocates for creative and progressive approaches that seek to unlock, rather than hinder our potential. Much of this can begin in the home, where children can be encouraged or repressed, supported in their inquiries about the world, or punished for disobedience. His own upbringing in a rich and supportive environment certainly contributed to his worldview but, as he emphasized, we are far more than just a product of our environments!

 

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