Noam Chomsky (1928 – fl 2013) is an American linguist and political activist favoring an anarcho-syndicalist society. The intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector [of society], for good reasons. It’s their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put forth.
My personal relationship with Noam Chomsky is at a distance through my linguist friends at UC Berkeley, but I did attend a couple of his lectures, one of which is quoted at length in the WikiQuote, Talk at University of California, Berkeley, 1984. (No known relation to a favorite book of his, George Orwell’s 1984.) His greatest lasting fame will rest on his linguistic work, but his current popular fame is radical opposition to big government, of which the US is the most powerful, and therefore his favorite target. His writing covers a vast amount of material, but I think the deepest interest to the public is his theories on how human speech is mostly genetically based. So far as I know he never explained how these abilities came into being, but I have and that’s why I included myself on my list of Philosophers Squared.
If you claim to have a theory that deduces unexpected consequences from nontrivial principles, let’s see it.
Discovery is the ability to be puzzled by simple things.
I do not feel that we should set up people as “models”; rather actions, thoughts, principles.
(…) rationality is a very narrowly restricted skill.
The beauty [“horror”] of our system is that it isolates everybody. Each person is sitting alone in front of the tube, you know. It’s very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. You can’t fight the world alone.
My guess is that you would find that the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector [of society], for good reasons. It’s their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put forth. Other people can repeat it, but it’s not that crucial that they really believe it. But for the intellectual elite themselves, it’s crucial that they believe it because, after all, they are the guardians of the faith. Except for a very rare person who’s an outright liar, it’s hard to be a convincing exponent of the faith unless you’ve internalized it and come to believe it.
If anybody thinks they should listen to me because I’m a professor at MIT, that’s nonsense. You should decide whether something makes sense by its content, not by the letters after the name of the person who says it.
If by ‘intellectual’ you mean people who are a special class who are in the business of imposing thoughts and forming ideas for people in power, and telling people what they should believe…they’re really more a kind of secular priesthood, whose task it is to uphold the doctrinal truths of the society. And the population SHOULD be anti-intellectual in that respect.
The kind of work that should be the main part of life is the kind of work you would want to do if you weren’t being paid for it. It’s work that comes out of your own internal needs, interests and concerns.
…the qualifications that I have to speak on world affairs are exactly the same ones Henry Kissinger has, and Walt Rostow has, or anybody in the Political Science Department, professional historians—none, none that you don’t have. The only difference is, I don’t pretend to have qualifications, nor do I pretend that qualifications are needed. I mean, if somebody were to ask me to give a talk on quantum physics, I’d refuse—because I don’t understand enough. But world affairs are trivial: there’s nothing in the social sciences or history or whatever that is beyond the intellectual capacities of an ordinary fifteen-year-old. You have to do a little work, you have to do some reading, you have to be able to think but there’s nothing deep—if there are any theories around that require some special kind of training to understand, then they’ve been kept a carefully guarded secret.
In my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I’ve done work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in the subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible… the discussion dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it.
But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social issues or American foreign policy…. The issue is constantly raised, often with considerable venom. I’ve repeatedly been challenged on grounds of credentials, or asked, what special training do I have that entitles you to speak on these matters. The assumption is that people like me, who are outsiders from a professional viewpoint, are not entitled to speak on such things.
Compare mathematics and the political sciences… it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content.
Our ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries. When we face a problem, we may not know its solution, but we have insight, increasing knowledge, and an inkling of what we are looking for. When we face a mystery, however, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like.
Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.
Don’t be obsessed with tactics but with purpose. Tactics have a half life.
If you look at history, even recent history, you see that there is indeed progress. . . . Over time, the cycle is clearly, generally upwards. And it doesn’t happen by laws of nature. And it doesn’t happen by social laws. . . . It happens as a result of hard work by dedicated people who are willing to look at problems honestly, to look at them without illusions, and to go to work chipping away at them, with no guarantee of success — in fact, with a need for a rather high tolerance for failure along the way, and plenty of disappointments.
People tend to rally around power.
Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.
Most problems of teaching are not problems of growth but helping cultivate growth. As far as I know, and this is only from personal experience in teaching, I think about ninety percent of the problem in teaching, or maybe ninety-eight percent, is just to help the students get interested. Or what it usually amounts to is to not prevent them from being interested. Typically they come in interested, and the process of education is a way of driving that defect out of their minds.
If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you’re saying, because it’s too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you’ve resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, “You’re an asshole,” which maybe he or she is, and if you don’t say, “That’s idiotic,” when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.
We need not stride resolutely towards catastrophe, merely because those are the marching orders.
No honest journalist should be willing to describe himself or herself as ’embedded.’ To say, ‘I’m an embedded journalist’ is to say, ‘I’m a government Propagandist.
If it’s wrong when they do it, it’s wrong when we do it.
Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry?
The key element of social control is the strategy of distraction that is to divert public attention from important issues and changes decided by political and economic elites, through the technique of flood or flooding continuous distractions and insignificant information.
You don’t get to be a respected intellectual by uttering truisms in monosyllables.
When I was in high school I asked myself at one point: “Why do I care if my high school’s team wins the football game? I don’t know anybody on the team, they have nothing to do with me… why am I here and applaud? It does not make any sense.” But the point is, it does make sense: It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements. In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports.
If you don’t like what someone has to say, argue with them.
If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion.
French intellectual life has, in my opinion, been turned into something cheap and meretricious by the ‘star’ system. It is like Hollywood. Thus we go from one absurdity to another – Stalinism, existentialism. Lacan, Derrida – some of them obscene (Stalinism), some simply infantile and ridiculous (Lacan, Derrida). What is striking, however, is the pomposity and self-importance, at each stage.
What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential. Audio link to the interview. 5:50 minutes in is this quote.
In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.
To some degree it matters who’s in office, but it matters more how much pressure they’re under from the public.
The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself.
States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.
Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.
Education must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way.
The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control – ‘indoctrination,’ we might say – exercised through the mass media.
If you’re teaching today what you were teaching five years ago, either the field is dead or you are.
Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.
Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world.
The syntactic component of a grammar must specify, for each sentence, a deep structure that determines its semantic interpretation and a surface structure that determines its phonetic interpretation.
COMMENTS on Noam Chomsky quotes
Considering that Chomsky is considered a world-class linguist it was surprisingly difficult to find any short quotes on that subject, as they are swallowed up in the abundance of his long political ones. Chomsky’s impact on society has been as a radical polemicist.
If you claim to have a theory that deduces unexpected consequences from nontrivial principles, let’s see it. This makes self-evident sense, and yet Chomsky challenges social theorists, and political ones too, to justify their scientific claims to legitimacy and claims they fail.
Discovery is the ability to be puzzled by simple things. It’s a pleasant sentiment, and I like it, but I’m not sure it is a helpful one, because it doesn’t give a path to discovery. I will eagerly agree that there is probably a vast number of simple things to be easily discovered with the right questions, but of course we can never know until the question has been asked and observations have been made.
His personal experiences with legitimacy are interesting: Compare mathematics and the political sciences… it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. The obvious idea is that the mathematicians are interested in truth, no matter how abstract it is, and political types are interested in power and the concrete legitimacy of who has it, and truth be damned.
My guess is that you would find that the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector [of society], for good reasons. It’s their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put forth. If that statement is accurate then our intellectuals, especially those TV pundits, are the people to be most distrusted in our society. Even the politicians are safer behind their closed doors; the intellectuals are totally exposed, and if they don’t perform as expected they are thrust out into the world of rejects.
When we face a mystery, we can only stare in wonder and bewilderment, not knowing what an explanation would even look like. These are the potentially explosively interesting ideas, but we don’t even know what they are; I wonder how I should go about looking for these mysterious ideas? Some of them are probably obvious.
Human language appears to be a unique phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world. Language was created by human women through the process of Eveish Selection. That is probably a really big discovery because it answers the question of why so many abilities arose in the human species that don’t appear to have a short-term survival advantage when our primate ancestors were living in the wilds.