On Chomsky: Part One: Political Criticism, Theories and Traditions

by Alison Edgley, Robert McLaren

Alison Edgley, author of 'The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky', discusses Chomsky's attitude to the role of theory, fact and human nature in political argument.

First published: 10 April, 2012 | Category: International, Philosophy and Theory

Alison Edgley is Lecturer in Sociology of Health at Nottingham University and author of The Social and Political Thought of Noam ChomskyShe spoke to Robert McLaren about Chomsky's work, focusing in this part on his attitude to the role of theory, fact and human nature in political argument. Part 2 will follow shortly.

In your work on Noam Chomsky, you argue that he does produce political theories even though he claims that he does not. I wonder if you could explain your view and perhaps say how much you are disagreeing with Chomsky over what should be called a ‘theory’ and how much you are drawing out ideas (which are theories) that are latent in, or which lie behind, his political criticism.

I do not think it is possible to make neutral, theory-free observations in both the material and social realms. All such observations embody philosophical and theoretical assumptions. However, some observations are more readily verifiable than others, and so some theoretical claims are more intuitively acceptable than others. They appear ‘naturally’ true. When it comes to matters of human relations and society, there is a host of what amount to claims to knowledge, all of which will involve theoretical assumptions. While not all theories are verifiable, some come closer to satisfying the principles of verification than others. It is not a case that 'anything goes'. Even though our access to reality may be partial and constructed, some accounts can still be shown to be better than others. We are familiar with this principle in the physical sciences, where theories are regularly updated and replaced wholesale. This underscores the relevance of theories, as well as their partial and conditional character.

In his work, Chomsky employs recognisably theoretical perspectives, as well as bodies of values, assumptions about human nature and reality, claims, and conclusions which not only look like theories, but I argue are theories. A prevalent example is what I refer to as his theory of the state. This theory holds that states are not neutral bodies operating for the good of all citizens in that society. Rather, they systematically serve the interests of elites at the expense of many of their own citizens. Writ large, the theory also leads to the claim that western states operate at the expense of large numbers of humanity beyond their own borders and citizens. There is plenty of evidence both now and historically to verify the claims produced by this theory, and to demonstrate that this theory has predictive validity and thus superiority over its competitor theory that the state is a neutral body in regard to its citizens.

At one level I do not think Chomsky would disagree that his claims embody theory. Indeed in interviews he is often invited to offer theoretical or philosophical justification for his claims. Yet he is also highly critical of much that passes for theory in the social and political science. In my view, he eschews an emphasis on theory because he is involved in a political project. He is less interested in winning a debate than in having a political effect that will serve those disempowered by state capitalism. He is interested in exposing the lies of elites, by offering an alternative account for the historical record, rather than becoming embroiled in what he might see as merely esoteric philosophical discussions about theory.

Does that mean that his theoretical account is latent? I think implicit may be a better term, although there is plenty of explicit data in his works too. He has a distinctive theory of human nature, and his statements, assumptions and conclusions about human need and social organisation are to be found in all of his voluminous works. My work situated him in relation to other thinkers, critics and self-identified social and political theorists. Also, I assembled a theoretical framework out of the elements which emerge from his consistent and principled focus on 'the facts', and analysed that framework in relation to other theories about such things.

Instead of working from theories Chomsky claims to be concerned with 'the facts' - often 'facts' which the objects of his criticism 'must be aware of'. These claims, when made in the course of Chomsky's arguments, might be seen as merely a rhetorical device. However your work suggests such language and claims have a deeper significance to Chomsky's method and project, could you explain?

This is an excellent question in that it identifies a linguistic or argumentative practice of Chomsky’s – one that persuades some and infuriates others. I do think that Chomsky's focus on ‘the facts’ (always based on public documentation, not his research claims) can obscure understanding, in part because facts are notoriously slippery and in part because without exposure of some theoretical assumptions commentators can just end up talking past one another. His work with Edward Herman on the propaganda model of the media was distinctive in this respect.

Having said this Chomsky is careful to explain his choice, or method regarding his use of facts. So when he is demonstrating the lack of consistency between what his government says it will do and what it actually does he refers to what the government said, and what data it produced. Using the government's own evidence is a strategy. It helps him more powerfully to expose what he sees as the lies. By contrast, when he wants to illustrate the media's hysteria or silence on an event, he chooses to compare the coverage of the same event in another country, on the grounds that this will be more instructive and illuminating.

Like his reluctance to be drawn on theory, I think his focus on the facts is a product of his commitment to a political project for change. While we could get into a debate about whether poverty is a product of lifestyle or political economy, the weight of evidence to suggest that political and economic activity is organised and regulated overwhelmingly in the interests of the powerful and wealthy is too compelling to dignify the debate, in his view. That others do not accept this reading of the evidence, because it transgresses their belief in a just and neutral state, he regards as their problem, not his.

Some of Chomsky’s normative commitments are justified by him on the grounds that they are truisms – hypocrisy is wrong, violence requires justification etc. But you show that some of these commitments – or perhaps all of them to some degree - are based upon an explicitly stated view of human nature; a view which, far from being presented as obvious, is presented as likely unverifiable. How do you view the role of Chomsky's conception of human nature in his work, particularly its role in the normative element of his work?

I think Chomsky's view of human nature is essential to understanding his position on social and political affairs and normative claims, for a number of reasons. His view on humans is readily available, and is consistently held. Furthermore, it is one of the strengths of his position that he does not claim to be right about his view. There is an intellectual integrity about the way that he states his position which is lacking in some of his critics on this point. Fundamentally, he is making the point that we can gather enough compelling and verifying evidence to satisfy a high level of confidence in a firm theoretical position for some things, but not in all things, and, in his view, never as far as human nature is concerned.

His view of human nature is crucial to all that he writes and says. It informs both his critique of existing society and his vision for the good society. As he says, if you advocate effecting some social change, you must be advocating it on the grounds that it would better serve us as human beings, whether or not you say it loud and often. So in contemporary western neo-liberal society, there is a great deal of rhetoric about the individual freedom to choose. Whatever your political position, he regards it as a logical necessity that, if you press for change to improve freedom, you must be doing so because you think that freedom is good for human beings. In effect, he is pointing out that he and his adversaries alike deploy a view of human nature. In Chomsky's account of human nature, freedom is not an abstract quality or right, but a condition which can serve the human capacity for creativity. For Chomsky, it is more compelling to believe that our natures are creative and thus require conditions of freedom than the liberal belief that humans require conditions of freedom because they will best serve the pursuit of their self-interest. If we are creative beings, then we will (naturally) seek human society and interdependence to stimulate our creative potential. It could be suggested that his work in linguistics provides some evidence for his theory that human creativity is a need, but he is reluctant to make this into a ‘scientific’ claim, because it is not possible to construct a test of these claims.

His theory of human nature also rests upon the notion that humans are wired for abduction. ‘Abduction’ refers to the human predisposition to construct theories about the social and natural world, theories for which we can devise tests, both for logical consistency and in relation to evidence. The irony here is patent. In denying that he is doing this, he appears to be denying his own humanity. Abduction is a process in which the mind forms hypotheses according to some rules and selects among them with reference to evidence from other factors. Peter Wilkin argues that Chomsky shares with scientific realists (an approach that methodologically brings together the natural and social sciences) a concern with locating the structures and mechanisms that can generate concrete outcomes or events. This means seeking an understanding of what must exist in order for a particular event or phenomenon to have occurred. This process requires logic, intuition and imagination to interpret the available empirical evidence and provide explanations for the problems facing us. With this foundation, humans must strive for the best interpretations to explain of social and political events. From this perspective, it appears that Chomsky spends his time doing just this kind of abductive work, trying to make sense of the available evidence, in relation to the state, and especially US foreign policy.

While Chomsky is clear that any and all analysis of social and political affairs must rest upon a view of human need, he also feels it is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to verify his or any account of human nature. In his view, too much about human need and human nature remains uncertain. Just as the rat in the maze is only wired to achieve a certain level of knowledge, humans are likely to remain a mystery to themselves. It is for this reason that Chomsky is so critical of much that passes for social and political ‘science’. He is suggesting, and modelling, a great deal of humility about what can be claimed about humans, at the same time as being very robust about the need for much more acknowledgement of the assumptions guiding research and policy alike.

Chomsky, while acknowledging that he cannot verify his view of human nature, is not daunted by the sheer difficulty of working in the realm of the ‘difficult sciences’ (social sciences, in other words). He calls forth what he senses is another aspect of human nature, the capacity to hope. Hope seems a reasonable bet: if you assume there is an instinct for freedom, then he concludes, there will be opportunities to change things and make a better world. If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee that there is no hope. He chooses hope.

In contrast to Chomsky's views on theory he seems quite happy to identify with political traditions. Could you discuss Chomsky's anarchism/libertarian-socialism and his relationship to the liberal and Marxist traditions?

Classic liberal thinking developed as an attack on the power conferred through monarchy and feudal hierarchy. Marxism developed as an attack on the power conferred through concentrations of capital through capitalism. Chomsky draws from both traditions, because he is of the view that humans require both freedom and material well-being in order to be able to flourish, and that you cannot have one without the other. He parts company with neo-liberals who use liberal ideals to defend capitalism and he is critical of Marxists who treat the state as a necessary vehicle for bringing about socialism. His view of human nature belongs with the radical tradition populated by Rousseau and Marx, but also, crucially, anarchist thinkers, and it is in this way that he has a distinctive view. He eschews the liberal idea that humans want freedom to be autonomous from one another, arguing instead that our creativity would lead to cooperative interdependence. He is also critical of the interpretation of Marxist thought which regards human as completely malleable and constructible. Indeed he is of the view that, as humans, we differ markedly in our capacities and interests, and that we do so should be a source of joy and something that our forms of social and political organization should support and nurture.

Robert McLaren is an undergraduate student at King's College London, reading Philosophy.

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