Founder of modern linguistics and political thinker: Noam Chomsky sets out to discover the essence of man.
Noam Chomsky, 2014 Photo: Imago / Future Image
Noam Chomsky plays a prominent role in the tragicomedy "Captain Fantastic," in which Viggo Mortensen as dropout father Ben lives in the wilderness with his six children. Instead of Christmas, Chomsky Day is celebrated there. The appropriate song for the contemplative mood bears the title "Uncle Noam".
Whether tongue-in-cheek or not, when a filmmaker pays tribute to a living intellectual in such a way, he must be particularly influential, as old as the hills, and perhaps still have a voice reminiscent of Santa Claus. We can quickly check off the last two points. Noam Chomsky was born in 1928, the same year as Bo Diddley, Shirley Temple and Ennio Morricone. And the voice of the now 88-year-old is of such sonorous uniformity that one can soon lean back contentedly after hearing what he has said.
But are sentences actually said by the voice or through it? The answer to this question made Chomsky world famous as a scientist in the second half of the last century. Even today, no student of linguistics can get past him. Against behaviorism, which places the learning process at the center, he claimed an innate knowledge of language. It is already realized during thinking, not only when several people communicate. Chomsky is regarded as the discoverer of a structural linguistic basic equipment, which became known as generative transformation grammar.
Almost 20 years after his last scientific book, Chomsky now thoroughly reviews his linguistic, anthropological and epistemological reflections in a book entitled "What Kind of Living Beings Are We?" as if to set a final drumbeat at the end of his scientific career. Throughout his life, Chomsky fought for the recognition of the study of language as a science.
Critics, who always complained that his studies were dubious and that universal grammar could not be scientifically determined with precision, the neo-Cartesian now replies, at great philosophical expense, that even undisputedly exact sciences such as physics are basically often based on unproven presuppositions. Gravity, for example, is just as little measurable a quantity as the linguistic equipment of man in his theory of language, nevertheless they are both evident.
Interventions in U.S. Foreign Policy
Recently, Chomsky has been challenged more strongly from another side. More and more younger researchers are deriving language from gestures. It is a little strange that Chomsky does not mention a word in "What Kind of Living Beings Are We?" about the challenge to his theory by today’s scientists, who are increasingly convinced of the cooperative character of the origin of language.
Chomsky is influential in another area. Indeed, the homage of the eco-heroes in "Captain Fantastic" is not to the linguist. They worship the political, the anti-capitalist and anarchist Chomsky, "America’s last living left-wing intellectual," as is often said. In addition to his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky found time to publish almost 50 political nonfiction books, has repeatedly intervened in public debates since the 1960s, and was most recently considered one of the masterminds of the Occupy movement.
In classic anti-imperialist fashion, Chomsky’s interventions are aimed primarily at U.S. foreign policy, basically whenever it is not pursuing isolationism. But he has also always intervened vociferously in debates about alleged manipulation by the media, as he has again and again in those about the Middle East conflict. He considers the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to be worse than that of blacks in apartheid South Africa, and, as far as products from these territories are concerned, he supports the international boycott campaign BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions), which uses unabashedly anti-Semitic tones.
Noam Chomsky: "What Kind of Creatures Are We?" Translated from Engl. by. M. Schiffmann. Suhrkamp, Berlin 2016, 248 p., 26 euros.
Whereas until now the academic and the political Chomsky stood unconnected next to each other, in his new book he seeks to build a bridge. After "What is Language?" and "What Can We Understand?", "What is the Common Good?" is the third of four chapters. In essence, his reflections amount to an attempt to reconcile the libertarian tradition in U.S. political philosophy, that of an Adam Smith, a Tom Jefferson or a John Dewey, with anarcho-syndicalist ideas.
Alarmed by the disenchantment of many of his countrymen with politics, Noam Chomsky always sought his salvation in left-wing populism. Today, after initially supporting Bernie Sanders as a presidential candidate, he recently advised his fellow thinkers to vote for Hillary Clinton.