Prospect, November, 2005
The huge vote for Noam Chomsky as the world's leading "public intellectual" should be no surprise at all. Who could match him for sheer intellectual achievement and political courage?
Very few transform an entire field of enquiry, as Chomsky has done in linguistics. Chomsky's scientific work is still controversial, but his immense achievement is not in question, as may be easily confirmed by consulting the recent Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. He didn't only transform linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s; he has remained in the forefront of controversy and research.
The huge admiration for Chomsky evident in Prospect's poll is obviously not only, or even mainly, a response to intellectual achievement. Rather it goes to a brilliant thinker who is willing to step outside his study and devote himself to exposing the high crimes and misdemeanours of the most powerful country in the world and its complicity with venal and brutal rulers across four continents over half a century or more.
Some believe—as Paul Robinson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, once put it—that there is a "Chomsky problem." On the one hand, he is the author of profound, though forbiddingly technical, contributions to linguistics. On the other, his political pronouncements are often "maddeningly simple-minded."
In fact, it is not difficult to spot connections between the intellectual strategies Chomsky has adopted in science and in politics. Chomsky's approach to syntax stressed the economy of explanation that could be achieved if similarities in the structure of human languages were seen as stemming from biologically rooted, innate capacities of the human mind, above all the recursive ability to generate an infinite number of statements from a finite set of words and symbols. Many modern critics of the radical academy are apt to bemoan its disregard for scientific method and evidence. This is not a reproach that can be aimed at Chomsky, who has pursued a naturalistic and reductionist standpoint in what he calls, in the title of his 1995 volume, The Minimalist Programme.
Chomsky's political analyses also strive to keep it simple, but not at the expense of the evidence, which he can abundantly cite if challenged. But it is "maddening" none the less, just as the minimalist programme may be to some of his scientific colleagues. The apparent straightforwardness of Chomsky's political judgements—his "predictable" or even "kneejerk" opposition to western, especially US, military intervention—could seem simplistic. Yet they are based on a mountain of evidence and an economical account of how power and information are shared, distributed and denied. Characteristically, Chomsky begins with a claim of stark simplicity which he elaborates into an intricate account of the different roles of government, military, media and business in the running of the world.
Chomsky's apparently simple political stance is rooted in an anarchism and collectivism which generates its own sense of individuality and complexity. He was drawn to the study of language and syntax by a mentor, Zellig Harris, who also combined libertarianism with linguistics. Chomsky's key idea of an innate, shared linguistic capacity for co-operation and innovation is a positive, rather than purely normative, rebuttal of the Straussian argument that natural human inequality vitiates democracy.
Andersen's tale of the little boy who, to the fury of the courtiers, pointed out that the emperor was naked, has a Chomskian flavour, not simply because it told of speaking truth to power but also because the simple childish eye proved keener than the sophisticated adult eye. I was present when Chomsky addressed Karl Popper's LSE seminar in the spring of 1969 and paid tribute to children's intellectual powers (Chomsky secured my admittance to the seminar at a time when my employment at the LSE was suspended).
As I recall, Chomsky explained how the vowel shift that had occurred in late medieval English was part of a transformation that resulted from a generational dynamic. The parent generation spoke using small innovations of their own, arrived at in a spontaneous and ad hoc fashion. Growing youngsters, because of their innate syntactical capacity, ordered the language they heard their parents using by means of a more inclusive grammatical structure, which itself made possible more systematic change.
In politics, the child's eye might see right through the humanitarian and democratic claptrap to the dismal results of western military interventions—shattered states, gangsterism, narco-traffic, elite competition for the occupiers' favour, vicious communal and religious hatred.
Chomsky openly admits he prefers "pacifist platitudes" to belligerent mendacity. This makes some wrongly charge that he is "passive in the face of evil." But neither apartheid in South Africa, nor Stalinism in Russia, nor military rule in much of Latin America were defeated or dismantled by bombardment and invasion. Chomsky had no difficulty supporting the ultimately successful campaign against apartheid, or for the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor. He simply opposes putting US soldiers in harm's way—also meaning where they will do harm and acquire a taste for it.
Chomsky's victory in a parlour game should not be overpitched. But, like Marx's win earlier this year in the BBC Radio 4 competition for "greatest philosopher," it shows that thinking people are still attracted by the critical impulse, above all when it is directed with consistency at the trend towards a global pensée unique. The Prospect/FP list was sparing in its inclusion of critics of US foreign policy, which may have increased Chomsky's lead a little. But no change in the list would have made a difference to the outcome. The editors had misjudged the mood and discernment of their own readers.