The Golden Age Is in Us

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Alexander Cockburn

Grand Street, Fall, 1994

There are two sources for this interview. The first is: “Models, Nature and Language” Grand Street Fall, 1994, pp. 170-6. The Grand Street interview is dated June 22, 1994 and omits some of Chomsky’s comments. The second source is Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is in Us (Verso, 1995), pp.407-9. The Cockburn version is dated July 30, 1994 and is an abbreviated version of Grand Street’s, but includes passages reworded and/or omitted from that longer interview. Below is the Grand Street version; the omitted passages found in Cockburn appear below in double brackets, e.g.: [[Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.]].

QUESTION: I have to say that when Grand Street asked me to do an interview on models, my thoughts didn’t go immediately to you. I was thinking more along the lines of an in-depth chat with Cindy Crawford.

CHOMSKY: I suppose I could deck myself out for the Grand Street photographer.

QUESTION: And be the scandal of Lexington. Short of that, from your point of view rather than Cindy Crawford’s, what is a model?

CHOMSKY: When you study natural objects you have to abstract away from irrelevant phenomena that can obscure nature. This is called idealization (which is a bit misleading because it actually carries you closer to reality). If you study the planets, for example, it helps to think of them as points which have mass and move in elliptical trajectories around other points. Of course, the planets are not points — a point has no dimensions — but if you treat them as such, you can predict and understand the solar system more clearly. That is a model. Scientists have to do this all the time when studying complex phenomena — which is why they do experiments instead of taking photographs of whatever is outside their windows. They construct models which capture the crucial aspects of the world while putting aside the irrelevancies. You can also construct models which have no relation to reality. Some free-market economic models, for example, abstract away from significant factors, such as state intervention or the fact that capital is mobile and labor relatively immobile and so on. They actually take you farther away from the way the world works. The process of constructing models is not a mechanical one. As you start to do serious study in science, you don’t learn rules, you gain certain skills. An awful lot of it is insight, intuition, imagination.

QUESTION: How much of science fails to capture reality?

CHOMSKY: Maybe 100 percent, but science is self-correcting. If you’re off on a wrong track, sooner or later you’ll run into the kind of problems that will indicate this to you. Science is about simple things. When systems become complicated, they fall beyond our ability to understand them. When you get beyond complex molecules, human knowledge begins to drop off very fast. There’s a standard joke in physics: the only numbers are one, two, maybe three, and infinity.

QUESTION: How does the evolution model hold up?

CHOMSKY: There are many processes of nature that lead to diversity and the specific characteristics of particular organisms. Natural selection — which has to do with the reproductive efficiency of certain traits — is only one; and it takes place within a narrow channel of physical possibilities which are themselves for the most part poorly understood, though they are overwhelmingly important. Many of the symmetries of nature (for example, insects with six or eight legs, not seven) doubtless owe more to biophysical principles than selection.

QUESTION: A “survival of the fittest” model often seems to be lurking in the background of the free-market economic models you were just talking about.

CHOMSKY: There is a kind of pop Darwinism which holds that every trait of an organism is specifically selected — so if you have two arms and not three, that is selected within some model of the survival of the fittest. That’s not serious science.

Furthermore, one cannot say, without substantial qualification, that the structures of the body are well-adapted to function. Take your eyes. They don’t allow you to see in the dark. Does that mean that eyes are an evolutionary failure because they are not adapted to certain conditions? Look at the human spine. It’s badly engineered, which is why a huge number of people have back problems. I’ve been told by serious scientists that large vertebrates have had back problems all the way back to the shark, which seems to be well engineered. But that’s your expertise.

[In a Grand Street footnote, Alexander Cockburn explains: “I once chided Chomsky for writing about Haitian refugees trying to escape in leaky skiffs, hounded by the U.S. Coast Guard through ‘shark-infested waters.’ I told him this was baselessly anti-shark — sharkist, in effect — and just the sort of unreasoned prejudice he was normally so vigilant against. Chomsky did some mild scoffing, so I looked into it and found the facts even more dramatic than I had supposed. Humans are more likely to be killed stepping on a cake of soap in the shower than by sharks. Each year, on average, sharks around the world kill twenty-five humans and humans kill twenty-five million sharks.”]

For many years, one of the most striking, oft-cited examples of how natural selection led organisms to be well-adapted to particular circumstances has been the enormous diversity of insects — often narrowly adapted to specific types of flowering plants. However, a year ago, it was shown that about 95 percent of the current diverse strains of insects existed hundreds of millions of years before there were any flowering plants and, indeed, the arrival of flowering plants probably reduced their rate of diversification.

But this kind of mystery doesn’t lead you to God. It leads you to looking for the physical laws that are operative.

QUESTION: How much do intuition and insight apply to the models in your own discipline of linguistics?

CHOMSKY: The same as in any other field.

QUESTION: What about the abstraction from reality?

CHOMSKY: That’s a danger here, as anywhere. Structuralist models, Saussurean models, are very influential in the humanities — in literature, for example. Saussurean models establish an inventory of sounds, and to a lesser extent, words and grammatical elements, but they abstract away from surely the most crucial element: that people express their thoughts in sentences. The Saussurean model is an abstraction that’s very remote from reality, so remote indeed that it even led to a significant distortion in the narrow topic it studied. The modern study considers the inventory of sounds in the context of sentence formation. This gives you a much more realistic understanding.

QUESTION: What has the study of linguistics taught us about models?

CHOMSKY: It’s taught us some extremely surprising things about human nature in its cognitive aspects. For example, there’s fairly good reason now to believe that in a certain, rather deep sense, there is only one human language. If a Martian scientist looked at us the way that we look at frogs he might well conclude that with marginal, minor modifications, there is only one language. You and I might say “tree,” and a German would say “baum,” but we’re using basically the same concepts from the same inventory, which is both rich and restrictive. It seems that the principles of the construction of sentences are almost invariant, with the differences in language restricted to certain parts of the lexicon.

QUESTION: Is this an outcome that surprises you?

CHOMSKY: There are two surprises. One is the extraordinary richness of the systems of thought and expression, both of which are just beginning to be explored. Second, the narrowness of their variety.

Richness: Take something as simple as the meaning of a word like “London.” You know that London is a concrete object that could be destroyed by a bomb. But it’s also an abstract object. It could be destroyed by a decision people make. A decision could be made in Brussels to redraw boundaries, to move London up the Thames, and designate it as a capital city at this new site. London is not a place; it’s at a place. It’s not the things at that place. You could change the buildings and it would still be London. All this we know without any instruction or evidence.

This is true of the simplest concepts. Take a fairy story, which children understand easily: the prince and the frog. He’s the same person right through that transformation from prince to frog to prince. All children understand that he’s still a prince even though he’s a frog. They define a person through some sort of psychic continuity. We, and the children, understand that the prince could be reincarnated as a bug or as a piece of dirt and still be the prince, just as we know that if you amputate a man’s arms, he is still the same person.

Every concept has this kind of richness, and this just scratches the surface. But concepts are the simplest part of language. When you move to the understanding of sentences and specific grammatical structure, the intricacy and complexity mount very rapidly. It all happens instantaneously and without instruction, so it is somehow part of our nature, and since it’s part of our nature, it’s part of all languages and all cultures. Notice again how richness and uniformity are related. If an embryo is structured richly enough to become a human, it’s impoverished enough that it can’t become an ant. These properties are always connected.

There are an infinite number of systems you could invent that children couldn’t learn but they can learn English on the basis of very little experience because the internal instructions are rich enough to force a particular outcome. If we are in the right environment we will grow language the way we grow arms and legs. We can’t do anything about it. One major goal of linguistics is to find out what that capacity consists of. How much of it is part of our nature and how much is modified by experience? There are similar enquiries to be made about human moral and aesthetic capacities. If people are capable of making systematic judgments without relevant evidence, the principles have to be coming from inside. You and I can make systematic judgments about sentences of English without ever having heard these sentences before. Your experience is far too impoverished to determine these specific processes, so what you are doing — unless there are angels around — must derive from your inner nature. Experience has a limited effect on what you are. It modifies it a little, but it can’t make you eat different food or have wings rather than arms.

[[The same is true of intellectual development, and the same is true of moral life. You’re constantly making choices and decisions and judgments — sometimes you don’t know quite what to do — but over a wide range, you know what’s right. And even when you disagree with people, you find shared moral ground on which you can work things out. That’s true on every issue. Take a look at the debate over slavery; it was largely on shared moral ground. And some of the arguments were not so silly. You could understand the slave owner’s arguments. A slave owner says, ‘If you own property, you treat it better than if you rent property. So, I’m more humane than you are.’ We can understand that argument. You have to figure out what’s wrong with it, but there is shared moral ground over a range that goes far beyond any experience. And this can only mean — again, short of angels — that it’s growing out of our nature. It means that there must be principles embedded in our nature or at the core of our understanding of what a decent human life is, what a proper form of society is, and so on.]]

QUESTION: So, is there much work being done now on humans’ essential moral or progressive capacity?

CHOMSKY: I’ve written about it. Not in any particularly original way. It goes back to the Enlightenment — and the classical liberalism of Humboldt. Rousseau actually tried to connect his ideas about the limits of Cartesian concepts of mechanism to a basis for human freedom. [[This is in the Second Discourse, which is the libertarian Rousseau. It derives from a kind of Cartesian basis, concerned with the limits of mechanism.]] The limits of mechanism in Cartesian philosophy are very closely related to observations about the creative aspects of the use of language. [[That’s essentially the connection. It also appears in Humboldt, who was a very important linguist.]] These elements of Enlightenment philosophy were largely forgotten in the modern period. [[In these respects there’s been a lot of regression.]] The study of structuralism or [[contemporary]] behavioral psychology or artificial intelligence lacks much of the sophistication of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century understanding.

QUESTION: How much of that regression is related to the evolution of political structures?

CHOMSKY: I have my own speculations. The idea that human beings are malleable and don’t have an instinctive nature is a very attractive one to people who want to rule and control. The intelligentsia over the past century or so has been pretty much a managerial class, a secular priesthood. They have gone either in the Leninist direction — “we have the right to rule” — or toward the decision-making, management sector of state capitalist society, the political, ideological, and economic institutions.

The two ideologies are really very similar. I’ve sometimes compared Robert McNamara to Lenin and you often only have to change a few words for them to say virtually the same thing. This is one reason why people can jump so quickly from being loyal communists to “celebrating America,” to take the Partisan Review‘s famous Cold War phrase. All of this was predicted by Bakunin; probably the only prediction in the social sciences that’s ever come true.

If you’re essentially a manager of people, it’s convenient to believe they have no nature, that they are malleable. Then there is no barrier to coercion. If, on the other hand, they have an instinct for freedom, then there is a severe moral barrier to any kind of management. [[You’re injuring their fundamental nature, as with enslavement. So it’s convenient to believe this isn’t true. That could be one of the reasons why ’empty organism’ theses, and malleability, are very attractive to intellectuals.]]

QUESTION: I was reading a passage from Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques the other day — he quotes a phrase from Rousseau that seems to embody some of what you’ve been saying:


Enthusiastic partisans of the idea of progress are in danger of failing to recognize — because they set so little store by them — the immense riches accumulated by the human race on either side of the narrow furrow on which they keep their eyes fixed: by underrating the achievements of the past, they devalue all those which still remain to be accomplished. If men have always been concerned with only one task — how to create a society fit to live in — the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done, but turned out wrong, can be done again. ‘The Golden Age, which blind superstition had placed behind [or ahead of] us, is in us.’

CHOMSKY: Aside from the word “everything,” that’s certainly correct. He’s right about what we call primitive or pretechnological societies and the knowledge they developed on how the world works, on language, human relations. The natural sciences have made enormous progress, but they tell us nothing about how to lead our lives.

[[CHOMSKY: Aside from the word ‘everything’ near the end, that’s certainly correct. He’s right about what we call primitive or pretechnological societies. They have great cultural wealth, including lots of scientific knowledge, the result of thousands of years of enquiry, experiment, plant-breeding, and so on, which has led to an enormous wealth of knowledge, which the West is now trying to steal and establish patent rights over. And that’s not even to consider other knowledge developed on how the world works, on language, human relations. The natural sciences have made enormous progress, but they tell us nothing about how to lead our lives.]]