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Based On Conversations With Mitson Ronat

by Noam Chomsky

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1978
ISBN: 0394736192
Publisher: Pantheon

Noam Chomsky is rightly regarded as one of the major figures in modern linguistics as the creator of generative grammar, which has transformed the discipline. He is best known to the public, however, as a political activist of anarchistic bent. Apparently, this transcript of "conversations" with French linguist Mitsou Ronat, previously published in France (1977), is intended to bridge these two aspects of Chomsky's prolific career, but the bridge turns out to be a very long one indeed. In the first part, Chomsky discusses the role of intellectuals in formulating and maintaining the dominance of a particular ideology, especially in the U.S. He denies that any special competence is required to intervene in questions of public policy and affairs, seeing all such claims for competence as hierarchically-based justifications for a pseudo-technocratic elite. Chomsky the political activist is therefore simply Chomsky the citizen, while Chomsky the linguist is Chomsky the value-free scientist, and he declines to see any significant connection between the two. In the second part, he discusses the trajectory of his scientific work over the past 25 years, outlining his theories of generative grammar, semantics, deep structure, etc., and offering interesting distinctions between his and related approaches. However, Chomsky's politically-rooted efforts at a critique of ideology lack the theoretical underpinnings of his "neutral" linguistic work, and the differences between Chomsky and Michel Foucault on this score are brought up by Ronat. The only connection between the two Chomskys--and it may be significant--is that his linguistics is part of an effort to establish a scientific basis for making assertions about human nature, and his political activity entails a vision of a future society redesigned to accord with that scientifically-established human nature. This is not an entirely comforting revelation. Although the sections on linguistics and the "human sciences" are rather technical, the juxtaposition of Chomsky's two personas is enlightening, even if no new light is shed on the two subjects themselves.