Chomsky (Emeritus, Linguistics and Philosophy/MIT; Because We Say So, 2015, etc.) reflects broadly on the nature of language, the limits of human cognition, and our role as social creatures in furthering the common good.
This book collects lectures delivered by the author at Columbia University, spanning the fields of theoretical linguistics, cognitive science, political philosophy, and more. In the first chapter, Chomsky proposes that, despite a general feeling to the contrary, language evolved primarily as an instrument of thought, and he labels its externalization in speech and sign language as ancillary. Reframing language as a part of our biology, much like the eye, the author touches on generative grammar concepts that he developed in the 1950s. Chomsky delves next into philosophy of mind, specifically “the new mysterianism,” a philosophy that proposes the existence of “problems,” questions human beings are able to solve, and “mysteries,” the solutions to which lie outside the bounds of human cognition. He uncovers examples in scientific history, returning repeatedly to Isaac Newton’s unwillingness to speculate on the specific nature of gravity, the mysterious force with which objects appear to act upon one another at a distance. Turning his attention to social matters, Chomsky indicts the systems that profess social truisms in theory but reject them in practice. He cites American participation in the repression, torture, and execution of political dissenters in Latin America during the late 20th century before locating the seeds of American plutocracy in the intentions of the Founding Fathers and ending this chapter with a discussion of libertarian ideals. The writing is academic in its tenor, referencing throughout the work of philosophical luminaries such as David Hume, John Locke, Joseph Priestley, and many more. As such, general readers may find the text opaque and the narrative flow disconnected.
Comprising lectures on distinctly separate topics, this short volume skims the surface of the diversity and complexity of Chomsky’s expertise.