Truth to tell
Noam Chomsky talks to Domenico Pacitti about the pressures on academic
freedom and the advances in our knowledge of language
Tuesday April 18, 2000
The US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky has taken to the tranquillity
of the Tuscan hills. His chosen retreat is the secluded Certosa di
Pontignano overlooking Siena, a finely restored 13th-century Carthusian
monastery now used by the university as an exclusive international
conference centre. As we are led through the cloisters to a superbly
frescoed reception room, he reveals that the sublime silence is congenial to
his hermitic nature and conducive to serious thought.
I ask Chomsky how he feels academic freedom and the pursuit of truth are
faring in universities. Students, he replies, are not given enough
encouragement to challenge the basic assumptions of their professors and the
pre-established framework of their subject. He accepts that the situation in
Italy is particularly depressing but points out that, when seen from a US
perspective, it is true of European universities generally, Britain
included. But he stresses that Britain is closer to the US than the
continent in this respect.
"Continental Europe still retains a rather authoritarian structure in the
university system, with deference/authority relations built into cultural
patterns. I noticed it very strikingly when I was teaching at Oxford. In the
Oxford college where I was living there was an incident over a man who was
serving a young gentleman, and the way he expected to be treated was just
"In the US, class differentiations are not particularly marked, so that the
guy who is fixing your car and you are on the same terms."
He recounts a story about an MIT colleague who, when asked by his students
what they were going to cover in their courses, replied that it didn't
matter what they covered, but rather what they discovered.
"That's the way education should work," he says. "At the graduate level in
the sciences that's the way it does work. It's interaction among students
and faculty with not much tyranny - there can't be, because most of the good
ideas are coming from the students."
Mainstream academia, Chomsky complains, tends to be too resistant to change.
"I think you see this very clearly in the way that modern linguistics
developed. It did not develop in the major academic centres because they
were too conservative. They don't want to be rattled - they want their
peaceful existence to be unchallenged. And that's why in France, where
European linguistics took off, it was at Vincennes and not the Sorbonne.
"It was in this little place outside Paris where they were sending all the
radical students to get rid of them, and since nobody was paying attention
to what happened there, it was possible to have innovative creative work
which to this day has not penetrated the French university system. And the
same pattern has replicated throughout the world."
But it is subordination to external power in both US and European
universities which he sees as posing perhaps the most serious threat.
"Universities are always in a tension. At best, they are trying to maintain
intellectual integrity. Yet they cannot escape the reality that they are
parasitic on external power mainly in the form of government and private
corporations. These outside pressures are obviously going to undermine
intellectual integrity and so it's a constant battle."
Over-generous funding for over-ambitious projects turns out to be a
characteristic speciality of US academia. Following Europe's
self-destruction in the second world war, Chomsky explains, the US found
itself with unprecedented power and prestige. This led to the confidence,
first expressed in the 1950s and still expressed today, that with the US
having conquered the world, its scientists could now conquer the last
frontier - the human mind.
"We've just finished a 'decade of the brain' programme backed by major
foundations. The closing conference at the United Academy of Arts and
Sciences produced the very confident statement that the body/mind problem
will soon be overcome and that the mind will finally be understood.
"Well, firstly, there is no such problem, because there has been no coherent
concept of body since Isaac Newton, so there's nothing to overcome. And
secondly, the confidence is completely misplaced since we can't even explain
how the human visual system can recognise a straight line. The truth is that
there's still a huge gap between current understanding and the mental
aspects of the world we're trying to account for."
Despite having revolutionised the way we think about language and the mind
and notwithstanding the considerable insights produced by almost half a
century of sustained research, Chomsky still finds his work criticised
outright as "mentalistic" and therefore unscientific on the grounds that it
cannot be reduced to physics. Chemistry, he argues, was not reducible to
physics, but that didn't make it unscientific. Rather, it was physics which
had to be reconstituted so as to be able to incorporate a virtually
Many modern thinkers, he says, simply haven't understood the full
significance of Newton's discovery of gravity. "The possibility of
affecting objects without touching them just exploded physicalism and
materialism. It has been common in recent years to ridicule Descartes's
"ghost in the machine" in postulating mind as distinct from body. Well,
Newton came along and he did not exorcise the ghost in the machine: he
exorcised the machine and left the ghost intact. So now the ghost is left
and the machine isn't there. And the mind has mystical properties.
"My feeling is that a study of the actual history of the modern sciences
would be a very salutary component of any university curriculum."
Chomsky acknowledges with a broad grin that these views have earned his
approach the trade name of "MIT mentalism" among colleagues. But why does
the conception of the world as consisting in bodies and minds have such a
strong hold on people and why are so many academics deceived into believing
illusions about the physical that were understood as such 200 years ago?
"So far we've been talking about fact, but now it's speculation. My
speculation is that somehow our intuitive mentality is fundamentally
dualist. Suppose you're looking at the sun setting over the ocean. You can
know all the relativity theory in the world, but you still see the sun
setting into the water. And if the moon is near the horizon, you can't help
seeing it larger than if it's up in the sky."
So where does all of this leave truth, the cornerstone of all academic
research? Is there a final answer to the question: what is truth? "There is
an answer," says Chomsky, "but whether we can find it or not is another
matter. The human condition is such that we can make our best guess as to
what is true. We're organic creatures and we have our limitations. We must
see the world from a particular point of view because that's the way we're
"But we're also reflective creatures, so we can reflect on our own
inadequacies and try to overcome them. That's what happened in the Newtonian
revolution. They had to reflect on the inability of common sense, of
ordinary intelligence to comprehend the nature of the world and look at it
from a different point of view. It's the same with all our existence. We can
use our resources as creatively and critically as we can to try to overcome
our special perspectives that come from our nature. But whether we'll get
the truth or not is another question."
Meanwhile, Chomsky's new minimalist programme in linguistics is asking just
how well designed the human language capacity is to carry out its essential
functions. With complex grammar rules now eliminated in favour of basic
principles, he feels that more has been learnt about language in the last 20
years than in the preceeding 2,000 years.
The trouble is, he says, that what we know intuitively seems to lie far
beyond what we can understand intellectually.
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