Noam Chomsky: Language and Freedom (Review)

Noam Chomsky is a renowned linguistics professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He first delivered the lecture, “Language and Freedom,” at the University Freedom and Humane Sciences Symposium on January 8, 1970 at Loyola University in Chicago. It has since been published on several occasions in varying journals and books. Presumably the audience targeted for this publication would be social scientists and philosophers, though little about the nature of the symposium is known. In explaining the subject of the lecture, Chomsky himself puts it best: “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation” (87-8).

Over the course of twenty-eight pages, Chomsky reviews the fundamental concepts that define language systems and operations, the philosophers that influenced the defining points of the concept of “freedom,” and how these subjects are intertwined. In a most intricate order Chomsky first defines language, then regales the reader with varying philosophies, and then returns to redefine language and emphasize its interconnectedness to freedom. In defining language, he begins with, “Language is a system of rules and principles – a ‘generative grammar’ that associates sound and meaning in some specific fashion” (75). To further explain the importance of language, Chomsky describes the concept of human nature, stating that the capacity for free thought and self-expression is the criteria for language, and an essential factor in what separates humans from animals.

Next Chomsky explains more about the study of language and linguistics, addressing more on human nature and its importance: “It is from human nature that the principles of natural right and the foundations of social existence must be deduced” (78). He elaborates, explaining how history records the evolving human nature as it develops within human-set limitations. He continuously draws the concept of human ability for language and understanding back to the ability to think freely and critically, expressing the connection with the term “consciousness of freedom,” the essential attributes of human nature to develop diversity and individuality.

Keeping with the previous theme of language and free thought, Chomsky addresses the various definitions of human capacity for language and freedom as taught by five philosophers. Here Chomsky supplies many passages from the works of Rousseau, Kant, Descartes, and Humboldt, along with his own interpretations of the philosophers’ ideas.  With Rousseau, Chomsky examined excerpts from Discourse on Inequality (1755) to identify the critical points at which humankind sacrificed full freedom for partial freedom under democracy, thus placing limitations on all other aspects of human nature. Rousseau, like Chomsky himself, discusses animal nature and human nature, and emphasizes that man is “free to…resist; and it is in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown” (78).

In his examination of Kant and the French Revolution, Chomsky explored the privilege of freedom and its defense. On this subject, he writes, “No person of understanding or humanity will too quickly condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued masses rise against their oppressors, or take their first steps toward liberty and social reconstruction” (80). Again Chomsky takes the words of these philosophers and ties them back into the initial subject matter not only of freedom but of language. He next addresses the philosophy of Descartes, who very clearly wrote on language as a organism of mind and mechanical explanation. Chomsky sums up Descartes’s point in brief, stating “the only sure sign that another organism has a mind is its use of language in the normal, creative human fashion, free from control by identifiable stimuli, novel and innovative, appropriate to situations, coherent, and engendering in our minds new thoughts and ideas” (81).

Next he examines the work of Humboldt, a theorist of general linguistics who wrote on libertarianism. Chomsky states that while Humboldt did not touch upon language in his libertarian social thoughts, there is a clear concept of human nature in his words that capture the idea in its essence:  “The incapacity for freedom can only arise from a want or moral intellectual power; to heighten this power is the only way to supply this want; but to do this presupposes the exercise of the power; and this exercise presupposes the freedom which awakens spontaneous activity” (84). In this examination Chomsky expands to the subject of education and transformation of social and economic fronts, laying the groundwork for his own liberal views on each subject and relating them back in turn to the subject of freedom and language.

Most effectively, Chomsky concludes the core of his lecture with a statement that really captures the full interconnectedness between language and freedom: “Without this tension between necessity and freedom, rule and choice, there can be no creativity, no communication, no meaningful acts at all” (88).

Chomsky writes in a tone of enthusiasm and intrigue for the subject of which he is speaking. He approaches the subject as a critical examination of the relationship between language and freedom and its interconnectedness in human nature. He begins by explaining the properties of language and grammar, in a most thorough yet simple account, to which he attributes the key basis for the study of linguistics to philosophers Rousseau, Humboldt, Kant and Descartes. Each of these philosophers examined different aspects of human nature and the human capacity for language; and by virtue of nature and capacity: freedom, which is valuable to a researcher as an examination of this intricate relationship.

Chomsky is possibly best known outside of the study of linguistics as an acutely liberal writer on politics, economics, human capacity for good-nature and bad-nature, and his emphasis on the importance of truth in exposition. Many of his works – if not most of his works – regardless of the subject, make references to varying topics including libertarianism, socialism, and democracy. Though this is a lecture on language and the human capacity for intellect and freedom, it is no exception to the repeated emphasis Chomsky makes on the significance of capitalism and the restrictions to freedom by partially democratic institutions.

In reading this lecture, I found myself captivated by Chomsky’s eloquent style and organization. Perhaps to the newer reader of his work it may appear Chomsky jumps around from topic to topic, trying to fit everything together in a possibly clumsy style. However, I have read quite a few books and articles and am well-versed in his artistically purposeful style of writing. His ability to transition from time period to time period, philosopher to philosopher, is only mildly chaotic yet still cleverly effortless. The connections between all the factors are laid out like a colorful diagram of interconnected thought and theory, and by the time the reader reaches the conclusion it will feel like a puzzle has been put only half together. Chomsky addresses the speculation and gaps of language and freedom, yet expresses the hope for social action as further study and progress are made.

Chomsky, Noam. “Language and Freedom.” Lecture. University Freedom and Humane Sciences Symposium. Loyola University, Chicago. 8 Jan. 1970. The Essential Chomsky. Ed. Anthony Arnove. New York: New Press, 2008. 75-91. Print.

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One thought on “Noam Chomsky: Language and Freedom (Review)

  1. Pingback: HIDDEN SUBJECTS IN M.C.R. AND F.C.R. pt. 1 | Thought Uncommon

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