WHAT KIND OF CREATURES ARE WE? – Noam Chomsky (2016)

What kind of creatures are weI’m always puzzled when I read statements like Howard Gardner’s “Noam Chomsky is arguably the most influential thinker of our time”, or the Observer’s “[Chomsky is t]he world’s greatest public intellectual”. He may indeed be the “most prominent critic of imperialism”, as the Guardian put it. But if you look at the real world effect Chomsky has, his influence seems meager and pathetic: the Western world is still heavily involved in warfare in the Middle East, and the inequality gap has been widening since the 1980s, and still very much is – both within the Western world, as globally.

Chomsky’s powerful critique of the current crises our world faces is even published by a mainstream company as Penguin Books (like the excellent 2013 Power Systems, or 2011’s Making The Future), yet not a lot seems to change for the better.

There’s a very big rift between what some intellectuals and activists think and read, and their ability to influence policy. The existence of a ‘real’ democracy worthy of that name is an illusion, as The New York Times recently reported – a fact that Chomsky also points out in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, using different data from a different study. Nicholas Kristof wrote the following on January 22nd, 2016:

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.  (www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/…)

But I digress…

What Kind of Creatures Are We? is marketed by Columbia University Press as a kind of summary of Chomsky’s work, spanning over half a century. Chomsky first gained worldwide respect as a linguist, publishing groundbreaking work on the innateness of language and universal grammar, but has been a scholar and a vocal critic of imperialism and capitalism from the onset too. I know of no other thinker with such a broad and erudite knowledge.

This book is divided in 4 parts: What is language?, What can we understand?, What is the common good? and The mysteries of nature: How deeply hidden? It has 127 pages of actual text, and – indicative of Chomsky’s wide-ranging research – 15 pages of reference notes, plus an index of 20 pages. Although the third part deals with politics – there is little new to be found here for the reader familiar with the political Chomsky, with a slight emphasis on John Dewey this time – the book is mainly an epistemological work, tracing its origins to the advent of modern science. Newton, Hume and Locke are featured a lot. Really, a lot. There are 39 references to Newton in the index. That’s roughly one mention on every third page.

I found the first 3 parts very interesting, and at times even thought-provoking. I don’t claim to have understood everything, let alone to be able to formulate critique on what Chomsky wrote. It is not light, easy reading, although I must say most is indeed written in “clear, precise and nontechnical language”, as promised on the dust jacket. The latter half of part 4 was a bit too much for me, as I had reached my saturation point, and things became a bit too dense. 

Let me give the main gist of the first 2 parts.

What Is Language? explores the fact that language is a biological function, stressing the fact that we should not equate external language production (speech, texts, sign language) with ‘language’. Chomsky argues that most of language is internal, and even not accessible to our consciousness. He further notes that many scientific misunderstandings arise from the confusion of ‘language’ with ‘communication’. It was refreshing to read, and actually established a shift in my way of understanding language. That’s remarkable, given the fact that I studied linguistics and things related at university fairly recently (1998-2004), including basic Chomsky like transformational grammar (TGG).

What can we understand? argues that we should be more humble as a species: thinking is shaped by our phenotype, and as such has biological limits. Our language and thinking capacities may be infinite, but not limitless. Chomsky formulates something that is a truism, yet hardly acknowledged by science: there is much that we can never know or understand. This truism is dubbed mysterianism – not to be confused with a cheesy metaphysical transcendentalism.

That is what I thought I forty years ago in proposing a distinction between problems, which fall within our cognitive capacities, and mysteries, which do not.

He does all this by revisiting Newton, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Darwin and many more. He shows these early scientists/natural philosophers were much more attuned to our limits than we are today, and lots of so called radical new insights presented nowadays are simply reformulations of things already said.

On a side note, of interest to regular readers of this blog, the above distinction (problem vs. mystery) might be applied to a possibly crucial difference between science fiction and fantasy: SF is mainly about problems, whereas fantasy mainly deals with mysteries.

Part 3 advocates the abolishment of oppressive structures, and favors true democracy.

This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority, and domination that constrain human development, and then to subject them to a very reasonable challenge: justify yourself. (…) If they cannot meet that challenge, they should be dismantled.

It features an interesting thought on the double reality of ethics:

And with the broader scope of the concerns I will try to address, these alleged truisms relate to an interesting category of ethical principles: those that are not only universal, in that they are virtually always professed, but doubly universal, in that at the same time they are almost universally rejected in practice. These range from very general principles, such as (…) that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, if not harsher ones, to more specific doctrines, such as dedication to promoting justice and human rights, proclaimed almost universally, even by the worst monsters, though the actual record is grim, across the spectrum.

Part 4 actually elaborates on the first 2, focusing on consciousness and the mind-body problem.

What Kind of Creatures Are We? is definitely recommended for people interested in the (philosophical) history of science, the science & philosophy of language, and theory of mind. But I doubt it is of much value to the uninitiated. Those of you who were expecting a mainly political Chomsky book, better look elsewhere, like the 2 Penguin titles mentioned above.

You can read all but the last 1.5 pages of the 24-page summarizing foreword by Akeel Bilgrami on Google Books via the link below – it’s pretty dense, I must say Chomsky himself does a much better job explaining.



4 responses to “WHAT KIND OF CREATURES ARE WE? – Noam Chomsky (2016)

  1. Fascinating stuff, with issues and assertions that are thought-provoking even when I instinctively feel they’re true. I also like your observation that “SF is mainly about problems, whereas fantasy,” something else for me to mull over.

    Liked by 2 people

    • thanks! yeah, it’s strange that there’s a lot of truth to be found in Chomsky, yet that truth seems to have trouble to be recognized as such, let alone to be acted upon by human society. At face value, we still live in a kind of feudal system, but we’re in denial.

      On a sidenote, I’m pretty sure Kim Stanley Robinson has read tons of Chomsky. 🙂


  2. Just a (basically anecdotal) note on mysterianism: I find arguments about the limited nature of human understanding fascinating, but they always make me think of Locke’s Essay, where he seems to prove from the first principles that we will never discover why gold appears so yellow, heavy and soft. (This is an uncharitable reduction on my part, of course, but that element of overconfidence is there.)

    You might also find this review of Manufacturing Consent interesting, the whole blog is generally quite excellent: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/09/11/book-review-manufacturing-consent/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chomsky talks a bit about the mental state of colors too in the book, but I forgot what his main point about it was, and I don’t seem to find the relevant passage using the index 🙂 thanks for that link, looks interesting indeed, seems like a thorough and balanced review!


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