Noam Chomsky is a world-famous linguist, cognitive scientist and social critic. But, argues Chris Knight, he keeps his science and politics in two separate mental departments
In previous Weekly Worker articles, I have described the linguist’s double-edged relationship with the US military.1 Chomsky’s research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was sponsored by the US Defence Department, which had ambitious military applications in mind. On the other hand, Chomsky loathed the American military and all its works, and needed to know that no ideas he came up with could possibly be of military use. His political conscience led him to adopt a lofty, unprecedentedly other-worldly approach to language, treating grammar as if it were a mathematical object and, at every stage, renouncing messy reality in favour of the most extreme theoretical abstraction.
My aim has been to show how Chomsky’s twin intellectual outputs - abstract theory for the military, concrete activism against the military - are best viewed together as a unitary strategic response to what must have been genuine dilemmas. Only a grasp of Chomsky’s conflict-ridden institutional situation can explain why he needed to adopt such extreme positions on each side.
Language, he has always argued, is neither social nor communicative but simply a computational object performing its unconscious operations silently in the individual mind/brain. His commitment to such a peculiarly individualistic, dehumanised and unrealistic philosophical approach has embroiled him in countless theoretical difficulties over the years.
One major advantage, however, was that it allowed him to disconnect his socially aware activism from an allegedly value-free, politically neutral version of linguistics emanating under military sponsorship from MIT. Once this disconnect had been achieved, his activism could proceed free of interference from his science, and conversely his science free of interference from his activism.
To begin at the beginning, it is no secret that Chomsky’s linguistic work at the MIT was initially funded by the Pentagon. As Chomsky himself explains: “I was in a military lab. If you take a look at my early publications, they all say something about Air Force, Navy, and so on, because I was in a military lab, the Research Lab for Electronics.”2
Directly contradicting my account, Chomsky has always been adamant that military funding had no effect whatsoever on his work. Asked in 2016 if the military hoped to make use of his research, he replied: “That’s actually a widespread illusion. … It’s very widely believed but basically the military didn’t care what you were doing.” The government, according to Chomsky, just used the military “as a kind of a funnel by which tax-payer money was being used to create the hi-tech economy of the future”.3 Chomsky cited the early development of the internet, saying of the scientists who worked for the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) during the 1960s: “the military funded them but nobody had any military purpose.”
Nobody had any military purpose? I find that difficult to believe. Stephen Lukasik, the director of ARPA, was quite clear that his agency funded the development of the internet in order “to meet the needs of military command and control against nuclear threats.” It’s true that many of the individual scientists who made their contributions had no interest in military applications. But when Lukasik insists that ARPA’s sole purpose “was the command and control of military forces” I see no reason to doubt his words.4 The military were no less forthright in explaining why they funded Chomsky’s linguistics research. In 1971, having described how the Air Force needed to enhance its systems of computerised command and control, Colonel Edmund Gaines explained:
Defense of the continental United States against air and missile attack is possible in part because of the use of such computer systems. And of course, such systems support our forces in Vietnam … Command and control systems would be easier to use [if artificial computer languages] were not necessary. We sponsored linguistic research in order to learn how to build command and control systems that could understand English queries directly.5
This is confirmed by a 1965 article written by Air Force Lieutenant Jay Keyser. In it, he suggested that the control languages then being used in the military’s command and control systems should be replaced with an English ‘control language’ based on Chomsky’s insights into language structure.6 Keyser illustrated his article with words such as ‘aircraft’ and ‘missile’ as well as with sample sentences such as: ‘The bomber the fighter attacked landed safely.’
Research of this kind was conducted at an offshoot of MIT called the Mitre Corporation. Here is one contemporary account:
The most ambitious effort to construct an operating grammar is being made by a group at MITRE, concerned with English-like communication in command and control computer systems. It is no accident that Noam Chomsky, the major theorist in all of American linguistics, is located at MIT.7
Some of the MIT linguists involved have recently been in contact with me, recalling that between 1963 and 1965, Chomsky worked as a consultant on that Mitre project. In the memory of one, the military funded their work on the understanding “that in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program.”8
Mitre was set up jointly by MIT and the US Air Force in order to develop air defence and ‘command and control’ technology for use in a nuclear war and in more limited conflicts like that in Vietnam. In its section on the Vietnam war, the corporation’s official history states that, by 1967, “Mitre was devoting almost one-quarter of its total resources to the command, control, and communications systems necessary to the conduct of that conflict.”9 This same official history also celebrates Mitre’s key role in creating the so-called McNamara line - a huge barrier of sensors, mines and cluster bombs along the border between North and South Vietnam. Interestingly, it was the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) who sponsored this project, an intervention which led to the deaths of thousands of Vietnamese and subsequently, as Lukasik confirms, to much of today’s hi-tech military systems based on smart weapons and ‘internetting’.10
It was Jerome Wiesner who helped initiate this ground-breaking project.11 Wiesner matters to my story because he was the lab director who first recruited Chomsky to MIT in 1955, who co-founded MIT’s linguistics programme in 1961 and who, as MIT’s provost and then president, was in effect Chomsky’s boss for over 20 years.
By the early 1960s, Wiesner had become arguably America’s most powerful military scientist, proud of the fact that his Research Laboratory of Electronics had made “major scientific and technical contributions to the continuing and growing military technology of the United States.”12 He was also proud of having “helped get the United States ballistic missile program established in the face of strong opposition from the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force and Department of Defense.”13 As President Kennedy’s chief science advisor, Wiesner insisted that nuclear missile development and procurement “must all be accelerated”.14 As MIT’s provost, he also oversaw research into helicopters, radar, smart bombs and counter-insurgency for the ongoing war in Vietnam.
Some of MIT’s military research was done by people who were quite happy to manufacture weaponry. But most academics prefer to think of themselves as free agents, in some cases perhaps anarchists, unconstrained by external pressures, least of all military imperatives. Wiesner clearly understood this when he advocated protecting ‘the anarchy of science’ in order to foster the emergence of novel insights,15 an approach consistent with general Eisenhower’s earlier directive that military scientists ‘must be given the greatest possible freedom to carry out their research.’16
Professor Jonathan King described the level of self-delusion of many MIT researchers in the 1980s in these words:
There were hundreds and hundreds of physics and engineering graduate students working on these weapons. [They’d say things like] they’re working on the hydrodynamics of an elongated object passing through a deloop fluid at high speed. “Well, isn’t that a missile?” – “No, I’m just working on the basic principle; nobody works on weapons.”17
The linguistics students who worked at Mitre in the 1960s seem to have had similar attitudes. One of them, Haj Ross, told me:
We were as free as birds … I never had any whiff of military work at Mitre … What we talked about had nothing at all to do with command and control or Air Force or anything similar.18
Barbara Partee, also emphasised how free they were, although she was rather clearer about the Air Force’s requirements:
We had total freedom. Everybody could choose their own topic, as long as it could be related to the goal of eventually getting machines to process English sentences and do some question-answering on topics of potential interest to the Air Force.
It was Partee who told me that the justification for this research was that it would “be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program.” When I asked her again how she felt about working on what was evidently a military project, she said that the “story of the generals being underground during the war and the computers therefore needing to understand English, really I’m not sure that anybody believed it.” Partee also recalled that “we all tried to convince ourselves that taking Air Force money for such purposes was consistent with our consciences.”19 She explained to me that “our standard rationalisation was that it was better for defence spending to be diverted to linguistic research than to be used for really military purposes.”20
The authors of the Mitre papers that name Chomsky as a “consultant” are quite clear that their project was aimed at developing “a program to establish natural language as an operational language for command and control.”21 I accept that Chomsky had other ideas, but I find it hard to believe that he neither knew nor cared about the way his involvement in this project was perceived by others and justified by the institutions employing him.
After 1965, Chomsky appears to have resolved never again to work on a military project, instead committing himself to tireless anti-militarist activism. Up until then, he had been relatively quiet about his political views. Partee recalls: “I never heard him say a political word in any linguistics class,” while Ross told me: “At Mitre I had never had the slightest hint about Noam’s radicalism.” But, as is well known, from 1965 Chomsky threw himself into passionate and effective resistance against the war in Vietnam.
It was around this time, according to Chomsky, that he gave considerable thought to “resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university, associated with activities of the Department of ‘Defense.’”22 But resignation was a difficult choice if only because MIT’s managers had been treating him particularly well, appointing him associate professor at the age of 29 and named professor at 37. As Chomsky says, the named professorship, “isolated me from the alumni and government pressures.”23 It was almost as if his employers were now actively encouraging him to follow his political conscience without fear. Rather than resign, Chomsky opted to stay and fight.
Ever since becoming interested in linguistics as a young student, Chomsky had gravitated toward theoretical models so abstract and formal that you might mistake them for some kind of mathematics. My own view is that under the circumstances, he always had good reason to gravitate toward the extremes of generality and formalism, distancing himself from the messy details of English, Russian or any other dialect or tongue.
The military personnel who sponsored Chomsky’s research hoped for applications which worked. Among their fantasies was the dream of being able to guide their smart weapons by talking to them in English. If such people found Chomsky worth sponsoring, it was because they imagined the young genius might help them turn such dreams into reality. Since their agenda was common knowledge, Chomsky must always have been aware of these plans, no matter how uneasy it all made him feel.
Somehow, he had to continue with the work he loved while keeping faith with his political conscience. Against this background, his preferred choice was always to resist the temptation of applying his approach to the grammar of any one particular language, such as English. The military might want that, and so might many of his students and colleagues. But Chomsky himself would always draw back. He would focus instead on Universal Grammar – something so utterly abstract and other-worldly that no matter what he came up with, nothing could possibly be used to kill anyone.
1. Eg Weekly Worker March 15 2015, August 1 2016 and December 5 2016.
2. ‘Interview with Noam Chomsky’, in Geoffrey White and Flannery Hauck (eds) Campus, Inc: corporate power in the ivory tower Amhurst, NY 2000, p445.
3. Noam Chomsky interviewed by Howard Gardner in 2016 -www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWGhJ63OXxM#t=67m44s.
4. S Lukasik ‘Why the arpanet was built’ 2011.
5. Frederick Newmeyer ‘The politics of linguistics’ November 1986, p 86.
6. Samuel Jay Keyser ‘Linguistic theory and system design’ in Joseph Spiegel and Donald Walker Information systems sciences Washington DC, 1965.
7. George Bugliarello Bioengineering: an engineering view San Fransisco 1968, p271.
8. ‘Chomsky’s students recall their time at the Mitre Corporation’ - scienceandrevolution.org
9. RC Meisel and JF Jacobs MITRE, the first twenty years: a history of the Mitre Corporation, 1958-1978 Bedford Mass, p115.
11. ‘A secret seminar’ The New York Times July 2 1971.
12. Jerome Wiesner ‘A successful experiment’ Naval Research Reviews Department of the Navy 1966 p4.
14. Wiesner Committee ‘Report to the president-elect of the Ad Hoc Committee on Space’ January 10 1961.
15. Daniel J Kevles The physicists: the history of a scientific community in modern America Cambridge Mass 1977.
16. Alex Abella Soldiers of reason: The RAND corporation and the rise of the American empire London 2008, p15.
17. C Renehan Peace activism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1975 to 2001: a case study PhD thesis Boston College Boston 2007.
18. ‘Chomsky’s students recall their time at the Mitre Corporation’ - scienceandrevolution.org.
19. Barbara Partee ‘Reflections of a formal semanticist as of Feb 2005’.
20. ‘Chomsky’s students recall their time at the Mitre Corporation’ - scienceandrevolution.org.
21. AM Zwicky and S Isard ‘Some aspects of tree theory’ Mitre Corporation, Working Paper W-6674 1963.
22. ‘Correspondence between George Steiner and Noam Chomsky’ The New York Review of Books March 23 1967 - www.nybooks.com/articles/1967/03/23/the-responsibility-of-intellectuals-an-exchange.