What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is a venerated linguist and cognitive scientist, a Professor Emeritus at MIT, and one of the most revered intellectuals alive today. He is the author of more than 100 books in varying disciplines, and he just added another to the pile.
What Kind of Creatures Are We? is adapted from the Dewey lectures that Chomsky delivered in 2013 at Columbia University. In these lectures, Chomsky posed three questions, each of which comprises a chapter in the book.
What is language?
Chomsky’s central thesis in the first chapter is that language is an instrument of thought rather than something whose purpose is communication, as we are generally wont to believe. Communication, whether in the form of speech or sign, is ancillary. He further states that communication, like the eye, is a part of human biology and says that to ascribe to it a purpose would be erroneous.
In this chapter, Chomsky makes reference to generative grammar concepts which he developed in the late 1950s, likening this period in linguistics to Galileo and the early days of science. He takes a theoretical dive which presupposes knowledge of generative grammar. Concepts such as the basic property and universal grammar get little explanation as he expands into discussions of internal and external merge, and algebraic renderings of sentence structure z, with component parts x and y demonstrating that computational efficiency in language design prevails over ease of processing or even communication.
What can we understand?
Chomsky shifts into cognitive scientist mode here in a discussion of “the new mysterianism,” a concept coined by Owen Flanagan positing the notion of problems and mysteries. Problems fall within the realm of our cognitive capacities; mysteries do not. As an example, Chomsky cites Isaac Newton who, though he proposed the idea that objects act upon each other at a distance, he was unable to speculate as to what the nature of this force might be.
The new mysterianism stands in contrast to the notion of limitless human cognition that sprang from the Enlightenment and the early scientific revolution. Chomsky’s point in this chapter seems largely to be the existence of scope and limits to cognition in biological organisms, including humans.
What is the common good?
In the next chapter, “What is the common good?” Chomsky dons his political hat to address social truisms, such as freedom of the individual, that, while universally professed, are in practice universally rejected. He points to the repression, torture and execution of political dissenters in Latin America from the 1960s through the Reagan years, and he makes the claim that the United States, with its disenfranchised populace, has been more of a plutocracy than a democracy since the time of its founding. Founders such as James Madison, purporting to be promoters of democracy, nevertheless strove to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority,” preventing the poor masses from using democracy to take the property of the rich.
He further examines historical atrocities in the system, including the hideous working conditions of artisans, farmers, and factory girls studied by Norman Ware 90 years ago and the dehumanizing influence of mechanization that turned workers into wage slaves. Chomsky suggests that a truly democratic system might look to liberal ideals and further to the anarchistic ideas of John Dewey – that “illegitimate structures of coercion must be dismantled.”
The Mysteries of Nature: How Deeply Hidden?
The final chapter of What Kind of Creatures Are We? is the only one that doesn’t correspond to one of the three Dewey lectures. In it, Chomsky returns to his discussion of mysterianism by returning to Isaac Newton’s admission that there are forces in nature that our beyond our ken. With this admission came an overarching shift in the goals of scientific inquiry. Constructing intelligible theories without having to understand the world’s inner workings became acceptable, and the assumption that we could know everything was rejected.
Comprised as it is of diverse lectures, What Kind of Creatures Are We? reads like a survey course in Noam Chomsky. Complex topics are sparsely addressed, and any connections between them are thin or nonexistent rendering them inaccessible to the casual or general reader. This slim book will best serve those who wishing to follow Chomsky’s Dewey lectures with their printed counterpart or add to the already extensive collection of the dedicated Chomsky reader.