On Chomsky:
a ``Study in Total Depravity''

The claims are familiar: ``the most important living intellectual'' (The New York Times), one of the ten most frequently cited authors in the humanities, in the company of Marx and Freud and Plato, the only one of the ten now living --- and who are all these people citing Plato? my undergraduate students think he made gyros --- the claims, I say, are familiar enough, and probably honest enough in intent: citation counting is regular to the point of deathly boredom, and The New York Times has only slightly less cause to flatter Prof. Chomsky than did the late Prof. B. F. Skinner. Yet these claims are very strange, because Chomsky is not a great intellectual.

Chomsky's contributions to linguistics are of course real enough: though disputed by many of his professional peers, his opponents are, after all, reacting against Chomsky. Yet this can hardly be enough to qualify as one of the ten great authorities of Western letters, or the most significant thinker of the day. In many, perhaps all, of the particular sciences, you will find men and women of similar importance --- in physics, in computer science, in molecular biology, in chemistry, in genetics, in zoology, in ecology, in economics, in neuroscience and so on. They are not rated by The Economist when it reviews ``gurus.'' Perhaps writers are more apt to think highly of eminent linguists than of physicists, since linguists deal, after all, with words.

But Chomsky does not deal with them well. His grammar is unexceptionable, nor is he obscure in the manner of Kant and Hegel and their all-too-numerous spawn. He seems to try hard. But his writing remains heavy, ineloquent, monotonous, dull. Scientists have become resigned to a very low level of prose from their fellows, but it is expected that one will do better when addressing a lay audience. Chomsky does not; he lacks utterly the happy gift for exposition possessed by, say, J. B. S. Haldane, Peter Medawar or Steven Weinberg --- to say nothing of any number of science writers. Understanding Chomsky on linguistics is not impossible but one wonders why anyone except another linguist would make the effort.

The same lack of expository skill mars the political works (excepting perhaps the two short pamphlets published by the Odonian press, What Uncle Sam Really Wants and The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many). In any case, Chomsky is not a significant political thinker, as he himself would probably admit. His constructive ideals --- more or less straight anarcho-syndicalism --- are not original with him, and barely touched upon in his publications. As for his criticisms of the existing state of affairs, one should very much like to know how it has come to pass that many of those who feel qualified to judge intellectual eminence take it as a revelation that the United State of America is an imperial power which has committed, supported and denied atrocities all over the world, or that centralizing the news media in the hands of large, advertising-supported corporations, owned in whole or in part by other huge companies, leads to bias. These are important facts, of course, and they are news to many people. So are the facts of evolution and the age of the Earth, still unaccepted by approximately half of America's adults. It is meritorious work to teach them, but hardly a sign of unrivalled intellectual accomplishment.

Chomsky's scientific achievements are important but hardly unique among his contemporaries; his historical and political works are valuable but not innovative, or even startling to a reasonably informed person; as a philosopher he is negligible and as an author a nullity; to the best of my knowledge, he practices none of the fine arts. An eminent intellectual? Certainly. An important one in the history of thought? Quite possibly, perhaps even quite probably. The most important intellectual in the world today?

Suddenly one comes up short. Chomsky is no one to be sneezed at, but he's not William James or Darwin or Plato. It is particularly revealing to contrast Prof. Chomsky with one of his own intellectual ancestors, Bertrand Russell. Both made singular but controversial contributions to the foundations of a particular science. (Personally, I should regard Russell's work as more important, but that may be my bias as a physicist.) Both held radical and unpopular political views. Both acquired something of a cult following. Yet Russell's work is far, far broader, ranging from pure logic and philosophy through the natural sciences to history and psychology and the marvelously droll Nightmares of Eminent Persons. He had, moreover, those rhetorical gifts --- not only exposition but wit, eloquence and occasionally grace --- that Chomsky so conspicuously lacks. (One may admit this and still doubt that Russell deserved a Nobel Prize for literature.) At one point in the 1930s Russell wrote a regular column for the Hearst papers. It is impossible to imagine Chomsky doing something similar. Partly this is because he lacks the skills needed to convincingly and amusingly turn a ``paterfamilias'' badgered into buying a useless piano, into a sign of a destructive and irrational economic order (``On Sales Resistance''). Partly it is because Chomsky's scope is far narrower than Russell's: linguistics and politics and very, very little else. (I mean of course the scope of their writings.) When Chomsky writes about politics, he writes only about politics, usually the (real enough) horrors attending US foreign policy, and quickly drowns one in a mass of factual details and ponderous denunciations. When Russell writes about politics, he writes about architecture, the Chinese mandarinate and the effects of the airplane on the imagination, and aptly illustrates the devastation of modern war with a poem by Leopardi. Russell's work is like a scientific instrument from the Enlightenment, whose craftsmanship and decoration make it beautiful, if not quite a work of art; Chomsky's, a clanking, thudding mass of valves and wires and metal boxes painted grey, nursed through the night in the basement of the physics building by an attentive graduate student.

Now the point of this is not to say to Prof. Chomsky, ``Why can't you be more like Uncle Bertie?'' The point is that, while Russell was phenomenally brilliant (perhaps a genius, though that word is so abused as to perhaps be meaningless), he was not some isolated peak. I cannot think of a time since the early 1600s, at the latest, when the West could not boast intellectuals of Russell's caliber; and that Chomsky is not of that caliber. Surely then this cannot be the best our time has to offer? Surely there are other thinkers of greater distinction?

I hope so. Name them.

After much thought I have been unable to do so. I have put the question to acquaintances on four continents, whose collective interests lie scattered over a respectably large part of the house of intellect, and they have been unable to do so. I should like to learn that they and I are merely provincial, or passéist. I should like to think that, unknown to me and The New York Times, someone is adding whole wings to that ancient house, not merely straightening the carpets and enlarging the windows. (I must, perhaps, say that my own talents and ambition stop at carpet-straightening.) I should like to think that we are not decadent, that the Promethean fire has not flickered out and been replaced by Byzantine glass jewels.