Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Language and Freedom

In 1970 Chomsky was asked to give a lecture at a university in Chicago on “Language and Freedom.” The lecture has been published in various collections of Chomsky's work, and I recently came across it in Chomsky on Anarchism. One might think, obviously, that the talk would focus on freedom of speech, being that Chomsky is such an outspoken critic of government oppression. However, Chomsky begins the speech with a blatant admission that he sees no apparent connection between “language” and “freedom,” no connection between his work as a linguist and his work as a social advocate. As he says in his opening remarks, “What is troublesome in the title of this lecture is the conjunction. In what way are language and freedom to be interconnected?”

Luckily, as he continues to explain, Rousseau had already completed the task over two hundred years earlier. His Discourse on the Origins of Inequality does all Chomsky’s work for him.

The connection, in retrospect, seems genius though obvious. Here’s what it is:

1) “Nature commands every animal, and the beast obeys. Man feels the same impetus, but he realizes that he is free to acquiesce or resist; and it is above all in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown.” In other words, man’s freedom lies in his consciousness, which allows him to make complex moral decisions. The statement contradicts the writing of Kropotkin, who wrote in Anarchist Morality of his belief that the golden rule is a law of nature, and that “animals living in societies are also able to distinguish between good and evil, just as man does.” He cites various examples of animals in natural environments acting in ways that put the survival of the species above their own lives. Though the subject seems still officially open for debate among biologists and philosophers, there still seems to be truth to Rousseau’s statement that man’s freedom lies in his consciousness, his ability to form thoughts.

2) “…if men needed speech in order to learn to think, they had even greater need of knowing how to think in order to discover the art of speech.”

Speech and thought are interrelated. Speech is evidence of thought, therefore speech is evidence of freedom. Again, a seemingly obvious relationship in retrospect, but interesting that it was the only genuine connection Chomsky could find between the two major fields of his career.


Post a Comment

<< Home