Noam Chomsky

Freedom and power

RP 172 () / Interview

Peter Hallward I’d like to start by asking you about some of your basic philosophical principles, starting with your understanding of human freedom and creativity. In the modern European tradition I’m most familiar with, freedom is a dominant philosophical theme from Descartes through Rousseau to Kant. With Kant we have an affirmation of absolute freedom from all external causation, but it remains a relatively abstract affair, a matter of ‘pure practical reason’. This sets a post-Kantian agenda: from Hegel and Marx through to the Frankfurt School and their existentialist contemporaries, the question becomes one of trying to think freedom or rather the process of emancipation in a way that has more concrete socio-historical determination or ‘actuality’. Through to the 1930s, at least, for many of the thinkers in this tradition the role of mediating agent was played, one way or another, by the proletariat conceived as a tendentially universal class.

I know you’ve approached these issues from a different perspective, but like a lot of your readers I’m curious to know more about how you see these two aspects of your work: the libertarian aspect, oriented by an uncompromising affirmation of freedom, and the social/historical aspect, oriented by an equally uncompromising critique of capitalism, imperialism, propaganda and forms of domination more generally.

On the face of it, many of your long-standing priorities and principles – the accounts of freedom you find in Descartes, von Humboldt and some of the classical liberals, your critique of behaviourism, your allegiance to aspects of the anarchist and libertarian socialist traditions, and so on – seem to form an internally coherent group, one that’s consistent across the whole sweep of your work. Is that how you yourself see it? Did your main ideas fall gradually into place over time, or were there quite specific debates or encounters that served to crystallize things?

Noam Chomsky Well, I was interested in anarchist ideas right back through my childhood, but I only learned about the deeper Romantic and rationalist tradition in the 1960s, after I’d pretty much settled most of my own ideas on the topic. I’d always been interested in the anarchist tradition itself, I’d investigated it, I’d thought it had been somewhat misinterpreted, but I can’t say that what lay behind the anarchist tradition in many ways was a direct influence – it was more like a discovery of historical origins for ideas I’d already been defending for some time.

The critique of behaviourism began very early, as soon as I found out about it. I was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1950s, and radical behaviourism was orthodox and ubiquitous. There were a couple of us, graduate students, who just didn’t believe any of it. We were very critical of behaviourism, particularly with respect to the way it was used in the study of language, of course, but also in psychology and the social sciences, and in American philosophy more generally.

PH Partly as a critique of social engineering?

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