Noam Chomsky: Genius or Crackpot?

So I’m thinking of reading some Chomsky, but I would like to know some people’s opinions of him. I’ve read some of his articles, interviews, etc. and he seems extremely knowledgeable and bright, but sometimes I get the impression he’s a bit radical. It’s hard to deny the facts he presents though. So, what do you think, and where should I begin reading, if at all? Thanks…

Read him. Just do it with a critical eye. He’s a well-respected public intellectual and not just another pundit. That doesn’t mean he is right, but from everything I’ve heard about him, he is worth a critical look.

If you’re concerned about it, I would suggest taking some time to read books like The Logic of Real Arguments. I’m sure there are a lot of good books on critical thinking at your local library; you can even ask the librarian!

Oops! If I were in your shoes, I’d start with something like the Chomsky Reader:

To put him in perspective, he was considered a groundbreaking theoretical linquist who developed a new method of analysis call transformational grammar. After all, he is a full professor at MIT so there must be some element of genius there.

Of course he could still be a crackpot in other areas…I don’t know though.

You might also want to look into a new movie called “The Corporation”. It features some interesting interviews with him on his opinions of the modern Corporation.

Here are some articles critical of Chomsky.

The hypocrisy of Noam Chomsky by Keith Windschuttle.

Larissa MacFarquhar. The devil’s accountant. The New Yorker, March 31,

More critical articles are listed here.

Maybe both.

He did some outstanding, original work in the field of linguistics. I think most professionals in that field would say his work there approaches “genius”. But his subsequent work in the area of sociology/politics(?) … well, the value of that probably depends on whether you agree with him or not.

The public & the media commonly think that once a person is called a “genius” (because they have done “genius-level” work in one field), anything they say about any subject is valid. But it’s clearly not true. Once outside his/her area of expertise, a “genius” can be just as crackpotty as anybody else.

Some examples:

  • Linus Pauling was a genius re: polio vaccines; but his theories on mega-doses of Vitamin C to prevent lots of diseases have been pretty well debunked.
  • Shockley (one of the inventors of transistors) was genius-level in physics/electronics; but his later views on race & genetics are rather embarrassing.
  • Albert Einstein himself, obviously a genius in physics. But would the “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” people think him a genius in hair styling?

I’d pay I don’t know how much to see the Fab 5 go to work on Einstein.

They might. Style is relative.


I can already hear the groans.

I would begin with this book – Rogue States.

I think it is a more general and less in-depth (than much of his work) look at many different times, events and conflicts over the past 50 years. It is easy to read too, which helps with this sort of ‘grinding fact-searching’ research style of book. You will find though that if you read several of his books many of them overlap and repeat the same research / points.

Chomsky may be considered a ‘radical’ in many circles, he is certainly left-leaning and critical of the policies of the US (and other) governments. His conclusions* can be a step too far for some readers but the facts and research he does prior to forming his opinions is usually pretty tight and generally correct. Read him for background and separate the facts from the commentary to form your own conclusions.

  • In fact, IMHO, many of his conclusions of specific events mirror directly those which the Neo-cons will freely admit to; the only difference being Chomsky views this behaviour as despicable whereas others view it as necessary and acceptable.

You didn’t say whether it’s Chomsky’s politics or his linguistics (or both) that your interested in. I know his politics, so that’s what i’ll talk about.

I agree with js_africanus that The Chomsky Reader is a pretty good place to start for someone who hasn’t read his stuff before. Another book that was released fairly recently and that i haven’t yet read, also looks like it might be a good starting point. It’s called Understanding Power: The Indispensable Noam Chomsky. There are also a couple of books of interviews, which give a good overview of Chomsky’s thought. The drawback of these books, however, is that they don’t contain footnotes. One of the most interesting things about reading Chomsky, whether you agree with him or not, is the extensive documentation he uses, and the fact that so many of his radical conclusions are reached through analysis of fairly mainstream media publications.

If you want to try some online stuff before shelling out for the books, you can try ZNet’s Noam Chomsky Archive or Both have a pretty good collection of articles and interviews.

If you want to listen to Chomsky, you can hear a bunch of his speeches and interviews at the website of the A-infos Radio Project. Just type “chomsky” into the search engine, and away you go. Most interviews are in mp3 format.

Ack! That should, of course, be “you’re.”

Also, i almost forgot that there is an excellent introduction to Chomsky available on video and DVD: the award-winning documentary by Canadians Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

This three hour film gives a good overview of Chomsky’s thought and of his life in linguistics and politics. Probably not available at Blockbuster, although my local independent video store has a copy.

I don’t know if I’d recommend diving right into his linguistic work unless you have a background in that area. He’s quite possibly the most brilliant, important, controversial, and influential linguist of the past century, but he’s not a light read. I always suggest that people who are interested in such things begin with Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which was written with a general audience in mind.

A psycholinguist friend of mine once said, “Pinker is the only person who ever really understood Chomsky’s ideas about language…and even he didn’t agree with all of them!”

Regarding his politics, I think it’s worthwhile to read and hear from unorthodox points of view, and for that it may be worth the effort to read him. But I can’t quite accept his statements to the general effect that the United States is the most heinous villain ever to have trodden the world stage. Not when the production includes the likes of Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, and any of the other gangs of brutes who have tormented this sorry world through the ages.

Sorry, I was referring to his political writings, not linquistics. (While I’m sure this is a fascinating field, I’m not sure I care enough.)

Understanding Power was one of the books I was considering. Also Manufacturing Consent which seems like it might be the least controversial, and, because of it’s timely subject matter, Hegemony or Survival. I’m leaning torward the last. Any thoughts on this one?

Thanks for all your feedback.

This is something else you have to deal with when you get into Chomsky, statheist–people who (intentionally or otherwise) misrepresent his position.

While some folks may indeed have convinced themselves that Chomsky makes “statements to the general effect that the United States is the most heinous villain ever to have trodden the world stage,” the fact is that a reading of Chomsky’s own works may give you a rather different impression.

It is true that Chomsky is a harsh critic of US policies, both at home and abroad. It is also true that Chomsky opposes the common perception of America as a beacon of goodness and light on the world stage. He also refuses to accept the idea that, when America does something wrong, it must be due to poor execution rather than bad intentions. Despite all this, however, Chomsky has said on numerous occasions that America is the freest country in the world. If you check out the video i recommended earlier, you’ll see a segment where he says something along the lines of: “So, in America, you end up with a very free and open country, which has a history of doing a lot of awful things” (not an exact quotation; it’s been a while). His point is not that the US is worse than the Taliban or Saddam Hussein or Hitler or Stalin, but that the United States is not the benevolent, caring leader of the world that it makes itself out to be.

And this brings up another key point that he makes: while there may be far worse places in the world than the United States, the main responsibility of moral actors (i.e., people) is to take responsibility for their own actions and inactions, and for the actions carried out in their name by their government. So, while China’s human rights violations may be much worse than those of the US, the place where individual US citizens can make the most difference is in their own country, where they have a voice and a vote. While he is critical of repressive regimes worldwide, the reason he focuses most closely on the US is that it is his country, and it is also disporoportionately powerful and influential in world affairs.

Interestingly, i think a reason that so many conservatives ignore Chomsky altogether, or try to portray him as a complete crackpot (to borrow from the OP’s title) is that he is a prominent leftist intellectual who has always strongly opposed Soviet Communism. Conservatives in America have often tried to make their case by accusing liberals and leftists of being sympathetic to Communism or Stalinism. Chomsky, however, has been opposed to these ideologies since the Spanish Civil War, when he was only about 10 years old. This opposition makes him harder to dismiss as simply a Soviet apologist seeking to discredit the United States.

I’m not saying you should agree with everything he says–far from it. In fact, if he were talking to you he would probably tell you to make up your own mind on the issues. But once to start looking into his work, you’ll find people saying heaps of things about him, like “he thinks the US is the worst country ever,” or “he’s an apologist for Pol Pot,” or “he’s an anti-Semite,” or “he’s a self-hating Jew,” or “he’s a Holocaust denier.” I’d just encourage you, before believing any of this (including what i’ve said above) to read HIS OWN WORK and make the decision for yourself, rather than relying on many of the rather disingenuous interpretations and out-of-context quotations that make the rounds.

On the issue of what to read, i can’t help you regarding Hegemony or Survival, as i haven’t read it. I think Manufacturing Consent is an excellent book, but most people don’t realise (or conveniently forget) that Chomsky was not, in fact, the primary author of that book. On the book’s title page it lists the authors as Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, and the reason that Herman’s name comes first (despite being second alphabetically) is that he did more of the work on the book than Chomsky did.

Holy Strawman, Batman. I’d like to see you quote one of his statements to that “general effect.” If you must take an absurdly reductionist view, “Nearly all governments practice realpolitik while spoon-feeding their populace with simplistic and misleading emotional appeals, often for the benefit of a power elite.” But ideas that are worth expressing are notoriously difficult to fit into 10 second snippets, so it’s better to go to the source and work out for yourself if the arguments hold up under scrutiny.

Chomsky is more than meticulous enough about rational argument to please any Doper-- I’d be surprised if anyone could point to flawed logic in any of Chomsky’s assertions-- it’s mainly a matter of chasing down the premises and seeing if they are accurate.

For my part, I find Chomsky pretty trustworthy, and I think people who get the idea that he’s a “crackpot” are mainly getting his ideas presented to them through the filters of people like Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly.

I thought he was banned. Oops, never mind.

Not everyone who’s in the field of linguistics thinks that he’s been a good influence on the subject. A lot of people who started as followers of him now feel that he’s a dishonest arguer for his theories. It’s hard to explain this at less than book-length. Luckily, there is such a book: The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris (who does his best to be fair to both sides).