Decoding Chomsky

Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics
by Chris Knight

Decoding Chomsky, by Chris Knight

Occupying a pivotal position in postwar thought, Noam Chomsky is both the founder of modern linguistics and the world’s most prominent political dissident. Chris Knight adopts an anthropologist’s perspective on the twin output of this intellectual giant, acclaimed as much for his denunciations of US foreign policy as for his theories about language and mind. Knight explores the social and institutional context of Chomsky’s thinking, showing how the tension between military funding and his role as linchpin of the political left pressured him to establish a disconnect between science on the one hand and politics on the other, deepening a split between mind and body characteristic of Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. Provocative, fearless, and engaging, this remarkable study explains the enigma of one of the greatest intellectuals of our time.

“’Decoding Chomsky’ reads like a detective novel. So many of the arguments I found right on the mark, but I would recommend it just for the pleasure of reading Knight’s great English prose, particularly his talent for understatement. A truly fantastic work, simply brilliant. I could not put it down.

Luc Steels, Institute for Evolutionary Biology, Barcelona.

“I can say that this is the best critique of Chomsky from the left that I have ever read. I disagree with Knight quite profoundly on a number of key issues, but in every chapter I learned something new and, in fact, found myself agreeing with him more and more as the book progressed.”

Frederick Newmeyer, author of The Politics of Linguistics.

“This is Chomsky from a new perspective, the perspective of a social anthropologist. It connects his science with his politics in a novel and convincing way. Knight has dug deeper and made more interconnections than anyone has done before. The result is truly revelatory.”

Michael Tomasello, author of A Natural History of Human Thinking.

“Chris Knight has done the intellectual world a favour by exploring, with a critical and comprehending eye, the twists and turns of the thought of Noam Chomsky. Anyone who wants to understand the political and intellectual development of ideas that have dramatically altered modern science and political activism should read this book.”

Daniel L. Everett, author of Language: The Cultural Tool.

“Few disagree that language has been a game-changer for the human species. But just how we came by language remains hotly contested. In ‘Decoding Chomsky’, Chris Knight strides into this minefield to bravely replace miraculous leaps and teleology with a proposal that actually makes evolutionary sense.”

Sarah Hrdy, author of Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

‘Decoding Chomsky’ was a decade in the making and may be the most in-depth meditation on ‘the Chomsky problem’ ever published. A compelling read.”

Tom Bartlett, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“This is one of the most exciting scholarly books I have read in years. ‘Decoding Chomsky’ will be required reading for anyone at all interested in the history of intellectual and political thought since the 1950s.”

David Golumbia, author of The Cultural Logic of Computation.

“Chris Knight tells a compelling story with startling clarity and forceful elegance, about the bizarre results of studying language, that most human of faculties, by removing it as far as possible from lived human experience. He provides a persuasive explanation for Chomsky’s strategy that reveals striking perspectives on the relationship between science, politics and values.”

Marek Kohn, author of As We Know It: Coming to Terms with an Evolved Mind.

“This book provides a fascinating account of the disconnect and symmetry between Chomsky’s value-free science and his science-free politics. Knight roots this in the tension between Chomsky ‘s detestation of the US military and his dependence on military funding for his linguistic research.”

Les Levidow, editor, Science as Culture,

“Decoding Chomsky is a groundbreaking analysis of the wide chasm that now exists between modern language science and Chomsky’s view of language. A must-read for anyone trying to understand the history and trajectory of Chomsky’s ideas.”

Gary Lupyan, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of Wisconsin.

“A totally engrossing roller coaster ride. Riveting and revealing, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ gives badly needed perspective to an American icon.”

David Wineberg,

“Intellectually hip and iconoclastic, ‘Decoding Chomsky’ surveys 1950s McCarthyite politics and 1960s student unrest in order to get a handle on the extraordinary influence of Noam’s ideas. If you’re a former New Left protestor against university collaboration with the US war machine or a current 21st-century anti-war student, you’ll find Knight’s chapter on MIT’s historical relationship to the Pentagon – titled ‘The Most Hideous Institution On This Earth’ – especially cutting-edge, ground-breaking and informative.”

Bob Feldman, Students for a Democratic Society Steering Committee (Columbia University) 1968.

“Knight says his ‘subversive intention’ is ‘to serve justice on Chomsky the scientist without doing an injustice to Chomsky the conscience of America.’ Now why should that be subversive? Any voice critical of Chomsky risks being dismissed as yet another right-wing defender of political orthodoxy, but given even the most superficial examination of Knight’s biography one could hardly question that he supports the substance of Chomsky’s views (as do I). Nonetheless, he shows how Chomsky has acquiesced in – more than that, has participated in and abetted – a radical post-war transformation of the relation of science to society, legitimating one of the significant political achievements of the right, the pretense that science is apolitical.”

Bruce Nevin, The Brooklyn Rail.

“Social anthropologist Chris Knight has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I’ve been trying to solve it for twenty years; I now feel the euphoria that one of us has solved it. ‘Decoding Chomsky’ is an astonishingly well-written and researched volume that will probably be the most important work in the history of ideas, post World War II, that you’ll read for quite some time. It’s so lucid and well-researched and intellectually and emotionally gripping I couldn’t find a fault with it, though I tried.”

Michael Johnson, Overweening Generalist blog.

For more on the book, and on Chomsky, see:
the Science and Revolution website.

Noam Chomsky: Politics or Science?

NOAM CHOMSKY ranks among the leading intellectual figures of modern times. He has changed the way we think about what it means to be human, gaining a position in the history of ideas – at least according to his supporters – comparable with that of Darwin or Descartes. Since launching his intellectual assault against the academic orthodoxies of the 1950s, he has succeeded – almost single-handedly – in revolutionising linguistics and establishing it as a modern science.

Download Noam Chomsky: Politics or Science? in PDF format [72KB]

This story was written by my younger brother, Kevin in March 1988. Since he was fifteen, Kevin has worked as a gardener in Regents Park. He has many stories to tell about the park and its visitors; this is one of them. It is not fiction. Written immediately after the events described, every word is true. In 2008, a film was made of Kevin’s story; it was shown in Regent’s Park during the late summer in ‘the smallest cinema in the world’. Chris Knight August 31, 2005.


He approached as I was cutting the grass in Regent’s Park. Stopping and sniffing the Spring air he pronounced:
— This is beauty!
— Yes, it is, I replied, well used to concurring with oft repeated banalities concerning the beauty of the park.
— See those daffodils over there, he pointed, each one is an artform, a masterpiece of nature. I was happy to agree. He introduced himself as John Lawrie, the artist. He had studios in London and Bristol and was shortly to hold an exhibition of his works at the Festival Hall, to which I was invited.

We got on to discussing art and artists.
— All truly great artists are revolutionaries, he said. I am a revolutionary, he announced.
— Yes? I said, my interest aroused. As if to allay any possible doubts I may have had about his revolutionary credentials, he launched into a tirade against capitalism in general and the conspiracy of Zionism and Freemasonry in particular.

Waving his brolly in the direction of the Nash terraces:
— At this very minute, he said, they are conspiring against us in their secret clubs.
— I expect they are, I said.
Perhaps finding encouragement in my observation, he said that recognising in me a fellow artist and revolutionary, he proposed to take me into his confidence.

Feeling rather flattered, I listened respectfully as he outlined his plans to build his revolutionary party.
— I am, he said, an extremely wealthy man and am in control of about fifty major companies and finance houses.
He also let slip that he was of the aristocracy and was an intimate of circles close to the Queen, one member of which, a duchess, he would be dining with that evening.
— The true aristocracy, he said, find the royals vulgar. I agreed that they probably would.

He then revealed to me his plan to set up a workers’ dictatorship, on a Marxist-Leninist model. His plans involved buying out the remaining companies and banks which he did not own. This to be done with the aid of powerful backers in America, men who, he said, wanted to “do England down”. And when he had obtained control he would announce the Revolution and the end of capitalism.

This novel and ingenious plan to seize state power won my almost unreserved admiration and recognizing, as he did, that here, standing before me was the Lenin of the British Revolution, I readily fell in with his plans.

This agreement was strengthened quite considerably when he said he was going to give me £5000 to furnish a barge on the Regents Canal.
— Canals and waterways, he explained to me, are no-go areas as far as the State is concerned. They come under the jurisdiction of another authority. On this barge, he said, myself and other specially chosen and selected lieutenants of his could plan the revolution, free from mundane financial worries and interference from the forces of the state.

Mr Lawrie, the artist and revolutionary leader then shook hands with me, and said he had to be off. He would see me again tomorrow. The conversation he had just had with me, he said, was amongst the most interesting he had ever had in his life.

The following morning Mr Lawrie invited myself and a blonde girl he had met in the park, to meet him on Friday evening at 7pm at the National Theatre, and from there we would go to dinner and discuss his plans for the revolution.

I arrived at the National Theatre on Friday, at 7pm on the 18th of March. Mr Lawrie was sitting in the foyer, staring at the ceiling. He was very pleased to see me and told me had spent the day walking around Camden Lock where he had talked with his old friend Lawrence, who sold paintings there. Lawrence was a marvellous character and also a revolutionary, he said, and we would be meeting him later in the evening for dinner.

By 7.30, the blonde girl not having arrived, Mr Lawrie said we would wait no longer, as our table was booked for 8pm. We left the National Theatre, Mr Lawrie hailed a taxi, and we arrived at a very expensive-looking French restaurant somewhere in Mayfair.

The waiter had reserved a table for four, and Mr Lawrie explained that one of his party had been unable to come, but that he was expecting a third party shortly. He asked the waiter to inform the chef that an artist was eating with his friends, and would the chef, as a fellow artist, prepare the dishes with that in mind. The waiter, looking somewhat bemused, said that he would pass on the message.

We started the meal with a very good champagne with caviar and olives. When we were on the second bottle of champagne, Lawrence arrived. His arrival aroused a tremor of interest as his appearance was that of a chubby Andy Cap. He wore rimless spectacles, had slightly bulging eyes, and wore a shabby cloth cap which he never removed. He seemed to me not to fit in very smoothly with the smart bourgeois clientele of the restaurant.

The waiter, however, attended him with every politeness, no doubt allowing for artistic license in an artist’s choice of friends. The conversation returned to Mr Lawrie’s insurrectionary scheme and Lawrence was asked what he thought about waterways.

— What do you mean waterways? said Lawrence. Mr Lawrie explained it all to Lawrence, who seemed sceptical, his bulging eyes signalling doubt. However, when offered like myself £5,000 to start him off on the barge as one of Mr Lawrie’s chosen lieutenants he quickly came around to seeing the advantages of the plan. He revealed that he had once been a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party and would get in contact with numerous other ex-members. Mr Lawrie said that each one would have to be vetted by himself. Lawrence said that of course he understood that.

Meanwhile, a marvellously elaborate series of tasty dishes were regularly placed before us, Mr Lawrie being kind enough to order what he thought myself and Lawrence would like. On one occasion however, seeing that Lawrence and I had a particularly delicious scallop dish, he seemed rather peeved and ordered it for himself also. On being presented with it he quickly swallowed it, pronounced it delicious, and asked for another one.

Mr Lawrie said he would be driving up to Stratford on Avon to stay with his friend Sir Eric Porter, the actor. There would be plenty of girls there, actresses and the like, and we could, of course, have any girl we liked.
– What about Princess Anne? said Lawrence, by way of a joke I thought.
– Mr Lawrie, perhaps piqued that his influence to procure royalty was being questioned, snapped: If you really want her then I will get her for you. But I don’t think you really do.
– Lawrence agreed that perhaps he did not.

At around 11pm having got through half a dozen courses, with a new wine selected to accompany each new course, we got on to the sweet course. We chose raspberries out of season, couched in a fragrant wine or liqueur, with plenty of clotted cream. After brandy, coffee, and Havanah cigars I suggested to my host that I had better be leaving, as I had a train to catch. Mr Lawrie looked surprised and said not to worry about that, as his chauffeur would drive myself and Lawrence home.

At about half past eleven Mr Lawrie signalled the waiter to say he was just popping outside to see if his chauffeur had arrived. As it happened Mr Lawrie never returned. After waiting for about ten minutes myself and Lawrence grew uneasy. The suspicion crossed our minds that perhaps Mr Lawrie was an impostor, had taken us for a ride and was leaving us to foot the bill which, Lawrence believed, must be round about £800.
— How long have you known that geezer? I asked Lawrence.
— Known him? I met him this morning, in the Market, said Lawrence.

We decided that we had better slip away as unobtrusively as possible. On the way out, I picked up Mr Lawrie’s brolly. It had a very nice, ornately carved handle. The waiter wanted us to stay and wait for our friend, but once outside the door we ran for it. Myself one way and Lawrence another.

I never saw Mr Lawrie again. Indeed the only tangible evidence I have of the great man’s existence is his brolly. But perhaps he is at this moment still plotting the destruction of the capitalist system in some select West End club, restaurant, or barge on England’s waterways.

Kevin Knight, March 1988. The Man Who Loved Daffodils.

Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.

Chris Knight. Menstrual synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake. In T. Buckley & Alma Gottlieb (eds), Blood Magic: The anthropology of menstruation. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 232-55

Over much of Aboriginal Australia men exercise ritual power through ceremonies (stated in myths once to have been the prerogative of women) in which they symbolically “menstruate” and “give birth.” The resultant power is conceptualized as a rainbowlike snake, which is said to be the source of life and which “swallows” humans and then “regurgitates” them, now “reborn.” This chapter discusses examples of such rituals and beliefs. It suggests that Australian Aboriginal culture in certain regions exhibits a phenomenon known in Western medical science as “menstrual synchrony,” and that such synchrony has been conceptualized traditionally as “like a rainbow” and “like a snake.” Continue reading “Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Aboriginal Rainbow Snake.”

Historical archive documents 1969-1980

Knight, C. (ed.) (1971) The Soldier’s Charter. Written by serving soldiers.
Part One, Part Two

Knight, C. (1971/1984) The Soldiers’ Wives’ Charter. Unpublished document reprinted by Writers, Artists and Media Workers for a Miners’ Victory.

Knight, C. (1972) General Strike! The Chartist, Bulletin of the Young Chartists.

Knight, C. (1973) Centrism in Crisis. The ‘Militant’ and the General Strike. A Chartist Publication.

Knight, C. (ed.) (1976) Sex and the Class Struggle. Selected Works of Wilhelm Reich. A Chartist Publication.
Introduction,The Best of Wilhelm Reich

Knight, C. (1980) My Sex-Life. Women & Labour Collective.
Part One, Part Two, An ending

Knight, C. (1980) Revolutionary Consciousness. Chartist Tendency.
Part One, Part Two

The Women’s Movement and "Consciousness"


This article reflects a major division in the women’s movement in Western Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Here, Christine Delphy, author of The Main Enemy (Women’s Research and Resources Centre Publications, London, 1977) takes issue with Annie Leclerc, author of Parole de Femme. The issue was the role of ideology in the struggle for women’s emancipation. Leclerc argued, in effect, that women were oppressed because they had internalised oppressive ideas. Delphy argued on the contrary that the problem lay not in women’s ideas — but in the material dominance of men over women in society.

Continue reading “The Women’s Movement and "Consciousness"”