Decoding Chomsky Science and Revolutionary Politics Chris Knight

Publication date:
23 Jan 2018
Yale University Press
304 pages: 197 x 127mm
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A fresh and fascinating look at the philosophies, politics, and intellectual legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most influential and controversial minds

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.

Chris Knight is currently senior research fellow in the department of anthropology at University College, London. He lives in London.

"Decoding Chomsky . . . may be the most in-depth meditation on 'the Chomsky problem' ever published. . . . A compelling read."—Tom Bartlett, Chronicle Review

"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

"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, surely one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 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. We already have a plethora of hagiographies of Chomsky. This more critical examination of the two domains of Chomsky's thought and sources of his fame is unusual in its insight and in its frankness in "telling it like it is". Reading this book, I now better understand Chomsky's fame in terms of the zeitgeist which he rode so well to the zenith of the intellectual world. I strongly recommend Decoding Chomsky to anyone interested in the intellectual history of the last seventy years."—Daniel L. Everett, author of Language: The Cultural Tool


"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

"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

"Extraordinary . . . will make uncomfortable reading for some because, while Knight celebrates Chomsky’s anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics, he reminds us of the other Chomsky . . . working in one of the Pentagon’s most prestigious laboratories."—Jackie Walker, Labour Briefing

"Trenchant and compelling."—Marek Kohn, New Scientist

"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 Mother Nature and Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

"Social anthropologist Chris Knight has, almost miraculously, solved the Chomsky Problem. I’ve been trying to solve it for 20 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

"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, University of Wisconsin

"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