Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove — Language and Freedom

Chomsky, Noam, and Anthony Arnove. “Language and Freedom.” The Essential Chomsky. London: Bodley Head, 2008. Print.

Chomsky’s goal in this essay was to establish a relationship between the study of language — and man’s use of language — and the pursuit of a social condition in which each person’s physical and intellectual freedom is maximized. According to Chomsky, “Man’s freedom and his consciousness of this freedom distinguish him from the beast-machine. The principles of mechanical explanation are incapable of accounting for these human properties” [80].  In touching on the Romanticist philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Chomsky constructs a framework in which to appreciate the phenomenon of human consciousness. Rousseau says, “It is not so much understanding which constitutes the distinction of man among the animals as it is his being a free agent […] and it is above all in the consciousness of this freedom that the spirituality of his soul is shown” [qtd. in Chomsky pg. 78]. “To the Cartesians,” Chomsky writes, “it is obvious by introspection that each man possesses a mind, a substance whose essence is thought; his creative use of language reflects this freedom of thought and conception.” Chomsky continues to reiterate the point that “the essence of human nature is man’s freedom and his consciousness of his freedom” [81]. He proceeds to connect the phenomenon of consciousness and intellectual freedom with the study of language: “I like to believe that the intensive study of one aspect of human psychology – human language – may contribute to a humanistic social science that will serve, as well, as an instrument for social action” [90]. He asserts that the study of language can help to better understand the system of rule-governed behavior in society and the ways in which individuals maximize “free and creative action within the framework of a system of rules that […] reflect intrinsic properties of human mental organization” [89]. “A good case can be made,” Chomsky contends, “in support of the empirical claim that such a system can be acquired […] only by a mind that is endowed with certain specific properties that we can now tentatively describe in some detail…Education, then, must provide the opportunities for self-fulfillment; it can at best provide a rich and challenging environment for the individual to explore, in his own way” [84]. According to Chomsky, then, the crucial variable in helping men acquire freedom is endowing them with consciousness of their freedom, which is what the essence of education should be. He concludes that “There is no inconsistency in the notion that […] by providing the consciousness of freedom, these essential attributes of human nature give man this opportunity to create social conditions and social forms to maximize the possibilities for freedom, diversity, and individual self-realization” [81].

Though he does not elaborate on the subject in this essay quite so much, one of Noam Chomsky’s most touched-upon subjects is education. He often comments on the transition from Enlightenment-era education, which emphasized fostering an educational atmosphere conducive to creative expression, to the system we have today, which largely restricts creative thought and the ability to seek individual self-realization. I think that over a long period of time, through government initiatives in education (i.e. “No Child Left Behind”), curricula have been determined more and more by non-teachers (I think of the Virginia State SOL’s, the questions of which are determined by committees of “specialists” who represent the companies that profit from administering the tests). The nature of education has thus become more and more restrictive. The ways in which students are able to express themselves through language are diminished by these restrictive parameters, compared to a system in which they are encouraged to pursue their own intellectual interests. A system in which students are in any way restricted from reaching their full capacity for conscious expression inhibits the quality of discourse they will be able to engage in, and is directly analogous to the effects of limiting the vocabulary with which one expresses thought. I think these ideas are central to the study of language and conflict, and I think this essay lays a useful framework with which to approach the subject of language, human interaction, and conflict resolution.

–Zach VeShancey

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