NOAM CHOMSKY'S ROYAL INSTITUTE OF PHILOSOPHY ANNUAL LECTURE
SIMPLE TRUTHS, HARD CHOICES: SOME THOUGHTS ON TERROR, JUSTICE, AND SELF-DEFENCE
An Introduction by Ted Honderich
Noam Chomsky has for 52 years been the unique shaper of the science of linguistics. He has for 45 years been the greatest intellectual of the Left. Born in Philadelphia, he is, as I and others say, now at the head of American Jewish thinkers and scientists, maybe all American thinkers and scientists. His work in linguistics is also a contribution to the philosophy of mind, in particular a proof of what once were called innate ideas and a refutation of functionalism as well as the behaviourism that preceded it. His lecture here is itself philosophical in its line of argument.
That argument is that there are reasons for judgement against our democracies and a compliant intellectual class, reasons that are not only truths. They are simple and available truths. The main one is that there are obvious inconsistencies with respect to the democracies and the class, obvious offences against universality, hence failings that in effect deprive our democracies and compliance with them of reasons, since reasons are of their nature general. If you think or say both of the propositions p and not-p your final failure is not a falsehood. It is that you think and say nothing. You have no thought.
There are other simple truths. One is that facts matter. In particular, no sense can be made or reflection carried forward productively in denial or ignorance of history, say of American support and instigation of terrorism in South America. For me, I guess there is also the truism that typical pronouncements of our democratic leaders carry no information, even in the technical sense familiar in linguistics. For me, there is a truism too about the financing of suffering, and other truisms about defence, including so-called anticipatory self-defence. Also, implicit if not explicit in the lecture, there is the proposition that there are known wrongs that can precede any general theory of right and wrong -- and must shape the construction of any principle of right and wrong.
Given the inconsistencies of our democracies and their intellectuals and ourselves, you do not necessarily have to engage in further thinking, say the forming and defending of such a principle, in order to judge our democracies and those who serve them. You do not have to spend time with the Total Happiness Principle -- Utilitarianism. Or the circularity of conservative principles of fairness in the sense of desert or retribution or what is earned or owed. Or the question-begging deriving of John Rawls's principles of justice. Or the 'principle' that everybody and all states serve their own interest, so depended on by the state of Israel that denies Chomsky admission to it. You do not necessarily need to spend time, as I have, on the principle of humanity: that we must take all and only rational means to the end of getting and keeping people out of bad lives, these defined plainly in terms of fundamental human desires.
The simple truths make for a response to what may be taken as hard problems, respected as such. They are in fact problems without solutions, problems owed to the abandoning of universality. One is the problem of understanding terrorism without allowing that we have long been engaged in it. Another is the problem of defensibly defining international crime or offences against human rights in accord with the intention to limit them to the actions and policies of the other side.
To defend universality and consistency and to defend the imperative of facts, I say myself, is to do what is more valuable than Descartes's 'I think, therefore I am', or Hume's declaration that each of us espies no inner self as distinct from the unity that is our ongoing conscious existence, or the physicist Lichtenberg's smaller dictum to put beside and against Descartes' -- 'I think, therefore there is thinking going on'.
Still, I would not agree that time spent on clarifying and defending a general principle of right and wrong is not time well spent. To demonstrate inconsistency, if wonderfully valuable, is in fact to leave open which of two things is right, at any rate to leave it only assumed or implicit. To eschew a general principle also may be to put in some doubt your own consistency, and to be more uncertain what is to be added to a list of implicit wrongs.
But you will not need telling that these words of mine on Chomsky are those of an ally, admirer of his work and independence and personal courage, and friend. Your obligation is to test his words for logic and fact. The obligation of actually thinking is another moral truism. Think your way through the lecture and look at a book or two or three of the very many of his behind it. Say Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies or Power and Terror: Post-9/11 Talks and Interviews, or How the World Works. Or make some other choice from the long, long list at the end of the best guide to them, the linguist Neil Smith's Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, mainly on the linguistics.