Problems of Knowledge and Freedom
Noam Chomsky

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Abracadabra by Eduardo Galeano

Problems of Knowledge and Freedom



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by Eduardo Galeano

Montevideo, Uruguay, April 2003
from The New Press edition of Problems of Knowledge and Freedom

I suspect Chomsky is familiar with the key that opens forbidden doors. As a renowned scholar of linguistics, he ought to be. Abracadabra, the magic word used by people everywhere, comes from the Hebrew abreq ad habra and it means, “Keep spreading your fire until the end.”

text checked (see note) Sep 2009

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Problems of Knowledge and Freedom
The Russell Lectures

Copyright © 1971 by Noam Chomsky

— 1 —
On Interpreting the World

The notion that there may be innate principles of mind that on the one hand make possible the acquisition of knowledge and belief, and on the other, determine and limit its scope, suggests nothing that should surprise a biologist, so far as I can see. [...] It is quite reasonable to suppose that specific principles of language structure are a biological given, at the present stage of human evolution.

We might say, paraphrasing these remarks, that our mental constitution permits us to arrive at knowledge of the world insofar as our innate capacity to create theories happens to match some aspect of the structure of the world. By exploring various faculties of the mind, we might, in principle, come to understand what theories are more readily accessible to us than others, or what potential theories are accessible to us at all, what forms of scientific knowledge can be attained, if the world is kind enough to have the required properties. Where it is not, we may be able to develope a kind of “intellectual technology”—say, a technique of prediction that will, for some reason, work within limits—but not to attain what might properly be called scientific understanding or common-sense knowledge. Another organism, following different principles, might develop other sciences, or lack some of ours. Whether we will come to understand those aspects of human existence or physical reality, features of which intrigue us, we do not know, though the question might be answerable if we were to succeed in determining the principles of human understanding. It is this task that Russell’s mature theory of knowledge presents to us, in an outline that is suggestive but, as he insists, no more than that.

To pursue this task, we must investigate specific domains of human knowledge or systems of belief, determine their character, and study their relation to the brief and personal experience on which they are erected. A system of knowledge and belief results from the interplay of innate mechanisms, genetically determined maturational processes, and interaction with the social and physical environment. The problem is to account for the system constructed by the mind in the course of this interaction. The particular system of human knowledge that has, so far, lent itself most readily to such an approach is the system of human language.

A traditional view holds that language is “a mirror of mind.” This is true, in some interesting sense, insofar as properties of language are “species-specific”—not explicable on some general grounds of functional utility or simplicity that would apply to arbitrary systems that serve the purposes of language. Where properties of language can be explained on such “functional” grounds, they provide no revealing insight into the nature of mind. Precisely because the explanations proposed here are “formal explanations,” precisely because the proposed principles are not essential or even natural properties of any imaginable language, they provide a revealing mirror of mind (if correct). Such principles, we may speculate, are a priori for the species—they provide the framework for the interpretation of experience and the construction of specific forms of knowledge on the basis of experience—but are not necessary or even natural properties of all imaginable systems that might serve the functions of human language. It is for this reason that these principles are of interest for the study of the nature of the human mind.



The image of a mind, initially unconstrained, striking out freely in arbitrary directions, suggests at first glance a richer and more hopeful view of human freedom and creativity, but I think that this conclusion is mistaken. Russell was correct in titling his study Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits. The principles of mind provide the scope as well as the limits of human creativity. Without such principles, scientific understanding and creative acts would not be possible. If all hypotheses are initially on a par, then no scientific understanding can possibly be achieved, since there will be no way to select among the vast array of theories compatible with our limited evidence and, by hypothesis, equally accessible to the mind. One who abandons all forms, all conditions and constraints, and merely acts in some random and entirely willful manner is surely not engaged in artistic creation, whatever else he may be doing.


Bertrand Russell

— 2 —
On Changing the World

David Horowitz recently pointed out that he could discover no independent academic study of the impact on American social, political, or economic life of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey—an organization that controls the economic lifeblood of half a dozen strategic countries, is a major domestic political force, has its own intelligence and paramilitary networks, and regularly provides personnel for top executive positions in the government. Robert Heilbroner has enumerated obviously central problems of American and international society that receive little academic study: analysis of the politico-economic consequences of American hegemony in foreign investment, distribution of benefits of the war economy, the means by which private wealth and income are preserved, and so on. [...]

It is interesting to contrast the scale of academic research in these areas with academic research, say, on Thailand.

The purge of radical junior faculty—I believe the term is fair—at “nonelite” institutions is one element in the general campaign to reinstitute the ideological unity and conformism of the postwar years.

It is, incidentally, interesting and somewhat ironic that just at the moment when the subservience of the academic world to external institutions is being questioned, the cry is raised that the universities are being “politicized.” I happen to agree with the critics who warn of the dangers [...] But one notes, with interest, how rarely this fear was expressed during the period when the academic world was devoting itself to supporting and strengthening the operations of the United States aid program in Thailand or producing counter-insurgency technology and advanced guidance systems for new generations of missiles, while circumventing such problems as the impact of the Standard Oil Company on American policy.



It is significant that students have begun to ask whether they should willingly undertake to engineer the world’s consent to the international order designed by the ruling circles of the great powers. Is it, for example, at all proper to carry out research on Thailand if it will be used, as undeniably it will, to prop up a particular ruling elite which, quite apart from its corruption and violence, happens also to secure the territorial base for the long-term American effort to dominate Southeast Asia? [...] It is the great merit of the student movement to have insistently brought such questions to general awareness.
Those who oppose a program of social action merely on grounds that it might be “coopted” doom themselves to paralysis: they are opposed to everything imaginable.
Or we have William Bundy, another Kennedy adviser, who sees the American war in Indochina as a valiant effort to prevent the East Wind of China from blowing down the dominoes. That the Chinese were mysteriously absent from this drama seems to disturb him not at all. [...] Following his logic, we should bomb Hungary into rubble, so that the Russians will better appreciate our evident desire to avoid a nuclear war, and will then join in easing tension and extending communication.

The logic is clear. The administration is hoping to be able to conduct a long-haul, low-cost effort in Indochina, which could go on indefinitely. Therefore, it is necessary to reduce the cost. But a major cost is the bitterness and alienation of the youth. This is tied to the Vietnam war and cannot be alleviated as long as the war continues. Therefore, one must deny that this is a cost of the war. [...]

For the people of Indochina, all of this is no game, but a matter of survival. Outside of the student movement, there is no substantial group that has taken a principled stand on the war. [...] I mean opposition based on the principle that no great power—not even one so selfless and beneficent as the United States—has the authority or the competence to determine by force the social and political structure of Vietnam or any other country, no right to serve as international judge and executioner.


Vietnam War

The situation is a simple one. We have the goal of establishing the rule of selected social groups in the society selected for the experiment in counterinsurgency. A number of methods are available, ranging from rural development and commodity import programs to B-52s and crop destruction, and the policy maker faces the task of combining these methods in such a manner as to maximize the probability of success. Obviously only a hysteric or a self-flagellating moralist could see an ethical problem here. Academic terminology can be put to good use. Driving people into government-controlled cities by fire power and chemical desruction is “urbanization,” an index of modernization of the society. [...]

Since the problems are only technical, it is an easy step to explain atrocities in terms of stupidity and error rather than criminal intent.



text checked (see note) Sep 2009

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