The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky
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The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky

Alison Edgley

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The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky

Alison Edgley

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The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky questions Chomsky's claim not to have a theory about the relationship between human beings and their society other than that which 'can be written on the back of postage stamp'. Edgley compares Chomsky's vision of the good society with liberal communitarian perspectives, and establishes that it is grounded in a hopeful belief about human nature. She argues that sympathy with this vision of the good society is essential for understanding the nature of Chomsky's critique of state capitalism, its inherent nationalism and the media. The author concludes that Chomsky's analysis is coherent and systematic when one acknowledges that he is not just a critic but a theorist.

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1 Political Theory
This chapter critically examines Chomsky’s claims that he does not have a political theory and that his analysis of contemporary political issues does not warrant the label of ‘science’.1 ‘I never use the phrase “scientific knowledge” in dealing with any questions of history … [it is] neither science nor mere opinion’.2 When we look closely at why he makes such claims we find him arguing that forms of human social organisation presuppose certain ideas about human nature but that as we know so little about human nature, we cannot describe our claims as having a theoretical and/or scientific content. In Chomsky’s view we might never know much about human nature because of possible constraints on the capacities of the human mind that make such introspection impossible. However, such difficulty should not lead one to assume that we have no intrinsic nature, or that our natures are plastic and malleable. It is because of the difficulties in drawing connections between human nature and human organisation that Chomsky feels it is more intellectually honest not to claim that we are doing theory or science when we study human behaviour and organisation.
The notion that claims about human social organisation presuppose a framework of unverifiable views about human nature implies that any observation about human social organisation may be as good as any other, because they all rest upon theoretical frameworks that are incommensurable. In other words, there is some sense in which two theories can refer to the same reality and yet have no logical relations between them that allow inferences to be drawn. While Chomsky maintains that what we can know about political events is often unclear, secondhand and therefore difficult to verify, and also relies on an understanding of human need, he would nevertheless be unhappy with the conclusion that it is all a matter of interpretation. Human beings are not, in his view, hermeneutically sealed within their own interpretative frameworks. Human beings survive or not within social and political environments and these environments have effects for better or worse upon human behaviour. So while he would argue that observations and analyses of events presuppose interpretations about human need that cannot be verified, it is not the case that these often implicit claims about human need cannot themselves be tested. In other words it is possible for two commentators to have very different interpretations of the same event. The differences in their interpretations will ultimately stem from divergent understandings of human need and nature. While we may not be able to gain knowledge about human nature, this does not mean that interpretation and its resultant action will not have real effects on human life. The precise nature of the relationship, however, has yet to be established, if it ever can be.
While Chomsky is clearly correct that we have yet to establish any deep understanding of human nature and its relationship to society, it will be argued that there are good grounds for rejecting his conclusions that his framework cannot be called a theory and cannot be tested.
The question then to ask of Chomsky is what are his grounds for claiming that his social and political thought is not scientific. Is it that his work is mere interpretation and that he holds a ‘purer’ definition of science than, say, phenomenologists? We might also ask why he takes the position that he does on theory, because something can be a theory without being scientific. Religious notions would be an example.
His view on this is important because in a postmodern world where anything goes and truth is elusive, Chomsky’s social and political analysis appears to be challenging such a doctrine. When we consider his fastidious attention to detail and the scrupulous referencing of the ‘facts’, we trust that his work is just that, laying claims to the facts of the matter, to the truth. But then if this is the case why is this not science?
Science or Interpretation?
Talk of science usually refers to the activity associated with the natural sciences. This activity involves the application of rational criteria to an understanding of events. Rational criteria include a combination of observational evidence and logic. It is the use of these rational criteria that is seen to have provided the natural sciences with advancement, despite the fact that what is to count as an observation in evidence is often contested.
The question has been raised, however, whether the methods and techniques employed by the natural sciences are appropriate for the study of human behaviour. Those for ‘naturalism’ in the social sciences are associated with the positivist approach, believing the tools of the natural sciences are appropriate for the study of human behaviour. The classic opposition to this is put forward by phenomenologists in opposition to positivism. Phenomenologists argue that variables under consideration in the natural sciences are inanimate and non-sentient and so can be expected to behave in patterned law-like ways. By contrast, the key variable in the social sciences, the human being, is endowed with consciousness and hence subjectivity. As for the other variable within the study of social science-‘society’ – this too is treated as having been shaped by human consciousness. This means that devising a theory in order to explain the relationship between variables, which is the job of a theory, is complicated in the social sciences because of the difficulty in reaching agreement on the status of subjectivity in an explanation of events. So, for example, positivists (naturalists) who see the ‘aim of the social sciences [as] the same as that of the natural sciences’3 thereby treat subjective states4 as belonging outside the realm of social scientific activity, having more to do with value judgements. Value judgements are associated with morality and involve claims that ‘… something is good, or right, or such as … ought to be done’.5 Some have come to regard these kind of statements as having a different meaning from statements of fact and description. But then as Hudson argues ‘[t]he question nevertheless remains: how are moral judgements and statements of fact related to one another?’6 For positivists, however, facts and values are separate. For them a theory must consist of ‘logically interrelated propositions which have empirical consequences’.7 Behaviour is patterned and the social scientist can study these patterns and their relationship to society, seeking causal relation without reference to subjective intention.8 Phenomenologists, by contrast, argue that as behaviour is informed by intentionality, it is the job of the social scientist to ‘develop categories for understanding what the actor – from his [sic] own point of view – “means” in his actions’.9 Phenomenology
is not concerned with proving that others exist, but rather with how we come to interpret others and their actions; with the complex ways in which we understand those with whom we interact; and with the ways in which we interpret our own actions and those of others within a social context.10
Having said this, as Bernstein points out, phenomenologists are not claiming that what they do is not science, only that, counter to the view of positivists, subjectivity is a legitimate object for scientific study.
Like all sciences, the social sciences make objective meaning claims. Yet what is distinctive about the social sciences is that these claims concern the subjective meanings that are constitutive of actions of individuals in the social world.11
Nevertheless phenomenologists, like positivists, separate facts and values and so as Bernstein points out, phenomenology fails to show how it is possible to adjudicate between competing interpretations of meaning, removing evaluative criteria thereby leaving unresolved the problem of the causal determinants of social action. If certain reasons cannot be established to be objectively more true than others, then this implies that explanations are always relative to the sociological or psychological conditions of the object under study. So depending on one’s definition of science, we could object to the phenomenologists’ claims that what they are doing is science, and argue instead that it is merely description. If phenomenologists are not doing science, because they do not adjudicate between competing interpretations of meaning, this suggests that contrary to the positivist claim, science does involve evaluative claims.
Is and Ought
In social and political thought there are two categories or types of question one might ask. In the first instance one might ask questions about what is, and in the second instance one might ask questions about what ought to be. In other words one can provide explanatory accounts of social and political phenomena or one can make normative claims. Usually normative claims12 are taken to be evaluative, whereas explanatory accounts are said to be factual. It is the relationship between is and ought questions which is controversial. But this is not just controversial for the social sciences, for as Zimmerman argues ‘[h]ow could they [naturalists, empiricists] talk about statements being “justified” only if supported by “is” statements, if by “justified” they mean “ought to be believed”?’13 But both positivists and phenomenologists argue that normative or evaluative questions are unscientific and so cannot be answered by any sort of scientific theory. Particularly in the view of a strict empiricist, normative accounts should have no influence in a description of what is. In this sense the empiricist meets scientific strictures and can arrive at theories that are ‘correct’ precisely because they are objective, abstract and devoid of ‘feeling’.
In political philosophy we find a concern with ‘ought’ questions. For example ‘why we ought to obey the law and the government’.14 For some this is a problem because ‘the theoretical task of analysis and classification have rarely been separated or even satisfactorily distinguished from the evaluation questions’.15 But as Keat and Urry show, Charles Taylor argues that
[t]o show that some state of affairs leads to the satisfaction of human wants, needs or interests is to show that it is morally desirable. It is unintelligible, though not strictly self-contradictory, to deny that such a state of affairs is desirable, unless it can also be shown that it contains elements leading to non-satisfactions.16
Taylor it seems is keen to avoid neutrality in political science, and seeks to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. However, despite his view that a judgement is rationally defensible he nevertheless also wants to claim, as Nielsen describes it, that ‘[t]here is no breaking out of the hermeneutical circle so that independently of some challengable, hermeneutic stance, we can verify any significant social science or political claim. Social science is a science of interpretation and not a science of verification’.17 So, unlike phenomenologists, he is arguing that we can evaluate and that we can do this rationally, but ultimately, he wants to argue it is all interpretation.
It seems Taylor is caught in the same position as phenomenologists, because by describing human beings as being trapped hermeneutically, he is implying that we cannot establish a causal relation between human behaviour and society. Presumably Taylor cannot believe this, because otherwise he would not wish to produce value judgements in social scie...

Table of contents

Citation styles for The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky
APA 6 Citation
Edgley, A. (2004). The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2004)
Chicago Citation
Edgley, Alison. (2004) 2004. The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Edgley, A. (2004) The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Edgley, Alison. The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2004. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.